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Harlem Preacher Claims Starbucks Flavors Coffee with “Semen of Sodomites”

Posted by on 07 Nov 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Starbucks

How about that for a title?

Living a modern life immersed in so much technological wonder, we are often shocked by those triggers reminding us of how very little we have evolved from the rest of the animal kingdom. Typically these responses originate from our fight-or-flight lower brain in response to threats that we perceive and yet don’t fully understand.

Pastor James David Manning of the ATLAH World Missionary Church in Harlem says if you don't want Ebola, avoid StarbucksNow I’m no fan of ISIS. But last month I was listening to an NPR talk show where investigative reporters from the Wall Street Journal reported — with breathless incredulity, I might add — that ISIS employed people in its ranks to do something so mundane as direct traffic. The journalists acted as if they observed a zombie apocalypse when shockingly some zombies arrived in trucks from Streets & Sanitation to take care of garbage collection.

We get that ISIS is evil incarnate. We also get that the first victim of war is the truth. But it’s as if the Wall Street Journalists were asking where does ISIS find the time — between their overworked schedule of beheading journalists and raping Kurds 24×7 — to take care of directing traffic?

Point is that while it’s important to recognize the threat, and to recognize that psychological warfare may have both its foreign and domestic casualties, is it really better to distort the reality of such threats into the territory of paranoia and cartoon caricatures?

A Sword of God named “Ebola”

Propaganda works both waysWhich brings us to our title subject. We all know the horrible reports of the Ebola virus in West Africa. High mortality rates, impoverished communities ill-equipped to combat the virus, and even superstitions and distrust that has made affected communities physically attack medical aid workers risking their lives to help them. Here in the U.S. there are many reports of people being treated as social lepers just because others believe they’re from Africa. This despite the fact that 56,000 Americans die every year of the flu, but there is only one recorded death from Ebola.

Last week the Benin-born international singer, Angélique Kidjo, publicly spoke (and performed) on the tragedy. She even went so far to say that the paranoid response to Ebola was rooted in racism. But there are plenty of convenient boogeymen that mask the real problem, and that real problem resides in the fear response of all of our lower brain stems ever since the time of our lizard ancestors. Just as this Harlem preacher claims that Starbucks stores are ground zero for spreading Ebola: CONTROVERSIAL VIDEO: Harlem Preacher Claims Starbucks Flavors Coffee with “Semen of Sodomites” « KRON4 – San Francisco Bay Area News.

Now much of the public learned earlier this year that the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (or PSL, for its religious followers) contains no pumpkin. That news in itself might have started a few new doomsday cults. But to claim Starbucks makes a semen latte?

Not to give any nut job on the planet a bigger platform than they ever deserve. But it’s important that we recognize these responses and remind ourselves of the real motivators behind why these crazy things happen — and why they are said and believed — in uncertain times. Better to arm ourselves with the truth than lizard brain fantasy.

It’s no wonder why some our country’s most vocal religious leaders don’t believe in evolution … they’re still waiting to experience it themselves.

Trip Report: Blue Sky Farms (Half Moon Bay, CA)

Posted by on 27 Jun 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Starbucks

Not unlike Carmel, CA, Half Moon Bay is a smaller oceanside community that serves as something of a test of quality coffee penetration. Located only 30 miles from San Francisco, and possessing its own Peet’s and Starbucks (unlike Carmel), Half Moon Bay remains surprisingly isolated and remote from many of the coffee fads and baseline standards that the cityfolk up north have grown accustomed to.

Thus finding a solid espresso in town is a real challenge. Half Moon Bay is fraught with many wrong turns and dead ends that lead to an over-extracted, watery ash flavor that many San Franciscans might recognize from 1988. But there are some mild exceptions — such as Blue Sky Farms.

Blue Sky Farms from Highway 1 Coffee and breakfast menu inside Blue Sky Farms

This roadside café, coffeehouse, and nursery (yes, nursery — the plant kind, that is) constitutes a rather dark wooden hut that you might miss if you drive up Highway 1 too quickly out of Half Moon Bay towards El Granada. There’s a parking lot with a main entrance to the rear of the building, right alongside the nursery and gardening supply.

Inside the simple wooden frame building, it has a typical rural café feel. It might seem a little like a family-run spot, but it’s more together than that. They serve baked goods, breakfast items (eggs, burritos, weekend waffles), and other light dining fare. There are several indoor metal-topped café tables — and some worn wooden picnic bench seating in the rear patio outdoors.

Patrons inside Blue Sky FarmsUsing a three-group Conti machine in the service area, and Moschetti coffee (Moschetti makes their service area presence well-known in Half Moon Bay), they pull shots with a pale to medium brown mottled crema served short in a shotglass-sized cup (Romania ceramic from IKEA). It has a healthy body and a smoothed-out flavor of mild spices.

For milk-frothing, they can be a bit irregular and frothy — but they will ask if you want your cappuccino wet or dry. Their milk-based drinks are deceptively large-looking and come in white or blue IKEA cups. All things considered, you will hope for something better — but this is one of the better coffee options in this outpost town.

Read the review of Blue Sky Farms in Half Moon Bay, CA.

Three-group Conti machine inside Blue Sky Farms The Blue Sky Farms espresso

Mission Accomplished: Mankind’s first major step towards the disposable café

Posted by on 06 May 2014 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Starbucks

When not on my best of days, I’ll be the first to admit that I can sometimes be a sarcastic jerk. But even the most acrid sarcasm can be neutralized by a shocking dose of absurd reality. Case and point with this story in today’s Daily Mail: Grower’s Cup, World’s first DISPOSABLE ‘coffee machine’ lets you brew on the move | Mail Online.

You see, there’s long been a lot of consumer environmental angst when it comes to single serving coffee made from pods and capsules. That angst is not at all misplaced, but it’s largely viewed from the wrong end of the telescope. Virtually all discussions that cite the environmental impact of coffee pods obsess exclusively over recycling. Meanwhile, they throw “reduce” and “reuse” under the bus — completely ignoring them.

The Grower's Cup: the next dimension in environmental coffee atrocities

If we remember our Environmentalism 101, the ranked order of efficacy is this: reduce, reuse, and then recycle. Thus the great environmental atrocity of pod coffee machines isn’t throwing the pods away. It’s that, by design, these coffee systems seem to maximize the amount of materials extraction from the earth, materials processing, machine energy consumption, manufacturing waste by-products, excess packaging and shipping weight, and additional transportation fuel consumption with each and every serving of coffee. The introduction of coffee pods created incremental new demands for all of these, where none existed prior for “traditional” coffee formats.

To sarcastically illustrate this point over the years, I often go from zero to ridiculous in one sentence: that if they manufactured an entire life-sized, pop-up, disposable Starbucks with every coffee serving, the entire system would earn a green “pass” by most consumer definitions if the disposable Starbucks were made of recyclable materials. Imagine a cardboard Starbucks with 1,800 square feet of indoor space, including cardboard men’s and women’s bathrooms, thrown away with every serving of coffee. Can you recycle it? Say “yes” and planet earth and a choir of bluebirds will thank you.

It ruins the joke if they really do that...So imagine my shock and horror — and the death of my sarcasm — when I learned that the first step towards creating the disposable Starbucks had already been made with the 2012 introduction of the world’s first disposable coffee machine. Sure, you could say that the proliferation of pop-ups marked the first introduction of the disposable café, but the holy grail here is the single serving disposable café.

Homer facepalm indeed…

Espresso nel caffè: Rai 3 Report

Posted by on 07 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Robusta, Starbucks

As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)

This nasty shot of an unclean espresso machine in Napoli won't qualify as coffee pornThe 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.

There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.

How a coda di topo should not look...The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.

Luigi Odello on ReportThey visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.

Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.

UPDATE: April 8, 2014
Effective communication often changes behavior. In response to Rai 3’s Report yesterday, a Campania region commissioner has come to the defense of the region’s espresso: Campania Report, Martusciello: “Il caffè napoletano è una eccellenza”.

Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.

UPDATE: April 14, 2014
Antonio Quarta, president of the Associazione Italiana Torrefattori (AIT, Italian Roasters Association), commented on the Report in today’s paper: Quarta: «Il caffè fa bene, ma è importante che sia di qualità». In short, he notes that the SCAE has its own high professional standards, but that applying them to every gas station and airport serving espresso in Italy doesn’t exactly tell the whole story either. He’s a little defensive, as you might expect, but investigative journalism thrives on finding worst-case scenarios and drawing much more widespread conclusions from them.

Eight random people rank SF coffees in a blind taste test

Posted by on 20 Jun 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

In 1980, just before the 49ers were any good, SF staple Folgers Coffee started a TV commercial blitz that quickly became a running joke in comedy circles. It began with a TV spot where diners at SF’s then-esteemed Blue Fox restaurant (located at 659 Merchant St.) were duped by replacing the Blue Fox’s “fine coffee” (yeah, right) with Folgers “Instant Coffee Crystals”. Would any of the discriminating diners notice?

The Bold Italic wants us to 'guess the loser' rather than choose good coffeeThis week one of the latest of many knock-off local online rags, The Bold Italic, published their findings of a slightly more modern — and equally irrelevant — blind taste test: Guess The Loser of Our Blind Coffee Taste Test – The Bold Italic – San Francisco. Their question?: “can city dwellers really tell the difference between premium artisanal coffee and your average cup of joe?”

The Bold Italic chose eight random people to compare and rank coffees from six different roasting sources: Ritual, Sightglass, Four Barrel, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and — back from the grave — Folgers.

Survey says… very little

The supposed big “shock” of this miniscule random sample is that, while Ritual came out on top, Dunkin’ Donuts beat out Sightglass and Four Barrel. (Folgers wasn’t rock bottom, however, as that place was reserved for Starbucks.) However, is it really any surprise that mass market coffees might appeal to the broader public tastes of a random sample? Here at CoffeeRatings.com, we never claimed to speak for anyone’s tastes but our own: it’s a very subjective thing.

The Bold Italic sets up their blind taste testThousands of people love In-N-Out Burger to a religious degree, and yet I think they are no better than a glorified Burger King. And while some people adore the brightness bombs from Sightglass, I’ve often thought their coffee tasted like an under-roasted acid bomb going off in my mouth. This is just personal taste, not a freak of statistics.

However, what we found most amusing of all about the article was the writing. We have no idea what kind of coffee fairytale-land Ms. Medina believes we San Franciscans live in — complete with unicorn baristas and rainbow coffee enemas. She offers quotes about “thousands of coffee shops offering the most freshly picked beans” (do you have any clue how many opt for cheap bean fodder such as America’s Best Coffee?) and locals accustomed to coffee “ground to perfection to form the perfect espresso” (have you actually seen our local espresso ratings over the past 10 years?).

And then this unsubstantiated hyperbole: locals “surrounded by $6 cups of coffee galore”?!? The $4 coffee myth has apparently hit major inflation. Where can you even find a cup of drip coffee for $6 around here that isn’t either the extremely rare promotional Geisha or some coffee tourist gag novelty crapped out of a Southeast Asian mammal?

We suppose if there’s anything to learn from this random anecdote disguised as a study, it’s that SF webmags have no boundaries for being unintentionally comedic.

Trip Report: La Colombe (West Loop, Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 09 May 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting, Starbucks

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.

Entrance to La Colombe in Chicago's West Loop Inside Chicago's La Colombe in the West Loop

Inside Chicago's West Loop La Colombe at the Randolph St. windows La Colombe's Officine Vittoria roaster in back

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.

La Colombe Chicago

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.

La Colombe's Steampunk 4.0 brewing coffee A final pour from La Colombe's Steampunk 4.0

A cup of La Colombe Papua New Guinea from the Steampunk And yet some grit remains in the Steampunk-brewed cup

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.

Read the review of La Colombe in Chicago’s West Loop.

Old scale as part of La Colombe's Chicago roasting operations The La Colombe Nizza espresso

Eight years later, Zagat finally publishes their coffee survey

Posted by on 26 Feb 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Back in 2005 we wrote about Zagat’s attempt to put together a regional coffee survey based on their famed user review methods. An acquisition by Google and eight years later, that was the last anyone had ever heard of it. Until now.

Zagat 2013 Caffeine Buzz: worth the paper it's printed onZagat has since published their first ever coffee survey. This coincides with their recent hot and heavy lust for improved search engine rankings, with Zagat spewing out a steady stream of coffee-themed blog posts brandishing inane, list-driven, come-on titles such as, “The 10 Most Annoying Coffee Trends” or the wholly derivative/regurgitativeWhat Your Coffee Drink Says About You.” (Kill me now, please.)

Zagat titled their 2013 study Caffeine Buzz: Hottest Coffee Shops Around the Country, and yet much of its content left us wondering if they’ve been sitting on this data for eight years. For example, just examine the 2013 Zagat reviews for San Francisco.

They list Blue Bottle Coffee among their nine Bay Area selections — but none of the other “usual suspects”. However, they chose to include the ever-underwhelming, Starbucks-slinging Carmel Bakery in the coffee wasteland of Carmel-by-the-Sea. They mention Napa’s traditional but surprisingly good Model Bakery — but ignoring that a Ritual Coffee is around the corner and making no mention of how Model Bakery is one of the few places in the entire Bay Area to offer Caffé Vita coffee. (And for those of you in L.A., good luck finding Handsome Coffee or Portola Coffee Lab, let alone the countless barista award winners from Intelligentsia.)

Unfortunately, despite the SF Gate‘s notion that Zagat has finally caught on to the coffee zeitgeist, we see no evidence that Zagat has given coffee any more serious thought than they did back in 2005. The Zagat survey’s baked-goods-leaning, ambiance-heavy, and coffee-oblivious reviews of the few places that do make their short list only prove that.

The new Google-owned Zagat seems to believe that its future lies in a daily stream of bubblegum blog posts about local coffee. But since Zagat loyalists expect some sort of review guide to anchor things, Zagat exhumed their 8-year-old research and quickly threw it up on the Web.

The Seattle Times: As India gains strength, so does its coffee

Posted by on 28 Jan 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Robusta, Starbucks

We’ve written about coffee in India before, but this Sunday’s piece in The Seattle Times is one of the best-researched, most thought-out pieces we’ve seen on the subject in the mainstream Western media: As India gains strength, so does its coffee | Special reports pages | The Seattle Times. At least on the growing side of things. (Coffee consumption in India is another story that’s poorly reported globally. The Seattle TimesPart 1 was dubious and a bit patronizing.)

Women sort freshly picked coffee cherries at Badra Estates in Karnataka's Coorg district.

Women sort freshly picked coffee cherries at Badra Estates in Karnataka’s Coorg district.

The article notes the long history of coffee growing and coffee consumption in India, dating back to the 1600s. This while most of the Western media has treated the news of Starbucks‘ recent entry into India as if the American fast food chain was on a mission to liberate the uncouth India masses from their coffee ignorance. (This is a little like introducing potatoes to Peruvians.)

The article also does a great service by introducing Sunalini Menon, who was formerly the head of quality at the Coffee Board of India and is credited with much of Indian coffee’s quality gains. Of particular interest is the controversy Ms. Menon raises by suggesting that robusta, when handled properly, should be eligible at Cup of Excellence competitions.

Over the past several years, far and away some of the best robusta we’ve ever tasted has come out of India. In India, robusta can be handled like the most precious of arabica beans, and we often love what a measured dose of it does to round out an espresso blend. (Insert the *gag* *spew* *hack* of professional tastemakers here.)

Back to the Grind: George Howell Coffee

Posted by on 05 Dec 2012 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.

Strike a pose with the pooch, George!If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.

In more recent years, George was the brainchild behind the Cup of Excellence competitions. Today he’s forging his own coffee vision in Boston now that his non-compete clauses have finally expired.

That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)

George is only missing the obligatory white labcoat for this shot of him with a vac pot

All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.

And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)

But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.

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.

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