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That Restaurant Coffee Thing… (Yes, Again)

Posted by on 28 Mar 2013 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

OK, who ordered the double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato?As CoffeeRatings.com celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it’s hard not to feel a little jaded by some of the coffee topics that simply refuse to die. Like Jason in Friday the 13th Part 1.30E+02, some subjects are the undead zombies of the coffee world, no matter how times you try to kill them with fire. (Kopi luwak, anyone?) All of which explains a little of why our blog posting cycle has gone from a few times per week to more like once a month: you’re tired of reading about the same stuff, and we’re tired of writing about it.

However, today we were inspired to reminisce down memory lane about bad restaurant coffee and the commoditized coffee fodder known as Nespresso. This time we blame Sprudge.com and Oliver Strand for exhuming the dead: Oliver Strand On Specialty Coffee’s Restaurant Gap » Sprudge.com. Now that the blame is out of the way, we’ll join in this zombie apocalypse fight club with the nearest chainsaw we can grab.

The premise of Mr. Strand’s article is rooted in trends towards two polar opposites of coffee service at fine dining establishments — and the TwitCon Level 3 general alert that surrounds them (i.e., don your hardhats and make for your nearest social media fallout shelter, boys).

The first concerns famed restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma (repeat finalist for best restaurant in the world, and also home of the famed norovirus cocktail) who are producing coffee with care, sourced from the likes of Tim Wendelboe. The second, counter-movement concerns a Grub Street report that 30 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants have punted on coffee service by offering Nespresso — coffee’s version of Crocs.


Nespresso: the universal symbol of a restaurant that has given up coffee hope.

The Return of the Restaurant Coffee Zombies

Given that we wrote about the trend of some high-end restaurants surrendering to Nespresso systems back in 2007, this isn’t exactly news. But our key points back then remain true as ever: introducing the mundane at an exclusive restaurant is always a losing strategy. This doesn’t matter whether your restaurant is putting Yellow Tail Cabernet on its wine list, serving San Pelligrino mineral water bought from the Costco across town, or slinging shots of Nestlé espresso served from a push-button machine: commodity products are the antithesis of why we’re paying $200-a-head and up to eat at your fine dining establishment.

A French press at Merriman's on Hawaii's Big Island has blown away most restaurant coffee experiences anywhere elseThe worst part is that stooping to Nespresso for your coffee service not only shows a lack of thought or creativity, but it is also completely unnecessary. A restaurant need not get in over its head in coffee minutia to do a memorable job of it. One of our most memorable coffee experiences anywhere involved little more than a restaurant that served fresh coffee, sourced from a unique Kona producer, and served in a French press. Simple, elegant, unique, excellent, and highly memorable.

That said, we have experienced some excellent coffee at local restaurants that have really invested in doing it right. We’re saddened by the recent demise of Bar Bambino, who once served one of San Francisco’s best restaurant espresso shots. But we were recently blown away by both the invested attention and quality of the end-product on a recent trip to Redd Restaurant in Yountville. (Great restaurant espresso?! And from Equator Estate Coffee?!?!)

In closing, we do have to politely chastise Mr. Strand’s standards of full-meal etiquette when he says, “I never order coffee at the end of a knockdown meal. Not after all of those courses and all of those wines.” (I.e., the “you’re doing it wrong” argument.) There’s no better way to close out an audacious meal with a short, well-made espresso — and perhaps this is where the volumetric studies of the latent filter drip coffee re-obsession tends to backfire — followed by the digestivo effects of a fine grappa. Though we do draw the line at cigars.

Trip Report: Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters

Posted by on 25 Nov 2012 | Filed under: Café Society, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

Trish Rothgeb and Nick Cho are coffee notables from the Northwest and D.C. area, respectively, and they’ve combined forces in recent years as the roasting/brewing partnership behind Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters. Nearly seven years ago on this Web site, Trish and Nick became a rather infamous pairing ever since Trish was first credited with coining the coffee term “third wave” — i.e., before it was immediately co-opted by coffee hucksters and carnival barkers.

The idea behind Wrecking Ball is that Trish — a former Director of Coffee for Seattle’s Zoka — focuses on the coffee roasting. Meanwhile, Nick — portafilter.net podcast host, former Murky Coffee owner, and famous wannabe cockpuncher — focuses on the brewing and coffee service.

Entrance to Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters Entering the Firehouse 8 space with Wrecking Ball way in the back

Even past Wrecking Ball in the Firehouse 8 space, you can see the old fire pole Museum-like display shelves inside Firehouse 8/Wrecking Ball

While their roasting operations are near Redwood City, they have a lone retail café in SF in the Firehouse 8 event space. A former firehouse (there’s even a brass fire pole towards the back), it’s a vast, airy space that’s frequently inhabited by pop-ups that sell jewelry & clothing or weekend waffles. There are occasional display cases to show off some of these wares (giving it a slight museum feel), plus brick masonry at the entrance, stone floors, tall ceilings, and a row of simple café tables lined up at the entrance. Wrecking Ball is something of a permanent fixture here, however — just opening earlier this month.

In a rear corner they sport Kalita Japanese brewers (Nick has long been quite a fanboy) and scales for measuring coffee grounds precisely. They also sport a two-group La Marzocco Strada and a La Marzocco Vulcano grinder. For their espresso they use their 1UP blend ($2.25 for a doppio) and pull shots with a dark, even, textured crema. There’s a strong herbacity to it, and fortunately it tastes more like coffee and less like blueberries and flower petals like many new roasters seem to profile too heavily.

Solid stuff: this is definitely one of the finer (if not quieter) places for an espresso in the city. And credit to Trish, as the take-home 1UP beans worked great on our home espresso setup as well. We only wish the roast dates weren’t approaching two weeks old when we bought it.

Read the review of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters.

Homage to the old firehouse at the entrance to Wrecking Ball Piles of beans and Kalita gear at Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters

Wrecking Ball's La Marzocco Strada The Wrecking Ball espresso

Automating Mediocrity: The Saeco Syntia Focus Home Espresso Machine, Part II

Posted by on 23 Oct 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Group head inside the Saeco Syntia FocusTwo months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.

The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.

The Robots Aren’t Winning

First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.

However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.

Pakma Lakshmi pimps Nespresso for the massesPod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.

Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.

Genesis of a sickly pale espresso shot with the Saeco Syntia Focus

The Sickly Pale Crema: Bane to All Superautomatic Home Machines

To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.

Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.

Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.

Espresso shots pulled of a 4-day-old roast of The Boss: left with the Gaggia, right with the SaecoAs if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”

Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.

After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)

While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.

This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?

Shot of The Boss made from the Gaggia G106 Factory One of the best shots we could pull with the Saeco Syntia Focus

And yet we continue to use the Saeco quite a lot

Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.

Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.

Spent grounds caking up inside the Saeco Syntia FocusBut speaking of spent grounds, the Saeco is far from “self-cleaning”. It’s a bit like automating your own sloppy minimum wage employee, given the internal mess you have to clean up every few days.

The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.

This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.

Surprisingly decent milk frothing from the Saeco Syntia FocusOne surprise was that its milk frothing, with its wacky pannarello wand attachment, is surprisingly good — blowing away my Gaggia G106 Factory in terms of steam pressure and foam consistency.

All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.

Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.

Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbuckshome Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.


UPDATE: November 16, 2012
Because we will still continue to experiment despite expecting the least encouraging results, we finally discovered a coffee that really excelled in the Saeco Syntia Focus: Stumptown Coffee Roasters‘ Grand Cru Guatemala Finca La Injerto – La Cima.

This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.

Blossom Coffee brewer at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012

Posted by on 12 Sep 2012 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

Sometimes life surprises you when what seem like different compartmentalized aspects of it suddenly cross over. Such was the case today where, at one of the more famous technology start-up conferences here in San Francisco, I stumbled across a team building prototype coffeemaking equipment who were performing demonstrations. The company is SF-based Blossom Coffee Inc., and they’re building what they believe is the rightful successor to the Clover brewer — which just a few years back, over the period of several months, essentially entered and left the premium coffee world like a comet.

Does this “TechCrunch” stay crispy in milk?

First: a little background. You see, my “day job” is doing entrepreneurial work to get an education technology start-up off the ground. The coffee thing is largely a rather indulgent hobby with occasional fringe benefits. And the TechCrunch Disrupt conference focuses on technology start-ups with the lofty intent of “disrupting” many of the existing ways of doing business. Like Blossom Coffee, on Monday I was pitching my start-up on the conference showroom floor. But today (Wednesday) the conference devoted the floor to hardware companies of all kinds.

Add electro disco beat, serves 2,000 No, Houston, this isn't NASA mission control

Crowds in the conference showroom floor at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 at the SF Design Center Blossom Coffee Inc. at TechCrunch Disrupt

Attending a conference like this is a bit of a geek fest. Think of all the nerds in school who weren’t cool enough to start bands, so they started companies instead. Despite the thick layer of hubris at events like this, there are typically a few great ideas, many so-so ideas, and the majority are things none of us will probably ever see again in two years. And to peel off any self-important luster even further, you have to remember that building Web sites and mobile apps in SF today is a bit like building cars in Detroit was some 50 years ago.

That said, this year the conference attempted to emphasize both more international start-ups (I never knew so many Brazilian consumer wine Web sites existed) and start-ups featuring hardware products. Hence Blossom Coffee.

Doesn’t Blossom play Amy on The Big Bang Theory?

Coffee hardware start-ups are hardly new. The Clover Equipment Company was certainly one such example. Recent notable examples also include a Kickstarter project for a PID-controlled espresso machine and, like a bad acid flashback of 1998′s joke Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol, an espresso machine that takes orders by SMS texts.

Talking with Blossom President, Jeremy Kuempel, we connected over our past experience taking thermodynamics classes in engineering college. Except when Jeremy learned the Ideal gas law equation of PV=nRT, often demonstrated by illustrations of pressurized gas in a piston, Jeremy immediately thought to put coffee in the cylindrical chamber. Pretty cool.

Demonstrating a Blossom brewer at TechCrunch Disrupt Looking inside a prototype Blossom brewer at TechCrunch Disrupt

The primary goal of the Blossom Coffee brewer (the “Blossom One Limited”) is to succeed the Clover brewer in its degree of digitally configurable, stable temperature control. With a +/-2% accuracy from 160-212℉, it may not be coffee sous-vide just yet — but it’s getting there. Using two highly functional prototypes with La Marzocco group heads, Jeremy and team were experimenting for passersby at the event with some 16 pounds of coffee from Highwire Coffee Roasters. In addition to demonstrating some of the visual “romance” that’s important to high-end pressurized brewing equipment, Jeremy also hinted at some of the WiFi-enabled digital reading and control features planned for the brewer (recipe downloading, fleet management, etc.).

Jeremy (right) posing with the fully designed end product casing for the Blossom brewer at TechCrunch DisruptAlongside the working prototypes at their station was a rather sexy finished casing for the proposed end product, as they currently are only accepting pre-orders. They are initially targeting small, high quality coffee chains of some 5-10 stores each. And the taste in the resulting cup seemed promising.

We’ve seen attempted successors to the Clover brewer before — even from Clover. Now we may love our old school pour-over coffee, but anything that gets us to think once again about moving beyond the 104-year-old practice of manual pour-over brewing in today’s cutesy name of “slow coffee” (blech) is a welcome addition in our books. Traditions are good; having few viable alternatives after over a century is not. That’s not so much “slow coffee” as “inertia coffee.”

Thus we hope to find a Blossom brewer soon at a coffee shop near us.

UPDATE: Sept. 29, 2012
Quite a litany of newsfeeds picked up the story of Blossom today with this example bit of press from one of the feeders: What a drip! NASA and Apple alums engineer $11,111 coffee maker | Mail Online. Knowing that reporters are generally clueless about coffee and the prices of espresso machines — and thus they eat dollar-figures up given their lack of any other descriptive adjectives — the quoted $11,111 figure reads like deliberate idiot bait.

If so, these Blossom guys are more clever than we thought; they’ve made an insider’s joke that knows all too well what buttons to push for a news item to propel itself across the Internet via meme theory. Send in the trolls!

Domo Arigato, Mr. Saeco

Posted by on 02 Aug 2012 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

The sad state of home espresso machines is a topic we’ve tried to avoid for long stretches. After our last depressing installment in 2009, we’ve been blissfully ignorant — ratcheting up the solid-but-rarely-outstanding shot pulls on our relatively decent home espresso setup of a Gaggia G106 Factory manual lever machine and a Mazzer Mini grinder.

Dead soldier: a Ryton piston gives way to a tested pair of piston gaskets after 10 years of useThat is until May, when disaster struck. After 10 years of abuse — where I tuned the coffee grind to the limits of what my “one-armed bandit” could handle before it choked — the central piston finally gave out with one fateful pull. Feeling the physical resistance of its lever vanish in one quick slip, I knew right away it was more than just the final, releasing grasp of an dying gasket.

Upon disassembly and inspection, part of the otherwise-durable Ryton plastic molding that holds the piston gaskets in place had clearly broken away. It’s no surprise that Gaggia discontinued this part and now only produces a brass version. While replacement parts are easy to look up, my replacement piston was put on back-order from Italy until who-knows-when.

The Saeco Challenge

Now I like my Hario V60 or Chemex as much as the next guy. But a steady and exclusive diet of coffee masquerading as tea — i.e., tasting primarily of berries and flower gardens and lawn clippings — is most unsatisfying. Sure, I had the perfect excuse to have more espresso out again, but sometimes you want your quality espresso without leaving the house. Fortunately, life’s misfortune sometimes creates the occasional unexpected opportunity. It arrived in June in the form of an email to coffeeratings.com from a Philips Saeco rep, with the subject-line come-on of “The Perfect Espresso from Philips Saeco”:

Dear Greg,

Searching for the perfect espresso? We believe you can make it yourself, in the convenience of your home. I’m working closely with my client, Philips Saeco, to share their espresso machines with coffee experts like you. If it’s a good fit, we’d like for you to send you one of these machines.

The normal Greg would have spewed out his home-roasted espresso blend across the kitchen table upon reading that. (“Perfect espresso“? Have they read my blog?) But home espresso beggars can’t be choosers. And if there was ever an opportunity where I could dedicate my time and attention to make an honest attempt at decent espresso with one of these dubious, hulking plastic, overpriced, and underachieving superautomatic home espresso machines, this was it.

It ain't marked 'FRAGILE', and yet it is from Italy Notice the happy couple on the box. Clearly they haven't tried the espresso yet

So last week, without notice, a giant Saeco box arrived on my front porch. Opening it up, I felt a little like Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story. But inside wasn’t a glowing leg lamp. Rather, it was a Saeco Syntia HD8833. To my surprise, rather than sending a throwaway economy job, Saeco sent one of their better models — listing for about $1,000 retail.

If we are going to be outraged about the poor espresso quality from a superautomatic home machine, all the better not to dismiss the verdict on the basis of a cheap machine. We may have seen some of this machine’s siblings in the showroom at the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa — and the espresso there may not have been too shabby. But our experience with superautomatic home espresso machines like it has been flattering to the Nespresso machine, and we don’t like Nespresso.

The Alien from Planet ‘Brain-Dead Espresso’

While I am no home espresso novice, the contents of the Saeco box seemed practically alien. What’s with all the plastic? Where’s the metal? You mean there’s more to today’s home espresso machine electronics than a heating element? And what’s that vibrating noise that sounds like a cheap home aquarium filter?

Dafuq is my ink jet printer making espresso?The device seems large, and yet it’s considered “compact” by many of today’s standards. Its side opens up like an ink jet printer — not exactly the mental analogy you want to be making for consumables. And it’s ridiculously robotic. Everything has been automated to death: coffee grinding, dosing, tamping, extraction. Hope still lied in the fact that a number of its automated tasks were adjustable: fineness of the grind, the volume of coffee, and the extraction time. But I am leery of any coffee machine that tries to be smarter than you.

I gained back a little confidence when much of its accompanying printed documentation emphasized the importance of descaling and cleaning. I’ve lost count of how many horrific, Exxon-Valdez-sized coffee oil Superfund sites we’ve stumbled upon in various Nespresso machine kitchens — with their delusional, convenience-obsessed owners believing that these devices also automated their cleaning and maintenance.

The machine required an extended “priming” operation, where the machine went through a series of button pushes, water cycles, and its display performed its best rendition of a Pink Floyd laser light show. Once primed and good beans (a nice Full City+ roast on Guatemala Antigua beans with ~ 1 week since roasting) were added to the hopper, we pushed the button for out first shot — with the maximum dosing (“aroma” in its manual’s parlance) and the smallest-sized shot from the factory presets.

Results in the tazza

The resulting shot was very large (at the rim of a regulation IPA demitasse), with a shockingly white thin crema, and a watery body. It tasted like what most horrible espresso shots tasted like in San Francisco back in the 1980s: overdrawn, over-extracted, and lacking any potency, body, or creaminess. The spent puck it spewed out was well-shaped but thoroughly soggy; gently touching the puck caused it to disintegrate into wet sludge.

Small hopper for its built-in grinder The spent pucks come out soggier than wet snow

Our immediate reaction was to head to the “Troubleshooting” section of the manual. It said much about the “Saeco Adapting System” and why your first shots might, well, suck. For example: “coffee is too weak” states that it is a “Rare event that occurs when the machine is automatically adjusting the dose. Brew a few coffees as described in section ‘Saeco Adapting System’.” Another measure of assurance was in the notes: “Note: These problems can be considered normal if the coffee blend has been changed or if the machine has just been installed.”

The first shot was followed by a second identical espresso shot … followed by a third identical shot. Yes, superautomatic consistency alright. Which is great if the espresso is good, but it’s a horrible curse and a waste of good coffee beans when the espresso sucks. We barely resisted the compelling urge to change practically every possible adjustment right away. Part of the reason was to let the machine invoke its “Adapting System” as advertised, and another part was to minimize the chaos of changing multiple variables at the same time.

Even so, how could an Italian company claim that such a machine is normally factory-tuned to produce “the perfect Italian espresso” right out of the box? I’ve been to Italy numerous times, and the espresso is never close to this bad — anywhere. Worse, Saeco’s documentation warns that you might find some residual coffee grounds on your new machine, as they have been put through testing before packaging. Testing for what? The taste of watery 1980s San Francisco espresso made by clueless minimum-wage employees?

It’s not just Saeco: we’ve found every other manufacturer of four-figure superautomatic home espresso machines guilty of the exact same failures. Yet despite this distasteful — but not unexpected — start, in our next installment we will write about the adjustments we made and how it may, or may not, have affected the quality of the resulting espresso shots.

Starting a shot with the Saeco Syntia HD8833 Things go from thin to pale with the Saeco Syntia HD8833

Things going from pale to full and thin with the  Saeco Syntia HD8833 What did this Saeco Syntia HD8833 do to my good coffee?

“Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret. And it’s how to make decent espresso out of me.”

The Long History of the Espresso Machine – The Smithsonian

Posted by on 19 Jun 2012 | Filed under: Café Society, Machine

The Internet is so overstuffed with information, it suffers from a kind of amnesia. Something may have been posted 20,000 times before, but that 20,001st time — as if we all really needed it — might still be worth a mention because Internet users have either forgotten or have yet to notice.

Which explains the endless rehashing of tired, old coffee topics on brain-dead sites like SeriousEats and LifeHacker: Should you freeze coffee for storage? How to steam milk at home? How do you draw rosetta latte art? How does coffee go from cherry to bean? Basically, a plagiarized recycling of stale information written more for search engines than for any human reader yet to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease.

Bezzera's espresso machine at the 1906 Milan Fair Schematics for Angelo Moriondo's patent

But just because we crave original thought once in a while doesn’t mean that history has no value. However, if you’re digging up old bodies, who better than The Smithsonian? — who recently published this great piece on the history of the espresso machine: The Long History of the Espresso Machine | Design Decoded. Angelo Moriondo, Luigi Bezzerri, Desiderio Pavoni, Pier Teresio Arduino, Achille Gaggia, and Ernesto Valente’s Faema E61 — it’s all there, just as we like it.

Trip Report: Patika Coffee (Austin, TX)

Posted by on 15 Mar 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Machine

My brother lived in Austin years ago, and the town has changed a lot since then. That is, besides the construction of a fence and pillars at the North Congress Ave. end of the Great Walk in front of the Texas state capitol — to prevent people like my brother from accidentally driving vehicles down the front steps and chipping the pavement.

Mean Joe Greene's walk-of-fame star on Trinity St., right next to a star for Sandra Day O'ConnorTalking with the locals, the biggest attraction to living there seemed to be, “it’s fun and it’s cheap.” It certainly isn’t the surface-of-the-sun heat in summer.

But being a college down, Austin also seems to try to capitalize on its “Keep Austin Weird” vibe — and yes, they sell T-shirts that say that, just as in Santa Cruz. However, looking down on the Austin walk-of-fame sidewalk on Trinity St. between 4th & 5th Sts., you’ll find a star for Sandra Day O’Connor right next to a star for Mean Joe Greene. So who is going to argue?

Another change in Austin is the improvement of its coffee scene. Patika Coffee is one of several examples. Except this example is really a coffee cart that sits in an otherwise vacant-looking parking lot downtown, next to the beached trailers of a couple of other food purveyors. Think of it like Réveille Coffee Co. — just grittier, less mobile, and with sketchier neighbors.

Austin keepin' it weird The monster that is Bing.com takes over an empty lot for SXSW

The parking lot is separated from the sidewalk traffic by handrails, and there’s an outdoor table/picnic bench and an over-hanging tarp for shade.

Inside their two-person cart, two staffers run the operation with a two-group Synesso machine, using Cuvée Coffee. They are apologetically required to use paper cups by city ordinance, as they are classified as a “food truck” and thus have limitations on the vessels and utencils they can pass out. (Apparently, food trucks are required by Austin law to generate disposable waste.)

They pull shots with a rich, medium brown, even crema on a layer of a thinner-bodied, more acidic espresso than served by the Caffé Medici serving Cuvée across the street. It’s potent, narrower in flavor profile, and lighter on body: a stereotypical “third wave” North American espresso — you know, the kind that’s high on punch and low on balance and finesse.

Read the review of Patika Coffee in downtown Austin, TX.

Parking lot in downtown Austin that hosts Patika Coffee The Patika Coffee shack and seating area

The Patika Coffee Synesso The Patika Coffee espresso

A Tale of Two Beverages

Posted by on 26 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Saturday, February 25, 2012 offered a curious contrast between the very different worlds of consumer appreciation for wine and coffee. For the former, I attended La Paulée de San Francisco 2012 — arguably the most over-the-top consumer wine event in America. For the latter, my brother Vince simultaneously attended CoffeeCon 2012 — billed as the “first-ever international consumer coffee conference” — in the global coffee Mecca (and his hometown) of Warrenville, IL.

First off, I’d like to apologize for continuing to harp on the hackneyed wine analogy for coffee. However, I still often feel like one of the few people who knows just enough about both wine and coffee appreciation to make a comparison when attending events for either beverage.

Because the facts remain that we read plenty about how much coffee wants to be taken as seriously as wine. And yet the coffee industry still craps on its customers at virtually every opportunity. This weekend’s events provided evidence of that in great contrast.

La Paulée signage in the Westin St. Francis' Italian room Benjamin Laroux may look like an Alpine ski instructor, but what he pours is gold

CoffeeCon 2012

First up: the consumer coffee event. Kevin Sinnott has been a layman coffee enthusiast for years (and he also just so happens to a neighbor and friend of my brother back in the dark recesses of the Chicago suburbs). He may be an independent video production consultant for his “day job”, but coffee is far more than just a hobby for him. And more power to him, because he recognized the need for a consumer-oriented coffee event — which inspired him to put on the first ever CoffeeCon.

The best opportunity coffee consumers had to get involved with the coffee industry was to muscle in to events such as the SCAA’s annual conference — all under a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since then, the policy has shifted towards outright consumer abolishment. But even if you buy the argument that the industry needs its own for its own, it has offered nothing even close to an olive branch. We hear the coffee industry give plenty of lip service to the importance of “educating the customer”, and yet opportunities to do so are turned into closed-door industry events where the consumer is treated like an unwelcome leper.

Slow Food Nation ’08 was perhaps another example, but it turned out to be a one-time event. Out of it came the Good Food Awards. But even if you look past coffee playing the red-headed stepchild under the “Food” banner, here the focus of a once-public event has again turned to industry insiders locking out consumer participation. Or take the related Coffee Common effort. Even putting my disdain for the shallowness and faux elitism of TED aside, public events that require over $1,000 in membership and registration fees to attend are hardly “consumer friendly”. This makes the steep $300 I shelled out to attend La Paulée’s Grand Tasting seem like a bargain by comparison.

Daily Herald photo of the floor at CoffeeCon Daily Herald photo of a long commuter to attend CoffeeCon

CoffeeCon suffered from an almost accidental location (Warrenville’s “IBEW Local Union 701″) and virtually zero coverage among the coffee industry — most of the industry being preoccupied with the self-absorbed, industry navel-gazing going on at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition (or NERBC). But CoffeeCon managed to draw about 1,000 attendees and even pull a few coffee luminaries including the likes of George Howell, home espresso legend Jim Schulman, and Intelligentsia‘s Geoff Watts.

Attendees apparently got to taste a lot of different coffee, experiment with different brewing methods, meet a few others in the coffee industry, learn more about coffee farming and production, and even witness a poor tongue-in-cheek debate on coffee vs. wine. My brother reported that they had a huge crowd, a good representation from nationwide roasters and equipment manufacturers, and the unveiling of a new Bunn Trifecta at a “lab” event.

While not a bad event and certainly a promising attendance, this is, folks, about as good as it gets for coffee consumers today. And good luck getting anybody in the coffee industry to acknowledge that it existed.

On the coffee industry making consumers feel unwelcome…

One thing I like from the CoffeeCon FAQ — which flies in the face of Coffee Common’s “Exceptional coffee. No sugar.” byline — is this bit:

Can I take cream and sugar in my coffee or will I be asked to leave? No worries. Serious coffee lovers know how different everyone’s palate is. 80% of coffee consumed in the world is taken with milk and/or some sweetener.

Coffee Common defines itself in the negative as well as positiveThis week I had dinner again at one of my favorite SF restaurants who also makes some of the best restaurant espresso in the entire city. The two owners, in their own polite and self-depreciating ways, each relayed to me the story of a recent visit to Sightglass where they were essentially made to feel as if they were both clueless about both coffee and their flavor palates. (I’ve omitted their names as they mentioned this in personal confidence.)

Interestingly, they both felt that Sightglass’ coffee tasted “too salty.” When they asked the Sightglass barista to cut the shot pour short, as a sort of ristretto, he replied that he could not interrupt the espresso machine from running its full cycle. And when they asked for sugar, they were looked upon as if they must have walked in thinking Sightglass was a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Here were two people who grew up with high coffee standards in Italy, developed a much-loved and highly regarded regional Italian restaurant in SF, serve some of the best espresso in the city at said restaurant (and I virtually never have coffee with sugar), where one of the owners previously served as a sommelier at another Michelin-starred SF restaurant with a legendary wine list — and they were basically told that they were coffee Philistines, purely because of coffee orthodoxy. As snobbish as you might think the wine world might get, this simply does not happen with wine.

How the wine world does a consumer event: La Paulée de San Francisco 2012

Speaking of sommeliers and a barista’s desire to become an equivalent of one, let’s contrast with La Paulée’s Grand Tasting at the Westin St. Francis. Daniel Johnnes, a noted wine director for noted New York restaurants that today includes Restaurant Daniel (read: a guy who works in the industry), started the event about a decade ago, alternating between New York an San Francisco. It is based in a traditional Burgundian event, and in Mr. Johnnes’ words for the SF event:

La Paulée is my homage to La Paulée de Meursault, a convivial Burgundian fête shared by growers and their guests. At La Paulée guests will sample current releases and older vintages from nearly thirty of the most sought after Domaines of Burgundy. The wine service will be led by fifty of our nation’s most noted sommeliers.

They ain’t messing around. (Here’s a magazine write-up [PDF] on last year’s La Paulée in New York.) The Grand Tasting may cost $300, but that’s cheap compared to the $1,400 Gala Dinner (or compared to the registration fee to experience Coffee Commons at TED2012 in Long Beach).


There are people in traditional Burgundian wear, regularly breaking into traditional Burgundian drinking songs, flown in from Burgundy for this event — Les Cadets de Bourgogne. And there are many booths of elite winemakers, offering wines that you could only be lucky enough to even access a bottle to purchase, all poured by notable sommeliers. In coffee terms, this is akin to an event featuring several of the world’s Cup of Excellence microlots for tasting, each served by award-winning baristas.

And they don’t skimp on the food either, with restaurant representation from the likes of Boulevard, Farralon, Gary Danko, Napa’s Meadowood and REDD, Quince, RN74, etc. You know that the food world takes the event seriously when not only are sommeliers from New York pouring at the event, but the likes of Traci des Jardins (of Jardinière and Top Chef Masters fame) is there personally cooking up and handing out plates of food.

Traci des Jardins hustling at the catering end of La Paulée Whereas the barista expresses himself with tattooes and piercings, in wine self-expression is about the gaudy shoes & belt, rock ring, and man purse

As a consumer event, what’s not there? No hucksters promoting the latest technology in synthetic corks. No pitchmen telling you how to expand your revenue lines with wine coolers. No patent-pending bottle openers that promise to revolutionize wine consumption. Just a lot of people who want to share great wines and learn more about them and an industry that is trying to make that possible in ways it previously was not.

We can only hope just a fraction of that is possible with coffee — if only the industry would allow it, let alone participate in it. It’s beyond the time for quality coffee to get out of its insular ivory towers and to start reaching out to the many customers it so claims to love and adore.

On Kent Bakke of Seattle’s La Marzocco

Posted by on 20 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

Yesterday’s Seattle Times wrote up a decent piece on Kent Bakke of Seattle La Marzocco fame: Business & Technology | Local coffee world reveres this pioneer | Seattle Times Newspaper. Mr. Bakke’s history with espresso heralds back to the late 1970s when he began importing and distributing La Marzocco machines from Italy.

Kent Bakke of La Marzocco in SeattleThings were quiet until 1984, when Starbucks came calling for his machines and a Peet’s Coffee in San Francisco soon followed suit. (Over the years, Seattle Times columnist Melissa Allison has proven herself unable to write an article about coffee without devoting large portions of it to Starbucks, and, well, this one is no different.)

After buying 90% of La Marzocco in 1994, he helped ramp up the local La Marzocco factory in Ballard, WA to the point where they were manufacturing 140 machines each month. Then in 2004, things came crashing down when Starbucks decided to throw in the towel on quality while trying to keep up with their rampant growth plans — ultimately replacing all their “grown up” espresso machines for push-button Verismo jobs that required little more than trained monkeys to operate.

La Marzocco has since recovered somewhat, even if it is currently under competitive pressure from the likes of Synesso (lead by former Bakke employee, Mark Barnett) and Slayer. The article also attempted to make out a La Marzocco controversy over the pricing of the GS/3 prosumer home machine in 2008. However, despite some rumblings from a few devoted loyalists with a lot of cash, that episode adds little weight to the story. In the world of espresso, the consumer market is virtually ignored if not outright dismissed by much of the professional espresso world.

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. (SFMOMA Rooftop Garden)

Posted by on 15 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Machine

Opening in May 2009, this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet is located inside the SFMOMA museum on the fifth-floor Rooftop Garden. It’s a rather elite affair, given the open space and the artworks that surround it. There’s seating on concrete floors and benches among modern sculptures, but there are also white metal café tables for seating.

Outdoor patio at the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden, with Blue Bottle inside Inside the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden with Blue Bottle at the far wall

Artistic desserts at the SFMOMA Blue Bottle CoffeeThey use Mazzer and Astoria grinders, offer Bonmac filters for single origin drip, and (quite unusual for Blue Bottle) a three-group Mistral Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette with manual levers.

They pull espresso shots with a medium brown crema and darker brown spots. It’s served quite short for a doppio, but it’s the right amount of potent: very well balanced, broad flavor profile of herbs, pungency, and some tobacco and honey. They use a special SFMOMA blend of five different beans, and it is a true blend — almost something of a rarity in the U.S. It’s one of the best homogenized examples of a blend that Blue Bottle offers. Hopefully they will make a blend like this more widely available.

Served in a Heath ceramics demitasse with a side of sparkling water. About as good as museum coffee can get.

Read the review of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden.

Three-group lever Mistral Triplette at the SFMOMA Blue Bottle Coffee The SFMOMA Blue Bottle Coffee espresso, in Heath ceramics

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