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Coffee maker of our dreams?

September 20, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writer

THE all-in-one grind-and-brew coffee maker -- a machine that, with one press of a button the night before, has a hot, brewed pot of coffee waiting for you in the morning -- is a coffee lover's dream. But, like all utopian promises (fountains of youth, philosopher kings, foolproof souffles), you have to wonder if it's really possible.

So we decided to put the three grind-and-brew machines on the market -- Melitta, Cuisinart and Capresso -- to the test. We assessed them for features, ease of use and the quality and temperature of the coffee they brewed.

Only the Capresso offers the advantage of a burr grinder, which crushes the beans between rotating cones (rather than shredding them with a single blade), yielding better-tasting coffee that keeps its aromas longer. It's also the only machine that measures the coffee beans for you, according to the strength you want. Two of the machines, the Capresso and the Cuisinart, have thermal carafes.

So how do they work? You measure beans and put them in the grinder (for two of the machines -- the other measures them for you), pour water into the chamber and program the machine for the time you want your coffee ready. Then you go to bed.

At the set time, the machine heats the water to the correct temperature. (Coffee makers that do not heat the water to a high enough temperature do not brew good coffee.) It grinds the beans, sends water to infuse the freshly ground coffee and presents you with a pot of steaming brew.

There are many things that can get in the way of that great cup of coffee. Once ground, coffee becomes stale within minutes as the oils are released. Water, improperly measured, can contribute to either an overly weak or a too intense cup; unevenly ground coffee can also make for unevenly brewed coffee. And then there is the great leveler, the warmer: Left too long on a heating unit, a fantastic pot of coffee inevitably turns into a bitter creosote sludge.

The well-designed grind-and-brew machine is supposed to eliminate these risk factors.

After spending a week measuring out my life in coffee spoons, as T.S. Eliot once put it, I emerged from my caffeine high with a greater appreciation of the Machine Age -- and some wonderful, no-mess, no-hassle pots of coffee.

The Melitta was a very capable machine with good value -- a French press and a grinder purchased separately would cost more -- but the lack of a carafe invalidated the fresh-grind advantages within 15 or so minutes.

The Cuisinart produced an even better cup of coffee.

But it was the Capresso that made me decide to retire my French press. Sleek and beautiful, with a built-in burr grinder, a filter basket that swivels through space automatically while I hit my snooze button and an Orwellian feature that gauges the amount of beans needed for coffee of the strength you desire, it made a perfectly glorious cup of coffee. All I had to do was add water the night before.

A word of warning. Apparently, there are lemons among the Capresso machines. The first machine we tested did not make a decent cup of coffee -- the Orwellian system seemed to have a glitch. I called Capresso's customer service line, answered a number of trouble-shooting questions, and then the representative told me to go ahead and return it; they'd be happy to replace it. (We had heard similar stories from others.)

The new one worked like a dream.



The well-wrought urn

The Capresso Coffee Team Therm with built-in burr grinder has four grinder settings and a vacuum-sealed thermal carafe with a 10-cup capacity.

What's the difference: The only grind and brew on the market with a burr grinder and the only one that measures the beans for you. It has a removable gold filter (with paper filter option) and see-through window for its grinder channel. Unlike the previous Capresso grind and brew, this model has a thermal carafe -- a huge improvement. Brewed coffee was 178 degrees.

What we thought: This machine made by far the best coffee of the three -- aromatic, with a depth of flavor not achieved by the other machines. The burr grinder works smoothly, and the swiveling filter compartment that rotates automatically from under the grinder to a position above the carafe for the infusion process is impressive. At first it's a little off-putting to realize that the machine determines the ratio of water to coffee (within a range that you program into the device). But once you adjust to this, it's something of a relief. Since your beans can be stored in the attractive airtight container (though we wish its capacity was greater), all you do is add water and -- presto! It's nice that you can easily see the water level from the outside as you pour. The only serious drawback to this machine is that there are, apparently, some duds on the market. The first one we tested was never capable of making a satisfactory pot.

How much: $300 from Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, and

Mid-priced contender

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