Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Simple Guide to Buying an Espresso Machine

I wrote this on a whim for one of my colleagues who was considering an espresso machine purchase. Read on if you are in the market for one...

Welcome to the world of home espresso machine owners. Your palate is about to thank you – bringing home an espresso machine is a sign that you enjoy good coffee but don’t want to be at the mercy of the few coffee establishments that peddle their fine concoctions. A note of caution though: Brewing espresso can be a frustrating experience, even for the trained aficionado. Patience is not just a virtue in this case, it is a necessity.

The market is full of options for the neophyte espresso maker, so let me start by laying down a guiding principle. You can only pick two out of, “Convenience, Price, or Quality”. If you want something convenient, i.e. automatic, quick, hands-free, just the right size, and you want it at the right price point, you are going to have to compromise (there are varying degrees) the quality of the finished product. If you want a miniature version of the one at Blue Bottle, you will have the highest quality espresso potentially at the right price point (if you buy it from a restaurant shutting down), but you will sacrifice the convenience factor. Caveat buyer.

With this context established, let me suggest a few options to you that are best in class. Some of this is based on my research, some on my personal experience and anecdotal evidence, and the rest is driven by what I would look for in a future purchase. At the end of the day, it’s all about the person though, which is how I have categorized the machines.

The Budget Shopper (sub-$100)

Walk into your local Target or Walmart – budget shopper, remember – and make a beeline for the Coffee & Espresso aisle. Once there, close your eyes and have someone spin you around. Once you have found your equilibrium again, point in any random direction – you will have about 120-degrees to swivel – and open your eyes. Where your finger points is what you pick up and pay for at checkout. You truly get what you pay for – sub-par espresso, inconsistent results and minimal convenience.
In reality, I suggest you not waste your money buying an espresso machine at this price point, unless you get one of the options I suggest below at a great price (or used).

“I can spell Espresso”

Congratulations on not saying “expresso” – but you are either budget constrained or not all in, yet. All machines in this category are in the $250-range, and are designed to deliver maximum convenience. This said, there are a few companies that have been around long enough to have significantly improved the quality of the output of their machines. If I were to pick a few, they would come directly from the Nespresso stable. Here are two that pack a punch (price and quality-wise):

1. Nespresso VertuoLine
2. Nespresso Pixie

If you are opposed to Nestle for some reason – ecological or philosophical – here is the list of top-rated espresso machines in this category on Amazon: While there are some non-Nespresso options, the pickings are slim and all of them have some compromise that I wouldn’t have anyone live with. The worst compromise is a machine that requires grinding, measuring and tamping the coffee grounds into a mold. It’s messy, requires another appliance, and is prone to error.

The “Enthusiast”

The world is truly your oyster if you are in this category, which features appliances that are slick, chic, at a good price point and deliver a solid product. Unless you are a trained barista, this is the sandbox in which you should play, because you will not be able to coax a higher cost machine (the next category) into giving you the perfect espresso and micro-foam for your cappuccino. My point is, neither should you strive to attain that elusive quality. Leave that to the professionals…

Back to this category then: The price range is wide, $300 - $1000, and a number of appliance conglomerates are vying for your attention. Appliance makers are in a bind because they have to offer convenience, a high-quality build that ensures longevity, a consistently good, almost great, espresso shot, and the flexibility to use coffee beans of varying origins. The number of variables is very high, consumer loyalty is fickle, and the longevity of the appliances has meant that manufacturers have to rely on word of mouth publicity to move more goods.

As you would expect, there has been a wave of consolidation and standardization in this space, which has boded well for the consumer. Like any enthusiast category, you will be inundated by buzzwords and jargon once you enter here – burr grinders, infusion method, single vs. dual wall filters, bars of pressure, etc. These amount to a whole lotta nothing because every machine in this category already has everything you need to make a great cup of espresso every morning. The buzzwords are but a frail attempt at differentiation, and in my two-plus years of owning one of these, I have never once wondered – hmm, what if I could have single wall filters and is the infusion method sufficient?!

Here are the top choices in this category:

1. Breville:
2. The Gaggia Brera: I have this machine and love it.
3. DeLonghi ECAM22110SB Compact Automatic Cappuccino, Latte and Espresso Machine: The form factor is similar to the Gaggia and the price point is way higher, so I wouldn't get it, but it's a great machine.
4. Saeco Intelia
5. KRUPS Espresseria

The “Barista”

If you are reading this guide, there is a good chance that you don't have the professional training to own this title, so let’s not go too deep down this rabbit hole.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Rafael Nadal: The Exterior is the Same, but the Inside...

This has been a trying year for all fans of Rafael Nadal. For a player of his calibre and stature, he has made some really head-scratching mistakes in matches I have watched him play. He has won some, but the tale of the tape is that unheralded players have beaten him this year, sometimes twice! What has changed? Alas, no one knows but Rafa himself. As an avid fan, let me take a stab at what might be going on.

1. The Mind Wants One Thing, the Body Cannot Respond
In years past, Rafa's tenacity and strident resolve made it impossible for players to beat him. He imposed his will on his opponents, tearing them down one brick at a time. His body cooperated, née collaborated, with his mind in these endeavors. The case today is he looks tired by the third set, especially in close encounters. The very foundation of his game is his physicality, and once that wanes, other fallacies come into sharp focus.

2. Whence the Body Wilts, the Mind Wanders
Sensing a drop in his physicality, Rafa starts making uncharacteristic mistakes. He rushes shots, tries to finish points, and loses some explosiveness off the court. The inevitable mistakes ensure that doubt creeps in. 

3. His Top Gear cannot Engage
Rafa seems to have lost his ability to switch to a higher gear when he is ahead. The first sign of a champion is their ability to press home an advantage. Rafa has lost a number of matches this year after winning the first set. This said, the true sign of a great champion is their ability to find this gear when their backs are against the wall. Take what both Novak and Andy did today in their respective matches. Andy was on the brink in sets 2 and 3, but he pulled off a win against Grigor. Rafa is unable to get himself out of a jam these days. He cannot break back but his serve is broken easily after he has secured a break. Speaking of his serve...

4. Failing Mechanics - The Vulnerable Serve 
Oh the serve. Where should I begin? I noticed s a new kink this week - he is standing with his front foot almost perpendicular to the baseline. This prevents his body from rotating during the wind-up, which gives more power and control to the delivery. For the model serve in today's game, look no further than Federer. Dare I say, even Novak! And the backhand, how many times can he run around it? 

5. Stop - What if This Is All We Could Have Gotten!
Right from the day I started following Rafa, I have heard the peanut gallery say:
- his game and style of play are not sustainable
- his extreme grip changes are flawed and let him down in the return game
- his coaching team will be his undoing
- and so on...
Over the last two weeks, I witnessed something completely outside of all these observations. I witnessed a mashup of all these issues that have exposed a Franken-defect in his game. He is getting outhit in baseline rallies. It is clear to me that opponents are out-thinking him because they are coming into matches with a coherent strategy to upend his rhythm, counter his playing style. They have realized that once his rhythm is impacted, the wheels come off!

We are at the cusp of a new era in men's tennis: the era of "first strike tennis". Guys like Nishikori, Kyrgios and their peers are swinging for the fences from the first ball. Forget about constructing a point; they are going for it from the get go. Dare I say, Wawrinka is the only one among the previous generation who plays like that. It's swashbuckling and highly entertaining, but it also means that my hero had best adjust or retire. I cannot foresee a third option; Rafa has too much class to be relegated to the bottom of the barrel before recognizing that his time is up. 

A part of me wishes that he adjusts. The realist in me knows that is easier said than done. Show me a sign Rafa; give me a reason to hope...

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rediscovering the joy of playing a sport - it's tennis this time!

Squash kept me sane. It gave me an outlet for all the negative, pent-up energy. I played it at least four-times a week for about 11-years of my life. And then, I had to stop. New job, new coast, and the opportunities to play squash disappeared. Some of it was an excuse, more of it was my broken finger, but the rest of it was about having to start afresh in a new place and building a new community. I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to do that and balance everything else that was going on around me. I focused on getting my new life on track. It now is...

I moved to Norfolk two-years ago. These years have been some of the hardest of my adult life. When I moved to a new city in the past, I worked in that same city. Making friends at work is easy; playing sports at a local gym facilitates the finding of people with common interests too. Unfortunately, there is no work for me in Norfolk. The people I met were mostly colleagues of Puneet's, and I realized quickly that I had less in common with them than the tree outside my apartment building!! All conversations somehow devolved into a treatise on the practice of medicine, the day's patients or criticisms / parodies of the doctors at the hospital. I couldn't partake in the conversations, and being thoroughly bored is not something I like to repeat too often.

Another thing dawned on me - I struggled to get along with these people because they were anywhere from 8-10 years younger than I am. Their interests - basketball, video games, gangster rap, smoking hookah or just talking up their achievements - were so different from my own, but not so different from their contemporaries, that I started to think that the disconnect was more due to how, where and when we were raised. I have often wondered when this same issue will become an issue between Puneet and I. As of right now, I don't have much to worry though - she is an older soul than I am, more of a mature adult than I am. For now, I have nothing to worry on this front.

This winter though, a confluence of events changed the status quo. The last time I was in Mumbai, Nikhil and I started playing tennis at the Shivaji Park Gymkhana. His game was weaker than mine, his strokes rusty, his consistency almost non-existent. The 2-weeks of playing in the sun galvanized his passion for the sport, and he found a way to get regular lessons from the pro at the gymkhana. I was to go back to Mumbai in April, and the trash talking had been on since December - "Manoj, you better watch out because I am going to whoop your ass!" If the fear of losing to your younger brother isn't a motivator in life, I don't know what is!

Southern Virginia, the Hampton Roads area, is very tennis-friendly. There are 10-courts within driving distance of my apartment. Additionally, this area is known for balmy winters. Not this past winter - we had one of the coldest winters on record this year. I couldn't get anyone to come out and hit on the courts. I had to figure something out, and fast. It was January already, and no respite from the cold weather was in sight. It's about then that I found a winning formula.

The YMCA has racquetball courts - a concealed space with high ceilings and great hardwood floors. I went back to my days growing up in Mumbai; we competed against one another by hitting a ball against the wall because we didn't have a tennis court outside the summer months. I started slow and built up to adjust to the faster pace off the polished hardwood floor. It took me a week to glide instead of stomp on the court, and my strokes started finding their range. The enclosed space allowed me to get more repetitions on my backhand, build my confidence up, work on my timing. The wooden courts, while great when I started, were not true to what I would have to deal with in Mumbai. I needed a concrete surface. I walked out of the Y after one of my "tennis-ball" sessions, and my next playground was staring at me in the face - the enclosed parking lot of my apartment building!

Every weekend this past winter, my favorite pass-time was stepping out of my apartment door, walking 200-feet and hitting balls against the parking lot wall. A steady soundtrack of hip-hop and EDM played off my Jambox, and Yaser often drove past me as I hit intently against the wall. People stopped and asked me what I was doing, and most drivers-by thought I was crazy. But I didn't care; I was getting more consistent every week, and my play in Mumbai was going to benefit from the disciplined hitting.

The two-weeks in Mumbai were memorable for a number of reasons, tennis at 10am in the 100-degree heat was definitely one of them. Nikhil and I had about 10-sessions over 16-days, and both him and I were officially hooked. When I returned to Norfolk, I decided to give building a community of tennis friends another chance. Piece by piece, I now have 5-folks with whom I can play every weekend. Funnily enough, they are all J's - June, Jay, Jamie, Jason and Joe. Most of them are new to Norfolk too, and were struggling to find a hitting partner. The last 6-weeks have been blissful again. I feel sane, motivated to do work, my relationship with Puneet is flying high, and I am fitter than I have ever been since I left Seattle. I am unencumbered to the point that I have started writing again. If I stay on this path, I might actually get Puneet to start writing too. No I won't; who am I kidding?!!!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Risen from the ashes

It has been a long time that I have put the proverbial pen to paper. I am a strange person - I eschew social networking when I am at work. I have been at work a lot, so I am cut off from the rest of the world. Except the small slice of it with which I interact on a daily basis - my colleagues and my wife. Whatsapp has brought me closer to my parents, and iMessage means I can get a hold of Nikhil whenever I want to hear his voice. But that's it...

As the world goes on about its business, I have grown older and don't know if I have anything to show for it. That's not entirely true, I know that. But when it's late at night and I cannot sleep, the feeling gnaws at me, further delaying the eventual shut eye. I feel like there is a void, and no it's not because I don't have children or am unhappily married. It's something else. I think it is something that every person feels, because my friends have alluded to it in different terms. I am choosing to write about it, is all.

This feeling that there is a void can be pretty consuming. I constantly look for intellectual stimulation and I am easily bored. When I read more and wrote more in the past, I used to be full of ideas. My mind was free to think. The consulting lifestyle has taken this away from me, among so many other things I loved to do. So now even when the synapses fire, the mental passageways congested with vagrant thoughts block the ideas from making their way to their destination. This blog will now house the vagrant thoughts...

At the root of my insecurities is this feeling that I am mediocre. Maybe that's a harsh term - a more accurate term is average. There was a time when I was vain and thought very highly of myself. In fact, multiple people have told me that I come across as vain and cocky. Professionally though, I have spent most of my corporate life in the shadows of my higher performing peers. I have consistently heard that I am smart and sharp, and that is very quickly followed up by a pejorative of some sort. Here are some examples:
  • You're in the wrong role - you need to be a PM
  • You take too long
  • You need to be in a team environment
Truthfully speaking, I was never really into any of mt roles prior to joining Deloitte. Well, except when I was building Elasticfox - that was the best role in the Development world. Designing something that made customers happy made my world go round. That I was not into any of my roles translated into me always doing what I needed to get done, but never having new ideas about how to make things better. No innovative ideas, no extra time spent building reusable frameworks or fixing age old bugs. I just wanted to do my job and get out. Maybe that's because I have always had a life outside of work, a life that mattered to me more than what I did at work. Work was to pay the bills. Then I joined Deloitte...

After my first year at Deloitte, I thought this was going to be just another stepping stone. Another place where I made connections but was always part of the pack that "just did their job". That changed after the first 6-months, and I have never looked back. Knocks never stopped me - I bounced back stronger and found a niche for myself that I can now call my own. A badge that no one else can take from me and something no one else is as good at. And I work hard at staying at the top of my field. I should be happy.

I am not. The void has grown wider. I spent numerous hours absently browsing the Internet. I want to do something else. I want to be someone else. I want to have an idea, execute the idea, no matter the costs. I want to take a risk. Not having done it makes me chase after the elusive dream. That's what's causing the void - it's the feeling that I have missed out on something in life and time is running out.
The sun is the same, in a relative way, but you're older
Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death
What is my dream? Can I chase it?