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Capresso CoffeeTEC Digital Coffee Maker – Review

October 11, 2005

Capresso CoffeeTEC Digital Coffee MakerAre you looking for all the bells and whistles? Do you want a machine that not only makes coffee correctly, it does it with style? Do you like steamed and frothed milk in your coffee, but not quite enough to go to an espresso machine? If so, then the Capresso CoffeeTEC may well be your dream machine.

Weighing in at 12 lbs, complete with stainless steel thermal carafe, goldtone filter, a milk steamer and a digital timer, the CoffeeTEC is probably the Cadillac of the drip brewing stable.
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Presto Scandinavian Coffee Maker – Review

October 10, 2005

Presto Scandinavian Coffee MakerThere’s a lot to be said for a device that does one thing, and does it well — and even more to be said for one that does it cheaply — plus it’s even somewhat attractive.

The Presto Scandinavian Coffee Maker falls right smack into the middle of this definition. It’s not fancy, and it doesn’t have a lot of features, but it brews coffee well, and the price (under $50, most places) is tough to beat.
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Zojirushi EC-BD15 Fresh Brew Coffee Maker Review

August 21, 2005

Zojirushi Fresh BrewI finally ended up with a decent “backup” to my Starbucks Barista Aroma drip brewer – the Zojirushi EC-BD15 Fresh Brew.

I’ve been a fan of Zojirushi for awhile now — they make the rice maker for cooking sushi rice (or other kind of rice). Given that their other big product lines are some very fine thermal carafes and hot-water dispensers, it’s not a real surprise that they make an excellent thermal carafe coffee maker as well.

Unlike their fuzzy-logic rice makers (which are smarter than many of the computers I’ve ever owned), the Fresh Brew is about as basic as a coffee maker gets — the only piece of programmability on the thing is a timed brew feature, and since that’s more than I’ll ever use, I don’t mind the lack of other electronic bells and whistles that cost more and could fail.

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Cuisinart DCC-1200 Brew Central Coffee Maker Review

August 8, 2005

Scouting around online, I ran into a fair number of coffee fans saying nice stuff about the Cuisinart DCC-1200 Brew Central coffee maker.

I purchased one yesterday, and can’t for the life of me figure out why anybody likes this piece of junk.
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Sending for backup

August 8, 2005

With the Barista Aroma on injured reserve, it’s a critical issue to get a backup brewer in here stat — it’s not like I’m going to get much work done this week without coffee…

At least it will give me the opportunity to do a new review or two…

So much for Starbucks

August 7, 2005

Well, I managed to break my Starbucks’ Barista Aroma.

The “pour” button on the thermal carafe (which never went down terribly far anyway, making pouring a relatively slow experience) gave up the ghost; the top of the carafe lid came away from the bottom, and as a result, the button lost all of the spring tension.

Since this also causes the “carafe is in place” button to not stick up properly, the whole thing announced itself early this morning by the coffee maker determining that the carafe was not in place, filling the grounds basket with hot water, and then proceeding to flood the kitchen counter with hot water and coffee grounds…

Grrrr…
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Starbucks Barista Aroma Review

March 25, 2005

Starbucks Barista Aroma
I finally sent off my beloved Barista Aroma Quattro 4 cup drip brewer to a good home, and upgraded to the newly revised 8 cup Barista Aroma.

I’m glad I did — and I’m glad I waited.

The previous revision of the Barista Aroma & the Quattro were both very simple coffee makers that made a damn good cup of coffee. Better (in my opinion) than most of the consumer coffee makers I’ve tried, mostly because they brew at an adequate temperature, and seem to do a good job of distributing water over the grounds.

The new revision of the Barista Aroma makes it essentially a smaller version of the 12 cup Aroma Grande, and it has inherited a few new features from the bigger machine, most of them to good effect.
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Philips Senseo Review

February 26, 2005

Philips Senseo
I don’t want to come off like I’m a Coffee Snob, but the fact is, I probably am. I drink enough of the stuff that I’ve gotten rather picky over the years about what it tastes like.

A couple of years ago, I recieved one of the Cuisinart “all-in-one” brewers, which I truely enjoyed at the time – the thing even ground its own beans.. Due to various circumstances, I’d been drinking some rather hideous coffee at the time, and it was a nice step up. Lately, I’ve come to loathe the thing, though, and I’d hoped that the Philips Senseo would be a decent step up…

Really, really good coffee is dependent on a handful of factors. In no particular order, these are:

  • Good quality fresh beans. The variety and the roast are much a matter of taste, of course. But a few days after coffee is roasted, flavors begin to be lost. Too long a delay, or improper storage, and you end up with tasteless coffee. Once coffee is ground, flavor evaporates even faster — ideally, you should grind just before brewing (not at the store, and not when somebody puts it into a can).
  • A grind appropriate to the brewing method — ranging from fairly coarse for french press, medium for automatic drip, to fine for espresso.
  • Proper water temperature (around 190°-205° Fahrenheit) during the brewing process. Brew with colder water, and you have sour coffee. Brew with hotter water, it tastes burt.
  • Proper ratio of grounds to water contact time — not enough water, and you end up with an overly-strong cup of coffee. Not enough grounds, and you end up over-extracting — the flavors we
    want are in the first 2/3 of what can be extracted — go beyond that, and you get a lot of bitter flavors (not necessarily weaker coffee, just bitter — if you want weaker, don’t use less grounds, just dilute
    it after it’s brewed.)
  • Get it off the heat — once it’s brewed, if coffee is allowed to set on a burner, it goes bad quickly.

Follow these rules, and you’re pretty much assured of making a good cup of coffee. Fail to follow them, and you’re drinking drek. The Cuisinart made a cup of coffee substantially better than instant (what isn’t?), but the fact was that it brewed too cold, losing a lot of flavor, and it didn’t use an adequate amount of grounds for a full pot. It was also a pain to keep clean (the grinder was in the thing, after all). Over time, these things got worse. Last but not least, you had to make a full pot for it to work even partially well. Since I’m the only coffee drinker here, I’d make a pot, put it in a vaccuum carafe, and end up throwing half of it away as it got too cold or aged.

So, I really, really, wanted to like the Philips Senseo. Outside of being a rather striking piece of kitchen-sculpture, it promised to do just what the doctor ordered — brew one cup at a time of proper coffee, fresh and hot, in about two minutes. Even better, it promised to produce pressure-brewed “crema coffee” — essentially coffee with a head on it, just like some little Italian bistro. All of which it does. Doing a little web research, these things have taken Europe by storm, and they’re getting ready to repeat the process here.

As I said, it does produce fresh and hot proper coffee, in about two minutes — with very little cleanup. It’s just BAD coffee. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with the design, it’s just the coffee itself.

The Senseo uses a “pod” system — you buy the coffee in little round disks with about a tablespoon of coffee in them, formed right into a filter — kind of like a specialized little teabag. There’s nothing new about “pods” — there have been standardized sizes of coffee pods available for espresso makers for several years.

The Senseo pod is rather different, however. It is a proprietary size (you can’t use others), and the only coffee available for them is made by Douwe Egberts — a company Americans probably know better as Sara Lee. These proprietary pods are available in four varieties — mild, medium, dark, and decaf.

As you may have guessed, I don’t have much use for decaf or mild. As far as I’m concerned, the other two ought to be referred to as Bitter (medium) and Extra Bitter (dark). The coffee is hot, aromatic, attractive (that crema thing), and bitter. I like a robust coffee taste (I believe that Columbia Supremo is the coffee of the gods) , but I dispise bitter coffee. The first cup of the day out of the thing isn’t bad, but I drink about 8 cups (well, about four, with the cup I use). After the second one or so, this begins to grate on me. Even more so, in that the medium isn’t terribly robust, but the dark is too bitter to drink, as far as I’m concerned. So I’m drinking bitter, weak coffee. Blech. I’d been in hopes that some of this is just inadequate “seasoning”, and that it would improve as the unit was broken in, but it’s been weeks now, and I think this is what it’s going to produce.

The other big problem is these damn pods are expensive. It takes two to brew an 8 ounce cup of coffee. At around $7.50 for an 18-pack, that’s around 8.5 cents an ounce. That makes a 64 ounce a day coffee jones about a $5.30 a day experience. That’s a lot of money for coffee you don’t much like.

Hope springs eternal, however. An outfit in Europe has apparently made a little reusable device that will allow you to use your own fresh-ground coffee in the Senseo. They were having problems organizing shipping to the US, but theoretically the kinks are worked out of that now, and I’ve got one on its way. I’ll report back if it improves the situation.

In the meantime, I hate to overly complain about the Senseo. It’s a remarkable little unit, and for the right person, it’s probably perfect. If you’re currently drinking “grocery store canned coffee” and are looking to step up to something a little more pleasant, this might be just the ticket for you. If you’re not a pot-a-day coffee junky and would just like a cup or two a day of fresh brewed coffee without all of the mess, bother, and cleanup, this thing might be hard to beat. For me, though, it falls disappointingly short of the mark.

Starbucks Barista Aroma Quattro Review

July 10, 2004

Starbucks Barista Aroma Quattro
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..

The Pros

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.)

The Cons

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.

Conclusion

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.

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