Bonavita 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 I suppose in automobiles Chevy has been replaced by Toyota, or recently, Hyundai.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.
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.
I keep saying we’re living in a golden age of coffee brewing. This year’s Seattle SCAA Event brought more brewers. There are even a few coffee discoveries to report. Here are some highlights:
Nick Kohout of Arcaia showed me some scales that, frankly, did not impress me at first. I mean, they supposedly have some higher-end parts than comparable Bonavita scales, but does that excite anyone? I’ve had no problems with any Bonavita scales, not that I’m a barista, but I’m just being honest. Then he showed me how its timer keeps track of the contact time in manual brewing. Apparently, it detects when the water has gone through the grounds, and pauses the clock. Now I am excited! Their goal of connecting folks via the web so they can meaningfully compare their brews is also a step in the right direction.
Lots of new coffeemakers, some Kickstarter projects and others already developed and seeking coffee stores to recommend and sell them to customers. Gregory Bombeck’s Phoenix coffeemaker was one. Another was the Kinto coffeemaker from Japan. Saint Anthony Industries has one of the most beautiful cold brew makers I’ve yet seen, although the whole cold brew thing leaves me… oh, I won’t say it.
My own personal favorite was from 21 year-old Cameron Hughes of Invergo Coffee, of Garden City, New York. His brewer’s patented swiveling spray head may have cracked a problem that’s plagued automatic drip makers since George Bunn introduced the first Bunn-O-Matic in the 1950s, and that is how to effectively mimic the way you and I pour water so beautifully by hand. He also claims you can set the brewing temperature, not revolutionary, but makes me want to test his machine in my kitchen. My at-show tasting was compelling however. Remember, Orson Welles was twenty one when he became famous in radio. Post-moderns may prefer a Beatles analogy.
At the Remarkable Indonesia pavilion, they were tasting some interesting coffees. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of this country’s coffees. The flavor diversity is astounding, and I can only assume that it’s distance and the fact the only a select few green buyers (think Geoff Watts) ever makes the trek (20 hours-plus) to actually visit. My personal taste favorite was Bali coffee. I admit I have a guilty pleasure for some of their robusta varieties as well. But the news this year was their showing clips of a new film, Aroma of Heaven, created, written and lensed by cinematographer Budi Kurniawan. Budi K, as he introduced himself, is almost as interesting as his film. A compulsive shooter, he had a camera in his hand both times I’ve seen him. I predict this film will be a big hit among coffee enthusiasts. It deserves special mention for being the first film to not seem like a colonialist perspective, but rather an honest, if not bitter, but also not candy glossed look at coffee. Indonesia goes pretty far back in coffee history, by the way. Budi says a download is going to be available, but I’m pitching for some neighborhood showings (I know someone at CoffeeCon hehe). It’s a remarkable film, and thanks to a screening of it in entirety) I speak with confidence.
I’ve been trying to track down Breville products for reviews for years. Fortunately, a changing of the guard has opened transparency and Category Manager Alejandra Lin has pledged to get us some of their products that are promising. I’ve heard good things about their grinders, but talk (especially about grinders) is cheap. Let’s get one and do some measurements, which is what matters. Breville really had something that caught my attention. Alejandra told me their automatic drip maker has the ability to modify its contact time according to volume. As you may know, most automatic drip makers’ contact time between the grounds and hot water is optimized for one specific cup size, usually, but not always, the maximum. Make more coffee, it’s too strong/bitter. Make less, it’s weak/undeveloped. If the new Breville machine delivers, it will be front page news (here anyway!).
The show surprise was this new stovetop coffee roaster. Jung Park of Dr Mahn Coffee brought his new design from Korea, which seems to be experiencing a coffee renaissance of new innovations. Can’t wait to try it, remembering both the 1990s Palani Pan roaster and the importance of a kitchen fan when roasting over fire. What this country needs is a simple professional quality sample roaster on par with the classic Siemans Sirocco coffee roaster long out of production (spotted one last week on eBay, which was snapped up before I could say “Buy it Now”. I think I may have found it. Luke Kawa of Kawa Coffee had one, which is also extremely attractive, but how it roasts will be what interests me most, of course.
Remember a Netherlands company named Bravilor? They used to be distributed by Boyds. I always thought of them as a commercial version of Technivorm. They are about to introduce a consumer automatic drip coffeemaker. Seemed very robust, but not coffee samples at SCAA. Might be ready by CoffeeCon Chicago in July, according to Eric Covelli, Bravilor Marketing
VP. Had a delightful dinner with Kenneth Davids, famous author of many books on our favorite subject. One of our topics was the current Geisha coffee craze. According to Professor Davids, there are genuine attributes to the Geisha cultivar. One such sample (roasted here in Chicago by Big Shoulders) earned a whopping 96 rating in a recent CoffeeReview.com tasting.
Bonavita had their latest 5-cup maker and many other products on display. They’re an amazing coffee maker success story. I’m particularly interested in this size category because as more people buy specialty (read: expensive) beans, they’re going to take a closer look at over-brewing those twelve cups, when they each have a couple (read: 4). Marcus Boni assured me a sample will be sent and, of course, a review will result.
Jim Shanley is a farmer with a unique geographic location. He’s in California and his farm is aptly titled, California Coffee Farms, the first I know of in the continental 48 states. Hopefully I will try some soon.
Robin Thorum spoke to one of my favorite subjects, testing grinders. Mr Thorum’s company has done a lot of research on measuring irregular objects such as coffee grounds. According to him, laser measuring tools presume all ground particles to be spherical, which would be nice, but anyone can see this is not so. Ditto traditional sieve tests, where oblong grind particles outsmart screens and slither through, which gives inaccurate comparisons. What we want to measure of course is surface area. He claims his company, Coffee Laboratory, has developed a better, more accurate way to measure this surface area.
At the expense of getting a little sniffly, there were several awards given to longstanding coffee industry members that deserve mention here. First, Carlo Di Riocco, whose Mr Espresso is the curator of what many of us consider the true Italian espresso. Di Riocco started as an engineer, but combined his insistence on consistency with art. I compel anyone to find a finer drink. He’s also kept doing the right thing against various fads in espresso roast, preparation and serving, a combination that’s kept his product unique.
Oliver Strand was able to do what no other comparable media personality has, and that’s bring coffee to the pages of a big city newspaper, in this case the New York Times. The coffee people I know don’t always agree with him, but that fact is they read everything he writes. So do mainstream readers and that’s what’s most important. If coffee is really the next wine it needs to enter culinary arts columns nationwide. The best part to me is he is real. He really is a coffee enthusiast, not a poseur. I still cringe when I view how coffee has been presented on the Food Network.
Finally, La Minita’s Bill McAlpin was the first person I called after I read a Corby Kummer Atlantic article about coffee. After hearing my own enthusiasm for coffee and wanting to learn and write about it, spent an hour or more discussing it with me, and even introduced me to Ken Stevenson and others so I could get a proper education. I’ve met no more generous person than him in the years I’ve been a coffee scribe. The fact that La Minita defined what is now called a specialty coffee farm is possibly of equal importance. Oh yes, and the coffee is always great! Bill McAlpin was finally properly honored this year. I was surprised to see the outwardly cooler McAlpin get glossy-eyed while receiving his award. Mr Espresso seemed to foster a trend, making these normally staid awards a three-hanky one. Even I wasn’t immune from tearing up a bit seeing these greats get their just acknowledgement.
Finally, we surprised to see OXO, seemingly moments after the Chicago International Housewares Show. Claire Ashley and her team brought their new coffeemakers and accompanying grinder, which features a built-in scale. Lots of folks whispering about it, as I think it shocks them to think a large housewares company (admittedly mostly unpowered) might enter the coffeemaker sweepstakes. I keep telling folks, brewers are the power behind the glory in every great cup of coffee. Great job, SCAA. Another fun and productive trade event.
The Audi Roadjet with coffee maker. What's worse: Useless coffee makers or useless coffee maker features?
The review of the Speak and Brew coffeemaker will depend upon the willingness to send one to me because I actually test coffeemakers. This is true for the Audi Roadjet a concept car with built in coffeemaker too. I put measured ground coffee in them, press the button and brew. While it’s brewing, I take the water temperature as it cascades down through the grounds. I time it to make sure it brews for the proper amount of time and, yes, there is an ideal time, or at least a range of times.
My purpose if writing of this is there are so many coffeemakers that try to achieve greatness by doing everything imaginable… but brew good coffee. I’m not against these features. The ability to speak to me might be important. Let’s say I’m married to a very chatty spouse and I never get a word in edgewise (I’m not, but we’re just “let’s say’ing”). Or let’s say I’m single and want a little conversation. Well having a coffeemaker that speaks to me might be pleasant. Of course I start thinking of the machines that speak to me in my life: my GPS speaks to me. But, it rarely says anything except barking orders at me, or correcting me if I make a wrong turn, more often a turn it doesn’t know about that involves a shortcut.
A coffeemaker with a clock in it seems like a good idea, but is it? The coffee isn’t as good if you grind and set it up the night before because flavors are released into the air, but I agree it might still be worth it. Of course I can do all this except press the on button the night before with any regular coffeemaker.
But, there are legitimate conveniences I truly wish would work, such as on-board grinders. These almost never are good grinders, even the burr grinders. And, they are difficult and sometimes impossible to clean. And still, the brewing needs to be right.
I’ve been looking over reviews for the past years. I can’t find a single all-in-one coffeemaker that is in the top rank. If it did, I’d almost guarantee it would be a bestseller. But, there isn’t and that’s the truth. Is it that they don’t know? Has the SCAA and various authors and coffee experts done such a poor job of teaching the brewing basics?
I suspect the answer is the manufacturers of such machines automatically presume the enduser of such gear has no interest in anything but the gimmick or feature. Or they feel that by being the single player that satisfies this particular need they no longer need to try to do it all.
But, I wish otherwise. I genuinely like gimmicks. I like extra features. I simply wish a machine with extra features would also make good coffee.
I spoke of my best cup of the Coffee Fest 2011 Show as a Sumatra coffee slow brewed for me at the Counter Culture exhibit. My best coffee from Coffee Fest was the Backpacker’s Blend given me in the hall by a small-batch roaster, Kalamazoo Coffee Company from, where else, Kalamazoo, Michigan. He appeared to have just two packages of it, so it seemed all the more precious when he offered one of them to me. I came home and opened the sack to take a whiff – too dark roast, I thought. I didn’t even brew any that day. The next day lunchtime rolled around. I often brew something slightly darker roasted for my afternoon coffee. I chose to use the Sowden SoftBrew, which steeps the coffee. For reasons thus far unexplained by science, there’s a significant difference between steep method brewers and highly agitated drip or vacuum methods. I’ve heard plenty of conjecture, but no solid facts. Let’s just say they’re different.
To brew using this method, I decided to emulate the formula used by Peet’s Jim Reynolds in his French press tutorial in my Coffee Brewing Secrets DVD. Jim used a rather robust grounds-to-water ratio: 57grams for four six-ounce cups. Of course, I ground coarse, as coarse as my Preciso grinder would allow. I preheated the SoftBrew inside and out so that when the water was poured in to mix with the grounds it would not be suddenly cooled by unheated porcelain or the filter’s cold steel. I heated the water to a full boil, and started a stopwatch. One minute from the boil, I poured enough water over the grounds, just as Jim did. After another minute, I poured the rest of the water into the SoftBrew. I covered it and timed the entire time from the first water was place in contact with the grounds until I poured the coffee, four minutes.
Often I find steeped methods have paradoxically harsh flavor, which I believe comes from people pouring still-boiling water over the grounds. I say paradoxically because the brew often tastes underdone, indicating the water has cooled too rapidly. All steep methods are going to experience heat-loss during brewing, but the act of pre-warming the pot would seem to circumvent at least some of the initial temperature drop.
Just before I poured the coffee brewed in the SoftBrew I gave the whole mixture inside a stir. I did this because the grounds can’t help but move towards the top of the brewer during soaking. This means the coffee towards the top is going to be stronger than that at the bottom. I want everyone to enjoy the same brew strength in their cup. The stirring does increase the likelihood of fine grounds in the coffee, but I think it’s a small price to pay as well as a small increase in fines.
The coffee was perfect. The roast was definitely towards the dark side, but minus any perception of bitterness or burnt caramel that dominates so many darker roast coffees. There was still a healthy brightness of acidity in each taste. This was a coffee that would stand up to cream nicely, but I enjoyed it just as it was.
My thanks and compliments to Kalamazoo Coffee Company. It was indeed my best cup after the show.