Patrick Van Den Noortgaete is a man on a mission - a 15 year one in fact. For over 15 years now, Patrick has been building, nay crafting what is probably the most opulent, unique, and amazing little coffee brewer currently on the planet, and has been constantly refining and honing the designs, which are in many ways based on balance brewers originally invented over 150 years ago.
These brewers are the Cafetino and the Royal balance brewers. CoffeeGeek was supplied with four units, two of each model, and will be posting a very detailed review in a few weeks. These brewers sell normally for $300 USD (for the Cafetino) and $600 USD (for the Royal), but substantially reduced pricing is in effect for people reading this first look. Full pricing details can be found at the bottom of this page. And now, here is our first look at these devices.
Out of the Box
Coffee 4 You, Patrick's company (website) packs these brewers carefully for shipment. The Royal stands out though ,with form fitted dense thick foam, making a perfect cocoon for the device. I had my reservations about them crossing over from Belgium, via the Midwest United States, then up to my home in Vancouver, BC, (all via UPS), but after seeing how they are packed, I know I shouldn't have worried. The Cafetino is also carefully packed, though different from the Royal - The Cafetino is secured with Styrofoam precut pieces that act as braces inside the box. For both models, shipment damage shouldn't (hopefully) be a concern. What makes the cocoon packing especially good is that the Royal is "ready to go" right out of the box, whereas the Cafetino needs all of 30 seconds to get going.
When I took these brewers out of the box, I literally stepped back and had to catch my breath. Well, what can I say: I am a CoffeeGeek, after all :). I guess I can say this: other than maybe the Elektra Belle Epoque (website), I don't think I've ever laid my eyes on a more beautiful piece of fully functional sculpture for the purpose of brewing coffee or espresso. In fact the pictures on Patrick's website simply do not do these justice (nor the ones on this page). The Royal especially stands out as an amazing piece of craftsmanship in person, even more than the Cafetino. On the website, the Royal and its various versions look a bit too grand for my normal tastes, but in person, it left me speechless, it is that beautiful.
First Use with the Cafetino:
Following Coffee 4 You's instruction sheet, I put both brewers through a "dry run" (actually a wet run), operating them with water but without coffee. This cleans them out some, and also shows you what to expect. Since I've been brewing 100s of pots of vac pot coffee over the years, I kind of knew what to expect, but what the hell, I followed the instructions. Remember our website's mantra: RTFM... read the freakin' manual.
It is very important to use fresh water, just off the boil in a stove or electric kettle when using these brewers. They operate via an alcohol stove (methyl hydrate to Canadians, denatured alcohol to others), and would take eons to heat up from a cold start. Using fresh, boiled water gives you about a total of 5 to 7 minutes to brew up to 1 litre of coffee.
The Cafetino was put through its paces on the first day. After I did the wet run sans coffee, I gave everything a soapy rubdown (except the inside of the kettle, which I flushed with a LOT of hot water), dried it all off, and set myself to go. Breaking my own RTFM rule, I went by my old vac pot brewing experinece - since it had a metal filter, I automatically set my grinder for a medium-coarse grind and dumped in 7 grams (1tbsp) of the ground coffee for every 4 ounces (125ml) of water. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, and here's why:
I was mildly disappointed to find out that, just like most normal vac pots, I had to stir the slurry in the glass side of things during the brew. (note that, unlike the Royal model, the Cafetino does not have a lid for the brewing glass - but one is available as an option) I knew this because my first pot of coffee was exceedinly weak and a lot of the grounds were left unsaturated in the brewing glass. But the truth is, I don't have to stir, I have to change my grind. My vac pot experience was letting me a down a bit here: Jeroen Vriesendorp, (website) a fellow from Holland, fellow Cafetino owner and fellow CoffeeGeek, set me straight.
To quote Jeroen:
"One word regarding grind, both brewers are more or less identical & take a very fine grind to get proper extraction, since the brewing cycle is about two minutes total - from the first bit of water to end. So start with something just a couple of notches up from 'spresso (more or less what you'd use for cafe suisse) & wait a couple of seconds to let the grounds settle in the boiler before pouring.
If it were a glass vac pot, I'd worry about grinding too fine, but not with the (Royal or Cafetino). It may slow down a bit, but if you look at the filter, there's not much chance of actually clogging it."
I followed Joroen's advice, and the next time around, brewing a full 1 litre of coffee (the Cafetino's max volume), I ground between espresso and drip. I used the same dose of coffee (1 tbsp per 125ml) and lo and behold, all the grinds were saturated, the gurgling action by the filter's holes on the bottom AND top agitated them fine, and it didn't stall on exit, just slowed down quiet a bit before drying out the spent grinds.
But I couldn't resist stirring the slurry just a tad, from force of habit. More like poking it with a stick. It turns out that Patrick does recommending stirring with the Cafetino for full extraction. He's also, as always, constantly experimenting with new styles and designs, so one day there may be a different brewing glass style for the Cafetino that prevents any need for stirring. That said, this isn't a big deal - you have to stir most vac pots anyway, so this is no different. In fact, it's easier... just poke and prod a bit.
Once the brew was finished, I waited about a minute to let the grounds settle and I let the pressure out by turning the spigot on and off quick. This 1 ounce or so of brew showed some gritty sediment which I had in my cup, so I poured it out and removed the top siphon (as per the instructions) to get a proper air flow when I opened the spiggot the next time.
I poured a full cup. It was surprisingly clear, almost non-existant sediment, and exceedingly rich in taste. The measured temperature in the first cup was a whopping 86Celsius (about 188F), which pleased me greatly. I also measured the slurry in the glass portion during brew, and found the temperature was stable at around 200F (or about 94C).
Suffice to say, that second brew was a fantastic coffee. I did still have to do a little stick-poking to get full saturation, but not the kind of stirring I normally have to do with my vac pots. I imagine if I used more coffee grounds, I wouldn't have to do this, but I'll leave that kind of testing for the detailed review.
It is important to note that the Cafetino is designed primarily for home use, but the Royal is designed for home and restaurant usage. This is why the Cafetino lacks certain niceties and design perks when compared directly to the Royal. The optional lid is one example. The stirring and design of the brew glass is another. And the shorter spout, designed for aesthetic reasons as well as function, is yet another. On the Royal, which is used in many upscale European restaurants, these factors are more refined and developed.
Second day, using the Royal.
My second day was dedicated to the Royal brewer. As mentioned above, it has marked differences from the Cafetino, mainly in design but also in function. The Royal's filter sits higher in the glass brewer portion, by about a half inch. Instead of springs, it uses a hefty piece of brass as its counter balance. It has a separate hole for the siphon and top pour spout / pressure release valve. It also features a much taller, more elegant and more functional glass portion, which I will explain better below. The Royal also sits closer to the alcohol stove, which aids in agitation in the brewing glass.
The pour spout on the Royal's kettle sticks out further from the body than the Cafetino's spout does, which means you can put a cup down flat in front of it to pour - the Cafetino's spout is too close to the body of that brewer and you have to hold your cup to pour with the stainless steel model. The Royal also has a lid for the glass brewer, which is mainly a cosmetic thing, but also can serve a nice purpose (outlined below).
And of course, it is all polished copper and brass, which knocks you off your feet. Even my dogs were impressed, it is that cool looking in person.
Operation is more or less exactly like the Cafetino, except that you don't have to remove the siphon to add boiling water to the kettle. The alcohol stove has an elegant weighted lid which flips closed as the kettle raises, shutting the unit of (the Cafetino stove uses a spring to flap shut).
I did notice that with the exact same grind, the Royal's glass brewer portion does a much better job of fully saturating the grinds, requiring absolutely no stirring of the slurry. In fact, if you brew the maximum amount in this brewer (800ml), and you're using fresh beans, the agitation and the bloom of the beans is massive enough to hit the lid of the brewer! That's why the lid is actually a good thing to have. (the bloom is mainly expanded gas bubbles, which the lid does a good job of holding in - but the lid will not retain any denser slurry from escaping, should your "bloom" go that high).
Brewing times were about the same as the Cafetino, and the temperatures were nearly identical. There is definitely more agitation with the Royal, due to the flame proximity to the kettle on the copper brewer, and also the use of 2 holes in the gold plated filter tube (the Cafetino has one drilled hole, due to it's shorter design). Note these holes are on the portion of the siphon tube that is inside the kettle - it lets more steam pressure go through the pipe to further agitate the slurry. I can taste no "steam damage" from this in the cup, and there shouldn't be - it just forces faster airflow, and by the time it reaches the glass brewer, has cooled down sufficiently enough as to not damage the coffee.
I also noticed a bit less sediment with the Royal when compared to the Cafetino, but it is early days yet to call that definitive - for the detailed review I will have more info on this.
The coffee was superb, and "superb" is if anything, an understatement. It helped that I was using Kona Peaberry from SmithFarms (website), but this brewer could probably make any good coffee "great". We'll find out if that is true in the detailed look at these devices in a few weeks.
First Look pluses and minuses
I've only had these brewers for 3 days, so it is very early for me to make any definitive statements about them - this is not a review I am writing here - it is a first look. With that in mind, here are some hits and misses I've noticed with the brewers:
Cafetino Hits: Coffee quality, functionality, brewing volume (1 litre max), looks (design), build quality, it's all there.
Cafetino Misses: These are very minor complaints, but two things that could be improved are the shape of the brewing glass (to aid agitation of the grinds) and aesthetic issues aside (think male anatomy), a longer pour spout would, in my opinion, move this product from "nearly perfect" to "even more nearly perfect". A stronger heat source may also aid in agitation of the slurry, and perhaps some way to prolong the flame by even 20 or 30 seconds. Since this product is constantly being refined by Patrick, these changes may happen, but keep this in mind - these are all VERY MINOR complaints, and you should not let them detract from any purchase decision. It's my job to bitch about things in products, after all :)
Royal Hits: Coffee Quality big time, hand craftsmanship, material quality, function, looks (amazing looks and design), build quality, elegance, brewing ability.
Royal Misses: Cost (at list $600 USD, it isn't cheap, but brother, you are worth it), and cleaning (you need a supremely soft cleaning cloth to avoid scratching the copper finish) are two minor issues. A very minor problem is that it looks like the end of the siphon filter could stand to be about a half inch lower, but don't call this definitive yet.
Pricing and Ordering info
The list prices on these brewers is $300 for the Cafetino, and $600 for the Royal, in US funds. Patrick has spent the last year or two setting up a satelite shop in Mexico, and that along with the very strong US dollar has set up a situation where Americans in particular can reap the benefit of greatly reduced "discount" prices. Further, Patrick has requested that I list some limited time prices for people reading these pages. The Cafetino can be purchased (in the US only) for $195, including UPS ground shipping and insurance, to the 48 main states. That's an amazing deal. If you live in Canada or Mexico (or Hawaii and Alaska), contact Patrick via the email address below for other purchase options and prices.
Even more amazing is the very limited time offer style price Patrick is offering on the Royal through email only. This offer is exclusive to CoffeeGeek readers: $295 USD brings you a Royal, including shipping costs to the lower 48 US states. Patrick's normal discount price on the Royal is $395, but until his new shipment sitting in San Francisco runs out, you can get it for only for a $100 less (or put another way, only $100 more than the Cafetino). At that price, it's in the "killer deal" category for what you get. And how do you get it?
For these prices, email Patrick direct, use the subject message "Special pricing mentioned at CoffeeGeek" and tell him your info and what brewer(s) you want. You won't get this specific pricing unless you mention where you saw it. Patrick will follow up with you on how to arrange payment and shipping info. If you live outside the 48 lower states but are still interested in these brewers, give him a shout by email anyway, and ask him for his best price to where you are located, including shipping (duties and taxes, however, may be up to you).
Conclusion (for now...)
There's no competition for these brewers in terms of refinement, elegance, uniqueness, or style. Simply put, these are the most unique and amazing coffee brewers I've ever set my eyes on, bar none. In terms of coffee quality, early on they rank as high as the best vacuum brewers I own, which is saying a lot. But take that statement for what it's worth - I've only brewed a total of about 5 litres of coffee with these devices so far, and I need to brew a lot more before making definitive statements on coffee quality.
One thing I can say early on is this: take one of these out during a dinner party and you'll give your friends something to remember for the rest of their lives - not only the taste of the coffee, but the artistry, style, and function of the brewer.
I have to give massive props to Patrick Van Den Noortgaete and his company, Coffee 4 You, for their dedication and craftsmanship that is plainly visible in their two main products - have I said they are impressive enough already? If you see these devices, you'll probably agree with me that "impressive" is a definite understatement.
For our detailed review, I will get down to the nitty gritty on these brewers, digging out all the perks and pans they may have, but for now I'll just leave you and go and stare at them for a while, admiring their beauty - I hope you don't mind :)