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An Update on my Troubled Thoughts

Earlier this week, I wrote about topics that were troubling me, among them, what to do about a gift I received for the holidays. I wanted to update you on these topics, because if you read that, well then, you'll likely value a resolution. First, I have spent considerable time and attention to this very blog. I even started using blog software again (MarsEdit). So I am poised to blog, with so much banter, my buttons are ready to pop-off. That could also be holiday feasting at play, but I certainly digress. Second, I have spent considerable time and effort reading and educating myself about espresso machines and coffee. I even went to Williams Sonoma and talked to the lady there for quite some time about espresso makers, received demonstrations, and sample tastings. Last night I made a decision on the gift. I decided to keep it. I'll outline how I came to this conclusion, and how it might have been a mistake. Now, I really want to emphasize how much research went into this personal project. It felt as if, last night, I had amassed enough knowledge to write a Lattés for Dummies book or something. I'd even make the book cover here to be clever, but the generator is currently offline. So, here are some general facts. * There are three basic types of expresso machines: manual, semi-automatic, and fully-automatic. * Better machines use a pump-system that provides a constant stream of pressure to extract the espresso. * 15 bars of pressure is good, and typical for many machines. * Manual machines require you to measure, scoop, grind, and tamp your own coffee beans. * Semi-automatic machines may also require the nonsense with coffee, but typically spit-out just the right amount of espresso into your cup. Others use pods. * A pod is a pre-measured, pre-tamped single serving of espresso in some kind of container. * The fully automatic systems hold the water and beans, grind the beans, tamp the grounds, auto-measure the precise amounts, and dispense the drink all with a touch of a button (or two). * I have little interest in creating espresso. I want to create lattés. Okay, so that's a little background for you. I went into the store, and told the lady I had received the gift, but was not sure "it is the best machine for my needs." Soon thereafter, she became quite unhelpful, suggesting that the machine I got was no-fuss, but the fancy fully-automatic ones were complex, fussy, and probably not what I needed. She became more helpful later with the demos. Here are some more facts, more or less, as I remember them. * There are four major types of pods for the semi- and fully-automatic machines. * The fact that there are four tells you something: that grinding and tamping and preparing your own beans must be so disconcerting and time-consuming (not to mention messy) that you're going to wish later you had a pod-based system. * Tassimo is a pod-based system using something called a T-pod that only works in Tassimo-branded machines. These make single-serving cups of a variety of beverages, from regular coffee, to tea, chocolate, and also latté. * Senseo is a competing product that also make single-serving drinks, but primarily just coffee. They take Senseo pods, which are different from the Tassimo pods. You can also get T-pods for the Senseo, but these are not Tassimo pods, but curiously-named pods for tea to use in your Senseo. * Nespresso is an espresso-only line of pods exclusively for use in Nespresso-branded espresso machines. They tend to be the most expensive. You have to order them online or by phone. Williams Sonoma sells a variety of these machines. * ESE Pods are a filter-based pod for use in many espresso machines. It seems the most "open standard" in terms of espresso/coffee makers. They too are single serving for one "shot" of espresso. I had of course been considering buying a Jura-Capresso machine. These do not use pods at all. But they are simple to use. They are fully-automatic, and range in price from $800-4000. I'll talk more about why the price differs and why all these choices are kind of silly, when you consider what I really want to do: make lattés. The manual machines and the super-expensive Jura machines promise to make, perhaps, the best "tasting" espresso because in both cases you can use just-ground coffee. In looking at all the machines, dizzy as I was, I asked for help at Williams-Sonoma. Our sales agent immediately suggested getting the cheapest Nespresso model. I also think she was a hack, because she later told us that she hates espresso and can't stand it. Whatever. She told me the particular model she was showing us was good because it was easy to use, hardly any clean-up, and it boasted some 19 bars of pressure. The espresso came out super-quickly, which confused me, because the snobs online say the espresso extraction should take some 20 seconds, not 5. She also told me I didn't need the more expensive "Le Cube" model because it only added cup warmers which were unnecessary. Every cappuccino snob online tells you the heated cups are so important, so I was getting dizzy again. Of course, this was before I dismissed her opinions completely after coming to find she disliked espresso altogether. She really did not want to sell me a $1700 F-series Jura. That's what I was after. Just confirm my hunches, lady, and I'll buy your super-expensive machine... give me something to hold on to here... Nope. Then we talked about the model I had been gifted. She told me it was a very good machine, should work great, and using it would only take a couple minutes. "Just a couple of minutes?" we asked. "Yes!" she happily confirmed. I mean, come on, I am on the cusp of buying a $1700 appliance (minus the trade-in on the gift) and you're telling me to stick with gift. You have to admire that... she may have a point. Then before we left, she told us the reason the Cuisinart was easy to use. "This one takes pods... no grinding or measuring, just pop it in, like the Nespresso... we have pods for this machine over here, let me show you." She took us over to some Illy pods in a tin. "Hmm..." I pondered. Pods. Didn't know a thing about the pods. She didn't know much either, as she didn't know they were called ESE pods, or that it was a standard shared by many other brands and makes. So, I went online to read more and study-up. I was bound and determined to put this cappuccino/espresso/latté project to bed. This is what I found out: * Starbucks makes ESE pods. * People love the Starbucks ESE pods. * In the Senseo vs. Tassimo war, Tassimo wins: there are simply more options. * There are some angry, nasty people online who like to bitch and flame online, for folks who didn't know that ESE pods don't work in Tassimo and Senseo machines. I can't blame people, it took me hours to figure out all this pod technology. It's a royal, confusing mess! * Some say that a manual machine can produce better quality espresso than a fully-automatic Jura. * Pods, no matter which brand or style, seem to be "the way to go" in terms of convenience. * Some reported that using Starbucks pods got them off "their habit," and saved them money, saving them to make actual trips to Starbucks stores. I decided that using my gifted machine, with these ESE pods, was the way to go. I'd have convenience, I already had the machine, and all I had to do to get started was find pods. Last night I drove to two different Starbucks before I found the requisite pods. I came home, next, and opened-up the box for the machine. It came with a DVD detailing how to set-up and use the Cuisinart machine. Now, mind you, the sales agent at Williams-Sonoma demonstrated only the Nespresso machines. You drop in an aluminum pod, press a button, and hot steamy espresso comes out. No clean up. So, imagine my surprise, upon watching Ms. Rogers on the DVD, when she notes all the clean-up required each time you use the Cuisinart. You have to clean: * the handle, * the pod holder thing, * the fascia, * the spout where water comes out, * the steaming wand, * and the drip tray. Then, she (the lady on the video) lies to you with this phrase: You will use this machine every day to make delicious espresso drinks, like cappuccino, macchiato, and lattés! When I actually went to use the machine, that is when I realized I hadn't done the right type of research. Williams-Sonoma is not equipped to give you a proper demonstration. They demonstrate the making of espresso. What I needed to see was the creation of latté. In defense of Cuisinart, the drink was very tasty. It was as good as what I might get at Starbucks, if I were to order a tall or short latté. Except, it was cold. I can work on that a bit, but really, you need a far larger milk frother container to get the milk hot enough with the steam spout. Here are my complaints, now that I've made the choice to keep (and use) the Cuisinart at home. * The machine is too light. You have to brace yourself against the machine to screw-on the handle. * Making a "double" espresso with two pods is a royal pain. You have to take off the handle, burn your fingers touching it, and pop out pod #1 while you fish around and try to insert pod #2. Then getting that contraption on the machine again is another feat of strength. * The machine's steam wand is dripping. * By the time the warming tray is "warm," you're done. Big whoop. * The steaming/frothing business is awful. This wand is too difficult to maneuver, especially when trying to get it in and out of the little milk dispenser thing. * Why is there so much waste (water, espresso) in the drip tray? I have to empty it after each drink. * How much espresso am I supposed to make? Being a manual machine, you need to put some kind of short, stumpy measuring cup underneath the thing to capture the espresso. Put it into a cup, and you're just guessing. (Yes, I do not have 1 oz. shot glasses or special single-shot espresso cups. I want latté!) * My mugs from home do not fit underneath the machine to capture the espresso. * It looks like I will need to dirty at least 4 containers each time I want to make a latté: the milk pitcher (stainless steel), another milk container for the microwave to heat up the milk), the small stumpy glass/cup (which I don't yet own), and the actual container (like my to-go coffee mug) that I want to drink out of. * Can this thing really make a so-called venti latté that's hot? I don't see how. I'd have a sink-full of dirty dishes and parts, not to mention the end-product that would have gone cold. It took me 12 minutes to make a lukewarm double latté this morning. Tassimo? probably a minute. Here's where it gets tricky. Nespresso made the drink in under 10 seconds, but this was without the frother. They sell a frothing model (for double the price of the Cuisinart), but it will still require multiple vessels, messy milk residue on the wand, etc., etc. Here's where, I think, the fully-automatic machines win: you can specify a double size (not possible with single pods), and you can connect an automatic frothing attachment. They suck-in the milk from a special container, and dump your hot milk and froth right in your cup. Of course, these machines are like $1700-2700. So, my point in the end is this: with manual machines, pods or not, making a latté at home is a special-occasion experience because of all the muss and fuss. That's why I called the lady in the DVD, Ms. Rogers, a liar. By the time you "immediately" clean the machine, your drink is cold and stale. And who has the time to wash 3-4 components each morning? A short latté is hardly breakfast, alone. It looks like what instead I have is the ability to make good-tasting espresso drinks, at home, but for special occasions only. All the time and energy (and expense) won't stop my already-frequent visits to Starbucks. Hey, they just built a new one here, with a drive-thru. Sounds like a plan. I want to thank my friends for the machine, it's not that I don't like the gift. I'm just upset with myself for thinking I could affordably reproduce Starbucks from home. I see the value in a fully-automatic machine, but can't say I'm overwhelmingly willing to part with that much cash.

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