Food Fright, Part 8

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 7:34 am

This installment of Food Fright features a product from diminutive restaurateur Wolfgang Puck. I personally have never eaten at any of Mr. Puck’s establishments nor sampled any of his other consumer wares, so my first tentative step onto the fertile plains of his culinary imagination involves today’s subject, the Wolfgang Puck Self-Heating Gourmet Coffee. Shawn spotted these at the local Fred Meyer and, being a professional in the coffee field, couldn’t resist snagging a couple and bringing them home for evaluation.

Food Fright Part 8

Let me just say up front that I have dreamt of this day for years. Ever since I read Alan Dean Foster’s snowbound sci-fi adventure Icerigger as a child, I have imagined a time when, if one was in the mood for a meal, one would take a silvery, cylindrical or rectilinear container out of a cupboard, press a button or pull a tab, and moments later enjoy a piping-hot cup of hot-and-sour soup or plate of lasagna. To a young person addicted to food, obsessed with technology and almost pathologically lazy, this seemed like the crowning achievement in the realm of Science.

Sadly, as a fledgeling attempt at this sort of indolent gastronome’s vision of utopia, Wolfgang Puck’s Self-Heating Gourmet Coffee seems doomed to flop ineffectually along the ground, never quite taking wing, until it has exhausted itself and is pecked to death and consumed by a raven. Or possibly a seagull.

The first impression you get when looking at one of these things is, “holy crap, that’s a lot of coffee!” This notion is, unfortunately, incorrect. The superstructure apparently required to support a self-heating beverage means that, for a container seemingly the size of a can of Sapporo Reserve, the actual total yield of coffee is ten fluid ounces. As much of a fan of gadgetry as I am, I can’t help but feel disappointed by the low coffee-to-container ratio….not to mention a little guilty at the amount of waste generated through the consumption of this product.

To heat the coffee, you must turn the can upside-down and remove the tabbed metal lid on the base. Underneath you find a plastic bubble that must be depressed in order to release and blend the chemicals (calcium oxide, aka quicklime, and water) that will heat the coffee.

Food Fright, Part 8 Food Fright, Part 8

Upon pressing in the plastic bubble on his Mocha, Shawn swears he saw a tiny puff of smoke. I personally saw no such thing when I did the same to my Vanilla Latte. After the chemicals mingle for five seconds, you turn the container right-side-up and let it sit for six minutes.

During the six minutes, two of our test subjects (Margaret and Shawn) noted a distinct odor arising from the cans, a smell vaguely akin to both chemicals and candy, presumably a byproduct of the reactions taking place within the containers. Not necessarily unpleasant or off-putting, but definitely not the aroma you associate with the neighborhood coffee bar or espresso stand.

A handy temperature-indicator on the side of the vessel changes from pink to white when the coffee has reached the optimal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

Food Fright, Part 8

After the patch has changed color, you give the thing 30 seconds of gentle oscillation to evenly distribute the heat, rotate the plastic guard on the top of the can to access the opener tab (or, if you are more perceptive, you pry the entire guard off the top of the unit, properly assaying that it is nothing but a piece of pointless and awkward gewgawery designed to force the unobservant to think twice about simply opening the can without first following the heating instructions), open the container much as you would any other canned beverage, and enjoy your steaming mug of delicious gourmet coffee. Or, if you don’t feel like dumping the contents and replacing them with delicious gourmet coffee, you can just drink the stuff that’s in there already.

For some insane reason, Mr. Puck elected to make these products “low carb”, which means using artifical sweeteners such as Splenda and acesulfame potassium to offset the natural carbohydrates found in other ingredients (milk, cocoa powder, etc.) The resulting combination of mediocre coffee, canned whole milk, artificial sweeteners and “natural flavoring” leaves a lot to be desired. More specifically, it leaves one desiring a cup of actual coffee, instead of this sad Frankenstein’s Monster of a beverage, more machine than mocha.

To be sure, the science behind this product is cool, and I’m sure there will be many refinements in the technology over the coming months and years. The major stumbling block of this particular implementation isn’t the technology itself, but the quality of the product to which it is married. Perhaps this kind of gimmick would work better with something savory like soup, or instant noodles, or Cup-O-Beef-Wellington. Or even coffee that didn’t happen to taste like it was brewed using a diabetic’s urine. Sadly, I think I can go out on a limb here and say that showy gadgetry like this will probably always be the provenance of the marketers of junk.

For a dissection of the self-heating container, consult Gizmodo’s nice article on the subject.

4 Responses to “Food Fright, Part 8”

  1. Dylan Says:

    But was it hot? (hot, not hawt)

  2. Uncle Andrew Says:

    It was nice and hot, but actually that’s another score against these things; they only work well at room temperature. At a standing temp of 50 degrees they only get up to about 80, and at a standing temp of 75 they get up to a sizzling 180. So the obvious applications for this technology—say, camping or emergency rations—wouldn’t work at all.

  3. Cyberdad Says:

    I found your pictorial guide to this product both informative and amusing, and left me feeling – as do many technology-related tales – happy to have a simple-minded Cuisinart coffee maker handy when I want a jolt or two. By the way, be sure to catch NPR tomorrow…it’s “lattes in the land of tea,” how China is about to become Starbuck’s biggest market.

  4. Uncle Andrew Says:

    I’ll have to check that out, Dad, thanks for the heads-up.

    Margaret and I were pondering the singular uselessness of a self-heating coffee product that, due to its temperature requirements, is only really suitable for use at home or fresh off the shelf of the stoe where you bought it. If you’re already at home, why not just make some coffee the old-fashioned way? Anyone who enjoys coffee enough to buy this sort of product probably enjoys it enough to have their very own coffee maker at home. And if you’re out at the grocery store and in the mood for a hot coffee, what are the chances that there are no coffee shops/espresso stands/7-Elevens within easy reach of the store, if not actually in the store?

    This is a product in search of a demand. Too bad Puck and the company that manufactures the heating technology wasted millions developing and productizing it.

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