Monday, February 11, 2008

How to save $2000 a year by spending $400

Do you like Starbucks?

I mean their coffee, not their corporate structure, blighting the landscape etc...

I don't actually; Starbucks is over-roasted, poorly blended, poorly extracted, and mostly overpriced coffee.

I prefer my local coffee shops (there are three very good ones within three miles of me); but even then, if you want a five shot latte, they get a bit expensive.

Mel and I are both big espresso drinkers. I'm also a big regular coffee drinker, but Mel only likes the espresso drinks. Something about the tannic character of regular brewed coffee doesn't sit well with her.

Anyway, we drink a lot of coffee; and a lot of espresso; and up until a few months ago, we were doing it mostly by buying these espresso drinks at either one of the local shops, or Starbucks (the locals aren't open the hours that Starbucks is)... to the tune of about $10 every working day for the two of us.

$10 a working day... 200 days a year... yipes, $2,000 a year on coffee drinks?

This is one of those things that kills budgeting, because it doesn't seem like much for each individual transaction, but when you careful track everything you spend (and we do), and then add it all up, at the end of the month there's $200 on coffee.

... And then there's the calories. I can't tell you how many women I've known who go crazy on diets eating nothing but rabbit food and celery soup etc... and tey not only aren't losing weight, they keep gaining it.

What they didn't realize was that as they reduced their calorie intake from other sources, they started drinking 2 and 3 lattes a day... lattes that are 470 calories a piece. People thing "oh it's just coffee", and coffee only has .5 calories per ounce... except those venti hazelnut lattes AREN'T just coffee, they're 6oz of coffee, plus 12oz of whole milk or even half and half, plus usually 2 tablespoons worth of sugar (flavor shots are sugar syrup).

Drinking even one of these things is like eating a quarter pounder with cheese. The most "evil" drink on the Starbucks menu; the Peppermint white mocha with whipped cream; is, at 700 calories, roughly the same as eating a DOUBLE quarter pounder with cheese.

So, the simple solution is to just give up the espresso drinks right? Or just brew your own coffee.

Great, I do that already.. except that doesn't help with Mel, who gets a sour stomach from all but the most expensive (like $30 a pound) brewed coffees, even when brewed properly (as I've covered before).

So, say you don't want to give up your lattes, what do you do?

Make your own.

The first step is to find a good supplier of beans. If you live in any major metropolitan area, you can get fresh roasted beans at a reasonable price. We use a local roaster here, that blends and roasts their own coffee twice a week, and they're only about $8 a pound for some very nice coffees. If you're really anal you can even buy green beans, and roast your own (our roaster also sells green beans, but we don't have a roasting setup).

Second, buy a proper conical burr grinder. Blade grinders make burned dust. We've got a Cuisinart cuisepro grinder, but there are dozens of brands out there that make decent grinders.

The final and most important step for espresso specifically, is to get an espresso machine.

Oh I know; I bet a bunch of you have tried those home espresso machines, and they're crap. They take forever to heat up, and what they extract is barely drinkable crap. They're a waste of a hundred bucks.

Yes, they ARE a waste of $100. That's why you don't buy a $100 home POS machine.

What you NEED is a heavy duty pump machine; but for $100, all you get is a steam boiler with a 40mm filter, made of pot metal...

Hell, not only do they not work, they are messy, and even dangerous. A few years ago I had one from a supposedly reputable brand actually blow up in my kitchen when the pressure relief valve sedimented up, and the pressure vessel burst. I was only a few feet away when it happened, and I was showered with hot glass and potmetal fragments. Thank god I was wearing glasses at the time, or I would have been seriously hurt, instead of just getting a scalding and some small cuts.

So, whatever you do, DON'T buy one of those cheap $100 home machines...

...But if you spend $400-500 or so, it's a completely different story.

$400-500 or so gets you into a semi-pro level semi-automatic pump machine with a 1500 watt boiler; that will heat up to operating temperature in 30 seconds, and extract a double shot in another 30 seconds.

To extract great espresso from an electric machine, there are three magic numbers:
1. 58mm: the size of professional portafilters (preferably in chromed brass)
2. 1500 watts: the size of heater necessary to properly and quickly heat water for espresso
3. 15 bar: the amount of pressure necessary to properly extract espresso

Mel and I have owned this Breville machine for a little while now:

It's a semi automatic, 15 bar, 1500 watt pump machine; and we love it. We bought it because at $400, it was the lowest price machine that was attractive, had all the features we wanted (mostly, Mel wanted something completely simple to operate, and to clean and maintain), and still got good reviews.

Gaggia, Pavoni, Rancilo, Solis, Breville, and Briel all make decent quality machines, that reach down to that $400-$500 price point (at least through online discounters), and that extract great espresso.

Of course spending more can get you more neat features, more pressure, a bigger heater etc... but what you really NEED, is 15 bar and 1500 watts; everything else is just extra.

One thing I don't care for with the Breville is that they use a crema enhancer (which I didn't know before I ordered it); which is a steam jacket around the filter insert with a pinhole that aerates the espresso as it extracts. Yes, it does make good crema (the oily creamy foam on the top of an espresso shot) but I prefer my espresso crema to come naturally; and with good beans, and a 15 bar pump extracting at the right temperature, crema enhancers are unnecessary.

Irritatingly, it also leaves VERY wet grounds, which means you cant just pull the portafilter, knock the puck out, and reload it; you have to rinse and wipe first.

But the important part is, it' makes very tasty espresso, and it makes it very quickly. The machine heats to operating temperature in 30 seconds; and pulling a double shot only takes a few more on top of that.

Then you just need to steam your milk, and if you like, add your flavor shots (which you can buy almost anywhere); and presto! you have your $6 espresso drink, for all of $0.50, and five minutes (less time than it takes to wait in line at the green monster).

If you want to save on calories, you can get sugar free flavor syrups, and use whole milk instead of half and half... or even 2% (don't go below 2% for steaming, the "milk" semi-curdles, and besides it just doesn't taste right anyway).

Anyway, at our rate of consumption, the $400 machine will have paid for itself in a couple more months, even accounting for coffee and supplies; and it even saves us time, because not only is it faster than driving to the coffee shop, it's about 4 times faster than brewing plain old coffee.