Oh, the sadness of a broken heart and shattered dreams. I'd just experienced disappointment when an expensive coffeemaker let me down (see my review for the Capresso CoffeeTeam Plus) and I was reluctant to trust again. Still, my addiction to caffeine forced me to enter the market again despite my vulnerability. Fortunately, I found a machine that I could believe in and rely upon, one that supported my needs and desires. That machine is the Starbucks Barista Utopia vacuum brewer.
I first learned of vacuum brewing from Coffee Kid cum Coffee Geek (he rocks). Apparently vacuum brewing was the standard coffeemaking method in America earlier this century, before instant coffee, percolators, and auto-drip methods took over. These methods placed convenience over quality and people eventually forgot what coffee is *supposed* to taste like. Nowadays it looks like vacuum brewing is making a comeback in the States (it never went out of style in Europe and Asia) as people rediscover the taste of quality. It's worth a certain degree of effort.
And with the Utopia, it really isn't that much effort. As opposed to the more standard alcohol-fueled brewers, it's electronic and has an auto-timer feature so you don't sacrifice the ease and convenience of auto-drip coffeemakers. Here's how it works: there are two containers, the carafe and a holding chamber (or whatever it's called). The holding chamber sits on top of the carafe during brewing and the two are sealed tight by a rubber gasket. A tube passes between the containers. Now, cold water is placed in the bottom carafe and freshly ground coffee is placed in the upper chamber. Turn it on and away we go. The water heats up and creates a vacuum which forces it through the tube into the upper chamber. There it swirls around for a little while with the grounds and then is released back down to the carafe. The grounds are retained in the upper chamber by a plastic filter. Then you disengage and set aside the upper chamber and pour yourself a cup.
It's kinda tough to explain if you've never seen it, and I'm not a physicist. You might want to visit coffeegeek.com or starbucks.com for a better description.
Anyway, let me say that this is the best-tasting coffee I've ever had, so much better than auto-drip methods. I've used a French press before but never liked the amount of sediment you get. Vacuum brewing is my fave. This contraption spurred me on to buy three glass, alcohol-fueled vaccuum brewers just to compare the results.
Which brings me to a con: I don't care for the plastic materials used in the construction of this machine. It's an aesthetic thing. Yeah, sure, it won't shatter, but I feel it will be difficult to maintain clarity of the plastic over time. I don't want it to get scratched, foggy and ugly. Thus, I won't put any components into the dishwasher, even though the upper chamber and lids are advertised as dishwasher-safe. Another con is the difficulty of cleaning the carafe. It has electronic components built into the base, so under no circumstances can it be immersed (or placed in the dishwasher). Okay, I can live with that. But the opening is too small for my hand to fit so I can't reach in there and give it a good sponging. My mom suggested that I buy a brush used to clean baby bottles, which I suppose is what I'll do when I get around to it. To date I've just swirled some soapy water around in there and rinsed.
Discarding the grounds can be messy if you're not careful. I hold the upper chamber upside-down over the trash can, reach up in there and pop out the filter. This causes the grounds to scatter (hence, doing it over the trash can). With my hand I scoop out the grounds that stick to the sides of the container--yuck. (Don't discard all the grounds down the drain as it can cause plumbing problems.) After that it's easily washed with soap and water.
Another small con is that you must make a minimum of four cups of coffee. As I'm single, that's often a bit too much. But oh well, it's not something I can't live with.
I found the machine to be overpriced, which prevented me from buying it at first. Luckily for me, Starbucks put it on sale for about $30 off. I guess relatively speaking that's not much of a discount, but it's the principle of the thing, isn't it.
Here I am, going on as if I don't like the machine. That's not true, I love it. In fact, I'm buzzing on its coffee as I write this. It's a unique, good-looking design. Very trendy. It's fun to watch the brewing process as the water is sucked up the tube and then spit down again as coffee. It gurgles away very satisfactorily. The temperature is beautifully hot. When I tried my first cup I took a big horse-sip and regretted it! It works quickly, especially if you're making only four cups like I do. And, you don't have to buy filters for it, which is nice.
So in summary, I'm very pleased with the appearance and function of the Starbucks Barista Utopia and very satisfied with the quality of the coffee it produces, which is rich and not bitter. This coffee is the closest I've found yet to tasting as good as it smells. I don't anticipate trading in this model for another one anytime soon. See? Live up to your promises and you'll have my undying loyalty.