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!



Bonavita BV1500S 5 cup Automatic drip brewer

Bonavita 5 cup brewerBonavita practically owns what might have once been called “The Chevy” market. This meant, again at one time, a good quality, well designed product that was easy to use and maintain. It had no stunning features, but was priced for everyman. I suppose in automobiles Chevy has been replaced by Toyota, or recently, Hyundai.

Bonavita hit the marketplace with a Melitta-designed 8 cup coffee maker. It was known as a lower-priced Technivorm but that’s really not the truth. It was a lower-priced Technivorm that increased the water spray width to better match the grounds basket width. Generation 2 Bonavita brewers (no longer designed by Melitta) went further by adding pre-infusion features and switched to flat bottom filters, all in the pursuit of better cup quality. Bonavita gets good marks in the consumer press, including this blog.

Recently, Bonavita brought out this model, which is for the growing medium batch market. Households with two coffee drinkers don’t need eight or ten cups each time they brew. Consumers have realized that fresh is best, and in my home, I brew a couple of cups for each of us each morning. If we are home and wish a repeat dose after lunch or later, we simply repeat the process. It reduces waste too. I pay roughly $20 per pound for specialty beans and, believe me, I cringe whenever I see leftover coffee go down the drain.

The Bonavita 5-cup returns to their Melitta roots with the use of a V-shaped cone filter. They used a number 4 filter, which Bonavita, ever the practical company determined was the easiest to find, plus it gives the coffee plenty of room to expand, which truly fresh coffee does in the first few minutes of brewing. I assume a V-shape was chosen to increase saturation and slow brewing slightly. With an 8-cup brewer, there’s a concern about the brewing happening quickly enough, so that the grounds are not over-extracted. With the smaller batch of a 5-cup, the opposite is true. All drip machines are a carefully thought-out process where grind, volume and time are matched to create the ideal extraction. So, whenever I test a new different-size batch coffee maker, even from a manufacturer of another machine, I spend a fair amount of time playing with the variables I as consumer have over the process.

For instance, I initially tried a grind similar to what the Bonavita 8-cup uses. I found this was the most important thing to tweak. This is not specific to this brewer, but the shorter the contact time, the precise grind needs to be, in my experience. I played with typical cone Melitta-style grinds and finally ended up using a somewhat coarser grind. Not as coarse as Chemex, but definitely coarser than I’d use for most cone filter machines. I also settled on 42 grams of coffee to deliver a cup of coffee I could really enjoy.

The Bonavita 5-cup also has a pre-infusion stage which is easy to implement. You simply hold the on button in place for a few seconds. Once it blinks, simply release it and press it on again. Every time you start it the pre-infusion stage will work until you physically unplug it. This stage is important to anyone who uses coffee two weeks from roast, which is how I do it and I assume you do too. It’s technically known as “fresh coffee”. Of course I’m also assuming we’re all fresh grinding it seconds before we brew.

Consistent with the whole 1960 Chevy concept Bonavita doesn’t waste time with metal filters, on-board water filters, alarm clocks or other non-essential frills.

How does it test? I measured the temperature right at the hot water exit holes. It is slightly lower in temperature than I expected. It peaks at near 200°F, 199°F to be exact. The first minute was spent climbing “to altitude”. While not seeming ideal, it probably matches many slow brew methods in practice. Most people who use a Chemex may not measure their brewer’s temperature, but sub-200°F temperatures are quite common in practice. It doesn’t really bother me, but it did bother the SCAA, who held to their exact temperature specs their certification program demands.

A non-certification test, but one I consider critical and a hallmark of every other Bonavita brewer I’ve yet tested is the water dispersion, which is truly excellent with this machine. Dispersion is geek-speak to describe what happens when a skilled barista constantly surveys the grounds in your Chemex and makes sure the water covers the grounds, ensuring there are no dry spots and that all the grounds receive equal saturation. In practical terms this means you get strong flavor that is less bitter, than it is if you concentrate the water too much on one particular spot.

The contact time between the hot water and the grounds is slightly under 5 minutes. This is at the short end of the SCAA brewing specification of 4-6 minutes for drip. Again, I could get all sniffly about it, but I found that it was not a problem. If I were to guess I’d say the aforementioned water saturation is so efficient it accomplishes the right amount of extraction in less time.

A note about temperatures: I think the range of 196° to 205°F called for in the SCAA standards (themselves adaptation of the original Pan American Coffee guidelines developed many years ago) are reasonable. I agree we need to start somewhere, but there’s also a big difference between a brewer that misses the mark by a degree or two, while still meeting other criteria versus ones that don’t seem to even try, frankly, most of the ones out there made by the largest small appliance makers.

Taste tests:

Old Soul coffee Grkcof Kean Coffee Mr Espresso Sumatra

Test 1 – I made a batch using Groundwork Coffee’s Organic Rwanda, they’d been kind enough to share with me at CoffeeCon LA. I already enjoyed it in my Bonavita BV1900S, but I made it improperly in this first outing. Although the coffee had the same notes, everything was out of balance, and auspicious beginning. I realized I’d used 44 grams (still not sure why) and a medium coarse grind as I would in an 8-cup flat bottom brewer. I’m only reporting it because I can’t say enough about how important it is to use the right recipe.

Test 2 – Next, I was able to snare Old Soul Coffee’s Panama Elida Estate Lot #13, which was rated 95 by Ken Davids in The Coffee Review. What a fruit bomb! Fortunately I backed off the recipe to just about 42 grams. What a difference! I strongly recommend this coffee to anyone who’s convinced that the recent Panama Geisha invasion is only attributed to the Geisha bean. While I’m a fan of Geishas, this coffee proves a Panama coffee can be stellar and not be Geisha. This one isn’t a Geisha, but it’s delicious.

Test 3 – Kean Coffee’s Congo Lake Kivu is a rarity for me. I’ve never before had a Congo coffee. I guess I’ve been missing a lot. This coffee, selected and roasted by Martin Diedrich, is not only a wonderful bean, but Martin is not afraid to roast it just a shade darker. It suits this brewer perfectly. I had trouble trying anything else after I’d tasted this.

Test 4 – Finally, I received a Sumatra Mandheling from Mr.  Espresso in Oakland. John DiRiuocco uses a wood fired roaster. I know nothing professionally about roasting, but I do know how heat is applied makes a difference. That and a honey roasted Sumatra made for an interesting sample. I’d brewed tests of this coffee (and compared them to an Oren’s Daily Roast Mandheling I also had in stock) and discovered I preferred it brewed near the 195°F mark, so it was a good fit for this brewer. I used 42 grams medium finely (#12 grind on my Baratza Encore grinder). I felt I’d finally arrived at the perfect intersection of coffee bean, recipe and grind setting, the holy trinity of good automatic drip brewing.

Previous review note: I make it a policy never to read other reviews while mine is in progress. I had seen this one however and I noticed CNET’s reviewer (Brian Bennett) noted a bitter taste. I’m not sure what the difference was, but I was unable to produce a bitter coffee during any testing of this machine, which was over a one month test period. Two test results I tested and reported that could cause bitterness, temperature and contact time, are both at the low end in this machine, so that are unlikely (ne impossible) to produce this result. Other factors could be his choice of beans, which he did not identify. I only test using lighter (Third Wave style) high end specialty beans, in this case two of our samples were brewed using beans rated in the mid 90s in the Coffee Review. No bitterness whatsoever. I’m unaware of other factors that would result in bitterness. Maybe he needs to check his water supply. If Mr Bennett wants to contact me, reveals his bean choices and discuss other possible causes, I’d be happy to share them. I’m befuddled by his claim. In any case I didn’t find cause to be concerned and I suggest it’s unlikely under your conditions.

Conclusion: I’m getting spoiled lately. Between my manual drip methods, and some ultra-sophisticated automatic drip brewers which feature multiple brewing temperatures, which is one reason I was able to simply match up a coffee to this one’s brewing temperature range. However, those machines are larger and costlier, both in base price and coffee to keep it going (think gas mileage). The Bonavita 5-cup makes four/five delicious cups of java. Consider that the smaller the batch size and brewing time, the more precise you must be in measuring your coffee grounds and grind. That said, I could easily live with this brewer. If you want a trouble-free, easy to use, no frills but high quality brewer to make fresh specialty coffee for you and a friend, the Bonavita BV1500S five cup is a good choice.

Which Entry Level Grinder?

Three grinders cover shot The missing mystery element in brewing is the grinder. There. I said it. Just like every heart doctor wonders if their newly released open-heart patient will exercise, every priest wonders if the just-forgiven sinner will truly repent and change their lifestyle, the coffee roaster must wonder how you’ll grind their beautiful fresh beans before brewing. To accomplish this you must have a good grinder. The word ‘good’ means it can effectively divide the bean into evenly-sized close-to-the-same-shape particles, and be as free as possible of the powdered particles the industry calls “pan”.

I often say that you can make excellent coffee using a simple Melitta manual drip cone, which retails (with a ceramic mug) for around $10. But, a grinder, now that’s a different story. Grinders at the lowest price end simply don’t perform well enough to be a fully functioning member of Team Coffee Brewing. Why is this? Let’s take it away from coffee to explain. If you’re making a stir fry, you know you must strive to consistently cut the vegetables. The reason you want them the same size is the heat will affect them evenly if they are. You’ll get cooked, crunchy vegetables. If they aren’t evenly sized, extremely large pieces won’t cook through and small ones will be overcooked.

In ideal coffee grinding, the pieces will also be the same size. This is necessary because contact time is identical for all those pieces. Larger pieces cause waste; you are not getting all their flavor; too small pieces will be over-extracted and dreaded bitterness occurs. The best grinders are produce grind size uniformity. The worst performing grinders are blade grinders. It is impossible to expect otherwise, as the blade is spinning and the beans are repeatedly and randomly struck. To expect any kind of uniformity is to expect order from chaos. Most readers here are not surprised at anything I’ve so far said, so let’s get going into examining these three grinders. They are all known as entry level, meaning they are lost-cost, but they are from well-regarded manufacturers serving the specialty coffee market.

Capresso Infinity Conical BurrCapresso Infinity 560 Stainless Steel Conical Burr Grinder $99 The first one is from Capresso. Capresso actually has a long history in this product category. Started in the 1990s by Michael Kramm, an ex-Krups executive and now retired, Capresso went around and scooped up ex-Krups vendors and created some new and innovative products. Some are excellent and others are, in my opinion, okay but nothing special. This grinder was recommended to me by Michael himself, who while no longer working at Capresso, apparently still follows them and thought highly of it. I requested a sample and have been using it quite a while before being able to test it.

NOTE: There are two very similar Capresso grinder products. What differentiates them is the burr material, which does the actual grinding. One is ceramic. The other stainless steel. My industry contacts have told me that stainless is generally acknowledged to grind more consistently at coarser (medium drip through French Press) grinds. I asked for Capresso’s stainless steel grinder.

Baratza EncoreBaratza Encore Conical Burr Grinder $129 The second model is from Baratza. Baratza practically owns the grinder market in the specialty world. Industry regard for their products is high enough that many shops use their costlier grinders, even though they are clearly aimed at consumers. While I’ve always assumed Baratza makes their grinders, I’ve noticed multiple countries of origin credited on their products. Do they really have multiple plants, or are they outsourcing? The model I tested is made in Taiwan, and uses a different burr set from the pricier Virtuoso models. However, Baratza is the leader and I was half expecting it to shame both the others, based upon their company’s reputation.

OXO ON Conical Burr Grinder $199 The final model I tested is from the new kid on the coffee gear block, but one you’ve no doubt heard of in their other categories: OXO makes those soft-handled kitchen gadgets that populate the kitchen hand tools section at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Suffice it to say I was more than a little surprised when I spied OXO at last year’s International Housewares Show brandishing prototypes for both coffee brewers and a grinder! Before these tests I had no impression of OXO’s design or manufacturing prowess. I owned but a single product of theirs; a non-powered can opener. Needless to say I was eager to test their first grinder.

OXO GrinderFeatures compared All three of these grinders are more similar than dissimilar. They all feature simple overhead bins where beans can be stored and twist gauges to adjust fineness. The OXO grinder has one feature that is unique, even when compared to many costlier grinders than the others in this survey; An onboard scale.

Build quality and feel Again all three are similar, in that I could not predict which if any would fall apart or lose its ability to meet specifications by a certain date. If I were to nitpick, I’d suggest the Capresso had a slightly ‘plastic’ feel to it, but I’m not at all sure that another tester would feel the same way. Might be my taste. This is good news because it makes it simple to compare and decide for the right reason: which one grinds coffee the best!

Grind tests I brought all three to Modern Process. Modern Process makes many of the world’s industrial grinders. Name a large roasting plant that packages pre-ground coffee and I bet you they use grinders from this company. I’ve known Dan Ephraim, their CEO since I first wished to write about coffee. He was literally the first industry person I met. We are friends and he and his tester, Rasmy, conducted several tests with each grinder, using beans from Euro Coffee in Los Angeles. Then, each sample was place in a ro-tap device. In case you’re new to testing grinders, this device is a series of screens. The idea is to analyze what percentage of grounds are what size, so we can compare grinders to a theoretically perfect standard and also between each other. The best grinder is going to be one that has the largest majority of grinds that are the ideal size, with smaller percentages of smaller and larger sized ones. We set each grinder for what we all agreed by eye was a drip grind. The best grinder in this test was the Capresso. But, just as significantly, the others were darn close.

Conclusion I could live with any of these three grinders. They are all good choices. I was surprised at how similar, rather than different they performed. Baratza has done a good job with their entry level grinder, but it is not superior to either of the others. The OXO has the very useful scale feature, which will be a deciding factor for some, and helps simplify the measuring process, where many mistakes are made, so it is fairly associated with quality. Capresso leads the pack in both grind quality and price. Considering I’ve owned it the longest and used it quite a bit, it’s already proven its longevity and value. Just a few years ago, coffee enthusiasts would justly complain that there were few grinder options for the less well-heeled. Thanks in part to these three brands, this is no longer the case.


Pin It on Pinterest