As I pulled my newest coffee fetish item out of the box, the side view so clearly reminded me of the Avengers Tower that it inspired a few lines of superhero fan fiction:
THE HULK (sipping coffee from a tiny cup, pinky raised): Hey Cap, the coffee tastes different this morning. Do you think the grind is right?
CAPTAIN AMERICA: Dunno, big guy—maybe the water temp is a bit low. Shall we make Tony brew another pot?
For most of us, making coffee is a near-brainless action. The ease of the process is an advantage when you’ve still got the morning sleepies. Put the grounds into Mr. Coffee’s basket, pour in the water, and press start.
Breville Precision Brewer Thermal
Dial in your drip! Wide temperature range with excellent control during brewing. Adjustable variables galore.
The carafe isn’t perfect. Price tag will make you feel caffeinated. A persistent and mysterious error message on the first model tested inhibits awarding a higher score.
Yet for those who want to explore, there are a near-infinite amount of variables that go into brewing: the brew method, the amount of coffee, the length of the brew cycle, water quality. Even the unfortunately-named “wetting” (aka pre-infusion, which just means saturating the grounds at the beginning of the cycle for a consistent brew), can contribute to the quality of your cuppa Joe. It’s easy to understand why coffee professionals often call brewing a journey.
The latest drip machine from Breville, the Precision Brewer, offers ways to tinker with many of these possibilities. You might even say the coffee maker has superpowers. It has a particularly fast brew cycle and, most importantly, temperature control during brewing, that at 176 to 208 degrees Fahrenheit, ranges into an impressive and helpful top end that most run-of-the-mill coffee makers lack. For those of you who follow this sort of thing, the Precision Brewer is parachuting directly into territory occupied by the likes of Behmor’s brewers. The version I tested, the Precision Brewer Thermal ($299), also does cold brew and you can buy a pour-over attachment for 35 clams.
The big key for this machine is temperature control and to see its effect, you isolate the variable, keeping other everything else consistent through a set of trials. Breville is smart to stress the importance of good, freshly roasted beans at the front of the manual. As a coffee pro once put it to me, “Older coffee is like stale bread. You can’t go back.”
I’d been counseled to try a distinct coffee and found Olympia Coffee Roasting’s Kenyan Kuguyu AB and immediately cued up high-temp and low-temp brews at the Breville’s outer limits: 208 and 176 degrees. The differences were easily noticeable; the lower-temp brew was lighter in color and had a honeyed, almost hoppy aroma, while the higher-temp roast brew was darker and ever-so-slightly cloudy. The smell of the latter clearly reminded me of hot wort in a brewery.
Once I started sipping, though, I learned I’d been counseled in a way that didn’t work for me. Hot or cold, this coffee, which the process did a great job of presenting, was not my thing.
“Aw man,” said the barista at my beloved Columbia City Bakery. “Kenyan coffee tastes like vegetables.”
I told the barista about my testing and they suggested trying Herkimer’s Drip Blend—the coffee the bakery uses as its house drip—which they brew at 205 degrees. This made so much more sense. I didn’t want to distract myself with unfamiliar flavors, I wanted to take something familiar, tweak one variable at a time and work toward my version of the perfect cup for that roast.
Back in the kitchen, I brewed two batches of the Herkimer, one at 205 degrees and one at 176. They were both pleasant in different ways, but the best way to describe the difference between them was that with notes of baked goods and caramel, the high-temp cup smelled like real coffee house drip, while the smokier notes from the low-temperature cup smelled like they came from a “regular” home drip brewer, a notion that I confirmed by brewing a pot in my own $55 Mr. Coffee.
Room for Error?
I now had a clear path forward: working away with the Breville until I found the temperature that I thought was best. Once I found it, I kept tweaking by isolating other variables like pre-infusion, and tested the effects of other brew speeds. Eventually, I found my version of perfection for the Herkimer beans was 205 degrees Fahrenheit with a minute-long pre-infusion and a fast brew speed.
There were other marks of quality in the Precision Brewer and a few defects. First, the good. Brew temperature is not only hot, but a beefier-than-normal heating system keeps it consistent, something that cheaper coffee makers struggle with. The insulated carafe (all of them—not just Breville’s) should forevermore unseat all old-school models with the glass carafes heated from below. There are also two compliments from the shouldn’t-be-a-thing-but-it-is department: the carafe doesn’t drip when pouring and it has a mouth large enough to get a hand inside to wash it. A clever removable cone filter insert allows for both cone brews for half a pot and basket brews for a full one: very classy.
On the minus side, there’s no holster for the accompanying measuring scoop, which seems like a no-brainer, but we should be weighing our beans anyway. Getting both the brew basket and the carafe lined up can be a little fiddly.
The big problem—a disappointing and near-fatal flaw—was the “Er7” error message on the screen of the first model I tested. This was particularly vexing because the troubleshooting guide mentions only possible causes for error codes one through six. When I asked a company rep about this, they first said that the machine was “running on the hotter side,” but they later thought it might have something to do with a light sensor. Breville swapped the machine out for me and I never had the trouble again, but regardless, little would make me want to throw my coffee machine out the window more than consistent error messages at 6 am.
All that said, if your feathers remain unruffled by a $300 price tag, which is high but not ridiculous when compared to other feature-packed brewers, and you get excited by the idea of the potentially long journey toward a perfect cup, then the Breville’s your brewer. Pick up some fresh-roasted beans, isolate a variable, and enjoy the ride.
Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.
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