Thursday, December 22, 2011

Can a Super Automatic Produce Good Espresso?

Many coffee lovers either own or covet their own home espresso operation. To have stellar shots and scintillating lattes in the comfort of one's living quarters is almost as good as having your own personal butler-barista (kind of like Kato in the recent Green Hornet film). 

Yet many folks who strongly love espresso seem to go without an espresso machine simply because to get a quality espresso machine (like a La Marzocco or Rancilio), a micrometrical-adjustable burr grinder and the other necessary components (tamper, steel milk jug, etc) not only costs a handsome cent, but pulling quality shots takes practice and passion, calling for time and energy. Some folks just don't want to or cannot make such an investment. 

But if you're willing to compromise on quality, the good news is that the obstacles of cost, time and complexity go right out the door. Appliance empires have churned out thousands of no-skill-needed, super automatic espresso machines, allowing the average coffee drinker access to mediocre - palatable espresso, cappuccinos and the like at the push of a button.

This all brings the obvious question: can a super automatic machine (one that grinds, tamps, pulls the shots, steams the milk and cleans itself without human aid) concoct decent espresso and cappuccinos? To try to address this query, the folks at Philips Saeco and at Ultimo Coffee in Philadelphia agreed to allow me to compare and contrast a high-end super automatic machine (Saeco's Syntia) next to Ultimo's high-end commercial La Marzocco.   

Heading over one brisk night to Ultimo coffee, joined by owner Aaron Ultimo, we set up the super automatic on a free bar top and began the experiment. We used the same water, milk and beans (Counter Culture's Toscano) to keep the variables low. 

As a higher priced super automatic, the Syntia machine boasts being certified by Italian coffee tasters as being able to produce an authentic espresso and cappuccino (sadly, I can't say that this means much as I've had horrible espresso from such "certifications"). The Syntia is also truly super automatic, as one button grinds the beans and pulls the shot for you; similarly if you want a cappuccino, you hit a different button and it grinds, pulls the shot and steams the milk too. 

Keeping the espresso function on the "short pull" setting, the shots were of a 3-4 ounce volume (a little high for "short") with an even, light brown crema. The flavor was reasonable, as it held all of the prominent flavors of the Toscano espresso blend but it fell flat after that, really lacking the subtler nuances of a good espresso. The body was dry and the drink overall proved lackluster. Adjusting the grind wasn't really too effective in changing the outcome, as the shots remained similar as we made the grind finer (to accommodate for the initial high volume). Overall, the espresso proved fair, with the flavors none too bitter and of a mediocre level.

Testing the cappuccino, the machine steamed the milk first and then dropped the shots in, creating an odd vampire bite in the milk. Once again, the flavors were fair, with the milk and espresso producing a dry beverage with a muted sweetness and bit of cardboard. The machine produced little in the way of microfoam and overall, the integration of the espresso and milk was haphazard at best. Still, I have to admit that the beverage was still drinkable and on par with what I've had at some 2+ or 3+ cafes. 

Moving onto Ultimo's La Marzocco, one of Ultimo's baristas pulled some glorious shots that embodied a complexity of flavors including bittersweet chocolate. The shots were balanced and smooth, with a brown crema and velvety body. Ultimo's cappuccino also proved stellar, with a creamy texture of sweet milk complimented with notes of cocoa and honey. The latte art also showed strong integration of the elements.

Clearly Ultimo's professional baristas made better drinks, yet in comparing their product to the Syntia's, I have to submit that a non-coffee geek would probably be satisfied with this super automatic. Using top notch milk, fresh well-roasted coffee beans and filtered water, the espresso and cappuccinos were decent enough in taste to make the average coffee drinker happy (especially if one plans to laden said drinks with lots of sugar and syrup).

If you're looking for a simple (though expensive) espresso machine to make you a fair cappuccino, you would be justified in getting something akin to Saeco's Syntia. But if you have hopes of duplicating a drink you've had at a shop like Ultimo Coffee, try out CoffeeGeek's guide here on what equipment to buy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mugged: Brazil [Peter Asher]

Mugged: Brazil Bob-O-Link
Rating: 4+ [see key]

Rounding off one of the busier coffee review periods of my year was Peter Asher Coffee and Tea. A coffee roaster that's been roasting for twenty years, I was glad to meet their acquaintance and review two of their coffees. 

The first up is their Brazil Bob-O-Link, a coffee touted to possess citrus, black tea and nut flavors. The coffee appeared of a medium roast (dark brown & no exterior oils) and I cupped it via siphon, french press and drip.

In sipping the drip, I noted flavors of honey, leather, bran, nuts, fig and spinach amidst a medium body.

The french press possessed sweet pecans, honey, fig, pear, romaine, a bit of wheat and medium body. This infusion held much more brightness and potency.

The siphon rolled out molasses, cocoa, pear, cornbread, romaine, fig and a little milk within the medium body. Not as much nuttiness in this cup but still a good coffee.

Simply put, the Bob-O-Link definitely sampled variably but overall, I could definitely see the notes of sweetness, a little nuttiness and emphasis on bran or cocoa. A good coffee overall though not my all-time favorite Brazilian. Still, if you seek a quality Brazil coffee, visit Peter Asher's website to try out the Bob-O-Link. 

note: coffee was provided free of charge and the above review is objective feedback.

Monday, December 12, 2011

CC: Santa Claus House

What does CC mean?

Location: North Pole, AK
Free WiFi ? : no
Rating: 4+ [see key]

It's not often that I get astonished by an unexpected coffee find, but I guess Santa knew exactly what I wanted when I visited his house on a trip to the North Pole (Alaska). 

The day had a few things on the list and what trip to the center of Alaska would be complete without a stop at the North Pole. Not only are the streets and town a Christmas-themed wonderland but it's also home to a shop called Santa Claus House. The place not only has lots of cool gifts, including letters "from Santa", but also reindeer and a plenty of Christmas-y scenery for pics. 

Scurrying through the doors, the first thing that caught my eye was that Santa had his own cafe, a cute corner outlined with colorful striped wallpaper. Not thinking Santa to have a decent coffee operation (I believed him more into cocoa), I initially passed it by but after a sweep past and noticing the non-oily beans in the espresso hopper, I questioned the jolly barista as to their coffee wares. It turned out that they serve North Pole Coffee Roasting Company, using their espresso blend (I believe Espresso Classic) for their shots and the North Pole Blend in their pump pots. 

Curious, I ordered a doubleshot and a cup of the drip, and on both accounts I was pleasantly surprised. The espresso, though pulled a little long (about 3-4 oz) and with thick, blonde crema, it held a milky texture with the flavors of bitter cocoa, cinnamon and gingerbread, which were not only fitting but a delicious combination. The drip smacked of almond milk, chocolate, beef broth, oregano, light tea and a light/medium body. I did not note the tea.  

With a ho ho ho, I polished off my drinks and deemed my stop at Santa's abode a nice surprise. Were the baristas a little more fanatical in their espresso skillty / coffee prep (as the coffee itself seemed fresh, tasty and well-roasted), the coffee here could be top notch. If you ever manage a trip to North Pole, AK make sure to pay Santa a visit at the Santa Claus House. 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Mugged: Ethiopian Sidamo [Kifu]

What does Mugged mean?

Mugged: Ethiopian Sidamo Korate
Rating: 5+ [see key]
If there's anything that warms my heart, it's a microroaster that roasts good beans and gives back to the community. Take Kentucky's Kifu Coffee Roasters, a coffee company created out of a non-profit coffee fundraiser that turned into a for-profit company that gives back to the global community 5% of their profits through various programs such as Cows for Communities.

Recently, Kifu sent me out a few coffees to try and the first I cracked into was their Ethiopian Sidamo Korate Natural, a Kifu-proclaimed "fruit bomb" (i.e a coffee with heavy notes of fruit, usually blueberry or blackberry, showing up strongly in the cup). I tried the coffee out via drip, siphon and french press.

The drip produced a coffee that kicked off with bright blueberry, light chocolate, flemish sour ale, vienna fingers, virgin olive oil and oats amidst a medium body. A bright and nicely faceted coffee.

The french press threw out similar notes of blueberry and flemish ale, but it had more chocolate and olive oil, as well as some notes of wheat, all within a medium body. This infusion was not as bright as the first but it was still good.
The siphon really had the most in terms of chocolate, followed by blueberry, flemish ale, vienna finges, olive oil and oatmeal in a medium body. Also not as bright as the drip but still delicious. 

As fruit bombs go, I can't say that Kifu's Ethiopian was the brightest, but I can say that it was still a fine coffee, having a nice range of flavors in addition to a pleasantly sweet acidity. If you're looking for a bright coffee you can feel good about buying, give Kifu's Ethiopian a slurp. 

note: coffee was provided free of charge and the above review is objective feedback.