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January 16, 2007 > Welcome to the world of high-end home coffee

Welcome to the world of high-end home coffee

By T. SUSAN CHANG

In an era when $5 fancy coffee drinks are the norm, a growing number of people are willing to invest $1,000 or more to make the perfect cup of coffee at home.

Seduced by the gleaming, multi-levered, counter-hogging machines that have begun crowding catalogs and showrooms, more people are willing to spend more money (sometimes significantly so) in pursuit of that perfect cup of Joe.

Consider this the centerpiece of the consumer revolution in coffee. A generation ago, a cup of coffee meant a bottomless mug at the diner, an over-boiled brew from the home percolator, or even _ shudder _ a spoonful of instant.

Today, it's not uncommon to find homes better equipped than their local Starbucks. And sensing a trend, the kitchen products industry has worked hard to make sure big spenders have plenty to spend it on.

For example, Cooking.com offers a combination coffee and espresso ``center'' with multiple heads, plumb-in filtration, a volumetric pump and integrated burr grinder. And all for a mere $3,500 or so.

Even bargain-driven retailer Target offers several $1,000-plus machines on its Web site.

And people are buying them. Sales of coffee and espresso machines costing more than $100 jumped by 42 percent during the past year, according to consumer research firm NPD Group. The year before, the growth was just 10 percent.

High-end machines are seeing similar growth. At Internet kitchen goods retailer Cooking.com, sales of espresso machines costing $1,000 or more increased by 56 percent between 2004 and 2005, says spokesman John Gabaldon.

Experts say the trend is a confluence of several long-developing factors in the coffee industry, including the introduction of specialty coffees to the East Coast in the '70s and '80s by coffee pioneers such as George Howell.

On the West Coast, the tech-driven culture of the 1990s helped give rise to coffee bars. And across the nation, Web forums such as alt.coffee and coffeegeek.com helped create communities of aficionados.

All that buzz led to the production of bigger, better and more meticulous machines, creating the perfect partner for tech-savvy, coffee-drinking consumers in search of the latest toy.

And out of this caffeine-driven frenzy arose a passionate subgroup _ espresso drinkers.

Espresso always has been more a technological artifact than a simple beverage. Without high, stable pressure and water temperature, espresso will be sour or bitter, or fail to achieve its distinguishing complex aroma and syrupy texture.

Pulling a shot of espresso (as the making of one is called) is like ``a small-scale shuttle launch,'' says Peter Lynagh, who heads quality control at Howell's company, Terroir, a high-end coffee roaster based in Acton, Mass.

``It's really quite difficult, and you want everything to go right. A lot of these techies have developed the machine, pushed it in a direction far beyond what it was originally. They're very uncompromising, real control freaks,'' he said.

Getting that right is the perfect excuse for spending lots of money on machines up to the task. And if you're going to spend plenty on the machine, you aren't likely to settle for just any old coffee beans.

Howell, whose company specializes in single-origin coffees, says many consumers are even roasting their own beans. These are ``coffee fanatics who drink their coffee like they drink their wine.''

Hugh McMillan is one such consumer. The Salisbury, Conn., computer consultant dates his own coffee obsession to a demonstration of a high-end Jura Swiss automatic espresso machine in a kitchen store three years ago.

``It was absolutely delicious,'' he said. The beans? ``Maxwell House.''

McMillan reasoned that if the results were so outstanding with a commercial brand he'd never consider buying, imagine the results with his own beans.

Today, his gear includes a $1,500 Isomac espresso machine, a Mazzer Mini electronic burr grinder, a professional ``knock box'' and rubber pads for knocking out the machine's portafilter (the filter containing the espresso grounds), an Espro tamper from Canada with a spring mechanism to prevent McMillan from exceeding 30 pounds of pressure when tamping the grounds, and a dedicated milk-frothing thermometer.

All for a 11/2-ounce shot of espresso? For McMillan and coffee lovers like him, it's just the beginning.

Sometimes he substitutes a thermocouple (basically a high-tech thermometer) on a fine string for the milk thermometer. He worries about the angle of his portafilter's handle. He frets when the cows change from summer to winter feed, because the milk doesn't froth as well.

And maybe he should have spent more on his espresso machine.

``Who knows, maybe another $500 would have gotten me a sexier lever,'' he says.

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