Zojirushi Fresh Brew Plus review: Keeps coffee hot all day but makes a very bitter brew
Zojirushi isn't exactly the first brand name that comes to mind when you think of coffee machines. If you've shopped for rice cookers within the last 30 years though, chances are good you've spied the company's cute elephant logo. The cartoon animal enjoys a dominant presence in retail and is well represented on store shelves. Zojirushi hopes to extend this success into the realm of coffeemakers with the $190 Fresh Brew EC-YSC100.
Promoted for its ability create gourmet pots of coffee by brewing with piping hot water, Zojirushi also touts the machine's ability to keep java hot for a full 24 hours. Even so, while the Fresh Brew's thermal carafe does an outstanding job of preserving heat, the coffee it makes misses the mark. It's a fatal flaw in any drip coffeemaker, especially for one this expensive.
Design and usability
A black rectangular box with a few stainless steel highlights, the Fresh Brew EC-YSC100 looks similar to countless coffee machines occupying store shelves. Standing 15 inches tall and measuring 10.5 inches wide by 7.75 inches deep, the Fresh Brew is also average in size compared to similar devices, such as the Capresso MT600 and Melitta 10-Cup Thermal Coffeemaker . That said, the Fresh Brew will eat up more of your kitchen countertop than the compact Bonavita BV1900TS .
Unlike the Capresso and Melitta appliances, which use fixed reservoirs, the Fresh Brew comes equipped with a removable water tank. The handy container has a detachable lid, and it's designed for easy, hassle-free filling at the sink or directly on your countertop (the square tank's flat bottom gives it plenty of stability). The tank holds a maximum of 10 "coffee cups," or 1.5 liters of water when measured out.
The machine uses standard basket-style flat bottom paper filters. Brewed coffee then drips down into a fancy stainless steel thermal carafe which sits below it. In between the filter basket and carafe is a spring-loaded valve mechanism designed to prevent leaks and drips when you remove the carafe. The system works well even during the brewing cycle; just remember to replace the carafe quickly while brewing (since the valve will remain closed) or risk the basket overflowing.
I also appreciate the carafe's thumb-activated pour button located on its handle. With it, you can pour coffee with a minimum of mess or spills. The button also lets you pour without needing to open the carafe lid, thus losing heat.
The Fresh Brew's controls are a cinch to operate, too. To the left of the carafe is the machine's push-button panel, populated by just four oversize keys. Chances are you'll only use two of the Fresh Brew's buttons regularly. Specifically, the "Start" key that kicks off the brew cycle and the "Cancel" key, which resets the machine for the next batch. Below these buttons are keys for "Timer" and "Time Setting" to schedule brewing ahead of time.
Zojirushi certainly talks up the Fresh Brew's coffee-making prowess, stating in both printed marketing material and on the product website that it brews at 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius) for "superior flavor extraction." Indeed, I confirmed via thermocouple measurements that it does consistently heat its water supply to that magic number, as recommended by the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America).
The trouble is the Fresh Brew takes its sweet time to get there, typically requiring about five minutes to hit the 200 degree Fahrenheit (93 C) mark. This is much longer than other machines, such as the Technivorm Moccamaster KBT 741 and Bonavita BV 1900TS which ramp up their water temps to 200 degrees (F) in two minutes or less.
Compounding the problem is the Fresh Brew's lengthy brew cycle. The machine needed an average of eight minutes and 21 seconds to finish brewing eight cups of coffee (specifically 42 ounces, or 1.2 liters). That's definitely outside the SCAA's strict home brewer certification guidelines of four to eight minutes. While correct brewing temperature is essential, so too is brew time. Steeping grounds too long in hot water will lead to liquid that's over-extracted and undrinkable, at least to me.
Sadly, Zojirushi's device suffers from this weakness. Coffee I made with it was consistently bitter and unpalatable, and refractometer readings confirmed this. Java brewed from my test beans (Costco House Blend, medium ground with a burr grinder) typically had a TDS (total dissolved solids) of 1.8 percent. This is more than the ideal TDS percentage (between 1.15 and 1.35) outlined by the SCAA and translates to an extraction figure of 30 percent -- well beyond the sought-after drip extraction factor of 19 to 22 percent.
Of course TDS numbers aren't the whole story. For example, the KitchenAid Siphon Brewer turned in very high TDS results, upward of 28 percent. That said, by design the Siphon Brewer exposes all its grounds to 200 degree (F) water quickly, with a relatively brief brew time of about 5 minutes, 30 seconds. Essentially the rich drink it creates is filled with tasty organic compounds, not noxious and over-extracted dregs.
I can say the same of the delicious java the Bonavita BV1900TS made with the same beans. Though coffee it made had a TDS percentage of 1.28 and an extraction percentage of 26.8, the result was packed with flavor, with no bitterness.
Running premium grounds through the Zojirushi Fresh Brew didn't improve matters either. Pricey unwashed Ethiopian beans from local purveyor Heine Brothers yielded a powerfully bitter pot of coffee. That's a huge contrast to the bright blueberry notes and pleasingly complex concoction I've tasted when I've used the same beans in both the BV1900TS and Technivorm Moccamaster KBT 741.
The Fresh Brew's advanced thermal carafe didn't disappoint though. The container kept its contents nice and hot, above 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 C), for over 13 hours.
I confess I had high hopes for the $190 Zojirushi Fresh Brew Plus Thermal Carafe coffeemaker. Based on the company's history of building quality rice cookers, plus its experience in constructing advanced vacuum-sealed thermal kettles and water heaters, I was expecting an exceptional coffee machine. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
While the Fresh Brew does have the ability to heat water to the optimal temperature for coffeemaking, it takes too long to get there. Add to this a lengthy brewing time, and the result is coffee that's bitter to the point of being undrinkable. For the Fresh Brew's same steep $190 price you're much better off splurging on the $190 Bonavita BV1900TS , which creates truly excellent coffee. High-rollers of course can choose the $250 KitchenAid Siphon Brewer that makes a distinctively delicious cup, or the $299 Technivorm Moccamaster KBT 741 which brews just as well and keeps its coffee hot all morning.