The 2008 Festive Buyers Guide - Chapter Two

 


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Your first cappuccinoIn June 1979 I was taking a private drivers education course in Victoria in anticipation of my first real job. Sure I had been working self-employed around Victoria for the previous 2 years. I had established a rather pleasant gardening business - with over 13 wonderful clients in and around Oak Bay and Uplands. These gigs I could bike to. A real job would require a drivers license - not necessarily a car.

So it was at the conclusion of a successful course at Watson's Driving school on Johnson street in Victoria that one of the guys in the class and I decided to celebrate by picking out the two most amenable gals in the class - to go out for dessert, coffee and whatever... the whatever being an adult beverage at the Empress Hotels Bengal Lounge.

Our first stop after exiting the "class" in the 800 block of Johnson Street in Victoria was the venerable Contempo Cafe at the corner of Yates and Blanshard - they were one of the first coffee joints in Victoria that served espresso coffee and plates of Nachos - interesting combination huh?

The Contempo Cafes espresso machine, if memory serves me correctly, was a very old 2 lever Cimbali - originally installed by Geir Oglend of Serious Coffee fame and now The Drumroaster on the Island Highway. I am not entirely sure where they got their coffee from but it most certainly not up to modern standards! One of the gals that was with us blurted a classic line that I will always remember: "This is the worst cappuccino I have ever had!"

I, on the other hand, was in the first few sips of my first cappuccino ever!
And it would not have impressed the ladies much if I had revealed that I was a cappuccino virgin.
So I nodded in agreeement.

The reality was, the coffee was very, very bitter and it was topped with some very fluffy foamed milk - from my perspective, I just assumed that part of the charm of being Italian was the ability to drink very bitter drinks... every day of the week... and enjoy it.

I did not enjoy my first cappuccino but I was not so put off by the bitterness that I would not return again.
My personal coffee history just took one more baby step.

For the readers at the CoffeeCrew website, it is safe to assume that few if any of them are complete cappuccino newbies. Fact is, most of them are here because they have had some remarkable (and not so remarkable) caps and lattes at their local cafes (Starbucks, Peet's, Seattle's Best, etc) - and they want to bring that experience home... or do it cheaper in their office or place of employ.

For me, another few years would pass before I ventured into home espresso. It was the dawn of the eighties; new music, night clubs, travel, more education... blah blah blah.

In the year 2008, life could not be better for the coffee lover. Actually it could. Next year. Yea. Even better.
Anyway. As 2008 winds down and the festive season approaches, I have a couple of things to offer. The first thing is - there are more places to buy coffee stuff, online or otherwise, than every before. Stores like EspressoTec.Com and Wholelattelove.com have years and years of consumer satisfaction behind them - and yes, they sponsor this site - as do some others - and they are all coffeecrew approved!

The second thing is - we really do not know what shape the economy will be in 30 days from now... much less 15 days from now. What we do know is that it is a good time to buy - not necessarily big purchases... small, large - no matter. If you want a great deal on anything specialty coffee... well now might be the right time.

Alas - this article is not really about timing is it? It is about helping you make the right choice... what's best for you, the newcomer to home espresso and better coffee in general.

Ok then. Let's go.

I get an average of 30 to 50 e-mail every day - all of which I answer. And the bulk of the questions are (surprisingly) not "What is right for me?" but "What would you choose between the BFG5000 and the IXLR8 machines?" And... "Where would I buy either unit?" - The last question should come as an irritant to my sponsors - or beg the question of visibility of said ads... So our readers are getting the overall message from the website - and that is: Here is what's out there that we like... that we have tested... and here is who sells it... so go. Go! Go!!! Alas, there is no perfect website is there?

So you know: 9 out of 10 folks who are getting their feet wet with home espresso-cappuccino are looking for budget or mid-range machines. Actually, it is more like 98 out of 100. Less than 2% of these respondents are chomping Cuban cigars waving thousands of E-Dollars grousing for the most expensive machines possible... They are out there - they are just not e-mailing me that often. When they do, I am polite and send them to the same vendor websites - because those e-commerce mavens of all things caffeine cater to the Warbucks Starbucks types too!

What to buy? If you are a first time buyer looking to make some cappuccinos and lattes (a couple of times a day) you are going to fall into one of two categories: The no fuss types and the "Do not mind a bit of a learning curve" types...

If you are a no-fuss person who is hankering for a mid-range machine that is going to last years and years, i would suggest the Solis SL70 from EspressoTec.com (in Canada) - from WholeLatteLove.com bundled with the wonderful Baratza Virtuoso Grinder - You can get the grinder direct from Baratza themselves...

Critical Fact #1 - The most important piece of kitchen coffee equipment is the coffee grinder!

If you are the kind of person that; wants real espresso in the home, the ability to make actual lattes and cappuccinos and other specialty coffee drinks, that is willing to face some hurdles and actually learn something - and does not want to spend a lot of money...

Then get yourself a Gaggia. I base this on over a decade of testing, tweaking and dismantling various home espresso machines down to their bare nuts and bolts. If you want to give the gift of home espresso for a loved one or family member, give a gaggia. Give a Gaggia. But only if the recipient is willing to use their coffee noggin and learn a thing or two (by reading a few how-to articles on this website!).

Here is the thing about Gaggia - and seriously folks... No bias or payback here - just the straight goods.
Gaggia has been making home espresso machines since 1977. Their premiere machine, the Baby Gaggia, became a status symbol among early coffee geeks long before we were called geeks. I remember eye-balling one in the Victoria Murchies outlet and wincing at the price tag - too much dosh for a, then teenage, aspriring coffee lover let me tell you!

In 2008, the Gaggia is more afforable than ever - and the product line is enormous!

The number of basic machines is around 10 - and that includes the original beloved Baby - what is new are some of the creature feature; dual boilers, brew time programming, all metal design, vibrant colors, etc. For those with a sense of style, the Gaggia Color fills the bill with all the important features; an actual boiler and pump, commercial sized coffee filter and brew group - and it is POD ready (more on the POD systems in the next chapter!)

Whereas the Solis SL70 is somewhat insensitive to coffee of questionable heritage, the Gaggia with the commercial bits and pieces (portafilter/coffee filter and brass brew group), really demands that the coffee be properly ground.

Critical Fact #2 - To properly prepare whole bean coffee for your espresso maker, you need a burr grinder.

Re-purpose your whirl-blade grinder for a spice grinder folks - the 9$ Blade grinder from the department store is utterly useless for espresso. Fact is, it is worthless for virtually all methods of coffee brewing - but we are just telling you this now!

There are 2 key things that every burr grinder does that Blade grinders do not do.
Burr grinders consistently grind the coffee to a uniform product. Blade grinders produce a mix of fine and coarse coffee grounds - which results in an insipid brew of over and under extracted dreck!
Blade grinders heat (and damage) coffee from the friction between blade and beans. Depending on the burr grinder, the burr grinder reduces the exposure of the beans to damaging heat.

Total Christmas budget damage: Pump driven espresso machine + Burr grinder < $500


In the next chapter, we will take a look at some interesting alternate ways of brewing coffee (on the cheap) suitable for every budget!