The Magic Brewing Machine

Cool new coffeemakers bring out the deeper pleasures of a light roast.

Justin McCarthy opened Velouria Espresso (he made up the name to evoke velvety coffee and to sound Italianate) last summer in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, a neighborhood open to new experiences. He knows by name and drink preferences the tattooed, Mad Men–horn-rimmed young customers I saw come in, bleary-eyed, at noon. McCarthy, who brews only beans from Howell, says he likes to tell customers, “Strong is not a flavor.”

I kept ordering different coffees, less to sample them than to watch the machine, which had the appeal (if not the colored lights) of a vintage jukebox. Every time the screen rose majestically, I half expected a miniature band to be on it, à la Radio City. But the Clover has its limitations. It emphasizes acidity almost excessively, and I frankly preferred the same coffees in a standard Fetco filter-drip, an industrial machine in wide use.

Nosler told me that some coffees are “more forgiving than others,” and that light roasts like Howell’s are “harder to brew” on his machine—a problem he is working on. His main goal is to allow shop owners to “find a market for their gems,” a reference to the high-quality, small-farm beans, including Cup of Excellence winners, that the new breed of café owners seek out like wine merchants. Caroline Bell, who owns Café Grumpy with her husband, Chris Timbrell, invested nearly $25,000 in two Clover machines, despite thinking that she could “buy a car or go on a really nice vacation” instead.

Brewing coffee to order brings some of the personalized glamour of espresso to the usually drab drip coffee, and it allows shop owners to take a chance on an expensive coffee. Prices are usually set by the weight of the coffee used per cup. At Café Grumpy that varies from $2 for a standard coffee to as much as $8 for a rare one. Brewing only in a Clover at the Chelsea shop (the one in Brooklyn still brews in a Fetco, or individually in a plunger pot) was a risk: New York customers might chafe at the wait and at having to pick one of half a dozen kinds of beans. But a wait time one barista estimated at 1 minute 20 seconds, and a staff able to explain the differences between beans, brought Café Grumpy the loyalty Bell had hoped for: “If you’re interested in complex flavors—good complex flavors, I mean—you won’t want anything else.”

Good complex flavors are Howell’s specialty, and ones that dark roasts, with their brute power and body, generally obliterate. Light roasts show best when brewed at high temperatures and relatively quickly. This is why he sells only the Technivorm brewer, a Dutch machine that has long been the gold standard for brewed coffee. I brought a few standard home-brewing machines to Howell’s headquarters for what I thought would be a straightforward taste test against the Technivorm. Peter Lynagh, a young man who moved from Austin to fulfill a dream of apprenticing with Howell, and Vince Fedele, an engineer and longtime Coffee Connection fan who is Howell’s chief operating officer, became somewhat obsessed, comparing heat cycles and flavor profiles. So did Howell, who was just back from Colombia. What Lynagh and I thought would be a morning turned into three very long, highly caffeinated days.

The Technivorm delivers results that professionals demand: consistency batch after batch, whether in small or large quantities. It is particularly well suited to lighter roasts. Water at 197 to 201 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which Fetco and similar professional, but few home, machines brew (home machines generally don’t get above 185 or so), brings out the greatest range of flavors in coffees with high acidity—the fruity, desirable kind. These are the flavors that come out in the marathon “cupping” sessions roasters stage constantly, steeping ground coffee in hot water and, after a set time, “breaking the crust” and allowing the grounds to settle to the bottom of the cup.

Fedele asked Lynagh to measure water temperature at every stage of the cycle, and then plotted the results on a graph. (He posted it at terroircoffee .com.) The Technivorm won, as it did most but not all of the blind taste tests. The brewer that got up to a high temperature most consistently after it, a Capresso, was generally but not always second in the taste tests. Sometimes a Braun I picked up at the hardware store was, and sometimes an inexpensive Mr. Coffee; sometimes the Technivorm itself came in second. “I’d drink all of them,” Lynagh remarked after the first round on the third day. Given that Lynagh had paid $179.50 for the Capresso at Williams-Sonoma, and sells a terrific-looking Technivorm for $215, the Technivorm seems a clear choice if you plan to explore the world of light roasts and are willing to spend more than, say, $60 to $80 for a brewer.

The coffee in the tests really showed its stuff when it cooled to near room temperature. This is the telltale point for any coffee, and it marks a sharp division between dark roasts, which start out mouth-fillingly rich but tend to become bitter and flat when they cool, and light roasts, which can start out fruity and thin but go on to develop a light, syrupy body (Howell calls it “buttery”). At the cooling point, the Technivorm brews always stayed true.

The Technivorm isn’t for everyone. Though the neat new design has a smaller footprint than its predecessors, it’s still deeper and taller than most home brewers. The precise heating control that brings out the full spectrum of flavors is best suited to what the Italians call vini di meditazione. Even Howell admits that his palate is at its sharpest in the morning, when he claims to spend a full 45 minutes pondering his first cup of coffee. After dinner he’s just as happy with a sediment-filled, thick cup (light roast, of course) from a French press pot.

Anyone thinking of meditating over a morning cup of coffee should try out a Technivorm. Start with a Kenyan from Terroir, and you’ll soon see what keeps Howell cupping in Concord and Kenya.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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