Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Cost of a Couture Coffee Habit

As I sit here and savor my exceptional cappucino with a decadently buttery, flaky, warm croissant, I contemplate how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy this in the comfort of my own home, in my bathrobe and bunny slippers. I wrote last summer about how much I had come to depend on the simplicity of my beloved instant Starbucks espresso pods. Well, I'm happy to report that my Starbucks addiction has been replaced with an addiction to fresh Illy espresso beans. You see, one of the wedding presents we received last fall was a completely automatic espresso machine, the Saeco Charisma. Normally, it retails for $700, but being the good shopper that I am, I lucked out just as this model went on sale at Costco. My uncle actually found the great deal. Upon returning from our Italian honeymoon adventure, my hubby and I had grown accustomed to experiencing absolutely perfect espressos and cappucinos whenever we wanted them -- and we always wanted them.

Although we weren't trashing our current Gaggia Carezza that had started us on our homemade espresso habit, frankly, the little Carezza just wasn't cutting it lately. It had always been a little temperamental -- emotional, we called it, like many Italians -- but now, it was having nervous breakdowns. The coffee's crema wasn't coming through sometimes, it leaked water constantly, and it took a long time to heat up. If you didn't heat it up enough, the first cup wasn't good and you had to dump it. If you didn't let it recharge sufficiently between shots, it ruined the second cup. There was also the issue with the espresso pods. It was a blessing to have them, so much easier and cleaner were they than grinding, measuring, and tamping coffee beans, then cleaning all the grounds and dust out. But the pods made it hard to make large capuccinos or lattes, supposing you wanted a double or even triple shot. And forget about entertaining guests. It was okay if no one was in a hurry and you could wait 5 minutes between serving each person a single shot, but it was impossible to make 4, 6, or 10 grande beverages in a row. Don't even think about trying to steam milk afterwards. So I resigned myself to the fact that, having now been spoiled by the Italians for life, we might need to upgrade our machine.

I mentioned to my uncle that it would be really swell to own a totally automatic machine so I would get my fix even faster with more consistent quality. I had often visited him and he would make the most amazing espresso drinks for the entire family-- he could make 10 double-shots without waiting for the machine to "reload." Now, to all the purists out there who insist that the only "true" cup of espresso is the kind that you freshly grind on the ideal setting, tamp to perfection, and steam pressure into your cup -- frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. These purists claim that an automatic machine makes it difficult to control some of the aspects of the process. Well I say to them, it's not my goal to become a professional barrista. My sole purpose is to quickly make a consistently tasty, painless cup of cappucino with minimal preparation and cleanup, and still have time to prepare a great sandwich or sweet with it.

My uncle asked if I would like to own the same machine as he does, and naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. So he suggested that we send him back the very generous check that he had given us and instead, he would buy us an automatic espresso machine. The timing couldn't be better, he claimed, as the same Saeco Charisma that he owned, which retails for $700, was currently on sale at Costco for just $450. This multifunctional model takes whole coffee beans, grinds them at an adjustable setting, makes single, double, or even triple shots with your desired concentration just by pushing a button, and even steams milk. It needs just 1 minute to heat up and no rest periods between multiple cups. Cleanup is easy, just open up the front door, slide out the tray, and dump out the grounds after every few uses. We were very excited to try it.

About a week later, I brought home the Saeco Charisma in its gigantic box after picking it up from my uncle's house. We couldn't wait to unpack it, and there was a lot to unpack with this sizeable contraption. After we got everything unwrapped, washed, and set-up, we just had to try it out. One problem though -- we didn't have any fresh coffee beans. Being Saturday night and with nothing really open, we were forced to wait until the following morning. Without undo hesitation, I ran out the next day to Balducci's to buy the ultimate luxury in coffee: Illy coffee beans. Finally, I would be able to enjoy espresso the way it was meant to be enjoyed -- freshly ground and pressure-brewed. As soon as I got home with the stash of beans, I opened up the vacuum-sealed can and inhaled the incredible aroma of what some people call the world's finest coffee. Yes, I looked like all the idiots in the coffee commercials, sticking my nose right into the can and taking huge whiffs like I was trying to get high off the coffee vapors. But I didn't care. And this wasn't Maxwell House, it was Illy. So the inhaling was good.

Now, I will admit, it took us a while to figure out the correct grind setting for the coffee beans. Some people prefer theirs ground to a powder while others like a little coarseness in the grind. We found that a little bit of coarseness was good. We also had to adjust the concentration of the brew. This was easy, we set it on the highest concentration for maximum potency. Now, all we had to do was press the button -- once for a single shot and twice for a double shot -- and we were treated to the intoxicating aroma of freshly ground beans plus the rich flavor of an espresso. And floating on top of the deep brown liquid was a nice think layer of golden crema. Ah, bellissimo! One taste was worth a thousand words. Illy coffee measured up to its reputation, and the Saeco Charisma measured up to its $450. Another nice thing about buying electronic equipment at Costco is that you can deal directly with them for repairs or replacements. I've heard horror stories from consumers who have tried to deal with Saeco. Just don't.

It took us another couple of weeks to fine-tune our grind and concentration settings, but we finally settled on our preferred combination, with a little bit of advice from my uncle. We also tried different coffee beans. Having run out of Illy one weeknight and with Starbucks being the only open option, we brought home a bag of Starbuck's espresso roast. Well, I'd like to say it was a fine-tasting specimen, but it wasn't quite what we had gotten used to. So we didn't bother with Starbucks again. We tried some organic brands from Whole Foods as well as our favorite Dunkin Donuts Hazelnut coffee, which is the only bean allowed to touch our drip coffeemaker. We tried some flavored beans from Ghirardelli and some other brand that I have now forgotten, but the coffee was weak. We finally agreed that Illy coffee was worth the expense. At $11.99 per can, it was no bargain, but if you're lucky and live near a Balducci's, you might receive coupons once in a while. They can vary from $5 to $10 off your total purchase, and they definitely help defray the cost of our expensive habit. To say that Illy coffee is priced high is an understatement. If you compare it with Starbucks Espresso Roast beans, which cost $10.45 per pound, Illy's just-over half-pound can is a little exorbitant at $11.99. Believe it or not, most online retailers charge between $12-14 per can, even when they're trying to sell you the economy "valuepak" of 6 cans. But if you must have the best, you'll grudgingly pay for it. At least I can save a few bucks with Balducci's coupons. Thank goodness for the little things.

And it is worth it. Every penny. The taste of a freshly ground, freshly brewed espresso is unbeatable. Add in perfectly steamed and frothed milk, a dash of cinnamon, and a dash of cocoa powder, and you're in heaven. Sit down and enjoy your morning latte or cappucino with a warm, flaky croissant or a toasted sesame bagel with cream cheese and you've found nirvana. Have an afternoon latte or an evening espresso with a big chewy cookie or a gooey cinnamon bun and you'll feel like a kid again (albeit, a kid who is allowed to drink espresso beverages). My mother-in-law even taught us how to make a yummy Italian delicacy that she saw Giada De Laurentiis make on her show once. Brew a single shot of espresso, then pour over vanilla ice cream. Presto, you've got an instant fancy dessert! We modified this recipe slightly by pouring espresso over coffee ice cream and adding a piece of waffle cone.

Being the discount diva that I am, I once again sat down and calculated how much I was saving by indulging in my cappucino habit from home instead of spending it at a coffee shop. Last year, I calculated that Starbucks espresso pods saved me $600 to $900 per year. Now let's see what my couture coffee habit from my totally automatic machine was saving me, if anything. Let's say you have a tall latte or cappucino 5 days per week for one year. Divide the price of the automatic espresso machine by 5 years, which is theoretically how long a machine of this quality is supposed to last. That's $450 divided by 5, which equals $90 per year. Add in the cost of Illy coffee beans. I would guesstimate that each 8.8 ounce can of Illy coffee makes about 30 single shots, so 15 double-shot servings, or 3 weeks worth of servings. Divide 52 weeks by 3 and multiply by $11.99, the price of one can. That comes to $208. Add in the cost of milk. Well, you're going to buy milk anyway, so do you really need to add it in? Okay, add in $100 for milk, because with an automatic espresso machine, you'll go through twice the milk. I assume you have cinnamon and cocoa powder in your cupboard, so just add a tiny sprinkle. I personally no longer find the need to add flavored syrups to my coffee, now that I actually enjoy the divine taste of my coffee. However, if you like caramel, vanilla, or hazelnut lattes, subtract the cost of Illy coffee and buy Starbucks espresso roast instead. It's a weaker coffee, but the syrups will cover up much of the coffee's real taste anyway. The money you save on coffee beans will cancel out the few extra-large bottles of syrup you'll go through per year. So, the grand total for one year's worth of homemade espressso beverages? $398. Divide that by 5 beverages over 52 weeks. That comes to $1.53 per beverage.

Is it cheaper than Starbucks? You bet!! It's about half the price of a tall espresso beverage. And if you're in the habit of buying grande beverages, you'd really save a bundle by brewing at home. You can save between $390 and $442 per year! Just imagine how much you can save an entire household -- double for a household of two, triple if you have 2 roommates or teenagers (or adult children). $390-442 buys a lot of shoes. Or a weekend getaway to Florida. Or a case of your favorite wine. Or a knockout Marc Jacobs coat, on sale of course. Or a fabulous new Coach bag. Or a fabulous used Gucci bag on ebay. Or a new 19-inch flat-screen monitor so you don't have to squint. Or a new comfy armchair (plus Ottoman if you buy it at Ikea). I'm sure you can find plenty of ways to spend the money you save.

But is it better than Starbucks? Are you kidding me? You get the best-tasting coffee with Illy beans. Not to mention the comfort of your favorite chair at home. Plus much cheaper (and I would argue better) pastries and bagels to go with it. You can even add a little liqueur if your workday didn't go so well. Or a few drizzles of chocolate syrup to upgrade to a mocha for free. (I know you keep chocolate syrup on hand. If not, I'm sure you keep hot fudge sauce on hand. No? Just melt some chocolate chips or a Hershey's kiss, for heaven's sake. I know you have some form of chocolate in your home. It doesn't count as an added expense.) You can make all those refreshing iced mochas and frappucinos for less too.

The best part? You can make it anytime you want, and you don't even have to get out of your bunny slippers. That alone is worth it. My coffee cup runneth over.

Photos courtesy of Illy (coffee in can and coffee in 2 cups), 1-800-Espresso (Saeco Charisma automatic espresso machine), and's gorgeous photos of coffee art from the Latte Art Show.)

I read that the Saeco Charisma has been discontinued. But there are several units still being sold by retailers, for much less than the original $700 price tag. I just saw the Saeco Charisma priced at just $399 at Amazon. It is sold through J&R, an online retailer. It doesn't indicate whether this price is for a new or refurbished model, but there is nothing in the description to indicate that it's not new. I saw a refurbished one on Amazon for $300, but it may be gone now that the new one is selling for $399. There are also some retailers selling it between $500-600. Hey, if you buy it for $399, your cost per beverage drops slightly to $1.49. You can't beat that!

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