Category Archives: News – Coffee

Fast Coffee vs. Fast Food

Over the past few years, Starbucks has been laying off employees and closing down storefronts to make up for lost revenue during the recession, but they’re also now operating in a more crowded competitive space. Where they once dominated the market for quickly prepped gourmet espresso drinks, larger players are coming to the table and upping the ante.

Competing against fast-food chains, like McDonalds, who’s playing hardball by providing their customers with coffee drinks with all the frills but at a lower cost, Starbucks is trying to lure back their coffee connoisseurs who’ve been bedazzled by fast-food prices by offering free internet and access to e-books and sites that usually come at a cost. They’ve also begun mandating a slow down in service that would limit a barista’s drink prep to just one drink at a time — clearly in an effort to show customers some level of artisan skill in the face of the fast-food, assembly-line approach they used before (and from which they are more actively trying to differentiate themselves). This comes into play even more when you consider the ‘third wave’ coffee movement’s focus on the culinary rather than commodity attributes of the mighty bean.

Another way they’re trying to compete is by making their food options more healthy, reinventing their menu by ‘raising the bar on food to be tastier’ with ‘healthier and lighter options.’ Making baked goods that are healthy but without the cardboard taste, Starbucks has incorporated organic blueberries, a higher percentage of real bananas and has made marshmallow squares less of a guilty pleasure at only 210 calories. But other than slimming down their treats, they’ve also added healthier drinks and lunch alternatives by taking a queue from local farmer’s markets. With basic yet natural options, they now have smoothies and salads (i.e. Strawberry Banana Vivanno and Farmer’s Market Salad) made from real produce, which, again, carry less of a calorie count.

Is this what a Starbucks customer really wants, though? If the company grew to become a competitor in the international food market that is on par with McDonald’s by implementing many of the same operational techniques, can they roll these back in a sufficiently effective way to court customers back to their cafes? And how healthy has Starbucks really gotten when you see statistics comparing a 483-calorie Mocha Frappe Latte with semi-skimmed milk almost on par with a 492-calorie Big Mac?

Coffeebot

What do you get when you have balloons, coffee grounds and a vacuum cleaner? No, it’s not the aftermath of an all-night party, but a fingerless hand called the ‘gripper’ that gives robots the ability to pick-up any object with ease.

An idea led by Eric Brown of the University of Chicago, who teamed up with Cornell University and US firm iRobot, they created the innovative hand with the classic ‘claw’ arcade game in mind — you know the one where you maneuver the claw to pick up a stuffed animal, candy or that one prized Faux-lex watch.

Watch this video and be amazed at how a coffee ground-filled balloon and the suction from a vacuum cleaner can make picking up something as small as a pin or pour a glass of water look like a piece o’ cake.

What will they think of next? Maybe one of these guys will be as common as having a vacuum cleaner in your house to do all the dirty work in a few years.

Nespresso Batteries

Proving that caffeine can get more than just your body going, designers Mischer*Traxler created batteries utilizing old Nespresso aluminum capsules, coffee grounds, strips of copper and salt water. As part of Vienna Design week, the batteries were setup to power clocks displayed in Nespresso Austria’s display window.

In addition to questions of flavor/quality, one of the common concerns folks have about Nespresso machines is the capsules — specifically, are they eco-friendly? They are definitely recyclable, but you need to clean them out beforehand (often more work than some folks want to do) so here’s another option instead. Crush ‘em up and use them to power your alarm clock! We assume no liability when you arrive late to work, however.

Take Two: Jura UK’s Charitable Auction to Benefit Chichis

As they did this same time last year, Jura’s UK division is auctioning off a pink Ena5 to raise money and create awareness of the UK’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. The auction is only available to UK residents, so we sadly can’t get our hands on Barbie’s espresso machine stateside.

For those of you who can participate and love (or love someone who loves) bubblegum-hued accoutrement, you can get your hands on this machine by joining in on the bidding through October 29, 2010. And what feels better than getting an awesome superautomatic espresso machine while also contributing to a good cause? Little else, especially when that cause involves keeping the world filled with bountiful chichis!

Learn more about the auction, the charities it benefits and how to participate on Jura UK’s website.

Too Darn Hot

As we have been tracking over the past couple of years, global warming has been impacting coffee growing regions around the world — from excessive rains leading to flooding to increased temperatures minimizing the available coffee-friendly agricultural regions.

The Guardian now has another update for us: The temperatures are warming enough that they are inviting a lovely little pest, the coffee berry borer, to live in higher and higher altitudes. This little beetle wants the same thing we do — coffee, delicious coffee! — but couldn’t hang with the coffee crops all that often because they preferred a cooler clime than the beetle’s 68F degrees. Warming kicked up temps in parts of Ethiopia’s mountainous growing region to this level in around 1984 and scientists have been tracking the borer’s population expansion ever since — it’s now present in every coffee growing region except Hawaii, Nepal and Papua New Guinea.

Coffee’s commodity price has been slowly increasing as a result of environmental and economic pressures and is at its highest this year. With an estimated $500m damage sourced to the coffee berry borer crew, it will only serve to increase the cost even more.

Nespresso Competition Heats Up

As we wrote about in March, Nespresso’s historically proprietary capsules were slated for competition this summer — and it’s about to get real. Both Sara Lee’s L’Or capsules and the Ethical Coffee Company’s biodegradable capsules have hit the market and Nestle has begun an avid defense of their ~1700 patents on how the espresso is produced on their machines.

With lawsuits in the works and police raids of manufacturing facilities in France, it’s clear that Nestle’s Nespresso business model is designed around a lack of competition. Since we’re ardent supporters of competition and believe it to be in the best interest of the customer, it’s hard for us to empathize with Nestle’s position on this one.

As with the machines themselves, there seems to be different target markets for each of the competitive capsules being produced and that kind of diversity will only serve to increase the reach, accessibility and attractiveness of the equipment itself. If you have people concerned about the environmental impact of the capsules, they can purchase the equipment and go with Ethical Coffee Company’s capsule approach; similarly, if someone is more budget conscious and willing to take a bit of a reduction in quality, it sounds like the L’Or capsules are cheaper but maybe not quite as tasty as the original. In both cases, Nestle should see the competing products as another marketing arm that feeds into their machine sales. Obviously, their model is designed around lower cost machines that are supported economically by capsule purchases over the life of the equipment, but the biggest complaint and ‘no’ factor we see on the retail side is this lack of easily accessible capsules.

On the US front, Green Mountain and Lavazza are in final negotiations to team up and take another stab at Lavazza’s capsule-based espresso in this market, so the competition will be equipment based, as well, within the next few years. In our opinion, both pressures will result in better options for the customer at the end of the day, so we’re all for it.

Field Trip: Uesugi USA – Recycling Center

Where do espresso machines and coffee makers go to die? Not in the landfill, if we can help it! At Seattle Coffee Gear, we launched a recycling program last year in an effort to keep as many fully assembled machines from landing in the trash. Many of these are pretty complex — they have circuit boards, electrical wiring and miscellaneous metals that are best kept out of our ground water supply.

Our partner in this venture is Uesugi USA, a Japanese company that (as luck would have it) have a US presence here in the Seattle-area. We pulled Henry into the mix and headed out to their facility to talk about what they do and see how they take these machines apart, break them down to their components and funnel them back into the commodity supply chain as cleanly as possible.

New! Cirqua AB Formula Water Treatment Capsules

The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) recommends 1.15% – 1.35% coffee solids for an ideally flavored cup of coffee. That leaves ~98% of the flavor up to the water itself — something not a lot of people talk about. Some folks want to reduce the descaling maintenance required by using distilled water or water that is put through a reverse osmosis system that has no mineral content in it, meaning it won’t contribute to scale build up on the equipment.

But thorough testing by scientists much more focused on this than us has revealed that the ideal mineral content for coffee is 150 parts per million (ppm) of total dissolved solids (tds). More than that and you run the risk of under-extracting the coffee (basically, there’s not enough allowable space in the water for the coffee particles to be absorbed) and less than that means you can likely over-extract (there’s too much space and it takes on too many coffee particles).

Commercial coffee operations invest in high end water treatment systems that will ensure they’re using the best possible water/mineral balance to easily make excellent coffee. This is of particular concern to large chains that have cafes in different cities as they can’t rely on the local water’s tap to be the same across the board. Companies such as Cirqua came along to address this issue for cafes, but they understood that most folks that wanted to make coffee at home just weren’t going to invest in a high end filtration system.

So they developed this easy-to-use solution that you can employ at home: Add the two capsules (per dosage) to one gallon of distilled water and you have the perfectly balanced mineral water to make an awesome cup of coffee. We tested it out at the store, check out our results:

Giving New Meaning to the Phrase ‘Empty Calories’

This infographic from awhile back laid out the different caloric intake of foods and drinks and the required energy output to balance their input, but we recently ran across this blog entry over at World of Mysteries that evaluated and named what they think are the 20 most harmful drinks in the US. Comparing each drink’s sugar content to another not-so-healthy food, they list several drinks that you’d expect to find on there — and painfully outline some coffee drinks as well.

Ever thought about what sucking down 68 strips of bacon would be like? Stop into your local Cold Stone Creamery to find out. Ijole!

Yeah, we’ll stick with our straight espresso shots, thanks.

New! Everything but Espresso – Scott Rao

In follow-up to his seminal work on professional espresso preparation, The Professional Barista’s Handbook, Scott Rao takes on all the other forms of coffee brewing and gives them their day in the sun. Broken up into three main parts, and supported by a thorough reference bibliography for folks that want to read more, Everything but Espresso covers the following:

  • Part One: Coffee extraction, measurement and methods on improving flavor by changing the brewing parameters
  • Part Two: How to achieve optimal flavor via different brew methods (such as drip, pour over, press pot, steeping and vacuum pot)
  • Part Three: Proper water chemistry and bean storage

If you’re either an espresso aficionado who wants to spread their wings or someone who cherishes their old press pot, this book is the definitive guide to making the best possible brew at home.