Everyone wants to know about the “best” coffee brewer. It seems remarkably easy to find. You can see “The Best Brewer on the Market” in the windows of home stores from K-Mart to Williams-Sonoma. Typically, they’re oversized and overcomplicated. It’s more difficult to brew a nice cup of coffee on these gadgets than it is to set the clock on your mother’s VCR. I have never seen a home coffee brewing machine that can tell me how much water it is using or at what temperature. You can have the freshest roasted and ground coffee and you can know exactly how much of it you’re using, but when it comes to other parameters, there’s no mechanism to inform the user what’s going on from brew to brew.
The lack of information unfortunately extends to most brewers in cafes and coffee shops. In order to ensure that the batch-brewed coffees at our shops are consistently above par, we use the most technologically advanced and controllable brewers, but must continually check up on volume and temperature in case any mechanical adjustments need to be made.
Where I work, we have a multitude of coffee brewers. Pour-over brewers, full immersion brewers, and top of the line home espresso machines. Every one of the brewers has its apologists and detractors, but no matter what, the barista/brewer knows exactly what’s going on. Her water came right off the stove, the water is filled to the same level or same weight as it was the day before, the coffee was ground and dosed the same, and she can see what’s going on. The full picture of that cup of coffee is present.
When it comes right down to the business of ease, the only major difference between automatic home-brewing machines and a pour over system like the Chemex is whether or not you poor water over the coffee or push a button to let a machine do it for you. I can guarantee that the most sloppily made pour-over (not weighing nor taking of temperature or gently poring) will deliver a better, more consistent, less frustrating cup of coffee every day than any home-brewing machine will produce.
If a person is merely looking for function over form when drinking coffe, there is unfortunately no way to move them from something like the blatantly simple K-Cup. But the frustrations I hear from customers on a regular basis are that their coffee at home is not even close to being on par with what we serve. I typically blame an inconsistency and lack of knowledge regarding variables they cannot control. When we pay just a small attention to detail, we can create a nice, consistent cup of coffee. When we delve deeper into the variables, we can make it better with each one we focus on.
While at a restaurant recently, I realized just how much I dislike that word in service. It’s meaningless. Devoid of any connection, care or effort. When I ordered my drink and got “sure” back, that simple, sloppy syllable crept into my ear and blocked me from engagement. Maybe the waitress had a lot of heart behind it, or maybe it was said with a fantastic smile, but I didn’t see it because I didn’t care anymore.
I’ll admit that I’m more aware than most of the ways in which service is upheld and delivered, but I can certainly say that I remember experiences from before I worked in service of waiters and waitresses who were just disinterested. I didn’t care so much back then, but I compare that to any experiences I had at the time of engaged waitstaff, and I can certainly see a difference in overall reception to the meals, restaurants, or cafes.
And let me say, I am by no means a service saint and have a good amount of habits to break (I caught myself saying “sure” far too often just yesterday). But this word has got to go.
Maybe “sure thing” is okay…
“Well since I’ve got a full card and free drink coming to me, I think I’ll get a fancy coffee!”
Alright! I love making the “fancy” coffees for customers. There’s an excitement surrounding them. The coffees with flavors as far ranging as melon and almonds or hibiscus and chocolate. Brewed by hand and served with care, all of our “fancy” coffees are delicious and I’m proud to say that. I do have a problem with them, though.
The coffees are not fancy. At all. Ignoring the obviously intricate harvesting, pulping, and drying processes that all coffees undergo, the “fancy” Single Origin coffees available via pour-over are the least complicated drinks on our menu.
There is one location from which they originate. There is no pressure being forced onto the coffee to extract it’s solubles as in espresso. Our pour-over technique essentially allows the coffee to sit in water and do what it does best. We add no syrups, we don’t blend, it’s the height of what some could call “just” coffee. And it’s the most exciting, “fanciest” thing that many of my customers have glanced their eyes on in a cafe. And that’s great, but it’s not fancy.
Does it matter that a drink made so simply be considered fancy? Probably not. People enjoy the coffee and are excited to try it. But I do hope that we as an industry can take opportunities while brewing these coffees to discuss what they’re and that they are so delicious because they’re so simple. With groups like Coffee Common having events around the world and baristas getting involved behind their bars with creative new menus, we’re pushing the world of coffee into a simpler, more delicious place.
And check this one out for good measure from Metro New York.
A Coffee Love Story
If you haven’t seen Hook in a while, I more than highly recommend watching it. And by “a while”, I mean anything longer than a week. The movie is that good. It has nothing to do with the substance of this post. And I’m barely going to reference less than half of a scene. Just…watch it.
No matter how many minutes ago you just watched this tremendous piece of art, there’s no way you can’t remember the 10 seconds of baby David Allen Grier rubbing his grimy hands all over the man-child Pan’s face. Massaging it into grimaces and raising eyebrows to peaks of curiosity. Pressing and pulling until he finds a cocky smile on his subject, his own smile radiating from within while he proclaims, “There you are, Peter!” And while it took some coercion, he found exactly what he was looking for.
I had one of those “There you are!” moments recently.
It was with a 6 week off-roast bag of Kenya Tegu roasted by Ecco Caffe. I want it to be known that I love Ecco Caffe’s work and I am proud to be serving their coffees at my job, and that’s what made this coffee all the more frustrating. Anyone of my coworkers will agree that this peaberry was an asshole. When we received the first production batches of coffee, no matter what method, brew ratio, grind size, temperature we used to brew, we were completely unable to find a good or even above average cup. Every so often we would find a delicious sip, only for the temp to drop a degree or two and the flavors just fell apart again. Maybe it was the lack of anything satisfying that made the coffee taste better when it did, but I swear when it tasted delicious for that brief sip or two, it was heaven raining sugared apricots with raspberries on my palette. I grew to hate those moments. I knew they would disappear just as quickly as they came and when I retried the ratio and technique, I got nothing. Every time. Tegu Peaberry: Asshole coffee.
Alas, we find serviceable parameters and sell a solid product, but we never landed on that cup that we always knew this well-grown, well-roasted coffee was capable of being massaged into.
It wasn’t until a recent weekend that I returned to this coffee. Not so much out of desire to enjoy but out of sheer necessity. It was a bitter cold morning and going out to get a cup or a fresh bag was out of the question. I was looking for function when I threw the coffee from the back of the drawer (stored in a drawer away from herbs and herb of course) on the scale, into the grinder and then into the Aeropress. I caught a quick whiff of the bouquet from the open bag on the table as I started timing my brew. My god. That aroma was still unbelievable. It mellowed a bit and with no detriment to the fruit-forward nose, it had developed something a bit herbaceous, making the whole thing smell like a rustic dessert. Heaven! But I couldn’t have gotten my hopes up. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. Not again. Not for that asshole.
As I flipped the Aeropress and began a slow, steady push, the kitchen filled with the fruity herby goodness that had graced my olfactory glands 30 seconds before. Could it be? Had this coffee from a typically sturdily-stored region lived six weeks beyond roast and become more stable? And better? Full of fruit and herbs, this coffee was perfect at every temperature. As I tasted the coffee I couldn’t say anything but “There you are, peaberry!” I felt like a kid drinking that cup.
There’s a wonder to the drink that I make for others and know so little about. It’s fickle and can be utterly frustrating, but when those moments of greatness in a cup appear, it’s worth it. It’s a strange thing that I’m so enamored with…
IT SMELLS SO GOOD!
I’m in the middle of a discussion with some folks from work about the merits of single cup brewing and it’s over/under use in “forward thinking” coffee shops. There are arguments for and against both single cup and batch brew methods all stemming from a post on theotherblackstuff.ie by David Walsh. Below is my response to the discussion on our company’s communication hub:
“The problem is not the process.As has been stated by all involved in this conversation from the author, to you guys, to the commenters on the blog, we have all had great cups of coffee from these single cup methods. The problem is achieving consistency in the barista/brewer. It’s easy as sin to screw up a v60, aeropress, chemex, what-have-you, and those companies looking at the bright, shiny, new method as reviewed by the coffee cognoscenti on blogs and in forward shops are not putting enough of their own review capabilities to use, thereby brewing shitty single cups. Detail and attention to it is where both the devil and god are. And you can easily get either from a single cup method.
And no matter how fancy your machine is going to get, you’re going to have to deal with an insane number of variables (crop age, green storage, roast variables, post-roast storage, atmosphere, shipping problems, customer flow) that will disallow you to program a push-button machine that can respond to everything that a detail oriented barista can overcome and create the best cup of coffee he can.
Ego can be cultivated and that requires dedicated shop owners that will tell the self-deluded barista that their coffee really isn’t that good but will support the ongoing education of those employees. And those baristas with ego that will not change, they need to be removed from brewing coffee in any capacity. They are making it extremely difficult for us to have legitimate conversation with customers who come in with chips on their shoulders thanks to over-confident baristas that treated them poorly in the past. And the coffee doesn’t taste as good no matter where it was harvested, roasted, or brewed, if there’s a bad taste in the mouth of the customer due to shitty service/treatment.
In the end, those in this conversations are serving GREAT coffee. Can it be better? Always. But we can’t forget that the systems that we in the umpteenth “wave” of coffee are using kick ass. It’s lovely to see those who are already doing a great job try to do better and discuss it with such passion.”
In the May 2011 issue of Esquire Magazine, David Wondrich has a few words on digestifs, specifically whisk(e)y. With no disrespect to pastry chefs, he claims “after a serious meal we’d rather use the time - and calories - productively and have a last drink.” He wants something to swirl, sniff, linger over. But occasionally, the intensity and high ABV% of whisk(e)y don’t lend to an easy finish to a meal. Occasionally.
During this occasional conundrum, what’s a man (remember, this is Esquire) to do when presented with intensely fruity port or a highly astringent sherry? Wondrich pulls out a few bottles of tawny ports. Which, like whisk(e)y are barrel-aged. The ABV% is half of most whisk(e)y but the spice, aroma, flavor are all just as present as a Hudson Manhattan Rye. Wondrich points to the barrel itself as the culprit of similarities between the grape and grain alcohols that left to their own devices, would rarely be mentioned in the same breath.
This brought me to the question of how the burlap sack functions in the green stage of coffee. George Howelll’s Terroir Coffee Company, out of Acron, Mass., has been exploring and using deep-freeze and hermetic sealing techniques since 2002 with Daterra Farm in Brazil. By getting rid of the massively porous jute sack, the rapid transformation of green coffee is slowed exponentially. The abilityforair andmoisturetotravel through the bags, however, is not the same as grain or fruit alcohol seeping the essence of oak, maple, or pine out of a 200-year-old barrel. But wecansee that coffee is able to be held in different climates and materials than burlap.
Apart from burlap’s porous nature, it has a very distinct smell and essence. In the uber-specialty market that some people call third-wave, the focus on seasonality avoids the infusion of burlap for the most part. Their timely usage coincides well with their flavor life-expectancy. The coffees still change but tend to merely assume the form of “flat” on cupping sheets. Certain coffees (Kenyans in particular), age much faster than others and will pick up some less than exciting flavors that remind me of the county fair sack races. Even in a time-frame that allows most other coffees to stay respectably crisp, we can lose alot of life thanks to burlap.
And while I enjoy consistency in a cup, I’m not one to hermetically seal and freeze everything. There’s something rather unnatural about it. It removes the special connection that coffee has to seasonality that doesn’t exist in any other quality artisanal beverage.
I want to throw a bag of green into an old liquor barrel. I don’t care what it is. Port, whiskey or bourbon, made from pine, maple or oak. Can we put an already spicy coffee in an old bourbon barrel and transform that spice into something delightfully deep and reminiscent of Bulleit or Hudson Bourbons? There’s no doubt that time in the barrel plays into the process greatly. We can’t age green beans the same way Macallan sits their Scotch in oak for 18 years. If the volatile coffee and barrel actually change the essence of the bean will that coffee lose anything reminiscent of the barrel when roasted? Can we hermetically seal coffee with a chunk of an old barrel or dried fruits to impart flavor and accentuate certain natural aspects of the coffee? Is this whole idea just a fancy type of flavored coffee?
I’m still just asking questions because I have nowhere to play and test this out. But I have an idea that it will work. Coffee is an amazing fruit. It’s highly volatile nature allows us to brew and present the same coffee multiple ways with just as many flavor profiles as brew recipes. Tiny tweaks bring large changes and the infusion and dispersal of oils in a material other than burlap, plastic or metal is not farfetched.
David Wondrich brought up “The Wine that Tastes Like Whiskey” and I’ve heard and described many coffees as a “Tea-Drinker’s coffee.” We don’t always drink Baby Bourbons all the time, and we don’t have to drink burlap/plastic trained coffee all the time. I have had the best coffees of my life over the past year and they’ve all been stored/green-aged in that style, so this is in no way a calling out of the industry to rethink everything about green storage. I just want to play and see what happens.
It’s another gloomy, wet day in New York City. Yeasayer’s “Odd Blood” is sitting in my ears with a cup of Fazenda Recreio at my side. And I can’t stop dreaming of summer, when it’s still gloomy and wet, but this Recreio is ice cold and crisp. When a shot of espresso dropped into three ounces of fourty-one degree milk is the gustatory equivalent of riding your bike into a lake in August. Perfect.
But of course, that drink will not stay perfectly crisp, cold, or delicious. The brief refuge it brings is lost in the heat as the ice melts, the drink warms and it becomes muddled. Like a disoriented addict in the mind-numbing humidity, I want just a bit more time with my respite. How does one achieve that? What needs to happen differently to make sure this drink stays delicious and liberating?
We’ve seen it for decades in mixology (or whatever it was called before that badass word came to be). Different ice used for different purposes. Crushed ice for Juleps, rocks for liquor, cubes for shaking. Every beverage has its own profile. Whether it be mixed, shaken, stirred, or straight, ice interacts differently with ingredients and flavor profiles and we don’t look at what we try to achieve with iced beverages in the coffee industry. There isn’t as heavy a focus on quality in that realm as there is a lack of focus on hot cocktails. Why not? When over half the drinks we hand out during much of the year are on ice.
Crushed ice is my least favorite. It’s great for shorting a customer on total liquid volume (like cheater ice), but it melts so quickly that the beverage itself is a cup of water with flavoring by the tenth minute. For a shaken, concentrated beverage, crushed ice might work exceedingly well to chill and dilute if strained into a vessel with larger cubes that melt at a much slower rate.
Cubes are great. They’re even surfaces produce a very predictable melt that allows bartenders and baristas to prepare beverages with consistency. When scaled, the cubes will still melt evenly, but provide longer enjoyment of a drink as they will melt slower.
Ice can be beautiful if presented correctly. Large chunks of ice, frozen on baking sheets then cracked, can be used to add dimension in a glass but will likely melt unevenly. Size does matter when holding temperature, so one may be able to avoid early melting if the ice is large enough.
Then there’s frozen cubes of the beverage itself. I think this is a great idea. If it’s possible to freeze a liquid and melt it with absolutely no loss to flavor or beverage integrity, I want this.
Even flavor and temperature throughout the drink from start to finish is what I aim for with iced beverages. In my experience, temperature change only negatively effects iced beverages as ice melts and we must look at them differently than we do the changing flavor profiles of a cup of filtered coffee as it cools.
GrubStreet had a nifty slide-show a couple years back: Ice, Ice Baby
I want my next iced Italiano to be tempered in an ounce and a half of fifty degree Fahrenheit filtered water, shaken over crushed ice and strained over two two-inch cubes of ice from a Kold-Draft ice machine.
Coming out of the Northeast Regional Barista Competition this weekend, I want to talk a bit about milk. I had been practicing with a great full-fat milk from Milk Thistle Dairy Farm in Ghent, NY. It was delicious and had wonderful texture. But for two days before and during the competition, Manhattan had run dry.
Steaming this milk was remarkably different than that which I’m used to working with when on shift. Because it is thick with solids and is non-homogenized, the barista must take more time and increase temperature to incorporate an appropriate amount of air. This in turn lowers the amount of time allowed for “repair” when the barista begins to break larger bubbles into smaller, uniform microfoam.
There’s nothing too special about the fact that Milk Thistle requires and adapted steaming technique. Every milk responds differently to steam based on populations of dairy cows or differing processing techniques. We need to make slight changes in the way we orient our steam wands and pitchers whether we’re steaming skim or soy. The great thing about whole milk, is its resilience to breaking down after being steamed (as long as it’s prepared with some skill). The fats in the liquid end up around the bubbles which are physically secured by proteins and act as a sealant, allowing air to escape at a much lower rate than reduced-fat and skim milks. In conjunction with a lowered protein count due to skimming techniques, this makes whole-fat and higher solid count milks better for texture alone. And let’s not forget the deliciousness of those milk-solids.
So, I worked with this delicious, non-homogenized, high-solid milk leading up to the competition because it is awesome and gave my espresso wonderful accompaniment and brought out wonderful flavors. And it seems as though a lot of people in the city agree with me and bought it all up. I went into my set blind with another, albeit very similar milk. As soon as I switched that steam-wand on, I could feel the difference and just wasn’t ready for it. This was going to be my undoing on the score sheets, and rightly so. I fought the milk and ended up with too much grain and heat.
It was a great learning experience although I know I could have done much better. There’s something nice in knowing where your problem is right away, even when you didn’t bring an extra pitcher or milk and can’t do anything about it. In the end, every ingredient is important. And a barista needs to know each, how they act, and how to get what he or she wants from the ingredient. Attention to detail is what drives already great coffee and great service to new heights.
Congratulations to all of the competitors this past weekend. I had a great time surrounded by so many talented and committed baristas. And an extra special congratulations to our NERB Champ of 2011, Philip Search of Dallis Brothers. Rep the NE well in Houston and break a leg!
It all started with a herd of goats in first millenium Ethiopia getting all hopped up on the fruit of a shrub, bouncing, bleating, and giving a collective cold shoulder to their herder when they were called to their pen for the evening. The goatherd needed to figure out what was going on with his animals. Were they possessed? Poisoned? High? He watched the animals return to the unknown shrub between fits of joy and, like any bored and curious youth, ate the fruit of the tree. He was instantly filled with vigor and energy. Creativity and excitement took him over and he began singing, dancing, and playing with the herd.
And so, the interwoven, evolutionary histories of coffee and humanity began. At least according to myth.
The stimulating effects of coffee have been used for aver a millennium, with the first extant writings coming from the tenth century. Coffee took some time to spread through the Arab World coming out of Ethiopia. By the 15th Century, coffee grown in Africa and lower Middle East had taken the area with full force and already survived a brief prohibition. The Dutch began importing coffee plants to its colonies in the early 17th century and by the time the crops had matured, Europe was jonesing for something other than booze as a safe alternative to water. With clearer heads and more energy, the Enlightenment took off. The American Revolutionaries rallied around coffee.
Coffee has fueled manpower in war and industry. It has inspired art and artists. It’s the lifeblood of centuries-old tradition. And it has BLOWN MY MIND.
It’s that last sentence that I’ll be spending most of my time ranting about on this blog. Today’s coffee industry is fast-paced, young, and constantly intrigued by the beautiful brown beverage made from the seeds of a cherry. In an effort to save the ears of my friends from my (occasionally overzealous) love of the drink, I’m going to drop it on you. Hopefully we here on the internets can share the happenings to create a better experience (and life) for everyone involved from seed to cup.