Reviewer’s Coffee Gear Christmas List 2016

baratza-sette-270-2A coffee enthusiast is hard as a gift recipient. That’s because coffee  or gear must be useful to make sense. Otherwise, get me socks or a new wallet. Thanks to the past few years, there are not only lots of great coffees, but lots of good gear gifts at all levels. Now, you can go through all my back reviews, but I’m purposefully going to give you a few new ideas. Some haven’t had full reviews yet, but they’re all worthy and will make someone very happy.

The great thing about giving gear is it’s likely to be there in the kitchen a year from now. Beans will not be. At least  I hope not!

In no particular order:

Chemex Ottomatic Automatic drip brewer – This unit is recent, but really a re-creation of the original Chemex electric drip brewer. While not cutting edge circa 2016, it has a unique feature fans of the original claim is more important than simply delivering SCAA-approved water temperature.  It repeatedly pauses during brewing, just like you do when you use a kettle and manual drip maker.  The cost is high, but it’s hand-built in Ireland and if you like the Chemex taste footprint (and many do!), it’s the only choice if you want an automatic way to achieve that taste. Street price: $350

Handground Manual coffee grinder – A good grinder is one of the keys to great-tasting coffee. To update an old cliché, “What this country needs is an under-$100 grinder”. The Handground Manual coffee grinder might be just what this country needs. It’s well-thought out and engineered. While I haven’t yet tested it for 30 days, including a laser analysis test of the grind quality, in casual use, it’s done well, especially for medium fine grinds needed for manual pour over methods (not Chemex, though). There’s a real high quality ceramic burr inside and it’s under $100. If only my parents had gotten me one of these when I was going away to college. Street price: $79

Rattleware Cupping Brewer – This one floored me when Laura Sommers of Espresso Supply showed it to me in her office one day. We all like to analyze our coffees right? This one comes closer to replicating the taste of the fastidious cupping procedure than any other brewer I’ve tried. It allows you to steep the coffee and easily remove the grounds. It’s small and stows away for storage. Well made, and it’s inexpensive.  Street price: $18.99

Behmor Plus 1600 roaster – I wrote about this years ago. It solves the number one issue with indoor home roasting north of the 35th parallel – smoke! That is, the Behmor really doesn’t emit any or at least not much in normal use. If there was a home roaster that would make home roasting a mainstream art, it’s this one. There are others, and they are good machines, but this one is the one that has all the features in one well-made chassis. Built to last, and I know because I still have the original and it works fine. If you want a brewer to match it, consider the Behmor Brazen Connected, which can download programming from hip roasters who can help you brew their top beans to perfection, taking this nuance-based hobby to another level. Street prices: Roaster: $369 Brewer: $199

Bunn MB Home Trifecta – Single/two cup automatic brewer. I got Bunn to bring a dozen of these to my very first CoffeeCon and, guess what? – they wouldn’t sell them, even to the foaming aficionados waving their credit cards! Still one of the best-kept secrets in the business, the Trifecta, originally hand-made from a Bunn employee’s child’s doll furniture, is one of those coffee business head-scratchers. It’s failed in the café business where they marketed it, but that’s because it’s really ideal in the home or office of someone who cares about coffee but has no time. It’s as easy to use as a K-cup, and makes a range of great-tasting coffee types. Costly, but not considering that it does – as close to a siphon as any automatic machine has ever made. Street price: $549

Cafflano Klassic – I keep wondering if this unit has made the penetration it should, but whenever I see these guys we just tell jokes and talk about coffee, not business. It’s the ideal bohemian coffee brewer. When they remake The Blues Brothers, wouldn’t Elwood make coffee to go with his toast using this brewer? It’s got a hand-grinder using a ceramic burr. It is so intuitive you really don’t need instructions. Best of all, it make one perfect cup of coffee. I have spotted them in offices, especially ones that have K-cup machines in the break room. Hehe. Street price: $95

Brewista BrewGlobal Smart Scale – You say you’re into coffee but still don’t own a scale? There are lots of them, but the Brewista is as good as any (they’re all accurate enough), and it is attractive as well. The idea is to do everything by weight. You weigh your grounds. You weigh the water. You weigh the final brew. Of course, you can do it however you want, but after using weight for a while, I doubt I’ll go back. Street Price: $59

Hario Next 5 Syphon – Hario’s v-60 dripper gets all the attention, but to me the jewel of their lineup is the syphon. When Oren Bloostein sent me some of his precious Guatemalan Geisha, I brewed it in the Hario Syphon. The Syphon, or siphon or vacuum as it’s been called over the years, is a high resolution brewing method, arguably the highest resolution brewing method of all. The physics of its design ensure all the grounds undergo equally probing extraction at industry-established ideal temperatures. This unit ships with two filter choices. The metal mesh filter is capable, but those of us who are fanatical will prefer the cloth, my favorite. The infrared heater is as costly as the brewer itself, but it completes the perfectionist’s quest and is much easier to use than a butane heater. Street prices: Syphon: $75 Infrared heater: $219

Moccamaster – Any model of Gerard Smit’s machine, still hand-built in The Netherlands, is worthy. They still lack some features of other brewers, but the basic principle is simple and effective. It is the best made coffee brewer of all time. It gets the water to 200F. It uses paper filters. It will likely last longer than you are likely to. It is costly, but there are sales (not at Christmas time though) and it will pay for itself over the years and you will never need another coffee maker. Street price: $299

Baratza Sette 270 – I have been testing this grinder for a couple of months. I am taking longer, not because it’s bad, but because it’s so good. It is the best grinding in its size you can get, period. It does something no other home grinder does well, espresso. I rekindled my interest in home espresso after testing (and tasting) its results. For a Hario syphon or Technivorm automatic drip, it does better than any other grinder except the giant and big-buck Mahlkonig EK-43 (something Patricia told me would not be acceptable to her for our kitchen). The only disappointment is it doesn’t go coarse enough for my Chemex preference, but I may be wrong. They claim it works. Hey, I’m not done testing. Hahaha Expensive but well-made and just a wonderful machine. Street price: $379

That’s my list. There are other worthy coffee gear items. These are all recommendable. Remember the most important thing isn’t the gear or the coffee. The most important thing is sharing your coffee with a friend.

Merry Christmas!

 

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“How to Brew Old Coffee” article. For Real?

I admit I was surprised when the highly regarded Fellow coffee maker manufacturer posted this on their site. I was surprised mostly because it was both innovative and, upon reflection, largely true. Roasted coffee freshness is an elephant-in-the-room issue in the coffee business. Through much of the industry there’s a lot of emphasis on grinding fresh, but that presupposes beans that are fresh, and mostly they aren’t.

fellow-coffee-makerSince “old” is in this case a euphemism for “stale” I feel it’s a good time to share what I know or at least think about freshness and its successor, staleness. I’d also like to address their recommendations in future articles, but let’s start with freshness and how to keep coffee from getting stale. Most supermarket coffee, even in bean form, is by industry standards, stale. That is, it has been two or more weeks since it was roasted. According to industry experts, coffee should kept in bean form until just before using, but even then, its peak flavor lasts roughly ten to fourteen days from roast.

For most of the large roasters and many consumers, this is a market impossibility. The supermarket distribution system alone makes it highly unlikely that much coffee is being purchased, let alone brewed within this time frame.  One of the exceptions might be Peet’s, who in my observation, seems to lead the industry in its scrupulous overseeing its supermarket slots. My mother is a Peet’s fan, and I often pop into a mass supermarket chain to snare her beans. Peet’s scrupulously stamps roast dates on its packages, while many roasters succumb to supermarket pressure to post “best by” dates, which are definitely not the same. Some best-by dates euphemistically project a year of freshness. Careful packaging which includes nitrogen flushing to drive away oxygen and that little one-way valve added to the package work to help prolong freshness, but no one has ever claimed they “freeze” the staling process, although some of my industry friends claim they are pretty happy with the results. peets-major-dickasons-blend

Speaking of freezing, the late roaster/inventor Michael Sivetz once told me his future vision of coffee being sold in the freezer section. Needless to say, this has not yet happened and many in the industry scoff at freezing beans. Nonetheless, I have done many anecdotal samplings using Sivetz’ recommendations and found freezing to be a no-brainer better solution compared to any alternate storage method past the two week window. The more I’ve sought to intermix my snooty connoisseur instincts with the solid practicality of a socially and fiscally responsible citizen, the more appealing freezing has become. Put in plain language, it can’t help the rain forest to have a bunch of coffee snobs tossing out three-week-old beans.

How can you tell if the beans you’re grinding are fresh? The most reliable indicator that is not entirely subjective is to grind and brew some coffee. If the beans still have what I’ll call “life” in them, they will foam up as you first pour hot water over the grounds, in either an automatic or manual coffee maker. This denotes the presence of carbon dioxide. I’ve seen roasters find some coffee laying around unmarked by a date on its package and brew a small batch. After they saw no foaming, they simply pronounced it “dead” and tossed it out.

Speaking of roasters, in my experience, most of my friends who roast are not ideal guides to dealing with preserving freshness or how to use stale coffee to its best advantage. Simply, it’s like asking a wine merchant how to best utilize cheap bottles of wine. Why on earth would they take home cheap bottles, when they have discount (free?) access to the best ones? Most roasters simply take home a small amount of today’s roasted coffee for tomorrow morning’s home brewing. They also likely pay little or nothing for them, so if there’s any question, they can afford to toss them out. So, you really need to find others like myself who are stuck with buyer’s remorse and stale beans on occasion and must learn to struggle to make them work, which is why Fellow’s post is so noble and why they just might know something. chemex-fresh-coffee-foam

I have presupposed that most of our readers own a grinder and buy only beans. Frankly, pre-ground coffee is often the best ground coffee – that is, no matter which home grinder you own, it is unlikely to grind as authoritatively or meet specs as rigidly as does any commercially ground coffee from a major coffee company. In a perfect world (I can dream can’t I?) coffee would be pre-ground and packaged so perfectly as to figuratively freeze its attributes. From my subjective tastings, the most knowledgeable company in the world regarding packaging pre-ground coffee is Illy. They do a lot of R&D on packaging and if anyone could really claim to rival home ground fresh coffee with their pre-ground canned versions, I think it would be them. However, they really focus on a select market which is too limited to satisfy my appetite to drink coffee from various small farms around the world, which is the hobby of so many of us.

I hope to post more about this subject as I more thoroughly study and digest the Fellow article’s recommendations. Stay tuned.

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Caroline Bell’s Cafe Grumpy Interview

Caroline Bell_Cafe GrumpyI have always been intrigued by Café Grumpy. Never have I heard so many scary rumors of the tough love treatment of consumer electronics, coupled with praise for their beverages. Such media luminaries as Bruce Cost (creator of my favorite ginger ale) to HBO Girl’s Lina Dunham, where her character works as an uninspired barista on the show. I was so disheartened when Oren’s Daily Roast left Grand Central Station to reopen as a Starbucks. My enthusiasm returned when Starbucks left and Café Grumpy inherited the Grand Central location.

Caroline Bell was on my Future of Coffee Panel at the New York CoffeeCon in 2015. I found her quiet but thoughtful and someone who waited patiently for her turn at the microphone but always added substance and reason to the discussion. So it was that I had to pester her to join me on this podcast, even though I know she’d obviously prefer painful dental procedures to being interviewed.

While visiting Grumpy’s roastery, I was impressed with the fact that they’d roasted so long with a tiny L12 Probat roaster, which sat unused next to a more recent and much larger Probat model. I want to point out the Grumpy’s is one of those roasters where the team concept is in full view. Liam Singer is the talented roastmaster and Cheryl Kingan their painstakingly careful green buyer.  While much of the coffee world has taken to presenting a giant assortment of single-origins, Grumpy’s has the courage to keep the menu short and simple and savory.

Caroline told me her grandparents worked in radio. She has a beautiful voice, no doubt in part being a descendant of trained radio talent.  Perhaps the most surprising part of our interview as when I asked her favorite brewing method and she said French press. Made me want to try her coffee in a press, which I did the moment I arrived home. My suspicion is that many roasters choose green and roast their coffees with a favorite brewer in mind.

 

Enjoy.

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Intuition, Not Measurements. Hansa Coffee’s Tom Maegdlin

Tom Maeglin photo for podcastI met Tom at CoffeeCon Chicago 2015. He impressed me first with the coffee, then with his sense of humor. Finally, one day over a cup of coffee at his North Shore Hansa Coffee Libertyville location, he mentioned that he doesn’t brew using any gauges or scales. I saw his roaster. No Agtron roast meter. Now he’d piqued my curiosity.

Hansa is also unusual in that it actively supports a post-traumatic stress effort for military veterans and has a mascot dog to send coffee to US troops overseas.

Tom’s an adherent of natural process coffees. I can’t know for certain if he’s right, but he sure thinks he is. What impressed me most about him is his willingness to go his own direction. In my opinion, there’s a lot of me-too collectivism in coffee that can lead to too much group think and not enough individual thought. This is not a problem for Tom, nor his business partner and Hansa’s c0-owner, Kevin Kane.

This is a long podcast. You may want to take a break midway, but Tom was very willing to share his views on many subjects and I know you’ll come away more knowledgeable from hearing from him.

 

Podcast recording equipment

 

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A True Consumer’s Publication: Coffee Lovers Magazine’s Joseph Robertson

Joseph Robertson publisherSince written word began the word has been a powerful catalyst in developing any culinary art. Just as Julia Child helped spawn a new era in home cooking, writers like wine’s Robert W Parker and coffee’s Kenneth Davids helped foster our quest for knowledge and appreciation of their respective beverages.

I’m interested in discovering who today is going to lead our next movement in coffee and Joseph is definitely one of those figures. His Coffee Lovers Magazine is bravely aimed at consumers. I say bravely because most of the press coffee gets is unapologetic in its pursuit of trade dollars, a by far easier chase but one with limited vision. I blame the industry more than the publishers, for this lack of collective vision, but it slows the growth of one of the most interesting of all culinary arts. My interview here is long. It is a true conversation so I won’t apologize for my talking as much as my guest. But, I hope you listen as Joseph is on a mission, and for this reason he’s a prophet.       Podcast recording equipment

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