Living with OTTO - Coffee maker for the new space age

altTalking to Craig Hiron, of Sydney Australia, via a crystal clear Skype connection is not unlike interviewing a marathon runner after they have just nabbed the Ironman. Sapped of every molecule of strength with just enough left over to engage in a conversation, he muses... "As various moments of achievement come and go, I feel like I should take myself out for a big steak... Instead I will buy a six-pack and a pizza from the take-out."

Because when you are part of something this big, there is no time to celebrate. There is one grindstone after another queuing up for one more piece of Craig. And yet he still seems to have more to give.
As the interviewer and beta-tester of OTTO, I get an oddly satisfying sense that it is I, and perhaps I alone who is having more fun that just about anyone else on the OTTO development team.

Flash back a couple of weeks when I am firing up OTTO for the very first time. In my kitchen are all the trappings of coffee obsession; grinders, brewers, cups and saucers, carafes and gizmos of all design - with caffeine in mind... and OTTO on a hot stove and a SKYPE video session bridging two continents - as some of the OTTO devlopment team watches with pregnant expectation as I brew up my first shots.

I watch with rapt focus as espresso streams into my demitasse - very possibly the first OTTO espresso brewed in North America in the history of this astounding little coffee maker. I let out a whoop as I take the first sips forgetting for a moment that I am being watched from the OTTO development board room. Startled for a moment by the cheer that erupts from my laptop I realize that my first impressions have traveled at the speed of light to their Australian target - and have been greeted with elation.


That one moment encapsulates what my life as reviewer is all about; taking a new product, wringing it out, connecting to the developmental grid, feeling the electricity and the buzz.

I have been following OTTO devlopment since very early on in its incubation - some of those blog entries are over here, here and here. Many, if not most, of my experiences thus far have been that of spectator on the front row seats. And getting to finally getting to play with OTTO is the icing on the birthday cake. Sweet it is, sweet it is.

A couple of days prior to this momentous first brew session, OTTO was waiting at my front door - this special sample for the coffeecrew website shipped in a bullet and waterproof pelican case. OTTO sales for the general public will be shipped in robust and handsome packing materials worthy of a work of metal art. What stunned me momentarily was the sheer weight of OTTO - it clocks in at about 12 pounds with all the packing materials removed. OTTO came with a well illustrated and written manual and a sturdy looking plastic tamper.

Set up is no more complex than making a pot of stove top espresso with your Bialetti or Italian stove coffee maker. OTTO is really made for an electric range - although gas (or a bunsen burner) will work in a pinch. The key is, like everything else in life - it is not a bad idea to follow instructions... especially the first few times.
Example: OTTO is meant to be flashed cold - that is, filled with water according to the manual and placed on high electric heat.
Using gas? Do not put OTTO on a high flame! Engineer and designer, Craig Hiron, gave me the gas specification and it most certainly is not the highest setting. There is a good reason for this and we will cover that in our discussion on the basics.

As above, OTTO is meant to be used on an electric range or gas range - starting from cold on an electric element set to high or gas (provided the outer ring of a gas range does not bleed flame over the outer edges of OTTO.

As Craig Hiron said in a recent interview, "I have 2 completely separate gas elements at home that both work as well as my electric elements for OTTO. Absolutely, no separation, no kidding. I do recommend use on gas burners... as long as the flame is smaller than the diameter of OTTOs base. A small gas hob on a high setting is ideal. Agreed, using gas can be more fickle than electricity however there is no reason that the performance shouldn't match electricity with the right burner top. Remember, both the video shoots were done with gas. Of particular note, the second video with spectacular crema and milk texture."

using gas? Use the smaller hobs or burners for OTTO

And why do we fire OTTO from cold? Why, you ask, can you not put hot water in OTTO and get to the espresso more quickly?
Well, OTTO is a good example of a "Sum of its parts and design" device - Form, function and art all in one package.

It is critical that OTTO be flashed from cold because everything needs to heat up properly. OTTO is 12 pounds of metal - and that metal is integral to the coffee brewing process - especially where the thermodynamics of it is concerned. As I discovered during experimentation, trying to bypass part of the process is like trying to achieve warp speed without warming up the matter-anti-matter mix in the Jeffries tubes. (Yes, I know that the Jeffries tubes have nothing to do with warp speed!)
Jump starting OTTO is like starting your car and trying to go 100 mph within 10 seconds of... well, starting your car. Results vary.

Can a steam powered coffee maker make espresso?
This has always been my first question when considering the dynamics of this design. True espresso requires 9 to 12 Bar to extract that awesome essence we call espresso. But what about below 9 Bar? What is happening down there? We know that traditional Italian stove top coffee makers (and steam powered home faux espresso machines) produce coffee with a bit of a punch - but it is literally not espresso... It is coffee. These machines brew a coffee beverage with little more than 1 Bar of brew pressure (probably somewhere between 1.1 and 1.5 Bar - maybe a skoosh higher). So what of OTTO?

The makers of OTTO claim that this delicious little brewer clocks in at just over 3 Bar. It brews the coffee without scalding the coffee - which is the everpresent fear when you are stove-topping it or using one of those electric bargain-basement things made by the million in some Chinese factory -
Well. What I discovered (while following the directions to the letter) is that OTTO brews about 2 fluid ounces (a double shot) of the most intense stove top coffee I have ever tasted. Is it traditional stove top espresso? No. Is it actual espresso espresso?
Not quite. But pretty darn close.

Let's just say that it is way close to real espresso than it is to the trad Italian stove brew - and OTTO does this with no moving parts and only an electric range top! Astounding? Yes. Why? Because OTTO is breaking entirely new ground - entering a Universe of coffee maker that (to the best of my knowledge) has never been explored.

Which makes it fun being one of the first North American coffee specialists to try OTTO!

Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada and takes great pride in writing meaningful and heartfelt prose about the World of specialty coffee and cafe culture...