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The Beans & The Machines

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2nd February 2022

As iterative waves of Covid keep us all confined at home, our lifestyles have undergone some changes, and we’ve been forced to find new ways to get our kicks and feed our addictions.

One of the big ones is coffee. With WFH back with us, morning trips to the local artisan coffee houses are becoming fewer and further between. However, it’s not all bad news: Coffee is a national addiction, and actually one of the few itches we can scratch very well in this new era of amazing artisan coffee roasters, and with a little help from technologically innovative companies, who’ve managed to compress a coffee shop complete with bearded barista, into a machine that’ll sit on your counter-top.

Now let’s be clear, coffee is a slippery substance, one of our pleasures and perhaps our vices that is fed by, and rewards incremental improvement.

In years gone by, perhaps a decade ago now, I used to enjoy an occasional Starbucks. But then I met my girlfriend, a self-professed coffee-snob, who laughed at my contentedness with what she called ‘drinking ditch-water.’ She introduced me to a world of better coffee, and partially to keep her happy/impressed, and partially to feed my own growing desires, almost every year since then we’ve upped our coffee game. This started by buying better coffee-shop coffee. And then when we needed coffee without leaving the house, we bought a cheap machine that spluttered haphazardly, and brewed and frothed anaemic and inconsistent ‘coffee’. The next year, we succumbed to the variety and ease of the Nespresso ecosystem, and we were happy for a while. Seeking the next rung up the ladder when the snobbery took full grip a couple of years later, we went back to buying our own ground coffee, and toying with drips, cafetières, and with a nod to Italian style, finally a Bialetti stove-top. (A rite of passage I’m told). Seeking the next level up again, we sprung for a bean-to-cup machine a few years ago, and much as the machine was a considerable outlay at the time, I have to say, we’ve never looked back. Though perhaps more tellingly, we haven’t looked forward since then either. The Sage Oracle Touch has been everything and more than we hoped it would be, and seems to have cured me of my coffee one-upmanship. Let me tell you about it.

The Sage Oracle Touch

The Oracle Touch is to my mind, one of the two definitive coffee machines currently on the market. It gives you as much control as you could want over practically every element of the preparation and will hold your hand as much or as little as you’d like. You can use the touch screen to simply select the drink you want, then press one button to grind the beans, another to pour the coffee, and the third to steam the milk. It’s that easy. But if you want more granular control of the individual elements, the Sage will let you adjust almost every facet. Whether you’re a seasoned pro, or an un-fussed novice who just wants the best cup of coffee you can get at home, the Oracle Touch is all things to all people. To start, simply place your choice of beans in the generous hopper, and then select the grind size you want. The size of the grind is crucial to the extraction of the right amount of flavour, and is unique to each different bean, the method and length of its roasting, its age, and the volume of coffee you're trying to produce per shot. It is also dependent on the hardware you're using, so there’s no way for bean roasters to state the settings you should use. In the art of pulling a shot therefore, this requires a little trial and error, and a little finesse to refine. Start with a middling grind size and adjust up or down a little if your shot of espresso is too fast or too slow. Simple. This is all easily done with the twist of a dial, and once found, ideal grind settings don’t need to be tampered with until you insert a new variety of bean.

You then move your reassuringly heavy and solid portafilter over to the grouphead and twist it in to lock it. We’ve all seen baristas do this a million times, but there’s something deeply satisfying about doing it oneself. It engages with a dependable and firm grip. Select the shot you require, and the machine will press a programable amount of hot water through your freshly ground beans, producing a single or double shot of espresso. Now that sounds simple, but it’s a great example of the technological magic that unseen, swings into action to ensure you get the best possible shot of coffee. There’s both science and artistry to producing a great shot, and the Oracle manages both flawlessly: It features a full-time exact digital temperature control, a PID, to keep the water at optimum temperature. Such exacting control is necessary, as a small fluctuation of even a degree or two, can change a shot from rounded and full-bodied, to ashy and bitter. There’s a crucial over-pressure valve built-in that prevents, you guessed it, too much pressure ‘bittering’ the shot. (This is a premium feature usually found on commercial machines).

Now for the milk. Unlike cheaper machines, the Oracle Touch features dual boilers, one for the espresso, and one for the milk frother, meaning coffee can be brewed and milk can be frothed simultaneously. Sounds unimportant doesn’t it, though in practice it cuts your coffee making time in half, and keeps the espresso shot fresh, as it oxidises once poured.

The milk frothing arm outputs a great deal of steam. If you’ve ever seen a barista clean the arm of their machines with a great whoosh of steam, you’ll realise that volume probably matters; it impacts the texture of the milk you can make. Again, cheaper machines that can’t produce great quantities of steam rapidly, through small enough apertures, can’t conjure the magical, mythical ‘microfoam.’ And it’s the microfoam that turns coffee milk, into latte-art, quite literally. Microfoam milk, allows you to pour a heart or a flower that are coffee-shop staples. (Microfoam is also the reason you may have been struggling to make art at all with a cheaper machine, I steamed hot milk daily for a year on a cheap machine that it turns out was never able to produce microfoam, and I always thought it a technique I hadn’t mastered). Such limitations don’t apply to the Oracle Touch. There is a knack to pouring, but with a little practice, you’ll soon be producing professional looking lattes, and expressive espressos adorned with impressive artwork.

And so, the Oracle Touch has ended the coffee arms race for me. It’s not an undaunting initial outlay to be sure, but when looked at holistically, it has more than paid for itself. If you think an artisan coffee probably costs £2.50 currently, and on average we drink 3 a day between the two of us, that’s around £2,700 a year. 4 years on, and the Oracle Touch having paid for itself in 7 months or so, has just embarked on its 5th victory lap round the track.

Available here:

https://www.sageappliances.com/uk/en/products/espresso/bes990.html

The Melitta Barista TS Smart

If the Sage machine, is akin to the perfect analogue, then the Melitta Barista TS Smart I was privileged to be sent, is its equal and opposite. The Melitta is the other horse in what might be considered a two-horse race for the luxury coffee-making duties on our home counter-tops. It is the digital experience raised to its zenith, and I’m currently cheating on my Sage with this Melitta.

First things first, the Melitta makes sublime coffee; blindfolded, I couldn’t tell the difference between an espresso shot poured from both machines, the Melitta is that good, producing a rich, full-bodied shot with a tremendous crema. This means that all the flavour is squeezed out, rather than the oily components separating and remaining in the head. One area where the Melitta excels, is the near infinite fine-tuning possibilities built into the machine, not just in the digital realm, but in the physical world too. For example, you can raise or lower the head, a small simple thing, but it means large cups and mugs can fit underneath, and small espresso cups too without the shot falling from such a height that it splashes out of the cup. The milk container, so handily storable in the fridge, can attach to either side of the machine to suit your kitchen’s aesthetic and layout, or even perhaps just your hand dominance and preference…

But let’s go back a step. Let’s start by putting some beans into the machine. Well, there are two hoppers. This means my partner and I can use different beans if we wish, an option I had not considered before because it was not possible, we had to reach consensus. Well not anymore, she can have her favourite and I can have mine, without either of us having to compromise. I’d also like to give the Melitta a large congratulatory backslap for including a separate pre-ground coffee chute. It means that the Melitta basically accepts and is unfazed by any coffee regardless of its form. Really useful. Dual hoppers, tick, pre-ground coffee acceptance, tick tick. I could already feel my love for this machine swell at just these details. But I haven’t even arrived at the outstanding part. Sit tight.

So, then we come to pour our shot. Standing at the machine, the warm-up period is blisteringly (no pun intended) fast. 30 seconds perhaps. And to get my cappuccino just the way I like it is just a single button press, and then walk away. The machine springs into life, grinding my choice of beans from one of the hoppers. The grinding mechanism is, it should be pointed out, quiet. The Sage rattles the windows as is spins up, and conversation must be suspended, but the Melitta doesn’t intrude or overbear in this way, in fact it’s won the ‘quiet mark’ seal of approval for low ambient noise. Good stuff.

Once the shot is poured, the milk is drawn into the head, heated, and air added to froth it. Again, every bit of this process from the quantity, measured in millilitres for precision, to the temperature can be adjusted. This is delivered to the top of the espresso, and we’re done. Place another cup under the head, and with another button press for my girlfriend to utilise her profile, (8 different profiles can be programmed and stored, each with individually tune-able preferences for all drinks.) different beans are loaded, ground, and different qualities of coffee can be delivered with a differently textured volume of milk applied to an altogether different drink. The ancillary bonus for all this automation is that once you’ve got your settings and preferences dialled in to your profile, ‘Tom’s Cappuccino’ is delivered to the millilitre, and degree, identically each morning. And any measure of success is useless if it can’t be reliably and consistently replicated. If you feel like something a little different in the afternoon than you do in the morning, the library of recipes means that something very different and consummate is again, just a button press away.

Now, for its crowning glory: technology, intelligence and Bluetooth. Anything you can do standing in front of the machine, can be done via its app. It’s snappy and responsive, and the Bluetooth has a pretty muscular range. Should you find yourself in urgent need of a coffee, the machine can be commanded to wake, heat-up, and deliver your own profile of coffee from the other end of the house. (Translation, I was able to order a coffee from my bed, and after taking a moment to gather myself, it was waiting for me when I got to the kitchen 90 seconds later). Can you imagine going back to a world without next day delivery? Amazon Prime has really spoilt us to ruination, for this sort of luxury is hard to give up once you’ve tried and become accustomed to it. This is digital precision and convenience raised to its highest form, and married to astoundingly good coffee production, that sits unassumingly on your countertop, operates quietly and looks rather elegant whilst doing it. It’s barely hyperbolic to say this feels a little like science fiction.

The Melitta would be easily discardable as a clever gimmick once the novelty wore off if its coffee wasn’t up to snuff. Luckily, it's absolutely stellar, and the number of five star reviews this machine has garnered, and awards won, is testament to its excellence and the unanimousness of this view. It absolutely deserves its position at the very top of the pile.

Barista TS Smart® is available via melitta.co.uk RRP: £1,199.99

Conclusion

It’s amazing to me how different the Sage Oracle Touch and The Melitta Barista TS Smart are, and it’s this chasm of difference that allows me to say with a straight face that I need them both. The final output is essentially the same; about the best coffee you can make a home without some very specialised equipment and probably a little bit of training. But perhaps I can distil it down to one decision, the simplest way to think about it is probably this: If you want a portafilter, and you want to stand in front of the machine for a few minutes to make a coffee, or if you a fancy yourself a latte artist, then the Sage is your Huckleberry. If you want the latest technology and to be able to order a coffee from your phone, if unequalled ease, convenience, rapidity and silence with equally pleasing results is your bag, then the Melitta’s your baby.

Other Variants

Sage

Sage’s new machine, the Barista Pro, looks to be another winner for them. Retaining eighty percent of the features of its big brother, the Pro even benefits from a lightning fast 3 second warm-up. It does give up the profile storage, the steam wand isn’t quite as refined, and tamping must be done manually, but the final coffee delivered is really special, and belies the fact that this machine only costs a little over a third as much as its range-topping stablemate.

 

Melitta

Melitta has a giant range of machines, that go all the way down to the eminently affordable Solo machine that is a fully automatic bean to cup machine for a paltry £350. Stripping out the intelligent and connected features as you descend the range, really puts outstanding coffee, courtesy of an automatic machine within grasp of pretty much all budgets.

It should be further highlighted that Melitta offers a very generous 20% NHS/Emergency Worker/Bluelight/teacher/educational discount program which in this current climate is an admirable policy.

The Beans:

You need something special to fill your machine, right? You’ve got a grinder, here are the 6 of the best to do it justice, all offering one-off bags, or subscriptions for when you find your favourite.

 Lost Sheep Coffee

Oh my God I love these guys. Based in Whitstable, Kent, Lost Sheep have nailed everything about their product, from their branding to their packaging, it’s completely wonderful. It’s a sublime intersection of just the right amount of tech and nerdy attention to detail, with eco-responsible ethics and packaging, and a hint of hipster free-spirited passion. This is all for nought though if the beans themselves don’t deliver, but thankfully they’re at the very top of the pile. Their Colombia blend was robust and smooth, incredibly rich, premium and rounded, I think are the adjectives that leap to mind, and their signature “Get To The Hopper’, aside from making me smile every time I think of it, is about the most chocolatey I’ve ever had. If that’s your thing, then this blend is your true North.

www.lostsheepcoffee.com

Apostle Coffee

Apostle operates as a carbon negative business with a zero to landfill commitment. Check check.

Thankfully this was another case of the product meeting and surpassing one's expectations based on branding, packaging, ethos and all the lovely other touches that made me anticipate these beans as much as any others I’ve ever tried. The beans were strong and smooth, hazelnut and coco were dominant, with really pleasant mild citrus acidity, that was all taste, and no overt bitterness. These bested our regular beans, and have thrown a cat amongst the pigeons as to whether we’ll go back… TBC…

 https://apostlecoffee.com

The Gentlemen Baristas

www.thegentlemenbaristas.com

This is quite a name to live up to, and their beans are certainly refined and smooth. Their Guatemalan ‘Top Hat’ beans were very high on the chocolate/caramel and smooth scales, whilst their “Deer Stalker’ beans are a very nice blend, really moreish, a little softer, a little more elegant, less punchy, also quite chocolatey, with a little nuttiness to the aftertaste. Really enjoyed these too.

www.thegentlemenbaristas.com

Perky Blenders

I had their Winter blend of coffee, and really enjoyed it.

I’m not usually a fan of fruity coffee, but this Ethiopian/Brazilian blend really caught me by surprise. Perhaps I was seasonally festive, but their lovely coffee had strong notes of red berries and tropical fruit. It was a Christmassy and fruity party that I wouldn’t drink every day, but it felt like a relaxing winter holiday, and I will be certainly buying more next holidays. Perky Blenders are another company really hitting their stride now, they seem to be everywhere fashionable, and having tried this blend, it’s not hard to see why.

https://perkyblenders.com

Piqant

is clever, in that it matches your taste profile wants/needs to its products, pointing you in the right direction if you need a bit of a steer, and it encourages you to think about coffee flavours in more depth than the mere I like it / don’t like it dichotomy.

www.piqant.co.uk

Odd Coffee

Odd Coffee is a lovely, spotlight worthy idea. We all know that a baker's dozen is 13 right? Because bakers baking an order for a dozen always baked one extra, in the event that one went wrong. It turns out coffee roasters roasting coffee to order do this too, just roast a little more than is required so they have surplus. Odd Coffee goes around collecting the unneeded surplus from their short list of premium reputable coffee roasters, and selling them under their own brand. Not only is this a cost-effective way of buying premium coffee, it’s also a great sustainable and green way to buy your coffee, helping to tamp down on waste, (pun fully intended) in an industry rife with the unappetising excesses of high water-use, low wages paid to farmers, and travel and shipping costs. It’s clearly premium coffee, with a middle-of-the-road taste, strong but not overpowering, rounded but not too robust, smooth, but not vanishingly so. The trade-off is that perhaps they’ll be a little variation from bag to bag, but it’s all clearly premium, and the kicker is that all the premium coffee tested in this article is between 32 and 48 pounds per kilo, and that’s some money let’s not kid ourselves. Odd Coffee will sell you a kilo of premium coffee for between 14 and 16 pounds, so between a half and a third of the others here, which is a little over a supermarket’s own blend prices….

Highly recommended.

 www.oddcoffeeco.com/

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