Tiny Joy March/April 2012: Electric Coffee Brewers/ Using Taste to Determine Roast Level

Electric Coffee Brewers 
Manual and single-cup brewing has exploded in popularity in recent years. There are so many ways to brew a great single cup that the humble automatic drip brewer often gets overlooked and disregarded. There’s good reason for that, too; most drip brewers on the market make under-extracted sour swill, and they’re cheaply made, essentially disposable appliances. But sometimes you just don’t want to mess around with manual brewing and the technique it takes to get a good result.  Fortunately there are a few great options for electric drip brewers made by Technivorm (available in both 8-cup and 10-cup models) and Bonavita.  I’ll focus on the features of both machines that we liked.

Water temperature is probably the most important factor in brewing a good cup. The brew water should be between 195 and 205 °F to properly extract the good stuff from the coffee grounds. Most drip coffee makers on the market only heat the water to about 185 °F, resulting in a flat, dull cup.

Both the Technivorm and the Bonavita have powerful heating elements to boil the water,  and force it up to and through the spray head. The water heats in less than a minute and maintains the proper brew temperature throughout the process.  You want to drink your coffee while it’s still fresh, but the Technivorm and Bonavita thermal carafes keep the coffee warm for a long time. I’ve brewed pots in the morning that I haven’t finished, dumped them out in the evening, and found the coffee inside both carafes to be hot to the touch. Again, it’s not something I would drink, but it’s still hot.

Spray head
The Technivorm features a 9-hole spray head that does an adequate job of saturating the grounds, but it requires a little user intervention to thoroughly wet them. Most models have a filter basket with a 3-position switch to control the flow of brewed coffee. We flip the switch to the “closed” position for the first 45 seconds or so of the brew cycle, give the slurry of water and grounds a quick stir, then open up the brew switch all the way. It might sound like a pain, but it’s easy to include that process in your morning routine. With its 7-hole, 2” diameter spray head, the Bonavita brewer doesn’t require any futzing with the coffee slurry; you can just set it up, walk away, and a few minutes later you’ll have a full pot to enjoy.

Brew time

Some of the drip brewers we’ve tested take a ridiculous amount of time to brew a full pot; the longer the water is in contact with the grounds, the more bitter flavors you’ll extract. Since both the Bonavita and Techinvorm’s heating element heat the water quickly, the overall brew time is only about 6 minutes.

Both machines make excellent coffee.  In a side-by-side comparison, the cup quality was equal, but there are some notable differences between the machines.

The coffee from the Bonavita was much hotter, since the filter basket fits directly on top of the carafe, unlike the Technivorm.  The Technivorm is hand-assembled in the Netherlands, while the Bonavita is made in China. I don’t know if that affects the build quality, but hand-assembly inspires a feeling of confidence, as does the 5-year manufacturer warranty. The Bonavita is new to the market, so we don’t know how durable it is, but Bonavita offers a 2 year warranty, which is still twice as long as most machines.

Both brewers have plastic components, but the stainless steel body of the Technivorm is more attractive in a quirky way. The Bonavita has a glass-lined thermal carafe that some people may prefer to the stainless steel Technivorm carafe. It’s a bit easier to clean as well, since the opening is large enough to fit your hand. The streamlined exterior of the Bonavita is easier to keep clean as well.

Although manual brewers offer a more tailored brewing experience, both the Bonavita and Technivorm brewers make excellent coffee. Besides, there’s nothing better than lingering over a few cups of coffee on a lazy Sunday morning. – Amanda

Using Taste to Determine Roast Level 
One of the key advantages of home roasting is being able to roast to the degree that you enjoy.  So you do not have to accept the commercial roasts out there, whether they are the dark, dark roasts of yesteryear, or the super light roasts that are fashionable these days.

I wrote about Using All Five Senses to Determine Degree of Roast (see the SM Library for the full article) and here I just want to excerpt that and focus on tasting.

While many folks prefer a technical approach to roasting, (measuring time, temperature, bean mass, Agtron color scales, etc), I think one of the most exacting tests you can do is to taste the coffee.

No other sense is as important in determining roast level as the flavor.  The problem is that you can’t brew your coffee until it’s done roasting. Some folks can actually tell quite a bit about roast level by crunching a roasted bean between their teeth and eating it, but the most important information about your roast results must be tasted by brewing your coffee. Rest your coffee for 24-48 hours after roasting before making any judgment about your roast level. If you are really curious and can’t wait, you should be able to roughly assess the roast level by brewing and tasting your roasts once the beans are cooled.  The coffee will not be as enjoyable directly after roasting, so please be patient.

City and City+ roasts generally have brighter and more acidic characteristics.  They should be sweet and if you detect grassy or astringent notes, you’ve roasted too light.  The body or mouthfeel should be light, and if the coffee has any fruit-like characteristics they will be most evident at these roast levels.  Often times, roasts that are this light benefit from longer resting times after roasting.  Try your light roasts after 1 day and 3 days and compare the differences. Jot down a few of your impressions when you first taste a roast, then brew it again after another day or two and see how the flavors may have changed or “opened” up.  Similar to letting wine breath, coffee needs to rest to taste great.

Full City and Full City+ roasts have more balanced and chocolatey characteristics. They should still be sweet but will have a nice bittersweet compliment. If they just taste bitter you may have roasted too dark.  The body or mouthfeel will be more substantial, and if the coffee has fruit-like characteristics they may be a bit more pronounced. When you make tasting notes on your darker roasts, take note of the balance of sweet and bittersweet.

Light Vienna, Vienna, and French roasts mostly have a “roasty” character. Most of the sweetness will be gone and bittersweet flavors will dominate (this is why people often roast to these levels when they intend to add milk and sugar to their brewed coffee).  These roast levels are really only suited for espresso and should not be the goal for most home roasters.  Even if you do drink espresso exclusively we encourage you to try Full City+ roasts for your espresso.  We find them to be so much more enjoyable, with sweetness and fruit flavors that are obliterated in darker roasts. -Josh

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