Taking A Closer Look At Ascension's $20,000 Coffee Machine

Categories: Food News

Ascension Coffee Espresso.jpg
If I'm writing this blog post too quickly it's because I just got back from Ascension Coffee and I'm a very thorough journalist and I really wanted to capture a short video that demonstrates some of the characteristics of espresso and crema and it took me multiple attempts to get a good take with my dinky iPhone because as we all know I'm the world's worst food photographer.

When Patrick offered to grab me a coffee from the hyped Design District coffee shop, I told him I wanted to go myself to evaluate the espresso from the much lauded Synesso Hydra Hybrid espresso machine as quickly as possible after it had been extracted. It's not that I'm a coffee asshole who only drinks java within strict time and proximity specifications, it's just that Italian espresso is a polyphasic beverage, prepared from roast and ground coffee and water alone constituted by a foam layer of small bubbles with a particular tiger-tail pattern on top of an emulsion of microscopic oil droplets in an aqueous solution of sugars acids protein-like material and caffeine, with dispersed gas bubbles and solids, which is to say if you trust the definition from Andrea Illy's Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Coffee,: it's very, very fragile.

That foam layer doesn't travel well, and evaluating the cap is an important part of grading any espresso, so I wanted to try it myself. Multiple times.

The age old (and perhaps cliched) test for crema evaluates the surface tension of the foam layer of small bubbles and its ability to temporarily suspend a measure of sugar before it drops into the hot, murky liquid below. Sugar that falls quickly through the top layer is an indication of coffee that's less than fresh and a whole host of other things you don't want me to get into for the sake of this blog post.

So how is the coffee? Yeah, it's pretty good. I tried the single origin Ethiopian version and it managed to hold up an entire packet of sugar for a respectable amount of time. In addition it tasted clean and fresh, was not at all bitter and has a wonderfully viscous mouth-feel I'm still craving but think I should probably avoid till at least tomorrow.

Of course all of this science is why many coffee shops shell out thousands of dollars for machines that give them the ability to adjust water temperature, pressure, coffee saturation, and other variables. The Synesso model you keep hearing about uses an automated four-stage pressure-ramping process to extract perfect shots every time. A monkey with a tamper could make perfect coffee with this thing -- provided the primate isn't over-caffeinated.



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3 comments
FarBeyondMe
FarBeyondMe

Thanks, Scott. I've learned something today: Any monkey with access to internet articles on espresso and a word processor can write an Observer article on craft coffee. If you really knew anything about the subject, you'd know it takes a lot more than just a great machine or someone's presence at that machine to pull the shots Ascension is pulling. 

ChrisYu
ChrisYu

this monkey is fine with 7-11 coffee

exasperatedespresso
exasperatedespresso

"Polyphasic." I like that word. It's perfect. Too perfect. In fact, it and half the words in that graf were taken from Andrea Illy and stripped of their right to quotation marks, or any adequate punctuation for that matter. Scott, you are so manly you wrote an entire post with no periods. 

Your science is a bit murky. No controls? Is the .gif real-time? How much sugar did you use? Does it even matter? No, this science is just a prop and reads like a joke from The Big Bang Theory. 

You discount the monkeys working at Ascension by saying that the machine does all of the work for them. While the machine can control pressure very well, major factors in determining the machine's output pressure are selecting the right grind size and tamping, which are still done by monkeys. The Synesso's been getting a lot of press lately, mainly because of its price tag, but it's only a few thousand more than most models. It's cool, though. It really is. But there's more to Ascension and to coffee than shiny things and dollar signs. 

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