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.