Uniterra Nomad Review
There are about a thousand ways to brew a cup of coffee on the go. But espresso, specifically? That’s a little trickier, especially since multiple variables, notably pressure, need to be just right. For that reason (and because it’s one of the most unique espresso machines we’ve ever laid eyes on) we were itching to give the Kickstarter-launched Uniterra Nomad a thorough try to see how well it might fulfill our caffeine cravings both within and well outside of civilization. As it’s name hints the Nomad doesn’t rely on the electrical grid: instead you’ll need to heat some water yourself and pump its aluminum lever to get brewing. Read on for our full review.
Nomad’s brightly colored looks are intriguing, to say the least. It’s made of hard plastic in green or blue and features an aluminum lever right above its water reservoir and a slightly off-angled cube that contains the coffee drawer to put the pouring coffee in your line of sight. The idea here is one of no compromise: while the pump has been shrunk and a lever mechanism seals the coffee drawer in instead of employing a traditional twist portafilter, the machine, in theory, is supposed to get every part of the process right. When filled with near boiling water, temperatures should be close to perfect. Likewise, the hand pump can easily attain the 9 bar pressure recommendation of the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, and proper grinding and tamping is important for an optimally brewed shot (though this can be sidestepped: read on). So we put it to the test.
Using the Nomad
Running the machine was simple, though obviously a bit more involved than inserting a Nespresso capsule into it and pressing one button. First, grind your beans using a proper burr grinder to a fine consistency, just like you would with any espresso machine — we used a manual Porlex, which also uses elbow grease as a substitute for electricity. Fill the filter basket with your grind, tamp it down with the included machined metal tamper, then slide the drawer in and press down the lever to lock it in and create a seal. Finally, put a cup under the spout, fill the reservoir with about 200ml of boiling water (and cap it), and start pumping, done using your thumbs on each side of the seesaw-like lever as well as your index or middle fingers for leverage under the finger braces. Uniterra recommends about twelve slow full strokes to soak the puck before pumping quickly to get the pressure up into the green “crema zone”. The pressure gauge on its top responds quickly to show you how you’re doing, and keeping it around 9 bars (plus or minus 1 bar or so) was relatively easy, in our experience, with the right grind consistency and tamping. To be fair, the latter took some adjustment since we’ve been settling for drip coffee as of late, but once the grind comsistency is right you’re all set. And the resulting espresso itself was fantastic, indistinguishable — as far as our taste buds could tell, anyway — from more traditional electric machines in taste and in crema quality.
In our mind, there’s little excuse for not having a good manual grinder with you, even away from home. But the machine does comes with a clever little gizmo called the True Crema Valve, or TCV, which installs within the brew chamber and sits right above the spout within the coffee drawer. Its purpose is simple. Normally, if your grinds or tamping are not just right, brewing pressure won’t rise high enough to properly extract, resulting in dull coffee and little to no crema. The TCV compensates for this by restricting flow and allowing for pressure to rise, making for a foolproof brew. So if you are itching for some espresso but don’t have a proper grinder (or one that isn’t set just right), the TCV in large part makes up for it. In our tests having it on or off didn’t seem to affect the quality of our well-ground coffee, but it definitely helped keep pressure high when we tried using coarser grind than usual. And either way it made attaining optimal pressures easier.
One issue is that the machine’s spout does not provide much room for anything bigger than a standard espresso cup. This is understandable given that it’s compact for straightforward transport, and having more clearance would mean a taller machine. So we’d prop it up on a bunch of fat coasters (one of these visible in the image) to give it the clearance needed to pour straight into a standard sized mug or tall espresso cup. Also, brewing two shots in a row does require some rinsing of the filter and drawer, which might not be as convenient when you’re away from home, and otherwise unavoidable on all espresso machines (but easily solved in this case with a second coffee drawer). Frankly these are about the only quibbles we have with the machine: it’s easy to use, easy to clean, and makes for a relaxing if not slightly tedious morning ritual right before caffeinating. Unless you’re paranoid about having your water touch plastic, there’s little else we’d willingly change. And on that note all contained plastics are BPA-free, ROHS compliant, and meeting all US food grade standards.
Would we recommend it? Definitely. Besides the fact that it makes a damn good shot of espresso it’s also tiny, portable, and likely the greenest proper espresso machine on the planet. It facilitates consistency whether you’re at home, sleeping in a tent or van, or staying in a cottage without electricity: all that’s really needed is a way to heat water and a way to rinse it out afterwards.