At the heart of the way the Cafetino and Royal coffee machines work is the principal of vacuum brewing. They work almost exactly the same as a standard two globe vacuum brewer, except water travels sideways instead of up and down exclusively.
When I first saw Coffee4You's brewing devices several years ago, I thought they were modern day Napierian brewers (described in sidebar). I made this assumption because the Cafetino and Royal have the same silhouette and general design layout as the Naperians from the 1840s.
That assumption is, of course, false. The Cafetino and Royal are vacuum brewers, and their side by side action with counterweights (or springs) makes them automatic mechanical vacuum brewers. That's really the only difference they have from vacuum brewers like the Hario Nouveau or Bodum Santos.
So the real question is, do they brew as well as the Hario Nouveau or Bodum Santos?
Vac Pot coffee vs. Balance Brewer coffee
There is one other crucial difference between a balance brewer and a traditional vac pot - you, the operator, and your interactivity with the devices.
With vac pots, you control the brew time. You do this by deciding when to remove the heat source (be it alcohol burner, butane stove, electric hot plate or gas stove). This means if you want a 1 minute steep time for your brew, you get it. If you want a 2 minute steeping time, ditto.
With balance brewers, left to brew on their own, you don't control this variable - the device does, and it decides when to kill the flame and force the kick down (or more accurately, kick sideways) for your brewed coffee.
Because of this variable, balance brewers when used fully automatically will generally not produce a cup of coffee as good as a manual vacuum brewer can under optimum conditions. It comes down to extraction, or steep times. The water simply does not have enough time to extract the same full amount that a manual brewer can. You can narrow this gap depending on how fine you grind and the type of beans you use, but in our own blind side by side taste test (results on the conclusion page), the vacuum brewer won out.
To be fair to Van Den Noortgaete and Coffee4You, they have done some serious tweaks and subtle improvements over the original balance brewer designs from the 1840s to help improve both extraction and agitation of the grounds, but as with most devices that make foods and beverages, the manual way is often the best way.
Of course, it is also very easy to ruin your coffee while using a manual vac pot. If you leave the heat source on too long, you will overextract and release bitters and burnt tastes into your brew. This mistake is almost impossible to achieve with automatic balance brewers, when they are left to work automatically.
I have to reinforce something here: you get a very good cup of coffee from these brewers, even when compared to traditional vac pots. These devices do brew great cups of coffee, even when on fully automatic mode. It's just that manual vac pots can go a few steps higher, when used properly.
Another lesser concern, but one that you are definitely paying for when it comes to balance brewers is looks. If you were to compare vac pots (which are already an amazing and impressive way to brew coffee, from a visual standpoint) to Coffee4You's balance brewers, there really is no comparison. The balance brewers win hands down in the looks and functionality department. In fact, there's no other coffee brewing device on the market that looks nearly as impressive as these do.
Filter Drip and Press Pot coffee vs. Balance Brewer coffee
Here's where the balance brewer do beat other brewing methods - both in the cup and in the looks and functionality departments.
Balance brewers do several things "right" when it comes to brewing coffee. First they brew your coffee at nearly perfect temperatures (anywhere between 90 and 96 Celsius), for the entire brew session. This is paramount to getting the best extraction you can get. Many automatic filter drip brewers cannot reach the proper extraction temperatures, and even some that do still leave the liquid cooling while extraction takes place in the filter.
Manual drip devices are better (the type where you add the boiling water to a filter), but even these cool down rapidly as the water extracts solubles and flavors and such from the grounds. Press pots also suffer from this problem - the typical 3 to 4 minute steep time for a press pot lets the brewing water cool down about 15C or so during the process.
With vac pots (including balance brewers), hot water and steam is sent through the siphon constantly during the brew phase, delivering perfect temperature stability for extraction. The only time heat isn't applied to the brewing slurry is when the heating source is removed, and a partial vacuum starts to form in the kettle. The vacuum means your filtering time is lessened greatly - in other words the filtering period is much shorter when compared to filter drip methods.
Another boon for the balance brewers is the use of all metal filters - no paper to prevent the best flavour oils and colloids from getting back to the kettle and to your cup. There's a reason why gold filters for drip pots are popular, and it's not just because of convenience or environmental concerns. It is because the coffee simply tastes better. You get this with the balance brewers.
Balance Brewer coffee quality, overall
If operated on fully automatic, with the proper amount of grounds, clean, fresh water, and clean equipment, you can easily get a better cup from a balance brewer when compared to filter drip. There's no question. Even though they suffer from a shortened extraction period, the taste is just bang on.
Traditional vac pot coffee does produce a better cuppa, when you compare automatic balance brew coffee to it. But you can easily achieve that "vac pot level" cup of coffee from a balance brewer if you operate it on semi-auto mode (see previous page for optional steps that help improve your brew).
The fact that this is one of the most unique ways to brew coffee, and the quite real possibility you'll be creating memorable experiences for your coffee-sharing friends and dinner guests make this a serious consideration for high quality coffee in the home, even when stacked up against brewers like the Hario Nouveau or Bodum Santos.
Are balance brewers worth the price difference, when compared to vac pots you can buy for as little as $30 or $40?
I might as well ask you if a Porsche or a Jaguar is worth the price difference when compared to a Kia or Daewoo car. Both get you where you're going. What you pay for the transportation mode is as much a matter of personal preference as it is a matter of materials used, hand crafted quality or style an design. In the end it is up to you and what you feel a product's worth is, in terms of quality, production, and design.