Books, Vines and….Coffee!!!

An off topic post, for sure. Not a book. Not a bottle of wine.  What????  Well, it is something that reflects the same principle. Well designed and hand-made. There are not many consumer products these days that reflect beautiful form. In today’s world of super mass production, cheaply made, plastic molded ugliness, I stumbled across a coffee maker that belongs in the kitchen of any and all that drink fine coffee and care about well designed form. Here is the Ratio Eight, hand assembled and tested in Portland, Oregon.

Ratio Eight, Models Available
Ratio Eight, Models Available

The Ratio Eight is made with precision die-cast aluminum, hand-turned borosilicate glass, and a selection of premium hardwoods. On the interior, FDA-grade silicone and a single BPA-free plastic component are used (medical grade quality, made of polysulfone, FDA certified and a NSF compliant). A die-cast aluminum element heats water to the ideal temperature of ~202°F. The water flows through a stainless steel shower head designed for even distribution over the grounds. Ratio Eight’s carafe holds Chemex paper filters or one can use the Able Kone stainless steel filter. Coming with a ten year warranty, this kind of quality is rare in today’s world.

The machine is fairly large (13.5″ deep x 9″ wide x 14″ tall), but fits well on most countertops under cabinets. And, you want it on your countertop. No hiding this thing, it will be the most beautiful item in your kitchen. Just look!

Ratio Eight, Front View
My Ratio Eight, Front View
Ratio Eight, Side View
My Ratio Eight, Side View

Don’t let the beauty of the form fool you into thinking they must have sacrificed function.  This is beauty, simplicity and performance rolled into one glorious product. I picked one up and have been using it for a couple weeks now. The Ratio Eight is impressive, absolutely solid and is what the founding great private press designers would have designed should they have been into coffee! Perhaps I stretch the analogy too far as Ratio Eight does not eschew mechanization, making coffee with it is not like hand-setting type but certainly is the equivalent of using Monotype composition. By this I mean that while you are not pouring by hand, it more or less perfectly mimics a pour over. Ratio Eight explains:

If you’re not familiar, pour over is the origin of drip coffee – a brewing method by which one hand pours water over ground coffee beans (contained in a wedge filter) in an hourglass shaped piece of glass. There is a learned technique to proper pourover that includes allowing the grounds to “bloom” after an initial wetting, then evenly and consistently pouring water over the saturated grounds. The result is, many argue, an evenly extracted and balanced depth of flavor. In other words, a superior cup of coffee.

Ratio Eight gives us the benefit of an old school manual method, without having to spend the time and effort normally associated with it.  And it does not get much easier than “Simply grind your beans and initiate the brew. The Ratio Eight will expertly time the bloom, then brew with the ideal water-grounds ratio and let you know when your coffee is ready to enjoy.” For most of us, 95% of mornings we need that convenience when it comes to coffee making.

Creator of the Ratio Eight, Mark Hellweg, knows that this convenience is what most people think is essential when it comes to coffee. Obviously coffee fanatics will always try to take the time to do everything manually. However, even those people occasionally do not have time and the rest of us never had the time in the first place! So the trick is having something that aims for the spirit of the purely manual approach, while simplifying it. Sounds easy enough, right? Nope. Hellweg says: “There are loads of products oriented around making it exceedingly simple to make coffee, but the vast majority of them do so with the great compromise of cup quality. Or if there is any focus on cup quality, there is a lack of focus on the quality and design of the product – they’ve made, for lack of a better word, an appliance.” Ratio’s goal was to not compromise on design, quality of the finished coffee or convenience. Mr. Hellweg correctly says “If you lose one of those, you haven’t achieved balance.”

In the couple weeks I have been using it, it works exactly as advertised and does a phenomenal job. My coffee tasting expertise is certainly no where near the realm of my wine tasting, as I only have recently begun to really “get into” coffee. That having been said, all else being constant, my cups of coffee are markedly improved in taste. The Ratio Eight is not inexpensive at $570. In fact, that is very expensive for a coffee maker, no question about it. But that form! That function! And, all in one.  It is well worth it. Next time you feel like a cup of coffee while you are reading your latest private press acquisition, or wanting a good brew to start your day the way that fine glass of wine ended your previous day, Ratio Eight has you covered. For one who demands literature in the form of Kelmscott’s, Barbarian or LEC’s and wine in the form of Lafite, Giacosa or Sine Qua Non, Ratio Eight is a must!

As an aside, I upgraded my grinder so to have something more worthy of the Ratio Eight. As you probably know, it does not matter what coffee maker you use if what you put into it is not freshly roasted beans ground in a proper manner. I choose the Baratza’s Vario-W Burr Grinder. While it certainly does not have the form of the Ratio Eight (I am not aware of a grinder that does, at least in a mere mortal price range), the design is nice enough while certainly coming with excellent capability for home use. As the Ratio Eight is one touch, so is the Vario. It grinds based on weight, to within  0.1 grams of what you tell it to (which is easily programmable). Baratza tells us:

The Vario-W’s intuitive macro/micro adjustments offer 230 distinct and repeatable settings for any style of coffee. The Vario-W’s unique 54mm ceramic flat burrs provide accurate, fast-grinding (averaging 2 g/sec) performance and remain sharp twice as long as the best steel burrs. The high-torque DC motor and belt drive transmission mean your beans are in for a smooth, cool ride.

Vario-W
Baratza Vario-W

For those who believe steel burrs produce a better cup, the Vario-W is available with such. I have been using mine for about a month now and love the simplicity and the consistency of the grind. I am still experimenting with the coarseness of what works best for me, and this machine certainly gives me all the variations I would ever need. It runs reasonably quietly and is simple to clean. At $550, this is, like the Ratio, not inexpensive. Baratza’s Virtuoso and Encore models are certainly more affordable, and would be much better than the cheap blade grinder you may be using right now! This page does a good job explaining why you really must use a burr grinder, especially if you are using a quality coffee brewing method.

As for the freshness of the coffee itself, I decided to join to a subscription service so to always have the freshest roasted beans possible at my disposal. Every two weeks, I get a new delivery of beans just roasted within the previous couple days. I choose Mistobox, mostly due to variety, customization and convenience. They work with a number of America’s best local roasters, who in turn source some of the world’s greatest coffee beans.

A Mistobox Delivery
A Mistobox Delivery

Mistobox offers different tiers, based on what your interest and spending target is.

Basic tier: $12 – $14 retail price range, consists mainly of blends and darker roasted coffees.
Examples: Double dark blendAfrique blend

Deluxe tier: $14 – $16 retail price range, consists mainly of large lot single origins, espresso and medium roasted coffees.
Examples: Terra incognita espresso blendGuatemala Benedicion

Exclusive tier: $16 + retail price range, consists mainly of micro-lot single origins, direct trade and lighter roasted coffees.
Examples: Panama Elida Estate – Lot 26Kenya Kiunya AA

As you can see, it is not much more expensive then buying the mass produced plonk in the grocery store, without having to get off your couch! Blue Bottle Coffee is another well thought of subscription service, as is Driftaway, Mustache, and Craft. In fact, there are many others so search and find what sounds best to you. Note that pretty much all of these services require no commitment and you can cancel at any time.

If you enjoy coffee, you could do much worse than a Ratio Eight with a Vario-W and Mistobox subscription service!  The Ratio Eight should be an inspiration to others in terms of remembering that form is critically important. We do not need cheapness and lack of design aesthetic in everything we do and use. It is possible to create something around an everyday activity that is not only useful, but beautiful!

For you skeptics out there, this is unsolicited praise! I have zero interest in any products or services mentioned and receive nothing for my comments on them. In any case, in my short time in the coffee world, it seems people have deep and substantial differing views on methods, tools/products and regions. So, any of you serious coffee drinkers out there, please feel free to comment with your views on what works best for you. For the rest of you that just want a good cup of coffee without much work, you have my opinion!

7 thoughts on “Books, Vines and….Coffee!!!

  1. The link between literature and coffee goes back centuries–even before the coffeehouses frequented by Swift, Dr. Johnson and Boswell. Although I no longer drink coffee after noon, I can think of few more pleasurable mornings than the ones I’ve enjoyed when I have had the leisure to read while savoring my morning coffee.

    Chris, I have had literally dozens of different coffees over my life, and have garnered an appreciation for those coffees which provide the same complexity of taste and aroma as a fine wine. I still shake my head over the phenomenon that is Starbucks but understand that to many, coffee is not to be enjoyed for its flavor, but for its jolt. I have not heard of your Mistobox coffees before, though I have had many estate coffees from both Guatemala and Kenya (including many cups of Kenyan coffee enjoyed around morning campfires when I spent 8 weeks in and around the Amboseli National Park while on a job there in 1984). There was a time when the coffee I most enjoyed was the Mocha Sanani from Yemen, but I have come to believe the finest cup of coffee in the world is a cup of Rooster Farms Kona Mauka Medium Roast. Of course when it comes to taste, there is no disputing, but this Hawaiian coffee is the one I would prefer to drink every day (could I afford it!).

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