Can you really make automatic coffee that tastes as good as the best manual hand-brewed? Let’s just say it is possible. To illustrate this claim, I chose the Bonavita BV 01002 to demonstrate the possibility. It meets the stringent Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) standards. Most automatic drip brewers do not. It is simple to use and pretty un-tweaky as well. Frankly, other than having to measure grounds and grind the coffee separately, it’s as easy to use as a K-cup brewer. It works great as is. But, I have found some nips and tucks to my procedures that lift it to match my best manual brew results and I thought I’d share them.
I’m sure you’re already aware that I’m a big fan of this brewer. So is George Howell who uses it to accompany his tasting seminars at our CoffeeCon events. But, if someone were to ask exactly how I make coffee with this automatic drip machine it would be as follows:
Grind – If you’ve been with me for awhile, you know I advocate erring a notch coarser when using most brewers. But I also advise playing around with grind and, once in a while, it pays to just experiment a notch at a time. For instance, with this brewer I go one notch finer. That may be because I don’t usually make a full 8-cup batch, but rather fill the water only to the 1 liter mark. Just so you understand the testing procedure for SCA certification, brewers must make their coffee, start to finish, within six minutes. So when you make approximately 25% less, it’s likely that it will be a little rushed traveling through the grounds. I’ve found by grinding slightly finer I slow the drip rate and this increases brew strength. If I make a full batch I coarsen the grind slightly.
Recipe Measurements – Consider that we may have gone from using too few grounds to using too many. Maybe this brewer does such an efficient job it does not need the requisite 55 grams specified for a liter of coffee. If you make one liter, I suggest you try using 50-51 grams. I found this to be the best recipe. I discovered this by accident as I only had 50 grams left of a particularly memorable ReAnimator coffee when a friend arrived for a visit and a cup. Since I needed to make one liter, I decided to chance it. To my surprise I preferred it using this formula.
Pre-infusion – This brewer has a pre-infusion stage, which drips a few ounces of water over the grounds to saturate them before the majority of water is released and dripped over the grounds. I strongly recommend using it if your coffee is fresh, meaning just a week or two from its roast date. If your grounds are older than this, or you use pre-ground coffee, you may skip this stage, although it won’t hurt, so if in doubt, use it. Its purpose is to allow the coffee to de-gas, which prevents foaming up and potentially spilling over the filter holder’s top edge. Pre-infusion also allows it to de-gas and settle down before the majority of water drips through, which actually helps facilitate the extraction process.
Filter holder – If there’s one area where manual drip still reigns supreme it is the end user’s manual water dispersion over the grounds and subsequent even extraction. Fortunately, the Bonavita already does a good job dispersing the water. But, for a perfectionist end-user, we are able to occasionally swivel the filter holder to vary the showerhead’s position over the grounds. This is kind of tweaky, but shows to what extent I’ve played with mine over the years. I would not expect this tweak to make a night and day difference with this maker, but it is a slight tweak and just goes to ensure that all the grounds get wet. If someone told me this is too far to go to make coffee, I’d likely agree. But, I do it. Look at my “after” photo of the grounds post-brewing and see if yours matches. Again, if it’s too much, skip this if you like.
I define tweaks as anything I do beyond the instruction manual, that appears to make a better pot of coffee. This brewer is noteworthy in that none are necessary for it to perform its stuff. But, I’m comparing to the best manually brewed coffee I’ve ever had. That fact that it’s that close to perfection already is impressive. I simply believe I can match that perfect flavor with this brewer, with just a little attention to details.
What are your tweaks?
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The Behmor Brazen was the most advanced coffee brewer I’ve ever tested, until this new Connected version came along. Joe Behm continues to innovate, always a step ahead of others who rush to implement his ideas. The big splash about this latest version is the ability to use your iPhone or Android to operate it. But, more important to me is the availability of the roasters to create downloadable brewing parameters so that we can begin to taste the morning cup George Howell, Klatch’s Mike Perry or Equator’s Helen Russell has. Altitude adjustment, adjustable brewing temperature, pre-infusion options. What are these and what do they mean to our coffee’s taste?
Todd Larrabee is Marketing VP for Behmor. He brought a spanking new Brazen Connected to my house and we enjoyed coffee as he explained what this brewing is about and how it can close the loop between what your roasters achieves in beans and your final cup of coffee produced by this machine.
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By now, everyone has likely seen the Conan coffee clip where his coffee snob employee snubs an Intelligentsia espresso. Don’t worry. Intelligentsia is laughing all the way to the bank, as the snub gave them an opportunity to put the dissenter in his place. Meanwhile, it warmed my heart to see coffee given its minute of fame (actually eight minutes of good air time). There were some genuinely funny moments in it.
Conan O’Brien is among my favorite on-air comics. He plays his everyman role well. Jordan Schlansky, plays the dour office coffee snob to perfection. An unfortunate side effect of becoming a connoisseur in any art appears to be the loss of humor, and he characterizes it nicely. This is all good. But, what, if anything did the segment accomplish in teaching a mass audience about coffee?
Single origin versus blends – Jordan points out that he prefers a traditional Italian espresso over the single origin American one prepared on camera by an Intelligentsia barista. Most Americans probably know that Starbucks did its own version of espresso, but likely some learned for the first time that the latest round using one coffee type is still very different from the original drink. Jordan made a point that traditional espresso almost inherently contains both Arabica and Robusta coffee types, a blend which he thinks tastes better.
Roasts – After warming up by questioning the use of a single origin over a blend for espresso, Jordan challenges the holy grail of the Third Wave – its roast. He taunts Sam and Eden, the two Intelligentsia employees by attacking their light roast’s suitability for espresso. Sam points out that they chose espresso since Jordan stated it was his interest. One of the things I like most about Third Wave is its return to brewed coffee to strut its stuff. I wished they’d brewed using a Chemex or Hario, myself. But, it’s a fun and still informative bit.
Brewing – Jordan finally takes issue with what he identifies as over-filling the coffee machine with grounds, creating a too-strong coffee, versus his nostalgia for a more pleasant (if weaker) 7 grams per 25 ml water (traditional espresso shot). He is here, in effect, really attacking the Americanization aspect of Third Wave espresso. Here, the Intelligentsia on-air staff, who do an overall admirable job keeping straight faces in what must have been a high-tension situation (all of professional coffeedom’s eyes were no doubt on them) had one of their lesser moments, in my opinion. Admittedly it’s a tough theological coffee question (I’m not sure who could have really answered it better) but when basically asked if their coffee is too strong, barista Eden answered that they have determined the strength using scientific measurements. Her words: “What we are looking for is the proper amount of extraction for each coffee particle”. Jordan retorts, “By whose criteria?” I know this is supposed to be fun, but in my opinion, this is a key question, one I hope resonates with the industry’s leaders, who should really be careful before they use numbers as arguments. In other words, it all really still starts, not with science, but with someone’s opinion. While I believe this is really how it should be (and in reality, must be), it should serve as a deterrent to the idea that somehow anyone has a definitive lock when it comes to these numbers. Meanwhile, to get consumers to even think about measuring a recipe is definitely good.
Third Wave identified – Just as in the 1960s most kids nationwide learned the Southern California surfing jargon in the Beach Boys song Surfin’ USA, there may be a million TV viewers who learned the term Third Wave for the first time in this segment, as well as got at least a partial definition of what it means. I refer of course to the description of coffee growth in the US (and elsewhere) as split into waves. First Wave (as I understand it) refers to the general explosion of a culinary coffee market after it was discovered that beans given extra farming and grading attention were special and the term Specialty Coffee (credited to San Francisco coffee importer Erna Knutsen) was coined. Second Wave is often given to Starbucks, Peet’s and other roasters’ emphasis on (darker) roasts that called attention to the roaster, with an emphasis on espresso extraction. Third Wave became a popular term (I heard it first from legendary coffee pioneer roaster George Howell) to describe single-origin coffee roasted (usually very lightly) to emphasize its origin characteristics at the expense of roast development and (in the extreme) any hint of caramel flavor. The best part of Third Wave coffee (to me) has been the emphasis on brewing, often using manual devices, and a return to filtered coffee over espresso as the preferred extraction method.
Identifying and introducing to mainstream conversation the term Third Wave might be the anthropologist’s desert. I know it made my heart skip! Having consumers learn what the heck some of this means, arguments and who’s right aside, is good for business. It does more to give people an understanding why they’re lining up and waiting ten minutes to get their morning coffee at Intelligentsia (and others) each day. Yes, there will be some who will have an epiphany that they really don’t like what they’re getting and may switch back to something plainer. But, there will also be water cooler coffee talk at work. Some will try the coffee minus cream and sweetener (Intelligentsia does offer it, as do most Third Wave coffee environs). Some will become super elitist and seek out the traditional espressos (ie: Bay Area’s Mr. Espresso) and decide for themselves. The important thing is they will have their coffee consciousness raised. And, yes, they may start questioning the standards, realizing that their own taste buds are entitled to be heard in the quest for the perfect cup.
If this was supposed to be a debate, I think everyone won, with Jordan winning some surprising points, no doubt in part because as a performer he was less nervous, but also because he was able to slip in some genuine questions many of us are asking, and I am overall a fan of Third Wave Coffee. Intelligentsia’s Sam Sabori and Eden-Marie Abramowicz handled their parts with aplomb and they were good at advancing their company’s image without themselves seeing too snobbish. It’s hard to be on the spot and they were really playing themselves, not roles, a far more self-conscious circumstance. The heat was on, and the TV people are always going to win, as Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres prove each airing. Conan O’Brien himself, really played the straight man, giving his fellow player the main character role. Points were made, I think in the consumer’s behalf.
A glance at social media since shows the industry saying how important it is to get the word out there. I hope behind closed doors they are also saying they need to listen to consumers, mainstream and also informed ones as the segment’s Jordan Schlansky, who I continuously find are raising questions about coffee. I keep saying the industry needs a healthy combination of leading and following consumer tastes. Most industry professionals would I think agree with this. There really are some high-end consumers out here who are as knowledgeable as the trade professionals.
Kudos to all who created the segment, and especially to the Conan O’Brien Show. They really gave coffee a boost in this entertaining segment.
The Aeropress marks the longest I’ve ever waited for formally review a product. I met inventor Alan Adler nine or more years ago. We were introduced by then Bunn VP Aimee Markelz. Just to show how gracious some people can be even in an industry with such hot competition as coffeemakers, Ms Markelz was walking through the International Housewares show before showtime and spied this new coffeemaker. When I did my usual walkaround at Housewares she handed me a slip of paper with the Aeropress booth number on it. She told me she thought I’d find it interesting. I did. I do.
The reason I waited so long to review it? I guess I took it for granted. But now I feel a little guilty and negligent. Or it’s such an open-ended device it all depends on how you use it. Honestly, I can’t tell you why. Is it because it has no engine, no water heater? That can’t be. Neither does the Sowden SoftBrew nor does the Chemex. Is it due to it’s cost – as in low? Nope, I’ve reviewed the Melitta single cup, and I’ve packed three of them into knapsacks of my college bound sons.
So, let me stop the self analysis and proceed to make amends for my lengthy review time. The Aeropress, though wholly innovative and original in its design, seems to provide the features of all the world’s coffeemakers through time. Like a modern Hollywood film, it has elements of all that came before it in its genre. The Aeropress has some elements of the French press, namely the press, both in name and procedure. The Aeropress has elements of the Chemex, particularly in its filter and its brewing temperature recommendations. Finally it has elements with the vacuum or siphon coffeemaker, mainly its mass-compressed grounds puck.
The Aeropress is perhaps the ultimate flexible coffeemaker. It can be used conventionally, where it gives the impression of being a somewhat leaky manual drip maker. It can be inverted, placed upside down, its filter cap removed and it becomes a settling tank where coffee is steeped like a tea before its cap is replaced, it is flipped over and then pressed to completion. Which is it for me? I’ve spent several years in each camp. Finally (or just lately?)
I’ve settled on the conventional method. I believe I’d done this out of simplicity, and perhaps a little out of my desire to set the record straight on what I consider the Aeropress myth of being a leaky drip maker. When people pour a little hot water into the Aeropress and stir so that the grounds get plenty wet and are allowed to swell and settle before the press is used, a minute amount of water travels through the grounds and out through the filter and into your cup. There is nothing about this that is going to affect your coffee end result. It is no different than the initial drips of any drip coffee maker. Coffee is all about grounds/water contact time and nothing else.
Aeropress brewing temperature is, or should be, controversial. I know it’s manual so you can use whatever your lil’ water heatin’ vessel can provide. I have a fancy schmancy BonaVita kettle with dial and hold temperature settings. Inventor Alan Adler says Aeropress competitions tend to be won at brewing temps of 185°F for the super light roasted coffees and 175°F for medium to dark roasts. What does all this mean to the coffee industry, who’s fought so long and hard to convince us to brew hotter into their 10 degree (195F-205F) window? That’s a tough question and likely a subject for a different article. For the moment I’m going to use the ole’ reviewer copout #7 that we should view the Aeropress on its own terms. Of course you can use your Aeropress at whatever temperature you prefer, but after a number of tests in my kitchen, I’m inclined to operate mine at the light roast winning temperature: 185°F.
Speaking of roasts, here are some coffees that I tested:
- George Howell Coffee’s La Minita I got spectacular results with this coffee. Man that is one complex beverage as brewed in the Aeropress. Like a great symphony orchestra, La Minita’s Bill McAlpin is unable to create a bad note. This coffee, third wave light roast and all, is just a perfect match for the Aeropress. Did I hear chocolate? I know most coffees give this note at this brewing temperature, but it’s the quality of chocolate note that this coffee provides.
- Sight Glass Colombian Finca Alcatraz – I recently became smitten with this coffee in all brewing methods. I don’t know what to say except I just enjoyed its richness and cocoa and nougat notes. I admit I feel the lush fruit notes are boosted by moving the brewing temperature back into the 190°s.
- Counter Culture Finca El Puente Honduras – I couldn’t resist trying some coffee farmed by CoffeeCon presenters Marysabel Caballero and Moisés Herrera and their latest coffee. Counter Culture roasted it at the light end, although to be fair, not too light, which I found to be a perfect match for Alan’s observed 185°F brewing temperature. Okay, I probably sneaked up to 190°F. I got that black cherry flavor kick right away.
Conclusion: The Aeropress is just a wonderful brewer. If you are caught between gigs, you likely can afford it. It is easy to use, to clean up. And, it delivers an ultra clean taste, with plenty of viscosity but virtually no sediment. If this is the cup you seek, the Aeropress is a brewer used must have in your brewing arsenal. Period.
Photo note: Aeropress Inventor Alan Adler says, “I do like clear glass which reveals the flow (drip), but recommend a wide-bottom, sturdy mug like the attached pic.”