Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Last Friday, the Economic Times posted an interesting article concerning the history, fanatics and obsessives with South Indian filter coffee: How can filter coffee be so different, yet good? – Economic Times. The Economic Times is a business paper from the Times of India — and the world’s most widely read English-language business newspaper after the Wall Street Journal.
For Westerners without much exposure to the subcontinent, you might associate India with only tea. But the story of coffee in India is older than the USA itself and arguably larger (by capita) than its consumption of coffee. South India has grown coffee since the 1670s, and the article recalls how coffee consumption was particularly introduced to the Tamil households of South India by way of Britain in the 19th century.
Back then, “Tamil Brahmins resisted the tea campaign as too down-market, giving tea a working class (and Muslim) reputation it has never entirely shrugged off in the South.” The article even makes reference to a bottled coffee-chicory essence called Camp Coffee, first made by the Scottish company Paterson & Sons in Glasgow in 1876 and featuring a Sikh bearer on the label. By the 20th century, South Indians added sugar and milk, leading to its more widespread adoption.
We fell in love with the stuff on our first visit to South India. It’s made as a sort of strange middle-ground between the popular fast-brewed hot coffee of espresso/pour-overs/Mr.-Coffee-makers and the slow, slow brewing of cold press coffee.
Traditionally it is made with chicory root (the article mentions a magic 15-20% range), a coffee substitute and additive known more in the West by its affiliation with New Orleans and colonial America. Here, as in India, it was introduced as a means of more cheaply cutting the more expensive pure coffee. However, in New Orleans the introduction of chicory as a coffee additive was of purely French origin: instigated by Napoleon’s initiation of the Continental Blockade of 1808 that deprived the French of much of their coffee supplies.
All of this cutting with chicory, milk, and sugar and the common use of fine coffee “powder” naturally leads most Westerners to a rather downscale impression of South Indian filter coffee. And for many examples of it, they’d be right. But that’s also the case with most coffee served here in America. However, it doesn’t help that my few attempts to make a version of it here with one of the unique South Indian filter brewers I purchased (on Mahatma Gandhi, aka “MG”, Road in Bangalore) produced some of the most undrinkable coffee I’ve ever made.
Of course, there are those who truly love coffee in its many shapes, forms, and varieties available. And then there are others who only like a rarefied, elitist, mutant sliver of coffee extract that’s possible with exacting farm origins, brewing methods, precision equipment, TDS ratios, and when the lunar tides are just right for four days out of the calendar year. While I very much admire and appreciate what can come out of the latter category, it might come as a surprise that I am a complete softie of the former variety.
No, this is not a joke. If there’s one thing we do at CoffeeRatings.com, it’s test things out before we judge. What else can explain all the gut-corrosive espresso shots we’ve subjected ourselves to over the past ten years, seemingly in violation of the Nuremberg Code.
Nespresso — Nestlé’s espresso pod cash cow — is a heavily loaded topic. Our somewhat-dismissive reviews of their home espresso machine systems have attracted far more user comments than any other subject. (Many of the comments oddly coming from new home espresso machine owners seeking validation of their purchasing decisions.) And for several years, some of the world’s finer restaurants have simply punted on their coffee service and succumbed to the pod.
Coffee-loving nations in Europe have particularly embraced Nespresso — ones you’d never associate with such a prepackaged, processed product. In Lisbon seven years ago, we asked the question why? Just a year ago, Nespresso installed its first café and boutique in Union Square backed by an immense amount of marketing money and fanfare — which itself will be the subject of a future post.
Opening in November 2012, this international chain of Nestlé-owned boutiques planted its San Francisco flag at the site of a former Guess store. There’s a ridiculous amount of pomp and pretense here for what amounts to be pre-ground pod coffee that’s been oxidizing for weeks after roasting. Walk inside, and you can tell the management has been taking notes from their favorite Apple stores. (Truth be told, Saeco and their showcase cafés and boutiques are hardly that different.)
There are staff in black suits that each talk or ask questions about you “being a member”. It all feels a bit like Scientology meets an aspirational Starbucks. They have many cream-colored leather lounge chairs paired at faux wooden-top tables, sofas, long white countertops with iPad displays (surprised?) and white metal stools. There’s also a few leather stools at the front service counter, behind which the staff use a number of their plastic Nespresso home espresso machines to produce the retail coffee beverages here. Although there are two dedicated Astra machines (made of metal even) for frothing milk.
The air is filled with lounge music circa 2001, and downstairs is their boutique — or showroom for machines and member-purchased coffee pods. Although they offer some food items and pairings, the focus is clearly on their coffee product line.
Ordering their “Ristretto” shot (note the use of capitalization) for a ridiculous $4 ($5 for doubles), they inserted one of their pods into a $200 Nespresso U home machine. The experience is a bit mind-blowingly incongruous.
Here you have everything short of a white-gloved servant offering your coffee on a silver tray with a side of Beluga caviar. Yet in the background you can hear the distinctively cheap buzzing sound of the Nespresso home espresso machine — the kind you associate with an aerating 10-gallon fish tank filled with blue tetras — when the staff push a button to produce your coffee from a prepackaged pod. It’s akin to walking into the French Laundry and having your meal prepared with a Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven.
But enough about the imagery: it is, after all, about how it tastes in the cup. The resulting shot lacks much aroma, but it has a decent-looking, even, medium brown crema. The flavor is blended well and is surprisingly mellow for a supposed “ristretto” (ranked 10 out of 10 on Nespresso’s strength scale): mild spices and tepid herbal notes. But everything about the shot is tepid: a light and vapid body, and a flavor that misses the mark on any kind of character.
This is the part we find most objectionable about the whole pretense of Nespresso to begin with. Peel back the layers of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” and underneath it all Nespresso represents a step forward in convenience but a step backwards in quality. At that moment, it struck me that Nespresso was coffee’s version of farmed salmon: a flabby, bland facsimile of the real thing that’s tailored more for the needs of mass production and distribution. Except here the Nespresso comparison is more of an insult to farmed salmon.
There’s nothing wrong with liking farmed salmon. But let’s call it what it is and price it accordingly. Served in Nespresso cups with designer spoons and sugar.
Read the review of the Nespresso Boutique & Bar in SF’s Union Square.
Perhaps the biggest irony is that nobody should ever need a CoffeeCON.
As we posted last year, on the same day as the inaugural CoffeeCON 2012, we were instead attending the Grand Tasting of La Paulée de San Francisco: a $300-per-person consumer Burgundy appreciation event backed by a tremendous amount of wine industry support and name-brand chefs & restaurants. The event was packed.
And because who doesn’t love a good wine analogy, the closest consumer event that coffee has to offer is — well? — free admission to CoffeeCON in bustling, cosmopolitan Warrenville, IL. (Note: this year CoffeeCON introduced a $15 ticket price, so things are starting to get snooty.)
Not to throw the merits of CoffeeCON under the bus, but this very fact is outright shameful — a rather inexcusable embarrassment to the specialty coffee industry. We have legions of adoring coffee lovers who can hold their own waxing poetically alongside the world’s biggest wine snobs. We have many who work in specialty coffee giving plenty of lip service to phrases such as “consumer experience” and “educating the consumer.”
But heaven forbid that anybody employed in the biz open a legitimate dialog with their customers. Instead, coffee consumers have to take the reigns and do it themselves. Completely unlike the wine industry, the specialty coffee industry has been too incompetent, disorganized, and too focused on navel-gazing to hold an event about anything that ultimately isn’t directly about, or for, themselves.
Contrast this with the media coverage for events like the SCAA conference, which essentially operates as a bloated insider trade show. Magazine articles, blog posts, and tweets hype the event as the “center of the universe”, a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here type of thing. But mind you, it’s a universe that deliberately excludes the very customers who keep all the attendees employed. (Side note: CoffeeGeek’s Mark Prince recently showed off the long-defunct SCAA consumer membership on his Twitter feed. Mistake long since corrected.)
You could argue that coffee consumers shouldn’t take the industry’s apparent anti-social attitude so personally. Some people are just naturally too shy for eye contact, right? But meanwhile, some industry blogs promote a self-indulgent, Spring-Break-like image for the SCAA conference: complete with wannabe-frat-house tales of endless parties, binge drinking, and baristas covered in spray cheese. Yeah, party with Tina. How long before the competitive SCAA exhibitions offer up wet T-shirt contests in wet processing tanks? (Oh wait, we’re too late.)
All of us may tediously groan at the aloof and disgruntled barista stereotype, looking down on their customers. But unfortunately that stereotype is rooted in a little too much reality. Worse, it often seems deliberate and not just the result of a lack of social graces. Many customers can be self-entitled, acute hemorrhoids as well. But far too often than should ever happen, consumers feel the need to treat coffee professionals as necessary irritants that must be tolerated instead of allies and fellow coffee lovers. Can’t we all just get along?
Coincidentally, my brother is a long-time resident of Warrenville, IL and a big fan of quality coffee. He’s also a former next-door neighbor of Kevin Sinnott — half of a husband-and-wife professional video production team, a Second City improv school graduate, and a dedicated coffee prosumer who is the impetus (and personal possessive name) behind CoffeeCON. I just happened to time a long-overdue visit with my brother over CoffeeCON weekend, last weekend, and thus had to check it out.
CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:
CoffeeCON is a consumer event featuring tastings of the world’s great coffees roasted by craft roasters and brewed by an assortment of different brewing methods. Our goal is to present every bean, every roast and every method. The second goal of CoffeeCON is to present classes on brewing and roasting methods at all skill levels.
Heavy emphasis here on the consumer part of the event, which is what makes it an oasis in a vast desert. One thing it professes not to be is a trade show. Last year Mike White over at ShotZombies called it The Dubious Anti-Trade Show Trade Show, but I can say first-hand the event is a refreshing contrast from the SCAA conference.
Kevin may have gradually earned a modicum of respect at trade shows like the SCAA, but he lamented over stories where consumers/prosumers are looked upon as time-sucking vermin by some of the industry types: too many questions and not enough five-figure purchase orders.
Kevin also told me the story of once entering the SCAA show floor with a few fellow prosumers a few years back and overhearing whispers of, “Here comes the animals.” Of all the legends about wine snobbery, you just never hear of stories like this when wine consumers interact with the wine industry.
Back to what redeems CoffeeCON. Besides classes on everything from grinding to water to siphon brewing, plus a rear patio demoing various home roasting methods (even including the infamous “HGDB” method, a.k.a. “heat gun/dog bowl“), one of the aspects I much enjoyed about CoffeeCON was the opportunity to sample brewed coffee from many purveyors side-by-side.
The purveyors may have been primarily local, but they included River City Roasters, Dark Matter Coffee, FreshGround, Passion House, Counter Culture Coffee, Metropolis, I Have a Bean, Oren’s Daily Roast, Regular Coffee Company, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and, well, Lavazza. Last year Starbucks operated a booth to coincide with the launch of their then-new “Blonde” roast. But to the credit of CoffeeCON attendees, word has it that the Starbucks booth was ignored like a leper colony. Starbucks didn’t show their faces at the event this year.
Our favorite coffee at the event had to be Oren’s Sumatra Mandheling — and we’re not normally Indonesian freaks — followed by their Burundi Kayanza Gatare. The best espresso on the day had to go to Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca El Puente Honduras pulled from a La Marzocco GS/3.
As for personalities at the event, George Howell lead an impressive 2-1/2-hour session on coffee from bean-to-cup with several breaks for interactive sensory evaluations along the way. He’s performed this routine many times before, but for lay consumers to soak in that wisdom is something special.
A couple of our favorite lines from his session? “Cupping is the only way to buy coffee, but it’s not the best way to taste coffee.” (Take that, Peter Giuliano!) His recommendation to freeze greens to allow a seasonal crop to last all year long runs counter to much of the conventional, “seasonal-only” wisdom of many coffee roasters. And I also liked his concept of “incredibly loud coffee” — i.e., coffee with flavors so acutely punctuated that they drown out any breadth or subtlety in the bean.
Last but not least, it was great to finally meet Jim Schulman in person. To most people in the coffee industry, where influential prosumers and home roasting are about as familiar as a Justin Bieber set list, Jim is probably only known as that troublemaker who got Extract Mojo inventor, Vince Fedele, worked up to a fine microfoam and threatening to sue him because Jim (somewhat justifiably) dismissed the device’s accuracy at measuring coffee extraction levels. Given that Jim was pioneering PID controller use in home espresso machines on Internet newsgroups over 20 years ago, Jim is a prosumer coffee legend when it comes to coffee science, invention, instrumentation, and measurement.
Would we travel hundreds of miles to attend the world’s biggest consumer coffee event? Definitely not. But we’re glad it exists. The event also manages to appeal to consumers at different levels of expertise and engagement. Kevin deserves a lot of credit for taking a big personal risk to help meet a gaping public need that the coffee industry has done nothing to address. And if we were in town visiting my brother again during the event, we would definitely attend again.
La Colombe continues to play an interesting role in the modern evolution of consumer coffee tastes. Starting in 1985 in Seattle, co-founders Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe (JP) Iberti joined forces and decided to set up their idea for a great American roaster in Philadelphia. Which was no small risk, given that Philadelphia isn’t the friendliest environment to start a froofy coffee business peddling $4 lattes. National accolades followed in the 1990s and early 2000s from many in the food journalism world — many who were simply taken aback that someone dared to do something interesting with coffee when Starbucks was presumed to be its final word.
Fast forward to today, and you can’t swing a dead cat in most cities without hitting a local microroaster who deals in Direct Trade. In terms of this absurd coffee wave business, this made La Colombe something of a genetic missing link — a kind of coffee wave version number 2.6. Given that La Colombe has not succumbed to faddish trends of trying to make all coffee taste like hibiscus and blueberries (and worst of all: lawn clippings), this has sometimes made them seem a bit passé in the eyes of many who would rather fawn over coffee’s latest Young Turks/poster boys like the K-Pop idol band flavor of the month.
Thus while a lot of industry attention has focused obsessively on “what’s next”, as if in daily anticipation of a coming Ray-Kurzweil-inspired coffee singularity, La Colombe as fallen a bit off the radar — quietly building out coffeehouses in New York, Chicago, and Seoul and establishing wholesale operations.
Opening back in the Summer of 2011, the first Chicago outlet started in the transforming neighborhood of the West Loop on Randolph St. This is an old neighborhood of butchers and meat delivery trucks … of Greek markets where students at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago knew they could buy alcohol without ever being carded. (I know this, because I was one of them.)
In the past decade, this neighborhood has transformed: giving way to luxury lofts, fine foods, dog care salons, and — shockingly — al fresco dining along the sidewalks. La Colombe is part of this new neighborhood breed. Though they also plan to open a second Chicago location in Bucktown.
This location is an open space with wood floors, wide windows that open in front, a large wooden bench, and a few café tables for seating. It’s a rather spacious place, with roasting operations taking place in the back with a sparkling, classic Officine Vittoria roaster from Bologna, Italy. La Colombe co-founder, JP Iberti, loves to roast on the same equipment put into popular use in the 1980s by Seattle’s Bizzarri family.
But that’s not the only curious device obsession here. They have a red, three-group La Marzocco FB/70 for espresso. And they recently replaced one of their grinders (for a second espresso option besides their Nizza blend) with a Alpha Dominche Steampunk 4.0 siphon brewer. La Colombe co-founder (and TV personality), Todd Carmichael, is a healthy skeptic when it comes to the latest coffee gadgetry, but he swears by the Steampunk brewer. He made a big point of it at the last SCAA conference, and all La Colombe locations are in the process of installing them.
Some coffee personalities, like Blue Bottle‘s James Freeman, are enamored with rare and elegant classics when it comes to their coffee machinery. Others, like the Morrison brothers behind Sightglass, gravitate to the newest fads available so that they may play around with them in their toyshop. Curiously, La Colombe seems to operate a little at both ends of the spectrum.
As for the Steampunk, it’s a bit of a throwback to the fleeting halcyon days of the Clover brewer. We personally found that it produces a clean cup, requires its own staffing plan, and generates a little grit at the bottom. However, it didn’t really change the filter coffee equation for us — at least for the trial we joined in with the staff that day. (Sorry, Steampunkers — we’re just not feeling the love yet.)
As for their Nizza espresso, they pull shots with an even layer of medium brown crema and a decent body. There’s an exceptional balance to the cup, with a flavor of spices, mellow pungency, and orange zest. That’s the thing so few North American roasters fail to achieve: the art and complexity of a well thought out, balanced blend. Roasters seem to forget that if you listen to a symphony, 98% of the instruments are wasted if something is screaming to the level that you can’t hear anything else.
Of the coffeehouses in Boston I visited this month, this was my favorite. Sure, I didn’t make it over to Barismo or Voltage, but that was somewhat deliberate. Of all the times I’ve come to Boston, I’ve always stayed in the ‘burbs like Cambridge and Somerville but never Boston proper. This time I never left Boston, and I only wanted to walk or take public transit.
This coffeehouse is located a short walk from where the SCAA conference was held in South Boston. Despite hosting a number of tie-in events, conference attendees were surprisingly few here. It seemed most conference attendees did not venture outside of the Boston Convention Center fortress except by car or cab, and then they were immediately exiting onto a freeway headed someplace else. Because cities place their newer convention centers in undesirable places where space is cheap, and Boston is no exception.
Hence the conference area in South Boston is pretty much an industrial empty lot with fencing, abandoned railways, and other obstacles discouraging most pedestrians from ever accessing it on foot. This much was a bit maddening about Boston: while the Boston Logan airport loudspeakers continually boasted of their “green airport” status with the heavy use of public transportation, walking up to the SCAA conference from my hotel in downtown Boston was a bit like crossing the barbed-wire-laden bits of the Korean DMZ.
It’s as if Boston willfully did everything it could to treat pedestrians as second-class citizens. Moments like this give me guilty thanks for the Loma Prieta earthquake and how it got SF’s Embarcadero Freeway torn down.
This café — located in the much less dismal parts on the north end of South Boston — opened as a retail beverage operation to complement their roasting. And they’ve done a stellar job of it. It’s a very open space, with tall ceilings, modern light fixtures, and an exposed concrete floor. There’s a large, round central table for standing at, a few side tables, and stool seating at the Congress St. tall windows.
They earn major points for offering three different choices of coffee for their espresso. At review time it was the Barrington Gold blend (their standard), a Brazil Conquista Reserve, or a Hawaiian Maui Mokka in Anfim grinders. And anybody supporting Maui Moka gets high praise in my book. A well-travelled Yemen mocha descendant, and a favorite of home roasters at the turn of the millenium for the intensely chocolate espresso it produces (and I was one of them), the bean almost went extinct in 2002 when its Ka’anapali Estates home was nearly paved over by Maui condo developers. Every time we can experience it, it’s like seeing a coelacanth.
Using a three-group Synesso (with naked portafilters, we might add), they pull shots of Barrington Gold (used in our rating linked at bottom) with an even, medium brown crema that dissipates, but it remains an integral, time-sensitive cup. It has a heavy mouthfeel and a dense body underlying flavors of tobacco smoke and molasses. Smooth, heavy, and very tasty. Though acid fruit bomb fanatics may want to steer clear.
Their milk-frothing is good, with detailed latte art, but it is a bit milky and lacks integration with the espresso.
Just to prove it can get even better than the ratings here for the Gold, their Maui Mokka shot has an even, darker brown crema, a bit of firewood in the nose, and that lovely, characteristic deep chocolate bomb flavor that made us fall in love with the bean well over a decade ago. One of our favorite shots in Boston — and one of our more favorite places to have it.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
Two 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.
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.
Pod 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.
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.
As 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?
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.
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.
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 Starbucks‘ home 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.
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.
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.
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. It’s part wannabe terrorist camp — with targets of economic business models instead of the soft bodies of civilians — and part religious revival — with many attendees trying to prove their worthiness to be a part of, and not subject to, the destruction ahead that leads to salvation within the next “regime”.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
Alongside 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.
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!
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.
That 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.
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”:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
“Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret. And it’s how to make decent espresso out of me.”