Stella Neapolitan

This delightful coffee brewer is commonly called a flip-drip, but actually it is probably mistakenly called a stovetop espresso machine or Moka just as often. It’s a rare animal in American, and, I suspect, most kitchens worldwide.

Which is a shame, because it makes a distinctive cup of brew and, to my sensibilities, suits a number of coffee brewing occasions admirably.

The machine itself has three basic components: half which is filled with water, a second part which features a filter holder for ground coffee and a third part which receives the coffee after it’s dripped through the filter. It is in fact a drip machine in principle.

Disassembled - easy once you do it a couple of times

Fill the part with the tiny hole in it with good water up just short of the hole. Place 27 grams of medium grind coffee in the filter section and screw its cap on tightly. Insert this part into the part containing water. Assemble the other half, the half which will receive the finished brew on top. Place the finished, assembled unit on a stovetop. Turn heat on to low/medium.

As the water heats up it will expand, causing the waterline to rise, just like Al Gore explained in his fine film, An Inconvenient Truth. When the water nears boiling, a small amount will spit out of the hole in the side.

Watch for a bead of water, which means it's ready to flip

Now, shut off the heat and flip the unit over. The hot water will begin to drip through the grounds bed within the second piece. In a few minutes you will have some delicious coffee. Here is how it meets its specs, and why I like it:

Temperature — the temperature is well within accepted limits, although naturally, it varies slightly with just when you turn it over. I found by inserting a narrow thermocouple (tiny wire thermometer) into an operating unit, that it regularly measured 205, at the high end of accepted, but well within limits (195-205 is industry recommendation).

Time — the Neapolitana is grind dependent and can vary slightly depending upon how you “pack” the grounds. I do a little smoothing to make sure they lie evenly, but I do not attempt to tamp it, although I admit it occurred to me as an option. I found the contact time to be around four minutes and could be lengthened by finer grind or tighter packing, but I found no need to do so and I think it would be counterproductive.

Grounds saturation — this unit has a completely inboard filter, which is highly desireable from an engineering perspective. There is no opportunity for grounds to be missed during extraction. They are completely submerged during brewing and even the hot water has no exposure to the external environment before it contacts the grounds and becomes coffee. Its first exposure to the air is once it’s in the lower (post-brewing) half where you will sense the delightful scent from its pouring stem, maybe seeing a little steam as well.

Smooth but don't tamp

The Cup — I tried a number of coffees, but one of my favorites was a (gasp) Starbucks Yemen Sanani, my vote for the best coffee Schultz and Co. has released this year. I happened to wander by a bag of Guatemala from a local roaster, Arbor Vitae, and it delivered pleasing results as well, a lighter roast. The cup from this machine has plenty of body and acidity, although the filter delivers plenty of cup sediment. George Howell is not going to like this machine. I admit I preferred the Bunn NHB for George’s Costa Rica microlot coffee.

On a nice fall day, sitting with your significant other outdoors, this brewer makes a terrific cup and the thick stainless steel keeps the coffee nice and warm, not something I typically include in a review, but it’s a nice extra.

Corey Vacuum Brewer

Back before automatic drip dominated the coffee scene, the most common brewer in kitchens, diners and doughnut wagons was the vacuum percolator. While the vacuum seems like a complicated method, it is actually quite simple, although it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone thought it up.

How does it work? — The vacuum is a bad name, because the vacuum part doesn’t come unit the end. The idea is this: water is boiled in a lower half. As it reaches boiling, a stemmed upper half is inserted. The steam in the lower half expands and pushes the water up through the tube, through a filter and into the upper bowl. This upper bowl contains ground coffee. After a minute of contact where the hot water and ground coffee mix together, the lower half is removed from heat. As the lower bowl cools, this causes a vacuum to form and it drags the upper bowl’s freshly brewed coffee through the filter, down the tube and into the lower bowl. When that’s finished, the upper bowl is removed and you now have a nicely extracted pot of coffee.

Vaculator's propriety clip-in ceramic filter

Vaculator’s propriety clip-in ceramic filter

Stainless steel spring filter

Or do you prefer this stainless steel filter

Silex glass rod filter

Or this Silex glass rod filter

There are electrified automatic versions, but they work in principal the same way. A second method places the two bowls together from the start, but I prefer putting them together only once the water reaches boiling because I want the water kept away from the grounds until we begin timing the contact time.

Temperature — The vacuum virtually automatically brews at between 195 and 205 Fahrenheit. Even though the water is boiling when you place them together, once the water rises through the tube and begins mixing with the ground coffee, it is usually at 205 or lower. Many people assume its boiling because the water bubbles as it mixes with the ground coffee. This is simply air escaping from the lower bowl, not boiling. Historically, there is evidence that the Coffee Development Group created its standards by observing a vacuum maker, which was very popular at the time.

Time — The time is user controlled, or at least user affected. A certain amount of predictive engineering is expected. You remove the brewer from heat after one minute in hopes the brewed coffee will take three minutes to descend back into the lower bowl, bringing the contact time to a four minute total. This is perfect for a fine grind, and if you use an old supermarket grinder, there will be a setting marked vacuum or “glass” and this is the setting for a four minute extraction.

This is wonderful…when it works. I’ve used vacuum brewers for fifteen years and I can say that 90% of the time, that’s just what happens. But, if there’s any micro gap in the seal between the bowls, if the filter gets clogged with too-fine coffee or for any other atmospheric reason, there is always a possibility of a standstill as the coffee stops descending. Once it’s stuck there are a number of possible fixes. Sometimes I just have to start over. This isn’t very often, but often enough to acknowledge it here.

Extraction — There is no more thorough extraction method known to me than the vacuum. All the grounds are completely submerged in a very short time period and the bubbling water seems to add what is sometimes called turbidity. It’s the idea that fapidly moving water facilitates extraction. Whether this is provable scientifically or not, it sure seems to work, enough so that the vacuum is always my brewer of choice whenever I get a light-tasting coffee. If the vacuum won’t bring out it’s notes, my view is that no method will.

Spent vacuum grounds


Spent grounds show just how effective vacuums are at
extracting every last drop of coffee flavor.

Taste — The vacuum does best with high-acidity coffees. It’s high temperature, that stays high throughout extraction, is just the ticket for light roasted coffees. I found it nigh perfect for Allegro’s Mexican Chiapas and its spicy notes. Armeno Coffee roasters has a number of light roast coffees that performed splendidly with the vacuum, where I was detecting a slight sourness when these same coffees were brewed using a Chemex. The coffee is, if anything, too hot when brewing is completed. If you really like hot coffee, this is your method. I simply use it as a great opportunity to clean the upper bowl while waiting for my cup to come to a reasonable drinking temperature.

Filter notes: No method offers a greater range of filter choices than the vacuum. This particular vacuum, purchased off eBay, features Vaculator’s proprietary ceramic filter held in place by stainless steel clips. The idea, as with glass rods, is to offer a slightly bumpy surface that, when placed in contact with a glass or metal bowl, allows the liquid to pass through, but little or no particulate. You end up with something in between the thick almost-unfiltered French press brew and the cleanness of automatic drip using paper filters. Some would say it’s the perfect compromise. Meanwhile, there are still cloth and paper filtered vacuums as well as a metal spring type that used to be the standard in restaurants. All allow some sediment except for paper.

Cleanup — The vacuum is slightly easier to clean than a French press. While there’s no press to disassemble, there are grounds to either wash down a sink or transfer to waste or, best of all, a compost bin. The worst attribute of the vacuum is the fact that the upper bowl must be removed while it’s still piping hot. If it’s glass, there’s an increased risk that it will break. I’ve broken more than one. Metal ones won’t break, but the hot part is still awkward. There are some ingenious answers to where to put the still-hot, still-grounds-filled upper bowl. A metal one can be laid on its side. The grounds are usually so drained of coffee that they are like a solid mass that will stay put until you clean it.

Conclusion — If you’re looking for the ultimate extraction experience, this brewer may fill the bill. It is not hard to use or clean. The biggest time challenge is waiting for the water to heat up on a stove, or hot plate. Sometimes, I split the water and transfer some to a separate tea kettle to boil, but that’s more trouble than you probably want to go to. If you’re in a hurry, there are other methods that will be more appealing. Even if it happens once, you won’t soon forget a stalled vacuum as described above. Waitresses used to wrap cold towels to attempt to induce the vacuum to cooperate and release the coffee to its lower bowl.

In short, it’s a wonderful method, but I would want another machine as a primary or backup one.

Starbucks does the Unthinkable: Blonde Roast

Blonde Coffee Moment

Starbucks has happily shocked a lot of us by introducing a new light roast. Like anything they do, it is accompanied by media hype. Frankly, I’m happy to see them benefit from doing the right thing. I’m happy that the coffee will taste better, which I think it will because they are capable. I wanted to get my genuine positive points out first, both because it is appropriate and because it’s the right decision and it will taste better. What it is not is good marketing, which may surprise a lot of people.

This was heightened for me reading a sound byte by Robert Passikoff of Brand Keys, a New York City (marketing?) consulting firm. He said, “”It’s just good marketing. If virtually half the people say that the more European, heavier-tasting coffee is not to their liking, why not (do it)?” I could take Mr Passikoff to task for calling it more European – not, the Starbucks roast originated in San Francisco (and Alfred Peet). But, what makes me bristle more is calling it marketing. It might be paying attention to consumer trends but that is not marketing.

Good marketing is leading. Roasters such as George Howell, Oren’s Daily Roast, Counter Culture and Intelligentsia are light roast’s marketing champs. They forged ahead when angel investment groups would have looked cross-eyed that any small-time coffee guys were bucking the Starbucks “secret sauce”, the black roasted product with umami (savoriness). Starbucks marketing was so good so early and it convinced people that overroasted coffee was a virtue, that the only reason it was light roasted was to save weight loss during roasting. Still, sometimes people unchurched in the nomenclature of the coffee industry would simply say Starbucks was too strong, and this was even true among some specialty coffee folks.

Coffee strength alone was never the real problem with Starbucks, although it might seem like it at first glance. Many years ago, after Starbucks first came to rule the Evil Empire of consumer coffee, they attempted briefly to follow the Specialty Coffee Association’s hefty brewing formulas. Consumers collectively gagged and, again in a response to consumers, Starbucks hastily backed off in the brew basket. They made it less strong, but it might be argued that consumers were less in angst about the strength than that they were really tasting the stuff for the first time under the full-strength taste spotlight. The reality and the the real problem was roast. Starbucks came out a while back with a Pikes Roast, which attempted to bring their roast up a few notches lighter. It goes to show just how dark was Starbucks roasting that some, including me, were unable to appreciate Pikes as anything approaching a light roast.

The coffee business likes to pat itself on the back for marketing. It’s as if it doesn’t really believe in its product and are privately saying, “Can you believe people actually like this stuff”? There are two areas where the market (not to say “marketing”) has gone and in both these directions, Starbucks is a follower. So-called slow brew methods, such as Chemex, Hario and other drip techniques have replaced espresso with coffee aficionados. Truthfully, Starbucks never sold espresso anyway but café lattes. Slow brew means filtered coffee, which is really the specialty coffee world’s “special sauce”. Not only is Starbucks burning off the most prized flavors in their roast. They finish it off using an espresso machine. Espresso was invented as a socialist experiment to shorten the Italian coffee break and to bring forth flavors from some of the world’s least costly coffees, not exactly in lock step with the flavor seduction a Chemex can achieve with high-end beans.

Lately, espresso has become the proletariat drink and single-origin slow-brew drip the beverage choice of the literati. Witness Oliver Strand’s precious New York Times columns. Slow brew drip using some single family farm’s beans is cool. This movement was started by high-end consumers, independent farmers who learned to market their coffees using direct trade and, lastly, those high-end coffee guys previously named who stuck it out after Starbucks had attacked them and taken a good portion of their market share. Now consumers flock to them and places like Grumpys, Blue Bottle, Stumptown, all delivering a much lighter roast, and most highlighting the virtues of a small personal pot of coffee brewed per guest or couple.

Meanwhile, Starbucks has done a great job creating community centers. They are modern suburbia’s equivalent of Target, with the same uniformity. They can rightfully claim to have invented or at least won in this competition. The new roast is different. It will allow consumers to have it their way, which is a lighter way. I wish Starbucks well in joining them with the Blonde roast. It might be considered flexible and a smart response. But, it was not a marketing coup.

©2011 Kevin Sinnott All rights reserved.

Technivorm 741

I originally reviewed this brewer’s predecessor in The Coffee Companion many years back. When I received its newest revision of the basic design, I was eager to see if my previous knock against it had been addressed. It has and read on to discover a coffee industry favorite.

When traveling to shoot interviews with eight coffee notables last year, I found a Technivorm (pronounced: Teck-knee-form) in almost every location. Many top coffee honchos have a Technivorm as their primary auto-drip machine. As Ian Bersten said to me, it’s an example of good engineering carried through manufacturing without compromise. Good design, good parts. It all seems so easy it’s hard to understand why most big coffee companies haven’t simply reverse engineered the Technivorm into their standard design.

In fairness, the Technivorm is not the only way to make a good auto drip machine. It is also not the only one made. One company, Presto, all but did build a “cheaper” Technivorm and it came and went in a flash. Apparently, the coffee literati overlooked the Presto, possibly as too good to be true. To be fair it did some things with less aplomb, but others with more, but consumers, even so-called leading edge ones, missed it.

So, we’re back looking at the Technivorm 741. What does it do that’s so spectacular? Well, it quickly heats the water to 200 degrees Fahrenheit and sends it through the grounds in less than six minutes, achieving the main technical specs of the Specialty Coffee Association for drip brewing. It does this using a good thermal heating block. Its water tubing is wide and unforgiving. I’ve owned its earlier version since the late 1980s and it’s never “limed up”, even though I use hard water and rarely clean it.

If the Technivorm has a weakness, it is its ability to shower your precious grounds with its perfectly heated water. The earlier version had a single hole the water dripped from, and I noted this in my first review. Technivorm responded by drilling several smaller holes over a still-limited space, but, frankly, it only improves its spread slightly. I still find myself removing the loose-fitting cover and stirring the grounds during brewing in order to ensure all the grounds participation.

Improved multiple sprayhead or not, you still should stir during brewing.


Improved multiple sprayhead or not, you still may benefit from starting the brewer for a full minute, shutting it off for another minute, allowing the grounds to rise and settle. This extra step can make a significant difference in the ability of the Technivorm to fully saturate and extract from your entire grounds bed during brewing.

The first version made 8 4.5 ounce cups — that’s 36 ounces. The current version makes 10 4.5 ounce cups — 45 ounces. Generally, this new amount is about perfect for three or four friends to enjoy a couple of American style coffee cups together. When it’s just two of us, I prefer to use the smaller, earlier version. They brew identical cups. I timed the brewers and the new one is slightly faster, just enough to make 8 cups as fast as the older one made 6 cups. That’s exactly as it should be.

Technivorm added a new feature to the larger model, which indicates an ability to make a 1/2 batch, by partially closing the exit valve at the filter basket’s bottom, slowing the coffee’s release. After playing around with this feature for the past few years, I find it does a credible job allowing you to truly make a 1/2 batch that tastes identical to a full batch. In my tests, you can make a comparable 1/2 batch filling up the the 6-cup water line and using 36 grams ground coffee.
Drip coffee makers are always optimized to make a full batch. With some (Bunn comes to mind) half batches are all but impossible. Most consumers see owning a second machine for smaller batches as a luxury, but if you, like me, often make coffee for just two people, I generally recommend a second machine. Technivorm’s offering a half-batch feature that really works is a significant advantage.

Filling from the bottom up this funnel top makes sure everyone gets an equally full-flavored cup

The Technivorm has a slightly eccentric habit of having a small amount of water remaining after brewing. I’ve never noticed a problem nor any negative side effect, and if it bothers you, simply wait a few minutes for the brewer to cool down and turn if upside down over the sink or a glass and the water will spill out. It’s about a tablespoon’s worth. I used to do just that, but more often I just forget about it.

There’s a demonstration of the Technivorm done by TerroirCoffee.com’s George Howell on my Coffee Brewing Secrets DVD. George wets the filter before brewing, as a preventative of any filter taste getting in the way of the coffee taste and as what another friend called good laboratory practice. I met Gerard-Clement Smit, the Technivorm’s designer, who seemed perplexed that anyone would do this. I’ve tried it both ways and haven’t detected any taste difference, and it’s nothing about the Technivorm. If you accept the need to do it, it should be done with any paper filter coffee brewer. This brings us to paper filters. George Howell further mentions, and I agree with this, that paper filters offer arguably the best way to make coffee with the viscosity of wine, with all the important oils, but none of the particulate. If you want to use a mesh filter with this brewer, I’ve seen them from SwissGold and other manufacturers, but I personally find the balance and mouthfeel just right with the paper filter. Don Schoenholt used a metal filter with his Capresso drip brewer and he prefers the slight amount of sediment, which admittedly, is a small amount. If you like French press-style gobs of sediment, you’re not going to get it using autodrip with any filter I’ve tried. Plus, the press brewing temperature and brewing stillness is going to deliver a different tasting cup with or without sediment.
The absolute middle brewing temperature of 200 degrees, the 6 minute contact time and paper filter work to give you an auto-drip coffee brewer that works well over a wide range of coffees. The brew temps are high enough to deliver acidity with lighter roasts, but just about any coffee I tried came out fine. I might prefer a slightly lower temperature for Peet’s aged Sumatra, but Allegro Coffee’s Sumatra Mandheling (ask for the Mandheling, different from the Organic Fair Trade) was excellent.

I used up to 72 grams of medium-fine grind coffee to make a full batch, the rough equivalent of the 65 grams I used in the older/smaller Technivorm. Recently, after a lot of tests with an assortment of friends drinking the Technivorm coffee, I’ve found I can back off to around 60 grams for a full batch, which is my recommended start point.

Conclusion — If you’re looking for a long-lived simple automatic drip coffee brewer that makes 10 4.5 (just shy of 8 regular/6-ounce cups) of coffee, the Technivorm should be at the top of your list. It retails for nearly $300, and its only potential caveat is you might need to stir the grounds to ensure the best extraction.

Chemex Coffee Brewer

The Chemex is both a coffee brewer and an artwork. Few coffee brewers have the ability to show to an audience like this brewer. It’s even earned a place at the Smithsonian. It’s so delightful to look at that it’s easy to overlook that it’s a fine coffee brewer that offers a unique flavor profile.

How It Works

The Chemex uses a thick laboratory-grade paper filter. If you try to use Melitta-style filters in a Chemex, the water will run through too quickly. The paper is part of the method. It asks as a flow regulator. The idea is to fill the Chemex with coarse ground coffee and let it soak as the thick paper slows the water’s movement through the coffee. In this way, it offers and almost-French press-like soaking to the grounds. But, most Chemex aficionados suggest tiny hot water pours, adding just enough to completely cover the grounds.

The thickest filter paper ever... let's you brew stronger, which surprises a lot of people.

Tests

I made coffee using very coarse grounds, identical to what I’d use in a French press or percolator. This is counterintuitive to drip making, but the thick paper demands it. If you grind too finely, the combination of paper density and grind will slow your drip rate so much, you’ll end up with very strong, bitter coffee, although there will be no sediment. I heated the water to boiling and then removed it. In about a minute the water was 200 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a good temperature to pour into the Chemex. The Chemex inventor, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, believed that most coffee brewers (especially the vacuum) brewed at too high a temperature. The Chemex is designed to brew at standard or below temperatures. While I got good results at up to 200F, I often preferred the coffee brewed at around 190, which is technically 5 degrees below industry standards. Let’s just say this: don’t pour the water in once it’s boiling; you won’t like the results.

The temperature curve reflects the gaps between pours. As you can see, it’s hard to determine the exact contact time between the water and the grounds. One reason for the distinctive flavor of the Chemex might be the wide temperature variance once the water is poured in, without any more hot water joining it until that amount has gone through the grounds. Another reason may be the coarse grounds. The thick paper filter is almost certainly a factor. While critics may claim the Chemex filter holds back important flavor oils, I would not agree without some evidence. The cup profile does not indicate anything less than a stellar cup of coffee. In fact, I think I can make stronger coffee with the Chemex with no bitterness at least partly due to its filter. If a wine-like viscosity is what you want in your cup, the Chemex is your brewer.

Grind

The Chemex works by trial and error. It is difficult to calculate the contact time, as you really have a number of contact times, due to the practice of pouring small amounts of hot water and allowing it to cycle through the filter bed before pouring in the next one. The best starting point it simply to use a coarse grind and not-too-hot water.

Coarse ground, like Kosher salt, because the filter controls contact time, not the grind.

Measurements

I use forty grams of ground coffee in the so-called six cup Chemex. I own the larger one too, the eight cup. I use seventy-two grams of ground coffee and I grind is slightly coarser. I use less and grind coarser because the ground coffee bed is deeper, meaning the contact time is automatically longer.
Water temperature

An interesting point how hot the succeeding pours are. Most manual drip users boil the water, then let it come off the boil and then pour it in without reheating it. As Oren Bloostein told me, he continuously keeps the water at near boiling. I’ve done it both ways, and am unconvinced that one way is inherently right versus the other. I suggest you try both and decide.

Cleanup is simpler with the Chemex than any other brewer I’ve used. You simply toss the paper away. If you compost, you toss the remove the grounds and toss the filter. The glass maker rinses easily — nothing to scrub.

Conclusion

The Chemex is the most attractive manual drip maker ever made. It is a manual drip maker, which means it’s more work to make the coffee. Even though I do, I can understand others claiming they don’t want to make manual coffee while getting ready in the morning. Its cleanup is so simple, and once you get your measurements and grind down, it’s really quite an easy brewer. The only thing left is how to keep the coffee warm. I suggest the cost is low enough that you buy two sizes and make the right amount for a half hour, and spring for the glass top that keeps the heat in.

I strongly recommend the Chemex brewer.

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