July 10, 2004
Lest my Philips Senseo Review give you the wrong impression, not everything is bitter in the world of coffee around here.
Succumbing to my frustration with the Senseo the other day, I was out and decided to stop into Starbucks for a real cup of coffee.. Okay, well, a better cup of coffee than I’ve been brewing lately, anyway.
While I was there, I glanced at their automatic drip coffee makers, thinking evil thoughts about the coffee that lurked at home. Off to one side from the rest of them was a half-pint version of the Barista Aroma — a four cup coffee maker with a stainless steel thermal carafe. Looking at it a little closer, it didn’t have any digital timers, automatic grinders, turn signals or infrared remotes. It had one button — an on switch.
Intrigued, I found out that this was the Barista Aroma Quattro, a coffee maker they are discontinuing and selling out. In fact, it was their last one, and if I wanted it, I could take it home for $25. Twenty five bucks at Starbucks? Geeze, that’s like what — three cups of coffee? How wrong could this be? So I took it home..
After running it through the manual’s seasoning process, and cracking open a fresh bag of Columbia Supremo, I was pleasantly amazed with the coffee this little thing makes. Using a medium grind, and a paper filter (they offer gold metal ones, if you’re inclined that direction), it nicely holds the proper amount of coffee, and has a brew time of around four minutes, which appears to be about right. Measuring the temp of the coffee in the carafe immediately after brewing, it comes out at a toasty 197°F, which is right in the zone. The coffee is excellent.
A four cup pot (about 20 oz, actually) is just about perfect, as far as I’m concerned. That’s about what I can typically drink out of a thermal carafe before it gets too cold or too aged and I’m liable to brew a fresh pot anyway. As mentioned, the unit only has a single switch — it turns on, brews, and immediately shuts off (there’s no hot plate to overcook your coffee) — it doesn’t appear possible to accidentally leave it on (one less thing to worry about.)
Despite its simplicity, this little thing is finicky. It may even go all the way to persnickety. If you don’t place the thermal carafe on the brewer exactly right, you are going to end up with a counter full of hot coffee. It’s not a terribly big deal once you figure out exactly how it snaps in, but woe is the person who isn’t paying attention.
If you’re messing with one of these, do some dry assembly with the top open, and watch exactly how the spout of the carafe presses against the "interrupt brew" mechanism (the little spring lever that lets you pour a cup halfway through). If this does not engage properly, then the filter basket will fill with hot water, overflow, and you’ll have a mess everywhere.
Alternatively, you can recognize that stopping a brew halfway through is like stopping a chef halfway through cooking a meal so that you can eat a half-cooked dish, and remove the little interrupt mechanism altogether. It’s probably a violation of the warranty, and I can’t recommend you do it, but the little lever with the stopper detaches from its retainer with a simple pull. Carefully retain the lever, stopper, and spring in case you need them later, and you’ll have made the whole thing much more bulletproof — but you’ll have to cultivate patience and wait for it to complete brewing before grabbing a cup afterwards.
You also need to be careful of your grind — too fine a grind, at least with the Starbucks brand paper filters, and the filter basket will fill instead of drip, with the same results as above. For me, 10 seconds with a blade grinder (yes, I’ll have to break down and buy a burr grinder one day) is about all the finer it needs to be.
Last but not least, pay attention to how tight the top of the carafe is screwed on. The proper position for brewing appears to be backed off just slightly from finger-tight, with the little vertical ridges between the "open" and "closed" mark lined up with the spout.
All good things require a little learning, and as long as you’re paying attention, the odds of ending up with a counter full of coffee appear to be minimal — certainly a small price to pay for a decent cuppa. Speaking of price, Starbucks web site still lists this thing at $85, which is about 20 degrees north of damn expensive for what it is (you can find it elsewhere online for about $70). On the other hand, for $25 bucks, this thing is an amazing bargain. I was told that the closeout price is supposed to be $29, which is still a good deal — they just gave me a little more off since it was the last one. Regardless of closeout, it does still have a 2 year warranty, which is longer than most coffee makers have ever lasted for me.
I don’t know if you’d get me to part with $70 – $85 for this thing, but if you have a need for a simple, good 4 cup coffee maker, and are willing to be just a little careful learning how to use it (or willing to modify it), I’d run (not walk) to the nearest local Starbucks (which is what, a maximum of 60 yards these days in most cities?) and see if you can catch one of these things on closeout.