The 2007 Festive Season Buyers Guide - Part 1

For a change, we also offer an audio version of this article!


Here at the HQ, December is that time of year when all those critical questions come in:

What is the perfect espresso machine for my mate?
What grinder should I buy for my long-suffering loved one who has lived with his/her old grinder long enough?
My coffee is still less than perfect. What can I do to fix that?

As a result, we bring you the 2007 Buyers guide to better coffee during the festive season.

And so you know - we are approaching things a little differently this year; more words and fewer pictures.

And it's not that I am lazy about pictures (even if I am a bit...) - It is just that sometimes, what the reader needs to see is more information and less visual filler. Or so the theory goes. So here goes. Without further fuss, I bring you - The 2007 Buyers Guide to better coffee... for the 2007 Festive season!

In 2007 we saw a lot of stuff coming across our desk and kitchen lab - most of it commercial stuff (and generally of little interest to the home and office consumers)
In reality, there were only a few major developments that would be of interest to specialty coffee fans for this year - and short of simply reproducing last years guide verbatim, I am going to put some small spin on things... by talking about my most common questions over the last 6 months and what fixes or suggestions I would make for this time of year.

If I get asked 1000 questions a month, in person or otherwise, the number one question is:
How can I...

a.) Make that leap into home espresso in a sensible and sustainable way or
b.) How can I improve my current set-up or make that jump from drip or press coffee to the "bigs", that is - espresso-based specialty coffee!

Yea, that is 2 questions - 2 questions that are largely joined at the hip as it were. It is actually 2 questions rolled into one question.

So... What are the issue(s)? Issues being any one or more factors that inhibit the remediation of said discrepancy in an individuals coffee universe:

1.) The cost!

Espresso Making: In over 13 years of writing about specialty coffee and testing all methods of brewing, this is the single most common question that comes up:

"I want to stop spending 15$ a day on lattes and make cafe quality espresso, cappuccino and latte at home... So, how much?"
Often prefaced with the following: "I have less than $200 to spend..."

This is where I say: "The average cafe has over $10,000 worth of equipment to bring you that latte..."
And although that is not an entirely accurate statement, it does help to illustrate a point - You cannot to drive from Seattle to San Francisco in a Lamborghini if you drive a Hyundai Pony. You might steal a Lamborghini, but you won't get far. Trust me... personal experience.

Bottom line - It takes great coffee to make great coffee - and so it is with gear. If you cannot make a minimum commitment of dollars to better kit, well... maybe you should stick with improving your drip... or press... or, whatever.

Now, thankfully when the Winter approaches along with the festive giving season - we often stop thinking about how much stuff costs... and we just get down to the dirty work of finding it - or finding what we need.

Ok. Back to the question - "What do I need and what do I pay?"

Well. At bare minimum you can get into the World of specialty for under $500. Seriously. Well under $500.
If pressed, I would say - "Go out and buy a Gaggia, any Gaggia that has a pump in it... there is a great selection of units from a variety of vendors for just under $300."

And do me a favor: Stay off of E-Bay. I know I will incur the wrath of the E-Bay sellers... but do you really want to buy something from an entirely unknown quantity?
Sure, you might save a few bucks but for what you lose in customer service and guarantee (if any) - It is all but made up by dealing locally or from a reputable online vendor.

Gaggia is the best bang for the buck and they make real espresso coffee. Yes, I could mention the Solis and the Rancilio and a variety of others - but they are more expensive and are mentioned extensively in other sections of this website.

As for buying a common brand name "espresso" or "cappuccino" maker at a department store? Well, trust me friend - that only leads down a road of tears and regret.

I have yet to see any gigantic multi-national / trans-national manufacturer of "home appliances" come up with anything that was not a piece of junk.
These are machines whose design is over-seen by "bean" counters. Their theory being: Do not use a speck of metal when plastic or composite will do just fine thank you very much!
Successful espresso brewing is all about heat control and retention (this subject is covered in coma-inducing thoroughness elsewhere on this site).

You cannot brew a perfect espresso (and as a result a great cappuccino...) with a coffee maker made out of plastic with aluminum or potted metal parts.

So. Do not waste your time and money. You simply do not want an "I told you so..." from me now or anytime in the future.

CoffeeCrew approved Gaggia espresso (cappuccino) makers include the Gaggia Topazio, the Gaggia Carezza, the Gaggia Coffee, the Gaggia Baby, the Gaggia Espresso and the Gaggia Classic.

Grinding: You cannot carve the perfect turkey without good knives and similarly, you cannot brew great coffee without a good burr grinder.
The coffee grinder is the one must-have accessory that makes or breaks the whole process.

"But I have a perfectly good blade grinder Colin! What? You want me to get another grinder?"

Take the blade grinder and re-purpose it to a spice grinder. A blade grinder has no right to come in contact with coffee beans. It simply will not work with espresso.

So. What is the perfect grinder and how much will it set me back?

Well, I have been testing a variety of grinders over the last year and one stands out - It is the Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder. And thankfully, it is for sale at virtually every Starbucks on the Planet... so there is no issue of finding one. They cost around $200 (US) or $200(CAN)... maybe 100-Euro or so.
Cutting to the chase - it does espresso really well... and drip... and French Press and virtually any other method you can throw at it... Even percolator coffee, Ack!

So. Two things. If you want to buy the perfect espresso kit for a loved one (or yourself), consider a Gaggia coffee maker and a Baratza Virtuoso grinder. You cannot go wrong.
If you wish to upgrade your kitchen coffee outfit, the Baratza Virtuoso grinder makes a great single gift too!

Beans. The single most important ingredient in specialty coffee is often the most mis-understood and ultimately the hardest to find.

1.) If there is a fresh coffee roaster in your area, get to know it. Try their coffees. Ask questions. They are your lifeline to better coffee.
2.) You cannot make great home espresso from beans that come from the grocery store - unless of course the grocery store is selling fresh roasted coffee from the roaster above!
3.) Coffee has a shelf life of about 2 weeks. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. There is an "aged-coffee" thing circulating right now - it is utter "Kopi Luwak" as far as I am concerned. What is "Kopi Luwak"? It is Indonesian for "Coffee pooped out of a marsupial cat..." or in other words, B.S.!

If you must buy coffee as a gift this year, make sure you do your shopping "last minute!" - I repeat: Coffee only lasts 2 weeks.
And if you have been on a waiting list to buy $70/pound Jamaican Blue Mountain (a great coffee by the way...)[and a VERY popular gift this time of year...], make sure it has been roasted in the last... yes, 2 weeks!

It should come as no surprise that expensive coffees are often sold this time of year - and the recipients of said coffee often shelve for a special occasion! As if late December was not a good enough reason to brew up a cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain!

If you have no local options for fresh roast coffee, consider a mail-order source... but do your homework! There are many, many companies that send coffee through the mail. There is one great big downside - the cost. Shipping. It adds to the overall expense of enjoying fresh coffee. Is it worth it? If you cannot get great coffee locally, it does!

In picking an online source of coffee-via-mail, look for a specialty coffee name brand, like Peet's, Stumptown, Dancing Goat (formerly Batdorf & Bronson) or Raven's Brew. Another good option is to cruise CoffeeReview.Com - the website that does nothing but review and profile better coffees. This is an excellent learning resource and starting point for finding who is close to you geographically in Coffee World.

Accessories - Gadgets - More: The number one coffee gadget or extra for the espresso-coffee lover is the Reg Barber coffee tamper. Sure it is 50$ or more, but it is light years ahead of the plastic toy that comes with most (if not all) espresso machines.
Other tools that you can use in the kitchen are, get this, bristle brushes from a craft store - I use them for cleaning the nooks and crannies of the grinder.
The Pallo Coffee tool from EspressoParts.Com is a must-have and it is perfect as a stocking stuffer.
No Espresso machine-Grinder combo is complete without an espresso knock-box - also from EspressoParts.Com.
Cups and Saucers? Always a great gift. The average coffee lover can never have too many coffee, cappuccino, latte and espresso cups. Go take a snoop over at Fantes.Com - and if you are a foodie or kitchen hound, Fantes.Com has a selection of kitchen things that is simply staggering.
I could go on and on and on - but I will let you use your imagination.
I have always been a big fan of Peet's Coffee (and I have never had any kind of business relationship with them) and I have a closet full of Peet's wear! Their T-Shirts are awesome and look great on the coffee lover.

Coffee that is beyond coffee: If you like how coffee makes you feel on the inside - how about the buzz you would get on the outside from a real coffee body scrub? In partnership with Wisdom's Essential Elements of Victoria, we have created an actual product - Coffee Karma Body scrub - which is an historic first for us. I was one of the beta testers of this product - a product tested on many friends and family - and NOT tested on any animals!

In Part two of the 2007 Festive Season Buyers guide we will talk about drip coffee and how you can experience... better drip coffee. We will also talk about alternative methods and all of the associated gadgets. There is more to come with this article as I think of more stuff. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments - jump into our discussion forum on this subject -

Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada. Specialty Coffee has become his lifelong passion and he takes great pleasure and pride sharing his knowledge with everyone.