Several years ago, I was attending an SCAA event. Nancy Bloostein, of Oren’s Daily Roast nudged me and suggested I take a look at some new Melitta coffee makers. I ran (literally) over to see what appeared to be Technivorm knock-offs. They were labeled Melitta, but I was then told that they would appear on the marketplace soon under a new name, Bonavita. According to what I was told, Melitta licenses their nameplate to Hamilton Beach in the US. Therefore, although these were Melitta conceived and designed, no mention of Melitta would appear in the US market brewers.
Fast forward to 2014, Bonavita is now a treasured brand. What seems a simple proposition to make an excellent brewer priced to the average consumer, has long eluded most appliance brands. Even though it seems simple, apparently it is not. You need a smart design, one that gets the water almost-instantly hot, a spray heat that evenly disperses that hot water over the grounds, achieving even distribution, and gets the grounds thoroughly soaked, and gets all this done, start-to-finish, within 6 minutes.
So revolutionary was the Bonavita concept that it currently is the leading automatic drip coffeemaker. Bunn, Technivorm, Bodum, KitchenAid and Behmor all have fairly comparable brewers that compete, but somehow the Bonavita just seems to have an edge, when it comes to hitting the consumer sweet spot of price, performance, quality and ease. Remember if it isn’t easy, it isn’t automatic, is it?
So far, I’ve compared the Bonavita only to other automatic drip brewers. But as Third Wave Coffee has emerged, the bar has been lifted, as more consumers who use a Chemex, Hario or other manual brewer for their weekend or other special brews, want an automatic drip brewer to reach higher to match these inherently customized devices.
One interesting change: Bonavita has moved from the Melitta V-filter to the US-cupcake filter. Does this mean that Melitta no longer designs this brewer? Inquiring minds ponder this. Although I have found differences such as filter types to generally be outweighed by other factors, I philosophically agree with the reasoning that the cupcake filter spreads the grounds extraction task more evenly at the bottom, so I consider it a good (if shocking) move. I also applaud their resistance of the metal filter, which I consider overall inferior to paper in its ability to separate flavor compounds from grounds.
There are two things the Bonavita did not do as compared to manual drip. One is vary the brewing temperature. The other is match the intermittent pour that we use when we brew manually, which is especially important near the brew’s beginning when using fresh roasted coffee.
The new Bonavita offers only one brewing temperature, but they have gone out of their way to include a pre-infusion stage, which sprinkles ideally hot water over the grounds, then shuts down in order to allow a freshly-roasted, freshly-ground coffee to rise and fall appropriately, before continuously running hot water over the grounds.
So, how does it perform?
The new Bonavita handily meets every specification of an automatic drip coffeemaker, as did its predecessor. The brewing temperature is within the 196-205°F range. The brewing cycle (without pre infusion) is under 6 minutes. Pre-infusion adds around 30 seconds, as it should.
The ability to match intermittent brewing with your (or your barista’s) best efforts keeping pace with the water’s drip rate during brewing is not able to track as well as manual brewing, in my opinion the goal. Nor is it with the Behmor Brazen or any other yet-invented automatic brewer. What I can say, is I never had an overflow, no matter how fresh the grounds. I inserted a Chemex underneath the Bonavita, which is to be fair, not anything they suggest or offer to accommodate. The brew drip rate was simply too fast, even in the pre-infusion setting. But, this is more about how fast consumer expectations are rising, than any shortcoming on this brewer’s part.
What’s left? Well, the Behmor Brazen offers adjustable brewing temperatures and adjustable pre-infusion time settings. Will this matter to you? I cannot answer that, but I can say the Bonavita does a very, acceptable job with several coffees I’ve been using since it arrived one month ago.
Temple Roasters Panama Don Pepe Boquete Geisha is a light roasted delicate coffee that showed its full colors when brewed in the Bonavita. I was able to closely match what I could achieve in a Chemex.
Kean Coffee’s Nicaragua La Prometido is roasted slightly darker, or is it just the Diedrich roasting imprint? Not sure, but this stellar varietal comes through with its notes intact. This kind of roast is not for the timid (roaster that is). To catch it just before it starts to go caramel on us, is really a test of roasting skill. I was able to taste the full resolution of the coffee with the Bonavita.
Conclusion: The Bonavita took a good idea and made it better. There is not one thing I noted where I said, “Oh, I wish they hadn’t changed that”. Bravo!
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.
Blonde Coffee Moment
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.
Several years ago, when George Howell re-entered the coffee roasting business after his required post-Starbucks sale of the Coffee Connection, George sent me some of his first roasts. As usual, they were the model of top selected green beans. But, the first thing I noticed that was different, and frankly, disappointing was (more…)