Breville BES920XL, Part 4.

This is my third review, but now with a better grinder and no pressurized portafilter:

  1. – Shopping
  2. – Just Arrived
  3. – Down the learning curve

And now I have a new grinder. With the new grinder, coffee is ground fine enough that it visibly clumps. With the non-pressurized basket, it reaches 9 bars of pressure, right in the correct range. Espresso shots now look like espresso shots, about the right volume and similarity to mouse tails. I’m going to have to learn how dial in a shot, if I drink the espresso straight, it’s a bit sour at the moment.

Mornings, I’ve been making Vegan Lattes. Only soy so far can steam with any similarity to dairy milk. On the other hand, if you really don’t like bubbles, it’s a feature, not a defect! It’s almost a flat white!

Since there is enough crema to notice, I’ve notice that if I pour the milk right, the crema layer doesn’t break and stays intact until the top. I’ve watched the video on how to do fancy pouring, but I don’t have enough microfoam to work with.

One of the features of the BES920XL is the double boiler. There are a few time metrics that baristas mention on YouTube:

  • Time the espresso sits after finishing pulling it (The espresso’s flavor and odor is volatile and evaporates quickly)
  • Time the milk spends after leaving the fridge (else the milk warms up)
  • Time from when the shot starts until you start drinking your coffee (else you get cold coffee)

A double boiler brings helps shrink these times, but you have to multitask and watch several things at once. I’ve started steaming as soon as I hit the 2 cup button.

In the evenings, I make “Foggy Bombay”, which is steamed milk & decaf chai tea.  The Mrs prefers Foggy Bombays.

The toddler prefers to drink steamed milk straight from the pitcher right after it get steamed. I was sort of surprised, but it makes sense, steamed milk is not far off body temperature and that’s what babies and toddlers are used to.

The espresso at the office got worse. I finally noticed that the espresso pods at the office have stale coffee and are pulling over extracted espresso by last quarter of the pull. Sigh. But, on the plus side, creamer fixes everything. I can’t detect any defects in espresso con panna.

Next, I will learn how to use all those programmable buttons to adjust temperature and other fine tunings.

Second Impressions of Breville BES920XL

My new grinder is on order, so I’ve been using the pressurized baskets. I can get a reliable drinkable shot, but it doesn’t much resemble the one the La Marzocco one at La Mano makes.  On average 2 shots is stronger than my usual 1 teaspoon of instant & 1 shot at the office.

I’ve made steamed milk with almond, coconut and soy milk. So far, soy milk performs the best. I’m pretty sure this is a protein thing– only soy milk has the high protein levels you find in cows milk. I don’t have a suitable wet rag for the steam wand. I’ve been trying to use wet paper towel, but that hurts the fingers most of the time.

The toddler likes drinking the steamed milk. For the afternoons and evenings, I’ve been making decaf chai with steamed milk.

The instructions report a 15 minute warm up time. I have no idea what they are talking about. That must be the warm up time in the dead of winter in a cold house. In DC in the summer, it warms up in what seems like 5 minutes.

The top warms up dramatically, but so far I haven’t achieved warm coffee cups. I’m wondering if this is a silly sales man story. “Buy this $$$ machine, and hey it will warm your cups if you set them on top!” But now that the tanks are insulated and the machine, sensibly, shuts off after an hour or two, your cups don’t warm up. I happen to have some metal espresso cups, so I’m going to see if they warm up faster than the ceramic ones.

So far, I would say the machine is performing at expectations. One the new grinder gets here, I’m optimistic it will surpass expectations

First Impressions BES920XL Breville Espresso Machine

So I followed the instructions and fired it up with help from my 2.5 year old assistant barrista.

Incompatible Grinder
This must be why Breville sells an espresso maker with a built in grinder, at least they can tune that machine to work well with that built in grinder. But that isn’t the machine I bought.

My Capresso Infinity grinder can’t grind coffee fine enough for this machine, Seattle Coffee’s online description agrees. I have no idea how my older Gaggia Baby was doing it, I suspect that when it was creating coffee with crema, it was because the portafilter basket holes were clogged & it was creating an accidental pressurized basked. Pressurized baskets have only 1 tiny hole open, which compensates for coarse grind or tamping problems. Or the Gaggia’s portafiliter was secretly a pressurized system all along– don’t know.

With what I thought was a fine grind, when suitably tamped, trimmed, etc, results in a shot that pulls in ~ 10 seconds, always less than 1 or 2 atmospheres, sort of like a rushed pour over. A single shot overflowed the cup. The taste was not as bad as the stale coffee, but sure wasn’t like visiting the local espresso shop.

Stale Coffee
With the pressurized basket you can get crema from ground, not obviously stale coffee. But the espresso machine brings out the stale flavor notes. The previous day I’d made drinkable drip coffee with this ground coffee & running it through the espresso machine made it undrinkable.

I haven’t tried my good coffee with the pressurized portafilter, but I will report back tomorrow.

Steamed Milk
The milk steamer does fine. I had almond milk, which I didn’t have great hopes for, it creates a small amount of foam. The proper vegan espresso milk is Soy, I’m guessing a *high protein* soy, but I haven’t confirmed. Anyhow, I was fresh out, so I’ll have to report back later.

“Razor Trimmer”
This struck me as sort of a training device, so you can learn how not to overfill the portafilter basket. I doubt it makes a detectable difference unless it is grossly under or over dosed.

Anyhow, until I get the grind right, no point in working with the other tunable settings, like temperature and so on.

Espresso Machine Shopping: The Decision

(Note, I haven’t received my new machine yet, so this isn’t a review yet!)

I used to own a Baby Gaggia. I probably didn’t descale it at the right intervals, and even if I did, it appears that semi-automatic machines in general last about 4 or so years.  This machine worked for several years before it started to leak around the brew head (youtube says this is probably a bad gasket, they wear out). Also, flow dropped to about nothing. It returned after descaling, but then about a week later, no flow again. Forums suggest that this might have been bits of aluminum from the descaling clogging up the downstream holes and pipes.  The internet also says, of the three materials for tanks, aluminum, brass and stainless steel, aluminum corrodes the worst and fastest and is the most difficult to descale without damaging the tank.

Aluminum also accumulates in the brain and is associated with dementia. I’ve already eliminated all other sources of aluminum from my diet and environment, so I can’t really justify repairing this machine if it’s going to be putting aluminum flakes into my coffee. I don’t think I want to repair and sell it either. So with a heavy heart, it’s going to landfill.

What to get instead?

I got a bit of analysis paralysis. In order of complexity, here is what I considered:

Caffeine pills. I got a jar in the cupboard. I really only use them in emergencies.
Instant coffee. Reminds me of Europe, otherwise, not much to report.
Greek coffee. This is cooked in a pan on the stove. Never tried it, seems like it would be gritty.
French press. Too strong. My press is a bit broke and now I have try to filter it or deal with great gobs of grit.
Moka pot. Too strong. I don’t like the powder at the bottom of the cup.
Espresso from a cheap machine (those $50 ones). I used one like this for years. I think it was mostly ruining perfectly good coffee.
Another $400 espresso machine. These give you three or four variables to work with- beans, grind, tamp, pull time and that is about it. You get little feed back about if it is too hot, too cold, over pressure or what have you. These only have one year warranty and seem to have a lot of problems as if corners are being universally cut and the machines are trying to do something their parts are made for.
A step above that, which is something like a Breville BES920XL, which is what I ultimately chose, ~$1200 after discounts.
After that is the superautomatics that grind and brew coffee and steam milk on the press of one button. That’s boring. And those machines break down a lot as witnessed by the large number of superautomatics that are on sale as refurbished.

At the time, I was reading the Self Illusion, a book that reminds me that our brain is less unified than it seems. Parts of our brains make decisions and the conscious, internal monologue part *rationalizes* it, comes up with reasons to support a decision made by the non-rational part of the brain.

My toddler *loves* the coffee machine, especially the numerous steps to make coffee. He is going to really like the BES920XL. So maybe that was the clincher for my unconscious decider.

People are repairing the machine. This means if it breaks, repair costs are low enough to warrant getting it fixed. One website implied a repair of a semiautomatic could run ballpark $150-$200, or about 1/2 to 1/4 the price of a new machine. So if it’s similar for a BES920XL, then in 3 or 5 years, I’ll just pay $200, get it repaired and it will run for another 5 years.
The machine comes with 2 years warranty. Amex extends that by a year. I ultimately bought it from Seattle Coffee, which also extends the warranty by a year, so I’m sort of double warrantied for the 3rd year.

Who to Buy From

I considered Macy’s, William Sonoma, Amazon, and Seattle Coffee. Macy’s offers Plenti points, which would have been worth around $30, but I couldn’t get a 10% discount. William Sonoma offered a 10% discount if I joined the mailing list.

Amazon offers via 3rd parties and one of them, iDrinkCoffee, was like $300 under the rest. It turns out that iDrinkCoffee is in Canada, which normally is fine, but that means me, an American, would have to pay around $80 in import taxes, $30 in currency conversion fees for Amex, (or $0 with Discover, but Discover doesn’t extend warranties.) Speaking of warranty, machines bought in Canada sometimes (always?) have to be serviced in Canada. And it turns out that electricity is a bit different in the US vs Canada, so the machine might actually be different– I have no idea about that tho. In short, I decided I couldn’t go with Canada.

I also decided to not get a damaged box unit from Amazon– it was $100s less, but was either no warranty or a few month warranty. So that was out.

When 1/5 of the reviews are people discussing breakdowns and repairs (I’m talking about all coffee machines, not just Breville) it follows we should take warranties serious.

I finally chose Seattle Coffee.  I tried to get the 10% discount, but instead got a 5% discount. It felt sort of like haggling with a machine. Seattle Coffee also offered a lot of freebies, like $100 gift card, free shipping, and so on.  Another deciding factor was the Seattle Coffee youtube vids– go watch them, they are obligatory for any modern coffee shopper– this isn’t a bottle of caffeine pills your buying here, there are a bunch of knowledge points you need to pick and use a machine.

I’ll be financing it with Amex. I happen to have just opened an Amex account, so I get free credit for 1 year. I wanted to create a sinking fund to pay it off, but the bank is offering 0.01% interest. That isn’t 1 percent, that is 1 percent of 1 percent interest.  So a sinking fund would get me about 12c. Other banks offer 1%, whoo! Fortunately the stockmarket tanked, so maybe I’ll buy $1200 of stocks.

Anyhow, it should arrive in a few days, so I’ll have an excuse to blog again.

Come on, do you want to live forever?

Well, yes actually. On my mom’s side, just about everyone got a stroke. So I decided I should pay some attention to strokes. The data from the low fat crowd is pretty interesting. So I tried to find a chart on blood cholesterol and stroke. And I find every crackpot and opposing view possible…

So, lots of arguments about dietary fat. I think the pro and anti fat camps can only agree that it appears to be a key nutrient.

So if you are vegetarian or vegan, you can still eat a high fat diet [can as in, nothing preventing it], except it will probably have less cholesterol and saturated fat. But the new thinking is possibly all fats make the arteries unhappy. So that means you’d need to cut out all the fat, except 10%

Interestingly, if you have fantastic arteries, you can abuse other parts of your body. And probably vica versa. If you don’t smoke, don’t drink, but do everything to abuse your arteries, then you might last longer than you’d expect looking at your fat consumption alone. I think this explains the wild cross-country differences for fat intake. For example, some parts of Russia are low fat consumers (I find this hard to believe, you can’t go any where to eat anything without it being accompanied by meat), and they die at a high rate. I think this is probably more likely a reflection of the collapse of public health after the fall of the Soviet Union. They couldn’t get consumer products to everyone, but command and control authoritarians made sure everyone got basic health care and vaccines.

Also, you are going to die from something. When you switch to being a veg*n, you have a clear conscious and clear arteries, but something is going to kill you. Now you might get a new kind of stroke driven by homocysteine– which is treated by upping your vitamin B intake. Let’s imagine we did that. As soon as you fix that, something else is in line to break.

Take sugar for example. Back when I was casually following a low fat diet because it was a fad, I notice fat in *packaged goods* got replaced with sugar and other carbohydrates. So if you fix your arteries, you might be stressing out the pancreas.

And the plants are trying to kill the herbivores  and the farmers are trying to kill you and the bugs with pesticides, veg*n may need to watch out for stomach cancer.

But even if you eat organic and avoid things that are trying to kill herbivores (bitter plants for example), you still are going to die from something.

I bet I’ll follow all the advice, and get cancer and someone will do a study on me and say, “Well, healthy living is correlated with cancer, lets just binge on cookies, cakes, pop and greasy frozen TV dinners” At least you won’t live long enough to get cancer.


Shopping for an espresso machine

My steam powered Krups machine died.  It went BOOM, the glass carafe broke, the cat jumped about 3 feet backwards, and the machine never made coffee again.  It lasted maybe 15 years, but not all those years was I a daily coffee drinker.

The internet said my steam powered machine wasn’t really an espresso machine because it produced low pressure steam.  I kind of agree, my drip machine often produced better tasting coffee.  But ignorance was bliss and it made better coffee than Folger’s instant.

I’ve read tons of consumer reviews.  My conclusion is that all espresso machines have limited lives and can fail at any time. So I have to pay attention to the quality of the retailer to make sure they have take backs or service.  And warranties.  And maintenance.  Because the machines submerge parts in water, over time the water will try to destroy your machine.  Machines differentiate themselves based on what strategy they use to resist the water.

I’ve watched a ton of espresso movies posted by ordinary people on youtube. This has got to be a most peculiar variety of movie.  Many of them are video complaints about an espresso machine that broke, the rest are tutorials and show-offs.  There are about 30 factoids you need to absorb to make reasonable espresso. O  r so they say.  Many people are inadvertently showing off the fact that they don’t known the customary recommendations for making espresso.

I’ve learned that espresso machines can take a long time to warm up and can use a lot of electricity, but it a lot for a short time, so it still doesn’t amount to a lot compared to the dryer, electric stove, and heaters.

I’ve learned my blade grinder is probably making my coffee worse.  Blade grinders create chunks and powder, burr grinders create a lot of coffee particles the same size.

I’ve learned that the most common number used to differentiate espresso machines at home goods store is a crock.  All espresso machines, (except mokka and steam) brew at about 8-12 bar, usually the lower of that range.

I’ve learned that espresso machines all have the same design, but vary by parameters.  This is great for the industry, they can serve consumer niches from coffee shops to gourmets to nitwits with too much money.  Now comes the big question: what niche am I in?

Wine Review: Fabbioli Cellars Tre Sorelle

I got this wine by asking if there were any Virginia Organic wine growers.  The shop keeper said that Fabbioli had a reputation for being a responsible grower or possibly near-econoganic.  The Tre Sorelle was very tasty and my cat decided it smelled pretty good.  My favorite red wines are Tempranillo Red wines, so it was nice to find a new wine that tastes good but isn’t a repeat of an old favorite.

I can’t tell if you can save money by buying direct, but you can save money by returning their Raspberry Merlot bottles. Tomorrow I’ll check at the farmers market in Falls Church and see how the prices compare against the website.

DC Locavore, some partial notes

To be a locavore, here are some topics you’d need to research:

Why. Local food is all about sustainability. Civilizations do collapse from time to time and our is not exempt. Our food system is based on petroleum. If that supply of petroleum is interrupted, either by running out or losing a war in the middle east then Iowa and California will stop shipping food like they used to. When I was discussing this with my son, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it–this is scary.” I think that is the crux of the problem when you see people on the internet reacting violently against the local food movement.

While Iowa and California have a comparative advantage at growing animal feed and vegetables respectively– this comparative advantage is unsustainable. But the economy gives consumers only one signal for efficiency and sustainability: price. If given the choice between subscribing to a supply of food that will be initially cheap and then disappear forever and a supply of food that is expensive and last forever it would be false economy to rely on the former. The problem is that price gives us no signals on the sustainability of supply.

Rational humans do care about sustainability–in fact many of the moral arguments for saving and investment are based on sustainability arguments. Hence, it is rational to favor a sustainable food supply over a unsustainable food supply even if it is more expensive.

Geography. Measuring distance is tricky. Personally, I think anything shipped over water (such as shipping wine from Spain to DC), should be considered more local than shipping it over land (such as shipping wine from California to DC). Food on major transit routes should be considered more local than food that is local but has significant geographic barriers (such as mountains or sparse roads). At the very least, one should learn the names of the counties. Food is also normally shipped through hub and spoke shipping centers, so to ship food from say 1 block away from your grocery store to the grocery store, it will still go through a distribution center, possibly hundreds of miles away.

CSA and PYO. That means Community Supported Agriculture and Pick Your Own respectively. CSA gets the transaction costs for farmer’s market food down to an affordable amount. Some of the economies of scale lost by using a local producer are regained by increasing the transaction size. Pick Your Own shifts the labor onto the consumer to make labor intensive products like raspberries affordable.

Comparative efficiency of local goods versus distant ones. If you are living in Murmansk, Russia, growing oranges locally is just as unsustainable as shipping them from around the world. Crops that are local block busters are likely to be efficient, for example peanuts in Virginia.

Cooking. Most people cook about a dozen recipes at most, over and over and over. Changing to a diet that uses local foods means tracking down some new blockbuster recipes that use local foods.

Locally grown vs locally processed. If you are eating locally raised dairy or eggs that ate food that was shipped around the world, how local is that? Processing is where most of the value is added to the raw materials. It isn’t clear where the best place to process something is, we do know that factories are most efficient when they are very big. Since petroleum factories are not all that sustainable, we might as well process foods where ever it is most efficient and prices should accurately reflect that. If it is cheaper to ship coffee from Kenya to New York for processing then ship it to DC, then that is what we should do. Thinking about coffee processed in Virginia is asking the wrong questions. The better question is how to make coffee out of locally grown chicory and tea.

Countries, States, Counties. Hawaiian coffee is no more local than Kenyan, don’t be fooled by the fact that you live in the same country as the former. With distribution centers, food bought at stores probably is all just as local (travelled just as far), for your entire quadrant of North America.

Distant Organic vs Local Organic. Consumers have to send a signal to producers somehow. Just like I wouldn’t want to buy products made with slave labor, I don’t want to buy products that involve factory farms (hyperdense livestock feedlots), GMO (it’s about intellectual property laws more than health risks), and I do want to buy products that involve fair trade, organic production, etc.