Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bialetti Mukka Express Review

The Bialetti Mukka Express is a stove top cappuccino / latte maker. I've always wanted to buy a real espresso maker, but my priorities haven't allowed me to spend more than $1,000 on a machine and $400 on a grinder so that I could come close to making a cup as good as a local coffee house. That math just doesn't add up in my head. $3.50 for the best latte money can buy or spend $1,500 on equipment to come close?

That's why this device intrigued me. It's cheap. The selling price is $89. I've got a decent burr grinder at home that I figured would be good enough to complement the Bialetti. The Mukka Express has received some decent reviews and its estimated that nearly every household in Italy has one type of a Bialetti stovetop espresso maker.

Last weekend I was running some errands at Target and was browsing through the small appliances section and saw a few boxes of the Mukka Express on the endcap. I saw one of those little red stickers that are the markdown stickers, so I ran over to check out the price. It was marked down to $22. That was too good of a deal to pass up so it came home with me.

This device, like any other coffee maker, requires some trial and error to get things right. Here are a few tips:

-Like any other coffee making, buy fresh beans and grind them just before making the coffee on the finest setting on the grinder.
-When filling the coffee into the receptacle, make sure that the area around the threads are wiped clean. Any coffee grounds will mess up the seal and coffee will leak out.
-Tighten the top down onto the bottom very snugly. Don't be a wuss here. If you wuss out, bad things will happen.
-Use the small gas burner on medium heat. This is critical. If you use the large burner and the flames wrap around the sides of the maker, bad things will happen. Trust me.
-Once the valve opens and the milk is done frothing (about 15 seconds), leave it on the flame for another 30 seconds. If you pour the coffee right after it is done frothing, it won't be warm enough.
-When cleaning, run cold water over the maker to eliminate any built up pressure remaining in the lower part. This will help you seperate the unit. For those of you that have cooked with pressure cookers, its the same thing.

The factors that will affect the coffee the most are the quality of the beans and the amount of heat you give it. Each stove is slightly different, so vary the flame until it hits the sweet spot.

The instructions recommend making 3 pots of coffee and discarding them before drinking. Today, I finally got around to doing that and made a few different pots to sample the capuccino. Again, this is about expectations. If you've sampled coffee from some of the good independent coffee houses in Seattle, the Mukka Express isn't going to compare. This unit will definitely make a capuccino as good as Starbucks. I should cut Starbucks a little slack. They do make acceptable coffee drinks. Its hard for them to be able to compete quality wise to the smaller shops that roast and brew the same day.

If you want to make some decent capuccinos / lattes at home and don't want to break the bank, head over to Target and see if you can get a marked down one. Even at $89, its a worthwhile purchase, but at $22 its a steal.

Edit: I've done a bit of tinkering around with the Mukka Express and have another tip to report. When grinding the coffee, do not grind it as finely as used in espresso. With espresso, the hot water will only be in contact with the grounds for 30 seconds or so. With the Mukka Express the water will contact the beans for 2 minutes or so, so the ground needs to be more coarse. If the grind is too fine, the coffee will be overextracted and taste bitter and/ or burnt.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Victrola Coffee Inc. (Capitol Hill)

What a beautiful day in western Washington! It's late October and its about 60 degrees and sunny, the leaves are changing, life is good. I was able to sneak off this morning without the family, so I headed over to Victrola Coffee in Capitol Hill. My wife took her sister there a while back after watching Giada De Laurentiis feature Victrola on her show. My wife liked the place, so I figured I'd give it a try.

The location I visited is located at 411 15th Avenue E in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. This seems to be a central location for caffeinating as there is also a Cafe Ladro and a Starbucks within a block of Victrola. Why someone would go to Starbucks when there are top notch independent coffee houses so close is beyond me. It's not like the high-end coffee houses charge more for their drinks than Starbucks and the quality is just not comparable. I guess if you load up your drink with carmel and vanilla and all that other sweet crap, the coffee itself probably doesn't matter.

With your first step inside Victrola, you immediately realize that this place is a little different than your local Starbucks. This is what I envisioned a Seattle coffee house to be when I lived in Chicago. The baristas are not your clean cut corporate trained baristas. They are rough around the edges, have purple hair and full arm tattoos. This is my kind of place! I placed my usual order for a medium latte and a scone and headed over to a table to wait for my order to be filled.
A little tangent: it is so nice not having to use made up sizes like grande and venti. I hate that crap. What is the purpose of having those stupid sizes? What is wrong with using a word that is part of the English language to describe the size of the coffee?

Sorry, for the rant. Ok, so I headed over to my table to wait for my drink and glanced over to the wall where there were a bunch of art pieces on display. This is not the kids of stuff that you would see at the local corporate joint. It seemed like the collection was done by an artist that watched The Cell a few too many times.
I almost hate to write this, but the latte was really good. On my recent outings, I really haven't found a bad cup of coffee. Compared to some of the other lattes I've had, this one was really smooth and creamy. The coffee flavor was subtle, but not weak. The one from Lighthouse was intense and Victrola was just the opposite. In wine terms, the Lighthouse was a young bold California Cabernet and the Victrola is a nicely aged Bordeaux. I wish I would have ordered the large size. It was really that good. I'm not 100% sure about this, but I think that Victrola also roasts their beans, but at the other location.

If you want to go to a funky counter-culture coffee shop, this is the place for you.

Victrola Coffee & Art on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Lighthouse Roasters (Fremont)

This morning, much more so than normal, I desperately needed caffeine. I had some garlic fries at dinner last night and my stomach was churning all night. I woke up at 2 a.m. and didn't sleep much until I finally got out of bed at 5 a.m. I made a quick pot of coffee and had a cup to get me going. We loaded up the kids at around 7 a.m. and headed over to Fremont to go to Lighthouse Roasters.

Fremont, for those of you that don't know already, is slightly to the left of mainstream politicians. They just might think that Obama is a little too conservative for their tastes. Just take a look to see who greets visitors to the downtown Fremont area. I find it ironic that the communist leader is situated next to a corporate taco stand.

Enough about the politics of Fremont and let's discuss the coffee. Lighthouse is a very unassuming coffee house in a residential area at 400 N. 43rd St in Seattle. When you walk inside, you immediately realize that this place is serious about their coffee. There is a coffee roaster adjacent to the dining area that takes up half of the space inside the coffee house. When a coffee house is willing to go the extra step and roast their own beans, there's a really good likelihood that the coffee they make will be good.

As is usual, I ordered a 12oz latte and my wife ordered a drip coffee with hazelnut flavoring. My latte had a very intense, deeply roasted flavor on the first sip. With my head still being groggy after so little sleep, this flavor was just what I was looking for. I could almost feel the caffeine flowing into my veins. What I liked about this latte is that is was much more heavy on the espresso and lighter on the milk than most coffee houses. I really don't like how sometimes a latte can taste more like a coffee flavored milkshake than coffee. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that it was served in a mug. Touchdown! My wife claimed that she prefers my coffee to theirs, but I wasn't going to drink coffee with hazelnut flavoring to find out. Yucko!

The inside of Lighthouse is nothing worth writing home about, but who really cares how nice the place is when the coffee is so damn good? I could care less.

The baristas were a couple of guys. It just stands to reason that every coffee house won't have nice looking twenty somethings making my coffee.

If you are around the Fremont area, head over to Lighthouse and have a great cup of joe. If you are looking for a fancy place to hang out and fart around with your laptop and look cool, this place isn't the spot for you.

Lighthouse Roasters Fine Coffees on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Firehouse Coffee (Ballard)

Last weekend, we loaded up the family and headed to Walla Walla to sample some Washington State wines, so there wasn't a chance to head out to a decent coffee house. I had to make do by choking down some of the hotel coffee, which I had to load up with fake cream to dilute the nasty burnt taste.

Instead, I'll review a coffee house in Ballard that we went to a few weeks ago. Firehouse Coffee is located a few blocks away from the main drag in Ballard. It's located at 2622 NW Market Street, Seattle.

The exterior of the building has that Pacific Northwest kind of vibe going on. Think of bright colors (to help draw your focus away from the grayness of the sky), exposed wood beams, and metal roof. It has a very inviting curb appeal. Inside, it has a nice warm coziness to it that Seattle people have come to expect in a coffee house. So far so good.

I ordered my standard large latte and told them we'd be having our coffee there. The barista served my coffee in the standard paper cup and plastic lid. Bummer! There's nothing worse than sitting at a coffee house and having to drink your coffee in a disposable cup. I guess I'm the exception to the rule, since it seems to be a fashion statement when you carry your paper cup of coffee down the street and show off where you bought your coffee.

The coffee was just mediocre. It wasn't horrible, but it just wasn't anything that you would remember. I think one of the problems is that when you get served in a paper cup, the barista just fills the excess space with extra milk. This was just a boring, diluted latte.

There was a silver lining to the place though. They have a side room that is a dedicated space for children. This almost made up for the fact that the coffee was lacking. If you have young kids, you don't have to try to keep the little rugrats quiet. It is kind of nice to be able to just sit there and drink coffee without having to worry if you kids are pissing off the hippie sitting next to you.

So, if you feel the need to get coffee and don't want to worry if your kids are acting like monsters, go to Firehouse Coffee. Just don't expect to be wowed by the coffee.

Firehouse Coffee on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 17, 2008

Verite Coffee (West Seattle)

Last night a few friends came over and I think a little too much red wine was consumed, since my normal 2 cups of coffee didn't seem to wake me up. I was running some errands which brought me to West Seattle. I've driven past Verite Coffee several times and have been wanting to try it out. My hangover this morning was a good excuse. They are located at 4556 California Ave SW.

Verite is right on the main drag in West Seattle: California Ave. This coffee shop has a bunch of lefty art on the walls, is into film and other general nonsense, all of which I could care less about. The furthest thing from my mind is all of this crap when I have a hangover and need coffee.

I ordered a tall latte, which was served in a mug. Again, this is a good sign. I now had a decent feeling that this might be a good cup of coffee. Then I noticed several bags of coffee beans behind the counter which were from Stumptown Roasters. This is another good sign. Stumptown is a Portland based roaster which has a great reputation. The coffee didn't disappoint. It seems like I'm having trouble finding a crappy cup of coffee. This was an outstanding latte. The crema of the espresso mixed with the foamed milk was super thick and creamy. The coffee had a really deeply roasted flavor without that burnt taste that is commonplace with a certain large coffee chain.

This place is a definite thumbs up and if I happen to be in West Seattle, I'll be coming back.

Cupcake Royale (in Verite Coffee) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company (Greenlake)

For a while now, my wife and I load up the kids on a weekend morning in search of the best coffee to be had in Seattle. Last weekend, we went to Zoka Coffee Roaster in Greenlake. They are located at 2200 North 56th St. in Seattle.

This is a standard yuppie neighborhood in Seattle. Moms with kids are everywhere. There are no worries about safety in this area. One thing that has amazed me since moving here is how nice people are in Seattle. Coming from Chicago, the people in Seattle can be too nice, almost like drinking fake maple syrup from a bottle. The last thing I want to do before I get my chance to fill up on caffeine is discuss how nice my kid's stroller is with a stranger. Please move along and let me get my damn coffee!

Ok, back to Zoka. This place has a very warm and cozy atmosphere. This inviting, neighborhood coffee shop atmosphere is what Starbucks wishes they could achieve, but just can't do on a large scale. There are couches and booths and penty of places to relax and get caffeienated. There are plenty of options of things to nosh on and as I understand it, are made by Zoka.

Just to the right of the computer screen is a Clover Coffee machine. These are the $11,000 masterpieces that supposedly turn out the best non-espresso coffee anywhere. As I understand it, Starbucks bought out the company, so don't expect to see many of these in other coffee houses. I didn't have the Clover coffee, so I'll have to go back and report back later.

On to the coffee. I ordered my standard weekend coffee: a 3 shot latte with whole milk. The last thing on my mind is cutting calories on the weekend. Since Zoka roasts in house, I had high expectations. I wasn't disappointed. These baristas turn out a wonderful cup of coffee. Clearly, this place is on their game. The latte has a nice roasted, nutty flavor without being too bitter.
They met one of my primary criteria for a good cup of coffee: a real mug. The last thing I want to do is snarf down my coffee in a paper cup. That would be like drinking a glass of champagne out of a plastic cup.

Last, but not least, this place will not disappoint men that come to have some coffee. The baristas are all between 20-30 and none of them were hard on the eyes.

So, if you are looking for a coffee house to hang out in and have a high-end cup of coffee, this place fits the bill.

Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Co. on Urbanspoon