A Tea Lover in a Coffee World: Review of Baicha Tea Room

Baicha Tea RoomOn a recent quest to find teahouses outside of Seattle proper, and explore lesser-known opportunities for delicious tea, I stumbled upon Baicha Tea Room in Edmonds. This city, which is north of Seattle, has always been full of coffee shops, but actual teahouses have been few and far between. As such, I was excited to discover that there now was one in the area and to get a chance to visit one of our “neighbors.”

Located a few blocks down from the heart of Edmonds, Baicha may be slightly challenging to find if you haven’t heard of it before. However, this hidden gem is definitely worth the trek. According to Ann Budharaksa, who owns the store with her husband Joe, Baicha sells 90 different teas, which include white, green, oolong, black, blooming and flavored and scented teas. Ann and Joe have also concocted some tasty sounding tea lattes and smoothies, the latter of which I’ll have to come back and try once it starts to get warmer. However, Ann says the shop’s most popular teas are their specialty wellness blends that have been created to help alleviate colds, stomach aches, joint pain, hangovers and even skin problems. In fact, Ann and the rest of the staff are more than happy to help recommend a tea to help cure what ails you.

IMG_1314I had the opportunity to talk to Ann further, and she explained that they opened Baicha, which means tea leaf in their native Thai, because her husband was interested in tea and wanted to get into the business. It is not only Joe that enjoys tea though; Ann says she drinks tea every day, varying the type depending on what her mood is. The tea room has been open for a little over three years, as it had its grand opening on the auspicious day of 11/11/2011.  The day must have been lucky indeed, since they have been doing well ever since, with people frequently coming in to study, work just to meet a friend for breakfast or lunch. According to Ann, the store is busiest on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with the peak times being from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. This makes sense since the shop serves breakfast and brunch all day as well as soups, salads, paninis and traditional tea sandwiches.

Tea sandwiches can be surprisingly hard to find at even some tea houses, so I tried a plate of the cucumber parsley cream cheese ones. They were delicious, and came with seasonal fruit (in this case a bowl of strawberries) and chips. I had tea too, of course, and sampled the Pai Mu Tan or “white peony,” which is a white tea. The tea was served in a Bodum glass and infuser, and came with a sand timer so I knew how long to let the tea steep before drinking. When the tea was done steeping, it was a light yellow color and had sweet, floral flavor with a hint of peach.

IMG_1321After snacking on the sandwiches and tea, I decided to check out the rest of the shop at Ann’s urging. The main entrance, and upstairs, of the tea house is where you’ll find the counter for ordering tea and food, as well as a long bar that runs nearly the length of it, where you can sit and sip some tea. Although the upstairs is fairly small, there is also plenty of seating along the windows as well. However, as Ann pointed out, the downstairs area of the store is really what makes the tea shop unique. The space is surprisingly large, especially when compared with the upstairs, and is somewhat unexpected. In fact, the downstairs is large enough to house three rooms; a large room with a long table that would be great for meetings or studying, medium-sized room with cozy couches and a fireplace and a small side room with a fish tank and love seat. The décor in the rooms is modern, with an Asian feel. There are also canvases with pictures of tea or tea kettles hanging on the lightly colored walls that lend a calming vibe to the space. Every room looked so inviting, I actually had a hard time choosing where to sit. With so many options for seating, tea and food, it is no wonder so many people have made this tea room their secret spot for relaxing and hanging out. I just may have to make Baicha Tea Room my secret hideaway as well.

Crew Review: Capresso EC PRO

Capresso EC PROSmall in stature, but not short on fundamentals, the Capresso EC PRO is one of our newest espresso machine friends. The machine’s compact footprint makes it perfect for small kitchens where there is limited counter space. However, just because the EC PRO is diminutive in size, doesn’t mean it can’t make a great latte!

In fact, while some semi-automatic machines have a steep learning curve, the EC PRO is incredibly easy to use. Even if you are used to brewing on a superautomatic machine, like myself, you will quickly be able to get the hang of using this machine. Unlike some machines that have a number of buttons that can be confusing to figure out, the Capresso EC PRO has just two buttons, besides the power button, brew and steam. Thus, whenever you want to pull a shot or froth your milk, all you have to do is get your portafilter or milk frothing pitcher in place, select which option you want and away you go!

To make your brewing even easier, the machine comes with a pressurized portafilter so you don’t have to worry about perfecting your grind and tamp. Although, when testing this machine, we did find it helps to lightly tamp the coffee in the pressurized portafilter before brewing to get a better quality shot. If you are a more adventurous barista and really want to work on fine-tuning your shots, you aren’t out of luck with this machine, as the EC PRO also comes with a bottomless portafiler. This allows you get a better look at your shot as it comes out of the machine and note things like channeling, and adjust your grind, dosage and tamp accordingly if your extraction is messy. The upside is, once you have gotten these three variables down, the shot will look beautiful as it pours out of your machine.

To learn a few additional pointers about brewing on this machine, watch as Gail and Kris discuss it features.

Crew Review: Capresso EC PRO

Advanced Menus on the New Breville Dual Boiler and Oracle

Breville Oracle BES980XL

Breville Oracle BES980XL

new Breville Dual Boiler BES920XL

Dual Boiler BES920XL

A couple of you have requested that we discuss some of the advanced features on the new Breville Dual Boiler and Breville Oracle and compare them to the first Breville dual boiler. Ask and you shall receive! We got these two espresso machines together in a room, unlocked their advanced menus and played around with them.

The main difference between the Dual Boiler BES900XL (first generation), the Dual Boiler BES920XL (second generation) and the Oracle BES980XL (third generation) is that both the second and third generation machines have two new features in their advanced menu options. The first feature is the capability to adjust the temperature (from 265-285 degrees Fahrenheit) on the steam boiler so you can get hotter (or cooler, if you prefer) milk. The second feature is the ability to choose whether your extraction is based on time or the amount of espresso produced, instead of having the extraction be based strictly on time as on the BES900XL.

The advanced menus on both the new Breville Dual Boiler and the Oracle are easy to get into. To access them on either machine, simply hold down the single shot button and press power. Once you are in the advanced menu, you will be able to scroll through the options for adjusting your machine’s settings. These features are pretty similar on both machines, as they enable you to tweak the factory settings, descale, alerts and sounds in addition to the steam temperature and extraction settings as we mentioned before. However, you will find the Oracle has a few extra choices, such as settings for how fast the pump comes on for steaming your milk, the contrast on the LCD screen, fan and others. For more information, check out our video and let Gail guide you through how all these options work and how to change them.

SCG Tech Tips: Breville Oracle (BES980XL) & New Breville Dual Boiler (BES920XL) Advanced Menu

Brewing Tea on the Capresso EC PRO Espresso & Cappuccino Machine

Capresso EC PRO Espresso & Cappuccino Machine

Ground black loose leaf tea in a pressurized portafilter.

Through the magic of the Internet, we heard that people have been using their espresso machines to brew black tea. This sounded like an interesting concept to us, and we were curious to see if it would work. People have been known to brew rooibos (also called red espresso) this way, and have even started whole cafes based on this idea. So why wouldn’t it work with black tea? We decided to put this theory to the test and use the Capresso EC PRO Espresso & Cappuccino Machine to brew Ceylon O.P. by Danmann Freres Teas.

To make the tea, we filled the machine’s pressurized portafilter up to the first line inside with the loose leaf black tea. Then we loaded the portafilter into the machine, and started the extraction. We let the extraction go long, about 30-40 seconds, until the cup was mostly filled and the brew started to become clearer. The tea that was produced had a good aroma and was medium orange-brown in color. However, when we sampled the tea, the flavor was not bad, but definitely weaker than normal.

Crema on top of the second cup of tea.

Crema on top of the second cup of tea.

Not ones to be easily defeated, we were curious what would happen if we ground up the tea leaves before dosing them into the portafilter. To grind the tea, we grabbed the Hario Skeleton (Skerton) Coffee Mill, and set it to a coarser grind setting since we were using a pressurized portafilter. After grinding a couple of teaspoons full of tea we noticed that many of the tea leaves were passing through the grinder whole, so we readjusted our grind to be much finer. We were a little concerned that the tea was now too fine and would choke the portafilter, but we decided to go ahead and try it anyway.

Once again we loaded the portafilter into the Capresso EC PRO and started the extraction. We immediately noticed the tea was coming out much darker in color this time around. Suddenly we began to notice a different color coming out of the portafilter – there was a crema on top of the tea! While having a crema is not unusual for rooibos brewed on espresso machines, we were surprised we’d get the same effect with black tea. After about 30-40 seconds, we stopped the extraction. The color of the tea was much darker in comparison to the first cup we made, and topped with a thick, foamy crema. This time around the tea tasted exactly like it should, as if it had been steeping for three to five minutes.

pressurized_tea12

The lighter tea (top left) was the first cup we brewed. The dark one (bottom right) was the second.

We were (pleasantly) surprised to find you can brew a decent up of tea using a semi-automatic espresso machine and a pressurized portafilter. If you are going to try this experiment yourself we highly recommend grinding your loose leaf tea into smaller particles, since that gave us the best results. We only tried this experiment with black tea, so we aren’t sure if this technique will work to brew other types of tea, such as rooibos or herbal infusions. We also haven’t tried brewing the tea with a different machine or tested to see if brewing tea on an espresso machine is faster than brewing with a kettle. If you try this experiment with different variables, let us know in the comments. I sense more tea experiments in our feature!

Semi-Automatic vs. Superautomatic Espresso Machines

superautomatic espresso machinessemi-automatic espresso machineIf you are coffee connoisseur (or at least a budding one) by now you’ve probably heard about semi- and superautomatic espresso machines. You’ve likely also heard that there are some differences between the two when it comes to operating them. However, you may have wondered, “What really makes a semi-automatic espresso machine (besides being able to create a really good shot) different than a superautomatic (which is often described as more convenient) machine?” T o clear up any lingering questions, we decided to explore these two types of machines in a little more depth, so you can see what factors make these machines unique. And of course, ultimately determine which is right for you.

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Semi-automatic machines are generally the most popular choice for consumers who are looking for a “traditional” home espresso machines. These machines feature a boiler, portafilter and a switch to activate/deactivate the pump to perform the extraction. It is this last feature that puts the “semi” in automatic, if you will. While the other features are automated, you have control over when the extraction begins and ends. There are also semi-automatic machines with programmable doses that allow you to program the extraction to stop after a certain length of time.

Brewing

As we discussed above, whether you flip a switch or program in when you want the extraction to end, with a semi-auto you have control of the water flow for every shot you make. Why is this a good thing? It provides you with opportunity to perfect your shot. For instance, if you create a good looking shot but it’s pouring slowly, you can let your pump run longer to provide more time to complete the shot. On a superautomatic you usually don’t have this option. Superautos usually have a preprogramed time for shots that determines when to end them, which could potentially cause shots to end too soon.

Portafilters and Grinders

Another key component of using a semi-automatic machine is using a portafilter to insert the coffee into the machine. There are a couple of different styles of portafilters that can come with a machine, but the two basic types are non-pressurized or pressurized.

Non-pressurized portafilters are usually larger (58 mm) sized and made with chrome or chrome plated brass. This provides the heftiness that is necessary for temperature stability, which makes it possible to create a better shot of espresso. However, this design requires that you have a very precise grind and tamp. This can make non-pressurized portafilter harder to use, since it is more technical, but many people claim it is worth the effort since you can get a really great shot – if you have the right equipment. For this reason we recommend that you get a good grinder (which we’ll discuss more later) if you get a semi-automatic machine.

Pressurized portafilters use either a valve or special filter basket that will not let water out of the portafilter until the right amount of pressure has been reached. This allows the portafilters to compensate for an imperfect grind or uneven tamp, which make them a good option for people that don’t have a grinder or who are using pre-ground coffee.

Finally, if you want to get into ESE pods you’re in luck, since many semi-automatics accept them. You can purchase baskets that will allow pods to fit into pressurized and non-pressurized portafilters or can even find portafilters that are designed specifically for pods.

Most semi-automatic machines do not come with a built in grinder. We won’t say all, because there are a few that do, like the Breville Barista Express, but most do not. This means that you will either have to get a separate grinder or use ground coffee beans to dose your portafilter. If you want to be able to play around with your grind and tamp to achieve that perfect shot, you will want to get a non-pressurized portafiler and a really good grinder. In fact, it’s best to start out with as high of quality grinder as you can afford, since the grinder is more important than the machine when it comes to getting good shots. On the other hand, if you don’t want to get a grinder or have to tamp your coffee, a pressurized portafilter will be the best option for you.

Frothing/Steaming

There a couple of different types of boilers you can find in semi-automatic machines and, depending on which you choose, it will impact whether you can brew and steam at the same time. Generally, smaller and less expensive machines will contain a single boiler. This helps keep the machine’s footprint small, but it also means that you won’t be able to brew your coffee and steam your milk at the same time. However, mid-range or higher end semi-autos will usually have a thermocoil, heat exchanger, single boiler with a thermoblock or a dual boiler. All these options, with the exception of the thermocoil, have a bigger boiler or even two boilers allowing you to brew and steam simultaneously.

Semi-automatic machines usually come with a traditional steam wand, which require you to “work” the milk a bit in order to get a good froth. While there is a slight learning curve to frothing milk, it isn’t as hard as it seems. In fact, some people prefer having a traditional steam wand, since it again provides them more control over how to the final product turns out. Some semi-autos do come with a panarello wand that injects air into the milk, making the frothing process easier.

Superautomatic Espresso Machines

Often known as the machines that “will do everything but fold your laundry,” superautomatic espresso machines are great for people who like the convenience of being able to make their drink of choice in just a few minutes. While it may be hard to believe, these machines do indeed do almost everything for you including grinding, tamping, brewing your coffee and even steaming the milk for your espresso shot. As a result, these machines are incredibly easy to use and will produce a consistent shot every time, with no muss or fuss.

Brewing

Part of the magic of superautomatic espresso machines is that they make creating your favorite drinks a breeze. The machines all have varying levels of programmability, but some of the most common features on these machines are the ability to adjust your brew temperature, brew volume, extraction time and water hardness. Many machines also have an auto-on function, so your machine will be warmed up by the time you get up in the morning. In addition, some superautomatic espresso machines have one touch pre-set espresso drink options, others have you manually enter your drink selection while others still let you save personalized drink selections.

Most superautomatics come with a built-in grinder, so you don’t have to worry about grinding your beans yourself. Yet this doesn’t mean you don’t have any control over the results. Many superautos will allow you to adjust the fineness and the dosage of the coffee so you can get the flavor and strength you desire. The downside of having a built-in grinder is that while you have the ability to it, there are a limited number of changes you can make. Thus, there is some advantage to having a semi-auto machine that allows you to have a separate grinder, which provides you with an infinite number of grind settings.

Another caveat is that they do not do well with super oily or dark roasts. The oil the beans produce can cause the grinder to clog over time, often doing a number on the machine. Finally, if you want to brew pre-ground coffee, some machines also feature a bypass doser. This feature provides you with the opportunity to brew something besides the beans you already have in the machine’s bean hopper, such as a decaffeinated version of espresso.

Frothing/Steaming

Not unlike semi-autos, there are a variety of options when it comes to what type of boiler is inside your superauto. The most common options are thermocoil heating systems (which don’t give you the ability to brew and steam at the same time), thermoblock heating systems and dual boilers (which do allow for simultaneous brewing and steaming).

Superautomatic espresso machines also offer a couple of choices when it comes to frothing milk. There are machines that use a standard steam wand to froth milk or ones that have a panarello. Some superautos make the process even easier and will automatically froth your milk in a separate carafe or even have a steam wand that will come down and froth your milk right in your own cup.

So, Which is Better?

When it comes down to purchasing a machine, some people use how much maintenance is required to decide what type of machine to get. While this is not a bad factor to keep in mind, you should be prepared to do regular maintenance on either a semi-automatic or superautomatic machine. It’s true that semi-automatic machines do require a little more maintenance, since you will have to clean the portafilters, baskets and shower screen. However, superautos need TLC too, and there are some steps like cleaning the brew group, steam valve and wand and descaling every couple of months that are important to preform no matter what type of machine you have.

Ultimately, what is most important when picking out a machine is determining what you want to get out of your machine and what features are most important to you. Now that you know a little more about each type, hopefully you can figure out which will work best for you.

Crew Review: Breville Dual Boiler BES920XL

breville dual boiler BES920XLWe know heading back to work on Monday can sometimes be a little rough. Especially when you’ve lost an hour of precious sleep due to Daylight Saving Time. However, we have just the thing to remedy this problem – the Breville Dual Boiler BES920XL. With this machine’s dual boilers and two dedicated pumps, you can brew your espresso shots and steam our milk at the same time, allowing you to make our lattes faster for quicker caffeine consumption and absorption.

Part of the series of new machines recently launched by Breville, the BES920XL is an upgrade of the Breville BES900XL. One of the biggest differences, and improvements, over the previous model is the ability to drain your boiler on your own. In the past, owners of the BES900XL had to take the machine into a service center every three years or so to get it professionally descaled, since you had to get to the inside of the machine to do so. Breville realized this was a lot of work, so they designed this version of the Dual Boiler to be a little more user friendly. The Breville BES920XL has two screws in the front of the machine that when released drain all of the water out of the machine. This allows you to descale the machine from the convenience of your own home, saving you time, energy and possible maintenance fees.

Breville has also built a lot of programmability into this machine. Some of the new features provide you with ability to adjust the steam boiler temperature, shot length, extraction time and you can even customize the amount of time and pressure for your pre-infusion. This last feature is pretty sophisticated, as it is not found on many other machines. If that isn’t enough personalization for you, you can also have control over the machine’s audio, maintenance alerts and water hardness.

Since there are so many options for getting your shot exactly the way you want it, the Breville BES920XL is a great machine for users who are really interested in espresso and are comfortable enough to play around with the machine’s different features in order to create a great cup of coffee. Check out the video for Gail and Brendan’s rundown of the machine’s functionality. If you listen carefully, you may even pick up a few tricks for creating latte art.

Crew Review: Breville Dual Boiler BES920XL