…or The Confessions of a Coffee Elitist Wannabe
Review of the Gaggia Synchrony Digital Super Automatic Espresso Machine (April 2009 )
Lots of newspapers are in trouble lately and more and more are becoming extinct each day. It’s been five years since The Brewing News folded and its last issue disappeared from the “newsstands” so in some senses it was a bit ahead of its time. This unemployed journalist went back to his day job but never lost the passion for the aroma of fresh brewed coffee or the desire to try and capture it in words. Along came Opinion8ed and with it a new opportunity to pick up a fresh pound of dark roasted Arabica beans grown in some exotic location, gently squeeze to release a small quantity of vapor through the bag’s one way valve, inhale deeply its ethereal essence and pick up where we left off.
passion (pash en), n. A strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything. To be passionate (even about something as seemingly pedestrian as the daily coffee brewing ritual) is to live.
One of my favorite coffee topics is the question of whether coffee brewing is an art or a science. Many a coffee snob would have you believe the former, maintaining a complex veil of mystery over the process. In fairness to support their case, I place in evidence the following video clip from the World Barista Championship competition.
Pretty entertaining stuff… But as discussed in the accompanying sidebar (Coffee 101: The Science of Brewing) which follows this piece, the truth is that careful attention to a few parameters will ensure extraction of the aromatic flavors without liberating the bitter ones. So it stands to reason that if you can build a machine that will pay as much (or more) attention to those details as you might, especially when you’ve just rolled out of bed or while you’re jabbering on your cell phone or feeding the cats at the same time, you should be able to get a consistently high quality brew every time.
What would such a machine need to do?
1) Grind the fresh roasted beans (sorry, you’ll have to supply those yourself for now) to the precise particle size,
2) measure the proper amount of coffee, tamp it down to the proper density,
3) heat the filtered water to the proper temperature,
4) douse the coffee and let it steep momentarily to awaken the flavor,
5) supply the proper amount of water at the correct pressure and pumping rate,
6) dump the dregs,
7) rinse the system clean and be ready to start all over again- all at the touch of a single button.
And just to show off, it would also: provide an LCD display of its functions, log the number of cups it has brewed, remind you when to take out the garbage (i.e., when to dump out the container of spent coffee grinds), and gently chastise you if its lines get clogged up by deposits in your water. Of course the most important feat for such a device would be flawless brewing of espressos, Americanos, lattes, and cappucinnos of every size, shape and flavor.
Impossible you say? Well, such machines do in fact exist in the form of what’s known as the Super Automatic, for example the Gaggia Synchrony Digital Super Automatic. Granted these things are fairly pricey and you have to be really into your coffee to begin to rationalize. But for around the cost of a 42” flat screen TV you too can be a homespun barista. And if you make your own religiously rather than purchase expensive coffee beverages at Starbucks, you can even get a return on your investment in under two years (assuming 250 cups/year @ $4/drink). Some experimentation and fiddling is needed initially to get all of the settings just right, i.e., to produce coffee just the way you like it, but once you do the thing operates consistently, eliminating the uncertainty and making really good coffee each and every time with very little effort.
My Italian made Gaggia Synchrony is no flash in the pan – it is now about five years old and has over 4000 cups registered on its cupometer (roughly equivalent to 100,000 miles on your car’s engine) and is still going strong. I had some minor problems with it early on related to one of the many sensors that help control the process. It was telling the process chip (i.e., the machine’s brain) and me via the LCD screen that it was out of beans – in other words, Feed Me, Seymour! even though its hopper was quite full (for those of you who don’t get the reference take a moment to check out this clip from the classic, Little Shop of Horrors.
I fiddled around with it myself for a while but then wound up bringing it to the nearest dealer which happens to be located in NYC. The shop was also a trendy coffee roaster with an upscale Starbucks-like barista. I wandered in feeling confident I had found a kindred spirit among fellow coffee elitists to repair my machine so you can imagine my shock and surprise when the shop manager took one look at me with my Gaggia in its oversized original cardboard box and said with a sneer,
“We don’t fix fax machines.”
He was joking of course, putting me in my place as a coffee elitist wannabe – obviously not worthy since I didn’t “pull shots” by hand. As it turned out they couldn’t find anything wrong with the machine and I brought it home scratching my head. I’ve had sporadic problems with this mechanism since but mostly it works just fine. I sometimes think this was just my machine’s way of calling out for attention and I now refer to it (her) affectionately as Audrey III which she seems to like. Needless to say Audrey III is well fed with only the finest and freshest dark roasted Arabica beans.