Archive for category reviews

Nuclear retreat will only increase carbon emissions

I wrote this letter, published in the print edition of The Canberra Times of Tuesday 12 June 2012 (and the online edition):

As Paddy Regan points out (“Time to stop fearing the atom“, Times2 p4,
4 June), there is a widespread and irrational fear of nuclear power.

Germany is winding down its nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima,
which killed no-one, and will release an extra 300 million tonnes of
CO2 this decade, because the shortfall is largely being made up by
fossil fuels.

In Japan, before Fukushima, fossil fuels supplied 64% of power
generation; now, with all reactors shut down, fossil fuel use has
risen to 90%.

A typical coal power station emits more radiation than a typical
nuclear plant. The new generation of nuclear plants, now being
adopted in China, Russia, UAE and other countries, are much safer and
can use existing nuclear waste as their fuel source, reducing the time
that nuclear waste has to be stored from hundreds of thousands of
years to a few hundred years.

There is a role for renewables such as solar and wind in decarbonising
the power system, but most serious analysis shows that there is little
chance of them taking on the whole task in the next few decades: the
scale of the job of replacing fossil fuels is just too large.

The conclusion that nuclear power is an unavoidable part of solving
the climate crisis is shared by leading climate scientists and
significant figures in the climate community. The blanket rejection of
nuclear power by green groups is a deeply irresponsible position that
seriously impedes our ability to contain the climate crisis.

Matt Andrews

Segafredo Intermezzo coffee

Intermezzo packet After my recent foray into a somewhat mysterious end of the market, it’s time to steer back into the mainstream: Segafredo Zanetti’s Intermezzo. The origins of Intermezzo are straightforward – unusually so. Unlike most supermarket coffee, the packaging actually mentions where the beans came from. It appears that they are of Brazilian origin, having been supplied by “Nossa Senhora da Guia”. It seems the roasting and grinding was done in Italy, at Segafredo’s centre of operations in Rastignano (Bologna).

So far, we’re cruising in middle lane. One of the curiosities of coffee, in fact, is that it is near-universally viewed as being quintessentially Italian, even though no coffee whatsoever is actually grown there. The actual coffee bushes are almost all in low-income tropical countries, yet close to zero of the beans that hit the shops in rich countries are roasted and packaged in poor countries.

Fortunately – for the richness of life is so often in the details – this coffee is actually very unusual. Strange epistemological wrinkles in the packaging text aside (to which we’ll return, never fear), and ignoring for a moment the website, there’s an elephant in the room: this coffee is not 100% arabica.

What’s a species between friends? Well, this is in fact a big deal, and a bold move, for would-be gourmet coffee. For decades now, the prevailing wisdom has been that Coffea robusta is for those who don’t care: drinkers of instant, no less, or the watery stew that passes for coffee in your typical American filter jug. Coffea arabica is generally accepted as the only serious-coffee game in town.

With Intermezzo, Segafredo have taken quite a bold move: a blend of arabica and robusta pitched at a fairly high-end market.

Delta Chicco D’oro coffee

Chicco Doro packetIt’s been too long since I last reviewed some coffee. This time we pause, teetering on the edge of the Plateau of Trickle-Down Wealth, before tumbling precipitously into the Chasm of the Great Unwashed, where they roam around in rags of sack-cloth, mumbling incoherently to themselves and openly purchasing no-brand products. Let’s go and see what kind of espresso poor people drink!

Delta Chicco D’oro is that rare gem in modern life, a consumer product that bites the invisible hand and leaves marks. Instead of abiding by the scripture of the Cult of the Perfect Marketplace, where the sludgy leavin’s don’t cost much, and the miraculous symphonies of flavour command a premium entrance fee, and everything else arranges itself neatly on the slope between those two points, it BASE-jumps off the side and ends up having a delicious picnic on a cliff ledge, gazing upward at the other poor sods standing in line on that graph.

Ahem. At this point, I’d like to apologise for several transgressions: the ludicrous length of that last sentence; the metaphor smoothie with three too many ingredients (sorry, did it again!); and the plummeting chance, as the sentence rolled on with the inertia of a Russian truck with no handbrake (sorry! sorry!), of you extracting any meaning from it at all.

Cough. What I’m trying to say is: it’s just about the cheapest ground coffee you can find. And yet it’s drinkable.

Not that it’s the pinnacle of roasted-and-ground-bean quality: there are plenty that outclass it. But the price, the price! This is value with a capital C. Here in Canberra I paid less than $2 for a standard 200-gram pack. And its quality is comparable with plenty of coffees three or four times the price.

The Chicco D’oro website seems initially quite middle-of-the-road, but becomes stranger as you immerse yourself. Perhaps this is to be expected, since Chicco D’oro shares the free trade zone (formerly known as a town) of Balerna (which you would think Italy would have politely stolen from Switzerland long ago, given that it’s so far south they speak Italian and probably shop in Milano) with some pretty strange outfits, such as a bunch of appropriately ethnically diverse people playing Earth Ball who claim to smelt precious metals, an importer of hair dryers and DVD recorders (with the delightful slogan “The Trendy Company”), and a very curious producer of tobacco products.

So curious, in fact, that I promptly forgot about the coffee and took a closer look. The Polus society, formed in 1912, used to do a fine line in radium-enhanced cigars, before shutting down their venerable cigar factory in 1992. I’d hazard a guess that it’s their not-at-all-radium-affected progeny who are now behind a truly impressive attempt, also based in Balerna, to win market share via the anti-Big Tobacco angle. The Yesmoke and Born to Smoke brands of death stick are touted with such lines as “PHILIP MORRIS VS YESMOKE” and “WITH YESMOKE, YOU TAKE ON BIG TOBACCO AND ITS ARMY OF MIDDLEMAN” (sic). Alpine ingenuity at its most charming. But there’s more! It turns out that they had their first big shipment to the US impounded, and have managed to spin that into a most compelling Nasty American Megacorporations vs Friendly Hip/Organic European Startup story. Well done. And, it has to be said, they are unusually honest about the effects of tobacco: there’s a page where they explain how to quit smoking, succinctly and with good information. Follow the “CONTINUE SMOKING” link from there, and… well, see for yourself.

‘Mazing what you find on the Innernet, innit? Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Chicco D’oro (pronounced “kick-o door-o”). After the introductory screen, featuring various shots of breathtakingly ugly industrial buildings, we pass through a mysteriously throbbing message that claims that coffee is “one of the very few natural products left to us” (perhaps to encourage you to forget the factory pictures), to the “i prodotti” (Products) page, which features what may be the single most irritating sound in the history of computing. Pass your mouse over any packet of coffee to experience its delights. Unfortunately, as the site is constructed with (snarl, froth, gnash) Flash, I can’t give you a direct link – you’ll have to find your way there yourself.

But what’s this? The sea-green Delta pack is nowhere to be found. Is this an older line that has been given the sentence of death by the marketing department? A below-the-radar variety that’s too embarrassingly cheap to be shown on the site? Or… could it be the work of counterfeiters? Perhaps some sweatshop in Burma is even now churning out fake Chicco D’oro, undercutting the real thing in as many growth markets as possible?

A quick glance at the back of the pack reveals a claim that it is “roasted, blended and packed in Australia from imported raw coffees” by Cosmo Foods of Sydney (though they don’t admit to it on their website). And it’s apparently unheard-of outside Australia. So this looks like some kind of weird licencing arrangement, where Cosmo pays the real Chicco D’oro some tribute money to slap the premium label onto some very, very cheap coffee. Perhaps the prepended “Delta” is a nod in this direction, giving a subtle indication of its place in the official scheme of things.

[Postscript: Carlo Vassalli, in the comments, advises that Delta Chicco D’oro is completely unrelated to the original Swiss product… no licensing at all, just a “borrowing” of the brand name; but then Daniel da Graça weighs in with information about the Portuguese company Delta which may well be the original producer.]

The fine folk at Choice conducted a blind taste test of plunger coffees a couple of years ago, and they came up with some interesting results. Crunching their numbers (using a simple quality-divided-by-price formula), Delta Chicco D’oro actually comes out as the best value of the lot. And a couple of side notes: best quality, regardless of price, was Andronicus Espresso (about two-and-a-half times the price of Delta Chicco D’oro); and the worst value, by a huge margin, was Illy Espresso. As anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the ground coffee market would know, Illy is spectacularly overpriced – according to the Choice survey, it’s about as good as Delta Chicco D’oro – yet it costs nearly seven times the price.

My quality rating for Delta Chicco D’oro: 2.5 out of 5 (a “value” rating would have to be 5 out of 5).

Caffè Camardo coffee

Caffè Camardo packetI guess I’m a neophile. Spotting a packet of Caffè Camardo “espresso crema” for the first time at one of my local emporia, I decided to give it a whirl.

Well, it’s deep brown, finely ground, vaccuum packed. Tick, tick, tick: basic criteria met. Beyond that, we’re into hand-waving territory.

Tasted pretty decent, I thought. Not an out-and-out ripoff.

What, you wanted the whole “shy but intriguing bouquet, teasing your correspondent’s generous proboscis with a frisson of blackberries and a sizzle of fresh ordure, building to a crescendo of wry perfection, resplendent in wafts of earthy delight, with a chorus of overripe cherry, young elephant and central Marrakesh” treatment?

Not the best espresso that’s passed my lips, but it’s a lot better than some of the would-be leading brands in the quality coffee market (though that’s not saying much).

They have a website, too. It’s also pretty decent, for a Flash-only (grumble) unsemantic (grumble) invalid (grumble) inaccessible (grumble) framed (grumble) piece of brochureware. Please ignore that bit if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

Beware the strange farting sounds in the navigation, and do catch the “When the phone rings in our repair department…” section – it’s quite amusing. Who can complain about a movie that ends with “WE ARE THE AVANT GARDE! OUR PRODUCTS AND OUR MACHINES ARE TECHNOLOGICALY ADVANCED!” (sic)?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (that’s for the coffee, not the website).

Coffee sampled in early May 2005.

(for those with a technical bent, this review is in the hReview microformat – one of the first steps towards the Semantic Web…)