A tale of two espresso machines

This post tells the story of two espresso machines: one in Los Angeles and one in Brenham, Texas. But it’s more about deciding what you do and do not want to control.

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In his book Made by Hand, Mark Frauenfelder chronicles his quest to make great espresso at his home in Los Angeles. He reviews some of the tricks to make good espresso from a relatively inexpensive espresso machine. (The machine he describes, a Rancilio Silvia, was around $500 when Frauenfelder bought it. That’s a lot more than a Mr. Coffee, but it’s cheap compared to espresso machines that cost over $10,000.) The problem with inexpensive espresso machines is that they have poor temperature. The water temperature can vary as much as 40 °F. Frauenfelder hacked his espresso machine by replacing its controller with a more sophisticated proportional-integral-derivative controller or PID.

(Small changes in brewing temperature can have a large impact on coffee taste. This is because coffee is chemically complex. Brewing at different temperatures extracts these chemicals in different proportions. See this Scientific American article for details. [Update: looks like SA took the article down.])

The context of Frauenfelder’s story is his book on doing things yourself, not to save money, but to have more control of your environment. He describes his adventures from growing vegetables to making musical instruments for the joy of doing so.

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Roger Sessions tells a very different story about why he does not have his own espresso machine in The ObjectWatch Newsletter. He describes why he drives 10 miles every day to the Starbucks in Brenham. He says he saves money, even though he spends more on gasoline than the price of his doppio macchiato. For starters, Sessions estimates it would take nearly four years to pay off his hardware investment. Then he lists the things that could go wrong:

  • Something might break down.
  • Something could short out his electrical system.
  • The roaster could burn his house down.
  • He might not be able to use the equipment well.

The context of Sessions’ story is the benefits of software as a service. Even when it appears to be more economical to create and host your own software, you may save money by paying someone else to offer that software as a service. Sessions pays Starbucks to make his espresso for him because they not only make the capital investment in hardware, they’re also responsible for operation and maintenance. (Update: See Roger Sessions’ comment below.)

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Sessions makes as strong a case for not owning an espresso machine as Frauenfelder makes for owning one. Frauenfelder speaks of the confidence and joy that comes from having detailed knowledge and control of the things around you. Sessions speaks of the hassle and expense of being responsible for the things around you. Both have valid points. I’m sure there are areas in which Frauenfelder is happy for someone else to take responsibility, and areas in which Sessions enjoys fine-grained control. But they disagree which approach is preferable when it comes to making espresso.

One of the things that prompted me to buy Mark Frauenfelder’s book was an interview I heard on a podcast. He said that he was attracted to do-it-yourself projects after becoming editor of Make Magazine. The spirit of the writers rubbed off. At one point in the interview he says DIY is not about saving money; in fact, the DIY approach will often cost more money. I appreciated this comment since many DIY enthusiasts justify their projects with dubious financial arguments rather than simply say that they enjoy what they’re doing and that the extra expense is worth it to them. I suspect Frauenfelder may agree with Sessions on the economics of espresso making, though they have different perspectives of the non-monetary benefits.  And although Sessions only argues monetary benefits, he also has non-monetary benefits to visiting Starbucks. I imagine he enjoys getting out of his house, seeing familiar faces, etc.

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Posts quoting Mark Frauenfelder:

Endless preparation
Getting women to smoke

Post quoting Roger Sessions:

Three quotes on software development

10 thoughts on “A tale of two espresso machines

  1. My goal is to live next door to someone like Mark Frauenfelder, so that I can reap the benefits of his efforts by simply walking over. I guess that makes me a lazier version of Roger Sessions…

  2. Nice stories. The argument assumes that you LIKE what Starbucks does for you, and that you’re happy with the variance in quality that you might get from visit to visit. If not then you’re probably happier with your own espresso equipment (or software development).

    BTW – My tip for better espresso is a good grinder. Spend almost as much on the grinder as you would on the espresso machine, then buy a cheaper espresso machine. I have a Rancilio Rocky and a Starbucks Barista. Great starting out equipment.

  3. The irony of this story is that I have since purchased not only the espresso machine but a grinder and roaster. In fact, the exact system I described in that article is now sitting in my kitchen. So I have totally moved my espresso off the cloud.

    I am pleased to report that so far, my house has not burned down.

    Cost savings? It depends. If you assume that every Macchiato I have made for myself or Latte I have made for my wife would have otherwise purchased at Starbucks, then I pay for the whole set up every four months. Of course, the reality is that had I been going to Starbucks, I would have only purchased about 1/3 of those drinks.

    On the other hand, I have no doubt my wife would say, “Roger bringing a Latte to my bed first thing every morning… priceless!”

  4. This coincides with what I have said about all of those “money-saving” options like Costco, Sam’s Club, making your own jams, etc. These are only a good deal if your time has no value.

    Then, as Roger said, there are those non-monetary rewards.

    My husband bringing me coffee in bed every morning may be the number one reason we are happily married. He’s also written software for me and maybe I could have bought a combination stickies/ notepad program but having him write it gave me exactly what I wanted. Was it cost effective? No, but since he likes doing this sort of thing and I liked having something he wrote just for me (it’s the thought that counts), it was worth it. The semi-monetary part of this is when you do something, like write an application, you learn skills and information that can be applied to make you more money later on. Like, if that whole software thing doesn’t work out maybe you can get a job at Starbucks as a barrista or open your own way cool coffee shop.

    There is a place down the street from me Legal Grind: Coffee and Counsel which is a combination coffee shop attorney’s office. I am waiting for something like Java Beans: Coffee and Coding

  5. I totally live by the Sessions philiosophy, provided that my neighborhood has something better to offer than Starbucks (which it does, by far).

  6. Sounds to me like it’s just two people justifying their addictions. Coffee is “chemically complex” only in comparison to something like salt, not saltines. Some people enjoy a drive, some people enjoy tinkering with machinery. And lots of people like to spend money on brown sugar-water.

  7. I don’t think it’s a stretch to generalize these ideas to hardware and software. Some people want to build their desktop/laptop computer by buying each component off the shelf. They install Linux and open source software so that they can control and change their computational environment. They program in Perl|Python|R because it is flexibility and customizable.

    Others buy a pre-built Dell and get it with Windows and Office pre-installed. They don’t change the default options. They program in .NET and SAS.

    Some proponents fervently argue that their way is better. Unfortunately, advocates of one approach sometimes disparage and denigrate the other group.

    If it is worth it to drive to Starbucks and pay money for a latte, do it. If you want to make it yourself, do it. Same with technology.

  8. Great analogies, John.

    Software as a service is not perfect, as you know. For me, the Adobe Creative Suite (ie; Photoshop) does things that online versions never could. And doing something like making recordings via Garage Band (Mac) would be really hard to do online. As bandwidth increases, it will be easier to do complex-CPU tasks online.

    As to coffee, I use a coffee press. So does the president of Starbucks. I abandoned espresso long ago because of the hassle. (I used a Bialetti stove-top, and it did a great job. No temp problems.)

  9. In the end, it’s not about the money. It’s never about the money. It’s about what is important in life. And we all vary on that. In fact, maybe the largest dividing line in how we vary is one suggested by this story: some of us love what cannot be bought with money and some of us love what can be bought with money, and we allocate our efforts accordingly. Choosing “software as a service” is not just about choosing the service; it’s about choosing among questions of control, privacy, reliability, personal pride, etc. Seeking quality coffee, wine, or music experiences (through DIY or through paying vendors) often has much more to do with socializing, pride, status, etc. So simplistic economic analyses that don’t look beneath the service and try to make someone seem “irrational” miss the point.

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