Autumn has blown into our neck of the woods with a mighty draft of whirling leaves, the aroma of wood smoke wafting from neighbors’ hearths, and — hey, this is new — a raft of folks banging on an increasingly-dated review of single-serve coffee machines here on Bloggle. I guess there’s nothing quite like a cold spell to put folks in touch with their inner caffeine junkie… or maybe folks are already looking ahead to their holiday gift lists.
Whatever the reason, an update to the single-serve marketplace is long overdue. So, let’s get to it…
The Tassimo Lineup
Designed and distributed by Braun1 , manufactured by Saeco, and with its coffee supply produced exclusively by Kraft and its army of licensed brands, when the Tassimo launched two years ago it painted itself as the smartest single serve coffee brewer yet.
Certainly the Tassimo’s got brains. Like the Keurig brewers, this brewer relies on a micro-processor to manage brew volume and temperature. More, the Tassimo automatically adjusts brew volume, temperature — and even 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.
Offered in two models –the TA 1400, and the TA 1200 (which I can’t seem to find to link to) — the Tassimo 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 of them fairly compact). In overall looks 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. Both Tassimo models — indeed most all of the single-cup machines — fit comfortably under most any kitchen cupboard. The only apparent difference between the two Tassimo units are the 1400’s slightly larger reservoir (68-oz. vs. 50-oz.), the addition of a charcoal water filter, and some shiny gold-colored accents. (Nothing says premium like a gold package, right?)
The Keurig Team
Now in its third generation of home brewers, the always-evolving Keurig line currently includes the “Elite” B40, “Special Edition” B60 and “Platinum” B70 brewers. The B40 and B60 are built on the second-generation “B50″ platform, and both feature a similar, generally symmetrical shape. The B70 is the first example of Keurig’s latest brew technology, and is a bit of a departure, too, in its overall design. It has a somewhat more aggressive stance — perhaps a bit of attitude. More, it has an updated brewing system that extracts more coffee flavor and aroma from each brew cycle than the B40 and B60 models.
Keurig’s approach is at once more focused and singular than Tassimo’s. A Keurig brewer makes coffee — brewed coffee — and it does it well. Its microprocessor is wired only with the fundamentals of coffee brewing — time, temperature, turbulence and water-to-coffee ratio — and it’s tuned to deliver consistent results. You push a button, you get coffee. That’s it.
Consequently, there’s no brewing espresso with a Keurig. No cappuccino, and no latte, either. That’s not to say that other drinks aren’t available… you can get a decent cup of hot chocolate in a K-Cup, and quite good tea. But these are products that have been tuned to the specific brew parameters of the Keurig brewer, and not the other way around.
K-Cup vs. T-Disc
Keurig’s K-Cup is a deceptively simple device that seals a miniature drip brewing system — replete with drip-style filter and all — in a no-muss, no-fuss, disposable package that protects its payload from moisture, light and oxygen. Keurig has now licensed its K-Cup packaging technology to nine different specialty coffee brands, which today offer more than 150 varieties of K-Cup 100% Arabica coffees and teas between them. That’s a significant expansion on the five brands and 100 varieties of coffee and tea just two years ago.
The Tassimo reads a page off Keurig’s play book2 (and perhaps 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 bar-code 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 both refrigerated 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.
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.)
Each of these brewers has fairly simple and descriptive buttons to activate brewing. Brewing coffee with a Keurig machine couldn’t be simpler: insert a K-Cup, press a button. The number of brew options vary with the model: the B40 offers two brew volumes; the B60, three; the B70, four. It should be noted that as you choose a larger brew volume you’re changing the water to coffee ratio… a 6-oz. cup will a much more robust cup than a 10-oz. cup. Arguably, folks have different tastes for the strength of their brewed coffee — me, I don’t have much use for the largest brew volumes.
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.
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.
Some additional observations…
- 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 “frothy” 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, the brewer pre-fills its brewing system with the entire volume of water required before beginning the brew cycle. This ensures 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.
- The Tassimo’s water reservoir is in the back of the machine, and may require that you pull the machine out from under an upper cabinet to add more water. The Keurig’s side-mounted water reservoir can be easily removed and replaced without reaching over, or moving the machine.
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.
The brewed coffee varieties that I’ve sampled with the Tassimo, however, are another matter. I didn’t care for these coffees. Their aromas were 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 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.
Keurig-brewed coffees are generally quite good, and some are remarkably so. Extra Bold coffees, in particular, offer coffee-house strength, ample body and plentiful aromas, and especially so when brewed at smaller brew volumes. The flavor characteristics of each coffee — and each coffee roaster — are clearly manifested in the cup. Which is, I think, as much as anyone might hope for — that the result be about the coffee, and not about how it was brewed.
Selection & Variety
The selection of coffee, tea, espresso and other beverages for the Tassimo has increased somewhat in the last two years. Worldwide there are now (by my count) more than 50 offerings from Kraft’s own line-up of brands, and brands that Kraft has licensed for distribution. Many of these brands — Mastro Lorenzo, Jacobs, Carté Noir, Kenco, Suchard — live in the European market; you’ll be hard-pressed to find them stateside unless you buy direct from Kraft’s Tassimo Direct web site. More familiar, North American brands include Gevalia, Tazo Tea, Twinings, Nabob (Canada), Seattle’s Best, Maxwell House, and — recently announced though not yet in-market — Starbucks.3 You’ll find no more than a dozen or so offerings for the Tassimo on Amazon, for example… and none of them Fair Trade, or Organic.
The Keurig line-up of coffee, tea and chocolate brands includes names you may find more familiar: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Tully’s, Caribou, Coffee People, Diedrich, Newman’s Own Organics, Celestial Seasonings, Gloria Jean’s, Timothy’s, Van Houtte, Bigelow, and Ghirardelli. Unlike the Tassimo selection, most all of these brands offer a half-dozen or more (much more!) coffee and tea selections. Altogether there are more than 150 different coffees, teas and assorted other beverages for the Keurig system. You can find about a hundred of them on Amazon, including dozens of Fair Trade and Organic options.
Tassimo has an advantage in terms of the flexibility of its brewing technology — its ability to brew espresso, cappuccino and the like — but that advantage comes at the cost of brew-cycle recovery time and diminished capacity to brew a regular cup of coffee. The introduction of additional brands is welcome, and may yet result in a more palatable cup of Joe somewhere down the road.
Keurig’s focus on brewed coffee — and nothing else — hands it a clear victory in the category. Its inability to brew espresso-based drinks may or may not be a liability; that depends entirely on what you want from your single-cup brewer. Ultimately, I find the array of coffees — and coffee roasters — to be one of the most compelling feature of the Keurig brewing system.
Two years on I find that now, as before, choice rules.
- Kraft has recently entered into an agreement with Bosch to manufacture its brewers (seeing as how Gillette/Braun was purchased by its rival, P&G.) Bosch manufactured and distributed brewers are scheduled to be in market in Spring ’08. [↩]
- Keurig is convinced that Tassimo has read too much from their play book. They’ve filed suit against Kraft for patent infringement. [↩]
- I find it remarkable that many of these brands offer only one or two products to the overall line-up… it would almost appear that Kraft is making every effort to show that a great number of brands have adopted their system, when — in fact — most of them are Kraft’s own. [↩]