Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lost In Time: Marco Uber Boiler

Counter Culture's Tech Wizard Brian Ludviksen and the Uber Boiler.

Finally had the chance to play with the Marco Uber Boiler without the torrent of crowds at SCAA, and get a real feel for the boiler. Straight to the point, I'm not terribly impressed.

I've been anticipating the Uber Boiler since James Hoffmann started touting its virtues over a year ago. Almost a year ago, I contacted James and the Marco company for specifications on the updated Uber Boiler because I intended to use it in project hampden. In fact, the brew bar at Spro Hampden was designed and built to accommodate the Uber Boiler. Its interior cabinet dimensions are spec'd to house the Uber exactly.

Unfortunately, production delays and a general inattentiveness towards email inquiries led me to purchase and use a Fetco water tower instead. Guess if we're not world champion baristas we're not that important.

Then I heard about the Uber Boiler's cost: £3900 or roughly US$5,800. Good Lord - isn't this thing just a water boiler? Do I get fellatio for that kind of money???

The Uber Boiler in the early stages of boiler recovery.

Then I heard that Counter Culture was bringing their Uber Boiler up to the La Marzocco Out of the Box event for the hand brew Death Match competition and I was able to spend some time observing and playing with the Uber Boiler, sans fellatio.

First off, it's a gorgeous piece of stainless steel equipment. I long wondered about the wisdom of putting the buttons and screen on the surface of the unit because it's constantly getting wet and being exposed to all sorts of coffee debris but the unit seemed to hold up well.

One of the first questions I had about the unit was how difficult it is to clean under the scale slash drip tray. Because while everyone assured me that everyone would instruct their baristas and staff not to pour beverages and milk down the Uber Drain, that's no very reassuring because all of us know that the greater the pressure on the line, the greater the likelihood that those rules go down the drain - along with brewed coffee, milk and who know what else the harried barista will pour while under duress.

Happily, the scale platform comes off easily and while there are a number of creases, nooks and crannies for scum to build, they seem readily accessible and relatively easy to clean - though how often they will be cleaned by the typical Third Wave barista remains to be seen.

12.9C in over three and a half minutes.

Operation of the Uber is relatively straightforward. Press the Prime button and the unit shuts off the flow valve, refills and reheats the five liter boiler to the specified temperature. I'm not sure how to adjust the temperature but judging by Brian's reaction when I asked him about changing the temperature, I didn't think it was a simple matter of punching a couple of buttons or turning a knob.

Once in the Prime mode, the Uber refuses to do anything except fill and reheat. In fact, it renders the unit completely useless - unless you simply want to use it as a scale or drain.

Once at temperature, you hit the "Boost" button and the machine becomes operable again, though you want to wait until the unit equalizes the "Font" or nozzle temperature to the boiler temperature before using the Uber Boiler to brew coffee.

The use of both the integrated scale and timer are simple enough. Hold the buttons down to reset then hit again to start. Simple.

The Font nozzle itself is controlled by an offset lever that you use to oscillate the Font and direct the water flow over the coffee. It's an interesting feature but the throw radius of the water is not wide enough to completely saturate the side walls of an 8 cup Chemex leaving exposed coffee grounds and oversaturating the center of the filter cone.

Of course, you could physically move the brewing device around, which would destroy the sensitivity and usability of the built-in scale - of which you're depending on to accurately measure the amount of coffee you are adding to the brew, which leaves you stuck again.

In addition, the offset handle is difficult to control - because as any guy or girl knows, it's easier to control with direct manipulation than this weird offset handle.

Starting to equalize Font temp in Boost mode.

But to my mind, the real killer of the Uber Boiler is the recovery time. As a test, I dispensed a liter of water from the Uber Boiler (roughly 20 percent of the Uber's capacity) into a Chemex and then hit the Prime button just to see how long it would take to refill the boiler and recover temperature.

Bear in mind that the Uber for this example was refilling via an external pump fitted to a 5 gallon jug of bottled water at room temperature (roughly 70-75F).

The refill time took Three Minutes and Thirty-Five seconds. An eternity in the world of brew-by-the-cup bar operations.

Three minutes, thirty-five seconds. I could have another cup completing brewing in that time.

Some of you may think that pulling one liter of water out of the Uber is an unfair test. With one liter of water, I can brew nearly THREE 12 ounce coffees. Three coffees is not an unheard of amount at a time when you're brewing by-the-cup.

Sixteen seconds to equalize Font temperature.

Remember, the Uber in Prime mode will do nothing except refill and reheat. This six thousand dollar boiler is dead in the water for over three and half minutes. Holy Crap, we would totally be screwed during the rush.

Add on the sixteen seconds it takes to equalize the Font to the boiler and you're talking Three Minutes and Fifty-One seconds - nearly four minutes to recover after expending only twenty percent of the Uber's capacity. Is this really acceptable???

Some of the other baristas remarked that you can get around this by adding additional Uber Boilers. Really? I'm already spending six times the amount of a Fetco water tower for one Uber and in order for me to handle the rush, I need to purchase an exponentially growing number of Uber Boilers??? That's insanity.

In order to handle Spro Hampden's current volume, we would need two or three Uber Boilers. That's upwards of Eighteen Thousand Dollars investment and we wouldn't have the counter space to accommodate that many Uber Boilers. I can't imagine how many Uber Boilers you would need to handle the volume of places like Intelligentsia Silver Lake - even though those cats could afford twenty Uber Boilers.

Yes, the Uber Boiler is a good-looking boiler. It would look sexy as hell on the brew bar at Spro Hampden. But the boiler recovery time from 80% capacity is simply too long. It would kill your service flow during a rush.

For six thousand dollars, the recovery time for the Uber is too long and needs to be nearly instantaneous to make it a no-brainer winner - and a more, ahem, "accessible" price would make it a killer. But for now, it's simply a sexy toy that's more suited to the home coffee geek with money and time to burn.

Waffle House

Lindsay and her Triple Hash Browns.

On the way back from New York and Philly, Lindsay and I decided to make a dinner stop. Cracker Barrel or Waffle House? Two good choices for classic American fare. Waffle House won out.

Grilled Bacon Cheesesteak Melt with hash and chili for me, triple hash and chocolate waffles for Lindsay. I was unable to complete my mission.

Grilled Bacon Texas Cheesesteak Plate, triple hash.

I was conquered.

Ooh Waffle House

Mitsuwa New Jersey

Almond Croissant - Japanese Style.

One of the problems of living in Baltimore is the lack of Japanese markets and every time I drive to New York I always want to hit Mitsuwa Marketplace to stock up on items. And every time we've gone, I've always gotten sidetracked. The last time we made a serious attempt to visit, we arrived just after they had closed at 9pm last September. Heartbreaking.

Lindsay and I finally made it to Mitsuwa before heading south where I found a wondrous bounty of all things Japanese. A chopstick rest here, a charcoal clay grill there, some Kirin cold tea, beautiful nori, furikake, nori-wrapped arare and, my favorite: the Japanese bakery.

There's something beautifully luscious about the Japanese version of white bread. It's fluffy and delicate while being just dense enough to offer just the right bounce on the bite. Give it a nice brown toast and it's incredible. Perfect for butter while still remaining fluffy on the inside.

I first discovered this wondrous bread at the St. Germaine Bakery in Honolulu and I've sought it out wherever I've lived and traveled. Sadly, I haven't lived near a Japanese bakery in years and I've missed it dearly. How I wish that someone would teach me their Nihon-jin secret.

The "B" Shoyu Ramen Combination at Santoka.

Inside Mitsuwa is a food court with a very familiar-looking ramen joint called Santoka. A quick call to Al in Southern California reveals that the ramen place in the Hawthorne Mitsuwa is called Santouka - coincidence or chain? I'm not quite sure.

The ramen tastes similar and I order the "B" combination of shoyu ramen with char siu, a side of hard boiled egg and ikuradon, a bowl of rice topped with salmon roe. It's a solid lunch for the road and quite delicious. After some good food and discussion we're back on the road heading for home.

God Bless Japanese Bakeries

Kawaii To Death