Monday, January 19, 2015

Spilling the beans on super-automatic coffee maker

It grinds, packs, pre-wets and pump-steams to brew a cup of espresso, cappuccino or strong coffee.  After considerable research and sticker shock for some coffee maker brands, we got the Krups® Espressaria EA825000 Full-Auto Espresso Machine. It is moderately priced in its category ($600-700) and well-reviewed on Amazon.com.
Buying and setup is an easy beginning.  Finding the right coffee and right amount of water is a journey.  Our experiences are described below.

[latest update: Dec 2016]

The machine works well.  Appropriately noisy, so you know that it does a bunch of things and that it was expensive.  The unit uses a lot of coffee for one cup, which is typical for all espresso makers, but does allow the amount of water to vary.  While it stops when water runs out and resumes on refilling, I was surprised to see that the grinder and coffee making continue when the unit is short of beans, resulting in a watery drink and wasted grind.  No way to stop once the cycle is underway.
The latter also presents an issue when making cappuccino.  Two attachments to froth milk are included.  One is the usual spigot that draws in air, while the other is a larger, container-based attachment that pulls milk through hot steam, resulting in sumptuous creamy froth.  Best I've ever seen from 1/2% milk.  I prefer to use just enough milk for a single cappuccino, but frothing ends with blasting air after the milk runs out.  Turning off the steam is not immediate, so a mess ensues.  That mess and the cleanup of the container attachment are laborious.  But, great cappuccino!

Onward to coffee beans for a (small) cup of coffee.  

Illy - This was our first try with the new machine and using beans.  Lovely crema ("coffee foam"), with a little burny flavor for some, but very nice to my palate. Regrettably, it is the most expensive, 8oz for $14, and the machine has a serious appetite for beans per cup.  A little sweet brew for some, but generally a balanced flavor.
Busch's Columbia dark -  Taste is too burny, but creates some crema.  Modest price, $10 for 12oz
Busch's Espresso roast- Flavor is pretty good, while creating cup with reasonable crema.  Better than its Columbia dark sibling, with same modest price ($10 for 12oz).
Starbuck's French Roast - Creates a cup with little crema and the most burned flavor so far. The fresh grind seems over-concentrated for espresso machine that employs pump pressure; it may be better for (gravity) drip.  Not suitable at any price ($11).
Starbuck's Espresso - Tast is less bitter than Starbuck's french roast and has more caramel flavor with excellent crema.  It is good for espresso (duh), but also as regular coffee.  For the latter, I use 130ml setting for regular coffee, which makes a strong, but not overly so, cup.
Seattle's Best #5 - This brand is no longer easy to find in my area, but SB already makes our favorite drip coffee (SB#4).  Our local grocery, Busch's, discontinued the brand for shelf space for chain coffee brands (like Dunkin' Donuts) and local favorites (like Zingerman's).  No SB#4 beans in our area, so we tried the darker SB#5 (~$8).  The beans offer modestly intense flavor, but bordering on bitter.  Also, the drink leaves little coffee after taste.  The experience is similar to Starbuck's French Roast (same roaster?), so this bean is not optimal for our machine (and our flavor) either.

Still shaking from all the coffees we tried so far, it is clear that many don't work too well.  Cappuccino is forgiving, so most darker beans will do fine, but a small cup of coffee is much more sensitive.  From the dark roast bunch we favor Starbuck's Espresso for a regular coffee after tuning the amount of water (130ml).  The latter is always key to good coffee, pump or drip.  Not too much, not too little water, which this machine allows one to adjust on the fly.

I'll update as more coffees are tried ......

... A few weeks later (Feb15).
Encouraged by friends to leave national brands behind and try boutique/local coffees, and spend a few more $$ ($12-13).
Higher Grounds - Fair trade, organic medium dark roast.  Surprisingly flavorless and not at all suitable for espresso.  Among the characterless coffees and, frankly, not acceptable for lovely espresso machine.  Relegated the remainder beans to grind for drip coffee, as I hate to throw it away.
Roos Roast - A local roaster who makes a recommended espresso blend.  The fresh (2 weeks) beans smell great and produce a lovely crema.  The flavor, however, is bland and not sufficiently powerful for espresso, let alone cappuccino.  It reminds me of the standard coffee served in the many good restaurants here, so perhaps I discovered the Midwest flavor.  Too bad it is not for me.

... A few more weeks later (Mar15).
And the winner is: Peet's Coffee, Major Dickason's Blend (deep roast).  This CA-based national brand produces a rich, strong flavor with lovely crema, without any burn taste.  Using 120 or 130ml makes little difference for a coffee, while the espresso (50ml) has excellent presence in my cappuccino (I use less milk than typical barrista fare, more cortado+froth style).  The coffee is just a tad less bitter than Starbuck's Espresso (above), which remains a good option too (but not the French Roast).  As a national brand, Peet's (http://www.peets.com/) should be available in several grocery store chains (like Busch's here) and offers consistent roast quality.

Lastly, a point about cost.  Based on measuring dry ground weight per cup of coffee/espresso, the machine requires 2 times that  of a strong (Seattle's Best #4) drip coffee.  Obviously, one gets a stronger and richer drink for that, but, with the ease of making another one, it result in lots more coffee use with this supermachine.  None of this matters now that we found the perfect combination of roast and coffee.
Salute.

... One year later (Jan16).
Machine is still working perfectly fine.  It is used multiple times each day, so well over 1000 cups so far.  I cleaned the system with the tablet that was included, but, as we have soft water, little scaling occurs.  I did notice that the two spouts deliver unequal water volumes, so we stopped making two cups at once.
With regard to beans, I believe that the Peet's Coffee, Major Dickason's Blend roast we liked so much changed sometime last year.  It is not as rich and strong as before (for 120ml cup).  We returned to Starbuck's French Roast at the 130ml setting, which makes a great cup and is consistent in taste and richness.
Also, glad to see that my little write-up has somehow reached a good number of folks.

Update Dec16: FAIL !
Suddenly the unit started to leak coffee from the bottom instead of filling the cup.  Rinse cycle worked OK, but coffee pellet somehow blocked the outlet.  Contacted Krups customer service, who were very helpful (fail occurred exactly on the day of ordering the unit 2 yrs earlier). I was told that dark espresso roast tends to release oils that clog the system and is not recommended for the unit. Hmm, an espresso machine challenged by dark roast.  Krups kindly offered to fix the unit under warranty and it was returned in fine working order about 10 days later.  They returned the original machine based on characteristic scuff markings from prior use, with its insides cleaned or replaced (no repair record included).
One of the commenters on this blog describes the same experience, so this appears to be a systemic problem with the unit (and other such machines, I heard).  Nevertheless, I'll be using the repaired unit as before, although rinsing daily as opposed to a couple of times a week.  Hopefully we'll get another two years of use from the unit, as the daily coffees remain great (still Starbuck's French Roast).