When in the city, I start my morning by firing up my big old Gaggia espresso machine. When summer comes and I head for the hills I assume that I have left espresso behind. But after whining in a post about why we have to put batteries in everything, Nick Thompson, the American distributor of the Wacaco Minipresso, suggested that I try his battery-less and cordless portable espresso machine.
Frankly, I was dubious; making a good espresso is hard. As Italian expert Giorgio Milos noted in Salon,“A good cup of espresso has to be balanced between sour, bitter, and sweet.” It’s hard to find in North America, where aficionados call it “undrinkable swill fit only for burying under a half-liter of foamed milk and flavorings (and THAT, friends, is America’s unique contribution to coffee culture).”
The Minipresso was designed by Hugo Cailleton, an industrial designer living in Hong Kong who had been working on espresso machine design.
The idea of the portable espresso machine, allowing users to pull their own drink on the go, crossed his mind one morning during a business trip after having been disappointed by a poor espresso shot in a hotel. Back home, he started to examine available offers, bought samples and tested them. But none of those products satisfied him totally. They were too heavy, had poor extractions, shots temperature was too low and they were over priced considering their occasional use.
The Minipresso tries to address this problem, and mostly succeeds. It is certainly not overpriced at US$ 59. With respect to weight, everything is relative; If I were backpacking, would I really want to carry an extra 360 grams or almost 13 ounces of hardware, just to make a nice cup of coffee?
I also wondered, isn’t this overcomplicating things? I can get a passable cup of espresso-ish coffee out of my little Bialetti Moka that is a lot simpler and lighter and doesn’t need a separate source of hot water. We like simple.
Then I started using the Minipresso. You open the top and fill the filter basket with what seems like very little coffee (I use much more in my Gaggia at home) and screw the top down over it. This is not intuitive but that’s how it fits together. Then you fill the bottom with the hottest water you can up to the line in it; put in too much water and you will have hot water leaking over your hands, which is not fun.
Then you start pumping. All good espresso machines push water at high pressure through the coffee; the minipresso reaches 116 PSI or 8 Bars. It starts flowing after about six pumps and after about another dozen you have emptied the machine into the cup.
But look at the results, with that layer of crema floating on top. That’s the sign of a good espresso that you get out of a commercial machine; Here, it is better than I get out of my fancy Gaggia at home. It’s better than most of the espressos that I have had from automatic machines. Put simply, this is a really good shot.
The only one of Hugo Cailleton’s goals that it didn’t nail was the temperature. Even when I ran hot water through the machine and then made the coffee, it still wasn’t super hot. However this might just be a matter of practice; as I get faster it might well be hotter.
I must point out that this is espresso, black Italian style coffee, and there is no steamer wand or any attachment to make the lattes or other fancy drinks that are usually consumed in North America. But I think that’s a feature, not a bug; A good espresso is a wonderful, sugar and calorie free jolt of pleasure.
It’s also coming out of a tiny device that operates without electricity, without CO2 cartridges or other disposables. (We won’t talk about the fact that they make a pod model.) It fits in a drawer instead of taking up counter space. It costs a tenth of what a decent countertop espresso machine costs. It feels like it is built to last. Those are things we look for when we talk about sustainable product design.
Is it overcomplicating things? My Bialetti Moka is simpler, but there is no comparison in the quality of the coffee. This would be nice to wake up to out in the woods. So nice, that I think I might be willing to carry its 13 ounces on a hiking trip, and I don’t do that lightly.
More at Minipresso.