Archive for January, 2007

Review: Hamilton Beach


This is the Hamilton Beach home espresso machine. I bought it for $69.00 American. You always hear in the coffee geeking community that you can not get away with making anything close to “real” espresso for under the $500.00 you will have to pay for the Rancillio Silvia. This machine boasts a “15 bar Italian pump”, so I figured I would give it whirl.

As I am writing this review, which I had planed to be favorable, I discover the thing has been recalled for blowing up on unsuspecting consumers. Don’t try to steam milk and pull a shot at the same time, or the steam tube might blow up, causing minor burns in 10% of the complainants. I hope they were all wearing glasses at the time. Let me tell you, this machine can not even steam 3-4 oz of milk up to temperature before it gives out, and that is without the extra resources required to pull a shot at the same time. You would really have to be in the dark about what you were doing to set up the recall conditions. Let’s not even get into the fact that in the steam cycle, the water that comes out at the group head comes in puffs of vapor mixed with spitting droplets of boiling hot water. You have to do some Olympic style surfing to get this bad boy to hit right on a temperature that is satisfactory. This is complicated by the fact that the tank on it is so small that a quick flush of the group head will cause a serious drop in temperature. But juxtaposed with the blistering temp at steam cycle, you have a good opportunity to hop on the elevator at the right floor.

The 15 bar pump is one of those vibe things that reminds me of the “magic fingers” mattresses at humpback motels. If you can rein in all the variable factors (no small feat) and hit it at optimal temp, grind, and tamp, you can actually get a “Bouya!” out of this black box (I swear I have never used that expression before). hamilton shot

This is a shot of Counter Culture’s Aficionado, the underdog of their line-up, which is constantly discounted by many in the shadow of it’s brother, Tuscano. This is what we use day in and day out at the shop, and it stands out well in a commercial environment with it’s ability to be bold and extroverted even in milky lattes. On this little home machine I have been drawing shots at a lower temperature than the shop machine, and this has made it extremely buttery with great body, clear acidity without sourness, with a warm molasses sweetness. There is not PID on the machine at the shop, and I am now wishing that I could lower the temperature on it to get this same slippery mouthfeel I have achieved at home on a $70 fear factor insurance risk.

If you have one of these, do like I do when my wife asks for a latte and warm up 6-8 oz of milk on the stove, and froth up 2 oz on the pathetic steam wand (after removing the plastic froth aid slip-cover). Just don’t try to pull and steam at the same time, you may be taking your live in your hands. Oh, you also have to leave the portafilter in the group head for a couple minutes before removing it to let the pressure drop because there is no 3-way valve. If you act with haste, you will have twice as much clean up to do as the contents 0f the basket will blow out on the machine, the counter, your shirt, and whatever cats and toddlers happen to be walking past at the time. So when I say that my review was meant to be “favorable”, what I mean is that it works very well for the money you will put out. With a little ingenuity and mad skills, you can get a great shot from the Hamilton Beach, just don’t try to get cute with it.

Is That What the Kids Are Calling It?

Please be so kind as to check out this notable blog, The Bean Mines, complete with it’s own glossory to help navigate your way through her colorful prose peppered with wit, sarcasm, satire, and who’s target of frustration (aside from an uneducated coffee consuming market Barbarians) is an un-named corporate entity, subsidiary of some anonymous conglomerate which may or may not be the company you might think it is (isn’t).

The 2nd Place Soy Latte

Justin Teisle, winner of both 1st and 2nd place in the Soy Challenge, is a former Barista of Alterra Coffee Roasters. Here is a photo of the his 2nd place double rosetta. Nice shape, nice flow, nice background.

second place

The Barista as Gymnast

This was prompted by discussions such as this and this and this.

Every couple of months the debate comes up somewhere online concerning the merits of the Barista Competitions as performance vs. microcosm of bar life. On the one side there is the camp of those who say these are silly displays of frilly pansies creating impossible drinks for sternly snobbish coffee aficionado judges. There is, they claim, no parallel between pumping out the well rehearsed one dozen drinks demanded for competition, and preparing an ever-changing flux of tickets in a busy cafe. The argument usually takes the position that because the two arenas are so far removed from each other, the competitions have little to no value as a market driving force (or spectator event, for that matter).

The other school of thought I have seen is something of an apologetic approach, explaining the hidden similarities. A Barista must craft their performance to the taste of the judges, and play to them to score well, just as they must read their customers to serve them well. But I think the best view of this side is to look at it as more of an abstraction of human activity, in exactly the same way that sport is. No one claims that American football is anything like real warfare, but that is what it simulates. Archery is not like hunting because your target can’t get away. Olympic style down hill slalom has absolutely nothing to do with the type of skiing that 95% of most vacationers perform, even on the black diamond hill.

I have to agree that Barista Competitions are nothing like working a bar shift, and I think that they should stay distinctly unique from bar service. One would never expect to see a child on the Jungle Gym performing like Nadia Comaneci, nor would one ever expect to see nothing but somersaults and cartwheels in a championship level gymnastic routine. We easily enough accept this level of abstraction in sports, so why is it so hard to take in competitive food preparation? It is as absurd as proclaiming Picasso to be a poor artist because faces just don’t really look like that.

The Gymnast is an exaltation of the capabilities of the human body. Skills that are basic to all humanity, balance, speed, strength, are taken to a height of development far exceeding the simple necessities of day to day life. That is why it takes an exceptional Barista with a somewhat different skill set to win at these things. The complaint that the winner’s circle is out of reach for the average Barshift Barista is a bucket that won’t carry water. Of course it is out of reach, it is reserved for the freakin’ champion! Besides, the average Barshift Barista can barely draw off a half decent espresso or steam milk without making it smell like baby throw-up. So only those Baristas that have been trained to very high standards can even make the finals. Of those finalists, the winner will be someone who understands the nuances of the rules, knows a lot about the judging (or the judges themselves), and has the presence of mind to keep it together as the focal point of attention.

These distinctly unique skills have brought the occasional accusation of champions having corporate backing, inappropriately close relationships with judges, or the inside track with sponsors. But these are just the people who have made coffee their work and their life. Those who have sought out knowledge of the rules are armed with knowledge, and that is not an unfair advantage. Those who have done roasting know about bean processing and espresso blending; still not unfair. Having made time for rehearsals and practice is also not unfair because finding the time to do it comes at a tremendous sacrifice to other areas of one’s life. These are not unfair advantages because they represent the activities of committed individuals who have busted their asses to figure out how to win. If you just show up with the standard house blend and no creative thoughts for your sig bev, you can not claim any disadvantage. The same coffee world is out there to be raked over and scrutinized, and if you are not saturated in it you just won’t be as well equipped. But that is no disadvantage, it is simply not being as well prepared.

These two things I see come up again and again; competitions are not like real life, and winning is only for the privileged. Both of these ideas are a bit hogwashy. Of course competition are not like real life, and they shouldn’t be. There is no cast system in place for Baristas, you just have to want it enough to arrange your life around it. As for myself, I had become complacent in my attitude about coffee and espresso preparation after working behind the bar for a dozen years. It was not till I decided to compete, and realized how much preparation it would take, that I really developed all areas of my game. The more I saw I needed to know, the more research I did. I have learned more about coffee in the last year than in the previous 10. My skill has come up to what I would call “Competition level”, and that simply makes it impossible to drink espresso at other shops. (edit: shops in my area, you may have good ones where you live)

What does this do for the market and the industry in general? I will be taking a full time job with a roasting company, installing and maintaining equipment, and training as many other owners, managers, and Baristas how to get the most out of their coffee as I can. This I will be spreading around my entire region, and I hope to make as much impact on the front lines as possible. This goes far beyond training the Baristas of just one shop. This is my drop in the bucket, and that has to count for something in elevating the entire industry.

And the Winner Is……..

1st place-#5   Justin Teisl,  student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, with the Tipple Rosetta

2nd place-#4  also Justin Teisl.

An overwhelming majority of votes went for the flash and level of difficulty displayed by the multiple rosettas.

The Champ had this to say about his winning work of art.

“This was poured with Pacific Soy Select, stretched to about 95, final temp 150.
Poured the right leaf first, then the left, then the center, while tilting cup
in hand.”

Justin Teisl

I’ll have more details about the different soys used when I get the chance to write more.  I did not know there were so many brands, and that I have only ever used the worst one for all these years. soy winner

Many thanks to our Soy Challenge Sponsors:


Oh Wonderful Podcast

I just don’t know what I would do without the Podcast. It makes the hours in my cubicle just whiz by as I listen to the latest scientific viewpoints, technological developments, and the arguments put forth by the religious community. Oops, I didn’t meant the PF Podcast, I’m talkin’ ’bout Dr. Zchary Moore, Ph.D.’s Evolution 101 Podcast. I have been listening to thing for the last few weeks, and I am riveted. It reminds me of watching an episode of Cosmos, Carl Segan’s old PBS series.

I don’t care what your religious or spiritual viewpoints are, this guy is worth lending you ear. Maybe next week I’ll turn you on the Urantia Book, too. That is a whole different world.

Darwin chimp