[green_box] It’s been two years since I wrote this comparison. I’ve since updated it. The updated version of this article can be found here. [/green_box]

Just when you thought it was safe to cast your lot and pick a single cup coffee brewer (be it a pod coffee machine, K-Cup, capsule or pouch) there arrives on the scene a spiffy new machine — the Tassimo. The TassimoDesigned by Braun, manufactured by Saeco, and with its coffee supply manufactured exclusively by Kraft, the Tassimo paints itself as the smartest single serve coffee brewer yet.

It’s not the first single-cup brewer to go to market with a “smarter is better” approach. The Keurig line of home brewers — the B50, and more recently the stripped-down B-40 and the souped-up B60 — have leveraged micro-processor control since their initial introduction a year ago (about the same time the Tassimo was announced.) So how does the new kid on the block stack up against the Keurig brewer? Let’s find out —

Certainly the Tassimo’s got brains. Like the Keurig, this brewer relies on a micro-processor to manage brew volume and temperature. Unlike the Keurig, however, the Tassimo automatically adjusts brew volume, temperature — and, it would appear, some aspects of how its pump drives the brew cycle — to match the parameters of beverage you wish to brew. How? Well… it reads, of course. But we’ll get back to that.

While it fits the same kitchen counter real estate as the Keurig (and the Senseo, and the Bunn Home Café) let’s face it, these machines are all fairly compact) the Tassimo is singularly rounded and squat. I think its designers took their cues from the armored, waddling Mondoshawan in Luc Besson’s space opera, The Fifth Element… (but I digress.) The Tassimo’s shape belies its dimensions; its rear-mounted water reservoir towers over the machine, lending it the same vertical dimensions as the Keurig. At just under 14 inches high, both fit comfortably under most any kitchen cupboard, but the Keurig’s side-mounted water reservoir can be easily removed and replaced without reaching over the machine. Advantage: Keurig.

Both brewers employ grab-handles to lever open the brew-head. The Keurig brewer’s business end is smooth in operation, and remains open until you close it, allowing easy one-handed operation. The Tassimo’s brew-head lever requires two hands, and it closes stubbornly — the force required to close it is a little unsettling. (It took me some time to be certain that I really needed to use that much force to close the brew-head assembly — I was concerned I was going to damage the brewer.) Advantage: Keurig.

T-Disc vs. K-Cup

Keurig’s K-Cup is a deceptively simple device that seals a miniature drip brewing system in a no-mess, no-fuss, disposable package that protects its payload from moisture, light and oxygen. Unlike its progenitor, the Nespresso capsule, Keurig has licensed its K-Cup technology to five different specialty coffee roasters, which today offer more than 100 varieties of K-Cup 100% arabica coffees and teas between them.

The Tassimo reads a page off Keurig’s play book (and Nespresso’s before it) by encapsulating its coffee in its own sealed package — the T-Disc — which boasts a number of innovations. T-Discs can be manufactured with an array of options in terms of overall capacity, payload type, and the size and shape of its exit aperture. Each T-Disc is printed with a barcode that describes its required brewing parameters to the Tassimo. When inserted, the brewer scans the code to determine the amount of water to deliver, the temperature of that water, and the timing of the brew cycle — which may include pre-infusing the T-Disc’s contents. The array of sizes allows for payloads of not only coffee, but also chocolate syrup and shelf-stable dairy products. The various apertures of the T-Disc allow the Tassimo to deliver a simple stream of liquid to your cup, or a frothy, textured foam.

Not only can you brew a cup of coffee, but you can also brew a shot of espresso (2.5 ounces at 192 degrees F), and frothed milk (6 ounces, 156 degrees F) to make a cappuccino or a latte. With its liquid chocolate T-Disc, you can brew a more than passable hot cocoa, too (5.5 ounces, 160 degrees F). The capabilities of the T-Disc make the Tassimo more than a coffee brewer — it’s a hot beverage delivery system. Advantage: Tassimo.

In use

The sophistication of the Tassimo’s brewing capability has its price: the relative simplicity of the Keurig’s brew cycle lends it a performance advantage in both brew cycle and reheat / recovery times. The Tassimo’s heating cycle from stand-by mode may take as long as 60 seconds, and its brew cycle another 60 seconds — twice as long as the Keurig brewer. More, if you choose to program wake and sleep times into the Keurig’s clock you can ensure that you’ll never wait more than 30 seconds for a cup.

Brewing a cappuccino or a latte in the Tassimo is a three-step cycle. First insert and brew an espresso T-Disc, and then insert and brew a cappuccino or a latte T-Disc. (The difference: quantity of dairy product, and a different spout — the cappuccino version aerates the milk more than the latte.) Finally, insert the cleaning disk (an empty T-Disc with its own special barcode) and run a rinse cycle. And don’t lose that cleaning disc — you can’t run a rinse cycle without it, and a rinse is highly recommended after you brew either dairy or hot chocolate. It’s sticky, don’t ya know.

Noted quirks

  • All single-cup brewers use a pump to deliver water to the brew-head. The Tassimo’s pump is considerably louder than the Keurig’s, and especially so when the pump is oscillating (aerating?) heavily for “frothyâ€Â? drinks: espresso, cappuccino and hot chocolate.
  • Most every brew cycle, the Tassimo delivers some water to its drip tray through its backpressure relief valve. That’s not a problem, unless you’ve had to remove the drop tray to brew into a particularly tall cup, and then it can create a fair mess. The Keurig returns unused brew water to the reservoir via its backpressure relief system.
  • When you choose a brew volume on the Keurig (B50 or B60 — the B40 offers only a single cup size) the Keurig loads its boiler with any additional water required before beginning the brew cycle to ensure it doesn’t run out of water mid-cycle. The Tassimo does not, and may run out of water mid-brew. To complete the brew cycle you’ll need to add more water to its reservoir.

But what’s in the cup?

In the end, any question of brewing technology is answered by what’s in the cup. This is, of course, a wholly subjective matter — but I’ll take a crack at it.

The Tassimo offers a wide variety of beverage types — coffee, tea, espresso, cappuccino, latte and hot chocolate. That’s a substantial step forward in single-cup brewing capability, however you slice it — and if your goal is to create passably good espresso-based drinks at home with the simplicity of pushing a button (and doing so for a fraction of the cost of a super-auto espresso machine) then you may have found your match in the Tassimo. No, it’s not going to be coffee-house quality — but it’s not bad, either. Likewise, while the Suchard hot chocolate is a little too sweet for my taste, it’s chocolatey — its finish has marshmallow notes, and it’s not bad at all.

The brewed coffee varieties that I sampled with the Tassimo — Gevalia Signature Blend, and Signature Blend Crema — are another story, altogether. The aroma of these coffees is uniformly baked and flat, with taints ranging from wet cardboard to wet dog. Their flavors are somewhat nutty and too much cereally and altogether indistinct of anything that’s much like coffee. Their body is thin; their finish harsh and astringent. At the Tassimo’s standard brew volume they are helplessly over-extracted and bitter.

And it’s not going to get much better. I must remind you that the Tassimo’s coffee content is wholly in the hands of Kraft and its brands — the T-Disc technology is altogether proprietary, and altogether a lock-in to this particular coffee giant. If you enjoy Gevalia Café and Maxwell House coffee, or Kraft’s European brands: Café Norte, Suchard and KenCo, then perhaps you’ll find something to like about these coffees. I tried — and I failed. Utterly.

No, if you like coffee — brewed coffee — and if you have any interest in exploring the depth of flavors and aromas that specialty coffee offers, I think you’ll be happier with the Keurig. The Keurig B50And if you’re interested in supporting Fair Trade coffee farmers, or prefer organic coffee then I’m certain you’ll be happier with the Keurig — Kraft has made none of these available in a T-Disc.

The Keurig single-cup model ensures that not only are you not tethered to any single roaster’s coffee selection, but you can also choose to brew your own coffee — from your neighborhood coffee roaster, or your own home-roast — with Keurig’s new single-cup insert. (The insert is available now only with Keurig brewers purchased at Williams-Sonoma, but should be available everywhere come January.)

Choice — it’s a wonderful thing.

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