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Coffee Brewing: Science, or Art?

Is brewing primarily the science of extraction, or the art of balancing flavors?

Trends come in waves.  How many waves, or which wave we are currently in is of no consequence.  What matters is that coffee is being carefully considered, roasted, brewed, and allowed to be enjoyed.

The current trend of measuring mass in -> mass out is nothing new.

It most certainly has its place for verification, for training, for calibration, and for developing brew parameters.  However, can it be crippling to use regularly?

scientistVS.throwing-paint

The left image is how we often come across to customers when we measure and time everything in the open. The image on the right is how we look when we don’t measure and appear to not be paying attention.

Neither of these is how we wish to be portrayed. Neither of these contribute to a balanced professionalism of service and hospitality.  Let us remember that specialty coffee retail is primarily about service. Without customers, we would be nothing but a mass of penniless coffee addicts with too many toys.

What we wish to portray is the image of a professional craftsman (or craftswoman?)

Sure, there is a need to calibrate our skills.  Yes, we should understand brew ratios based on mass in and mass out.  Yes, we should be specific on just how much dwell time correlates to taste (by way of extraction rate).  Yes, we should strive to understand as much as possible about what is behind the pseudo-scientific veil of producing a truly great cup of coffee.

The thing is, to be über geeky is kind of cool to those who are fellow coffee geeks.  Believe me when I say that I understand.

Why do I roll my eyes when I see it on display?

Look, just because a luxury car has a complex wiring network to drive its automatic seat adjustment, heated seats, ambient floor lighting when getting in or out, not to mention the computer to control the direct injection fuel system that self-adjusts constantly at a fraction of a second, doesn’t mean that the luxury car customer wants to see the evidence of all that.  All they care about is the experience and comfort that comes as part of the expected package when buying a luxury car.

Do specialty coffee customers like theater?  Why, yes!  Yes they do!  This is part of the experience of going to a niche specialty coffee haunt.

I submit to you to consider that theater and geekery are NOT the same.

Most customers aren’t baristas.  They recognize that there is “a lot to brewing coffee” (whatever that means), or they wouldn’t bother exchanging their money for yours.  They understand that there are details to keep track of to ensure quality.  What I don’t understand is why people feel like you have to continue to use every crutch at every step in order to get repeatable results.

Dare I say it?  This is unprofessional.

The true craftsman has repeated his craft and practiced it so often that it is nearly automatic.  Do measurements still need to be made?  Of course!  Do you need to measure every step of the way?

That depends: are you a professional?

Put The Scale Down.

blind-folded

Leave it by the grinder (or wherever your layout is set up to weigh the dose of coffee before grinding).

Yes, weigh your coffee mass.  Yes, time your saturation, dwell time, and brew cycle.  But please don’t weigh your water.   Don’t weigh the post-brew mass.  If you take any pride in your work, you won’t need either.  This is where art meets science.  If you truly understand your coffee, you will be able to “feel” your way through the extraction to yield a specific result.  You have instincts: trust them.

Make eye contact with your customer.

eye-contact

Specialty coffee retail is primarily in the realm of service.  Have you ever been given a great product coupled with bad service?  How about an okay product coupled with great service?  Which do most people tend to prefer?
This is not to imply that we should be serving mediocre products, but to show a priori how significant service is to the customer experience and, therefore, to the profitability of your business.

For most of us, the morning is the busiest time of day.  Customers often have not been previously caffeinated before gracing your counter with their welcomed presence, so part of your job (I might argue the most important part) is to make them feel valued, appreciated, and to generally just make their day.  Basically, show them love.

Reminder: coffee is about people, not about roasted exotic tropical fruit seeds.  If you are giving your customer’s cup of coffee more attention than your customer, it’s time to re-evaluate your processes.  This is much easier to do if you are freed from needing to keep checking a scale.  This is why it is important to learn to brew by instinct and experience.

How do you know if it’s consistent?
You do practice, don’t you?  You have experimented every which way you can and tasted each result, right?  No?  And you call yourself a professional?

If you really do practice your craft, you will have a feel for correlating brewing with taste.  Back when I used to work behind the espresso bar on a regular basis, I was able to determine exactly how an espresso would taste just by piecing together what I knew about its specific preparation and from watching its extraction.  (I know, *gasp*: no scale!)  It’s worth it.

I’ll leave you with an assignment of sorts:

A famous coffee personality holds the belief that,

a good barista can produce a decent espresso with any machine, any coffee, any time. 
(he admits that there are limitations here: you can’t produce gold out of garbage, for instance)

How can you reconcile this philosophy with needing to constantly measure everything as though following instructions rather than being master of your craft?

Your Grinder is More Important Than You Think

You may have read my article on why we never sell ground coffee.  If not, you might want to: Whole Bean Only – Why It Matters.

Once you’ve read it, or if you have already, you may recall a little segment where I talk about boot-ground coffee being better than pre-ground… and this is true.

 That having been said, our goal is not merely “good enough.”  You probably are already aware of this, even if you’ve only tried our coffee once.  So, in the spirit of good, better, and best, I ask you to take a hard look at what many (myself included) consider to be the second most important tool in regards to coffee excellence: your grinder.

 A Few Things To Consider

Whether looking to acquire your first grinder, or upgrading from your current grinder, there are a few key factors that you’ll want to consider, aside from grind quality.

Price

coinNaturally, cost is important for the average consumer.  Be realistic about what it will cost, and be willing to part with the money.  High quality grinders often give many, many years of service (much unlike cheap grinders), so it is worth considering when thinking twice about the previous sentence.

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Usable Counter Spacesketch of kitchen counters and cabinets

Commercial grinders often take up a good amount of space on your kitchen counter.  If you are a die-hard coffee lover (like me), you probably don’t mind giving up a little bit of usable space for the sake of a better cup of coffee.  Thankfully, however, there are an awful lot of excellent domestic grinders that don’t take up a lot of space.

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Burr Type

conical-vs-flatGood grinders come in one of two styles of burr assembly: flat or conical.  The general consensus is that conical burrs tend to enhance aromatics, while flat burrs tend to sort of even out and meld flavors in the cup.  So, if you love acidity, consider going conical. If you love body, consider going flat.  Ultimately, this may make less of a difference than the previous two considerations, but if you’re between two otherwise comparable grinders, this information may be useful in making a final decision.

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 Intended Brew Method(s)

brew-methodsDo you plan to brew drip coffee?  French Press?  Aeropress?  Espresso?  Different brew methods require different sized coffee particles for optimum results.  Some grinders are purpose built for espresso, some are versatile, and some are best suited for drip brew methods.  Knowing your brewing requirements will help to quickly narrow down the list for you, and make it easier to sort by price.  If the quality of your espresso is at all important to you, I highly recommend considering a purpose built espresso grinder.  If not, you don’t require as much precision and may be quite happy with a less expensive grinder.

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Espresso: Precision is Significant

Espresso is made using very fine coffee particles, and require a grinder capable of producing a consistent grind at a very fine setting.  The reason consistency is so important in an espresso grinder is that espresso brewing happens under a lot of pressure (9bar, or ~135psi) in a very short amount of time.  Inconsistencies in grind will not only result in a varied of extraction rate, but may also result in extreme channeling.

Doser, or Doserless?

A doser is a container on the front of an espresso grinder that catches the coffee as it is ground, and dispenses it into the portafilter by pulling the doser handle.  It was originally designed to dispense pre-measured volumes of ground coffee for speed of use. (i.e. – 1 pull of the handle for 1 shot of espresso, or 2 pulls for a double shot)  We have moved beyond pre-grinding coffee for any application, but the doser design still has its fans (as I am).  When the handle is pulled continuously during grinding, the coffee is still ground fresh per espresso, and the vanes in the doser help to break up clumps and “fluff” the grounds before they fall into the filterbasket.

There are two sides to this.  The up side is consistency of the condition of the grounds (fluffy vs clumpy).   The down side to a doser, is that a very small amount of residual stale grounds is inevitable.  For this reason, many people favor espresso grinders without a doser.  These are referred to as doserless grinders.  The benefit of these is that you do not have the pull the doser handle to dispense coffee into the portafilter, and there is presumably no stale coffee present in the espresso.  Which should you choose?  That’s up to you.  We all arrange priorities differently.  If control of dose preparation is more important to you, go with a doser model.  If absolute freshness is more important to you, go with a doserless.

All Purpose Domestic Grinders

If you are currently in the market for a grinder that is capable of an acceptable grind for espresso all the way up to French Press, it’s a great time to be a buyer.  A few short years ago, one had to choose whether they wanted the primary focus of their grinder to be espresso, or everything else.  Now, consumer demand has grown so much that Baratza has released several domestic grinders that do double duty almost seamlessly.

In addition, these grinders are fantastic for all around use, even if you never plan to use it for espresso.  Many coffee professionals use just such a grinder for cupping and home use.

Of course, if you’re obsessive about your espresso, even if you enjoy other brew methods, you may consider looking into a new (or used) commercial espresso grinder. (like I did)  No, it’s not as convenient as an all purpose grinder with a grounds catch bin, but it is certainly faster with a pretty great grind quality (provided you don’t grind too coarse).

Doing it By Hand

This is by far the cheapest and most travel-friendly option. There are a few hand grinders on the market that are fantastic, especially at finer grind settings. Some of the more common and cheaper models come from Japan (Hario, Kyocera, Porlex), some more stylish and useful hand grinders from Germany are slightly more expensive(Zassenhaus), while some that focus more on precision can be more expensive (Orphan Espresso – USA).

Hario1Hario2Porlex1Porlex2Zassenhaus1Zassenhaus2

If you plan to brew a large volume of coffee, or if you pull back to back shots of espresso, a hand grinder may be  more trouble than the savings is worth.  That having been said, the fragrance from coffee ground by a ceramic hand mill is vastly superior to coffee ground by an electric grinder on average.

Which one is right for you?

There should be enough information here by now that you can make a basic decision about what kind of grinder is right for you.  It is important to remember, however, that when it comes to electric grinders, the old adage “You get what you pay for” is absolutely true.  If you see a grinder for less than $100, I would skip it entirely.  If a grinder’s  packaging says “burr grinder”, it is not an indication that it is capable of producing a consistently even grind.  If you’re unsure, ask what material the burrs are made of.  Ceramic and steel are good materials.  Ask if the burrs are replaceable.  Every good electric grinder (and several manual grinders) have replaceable burr sets.

It is important also to note that the grinder is the single most important tool in regards to taste.  The better your grinder, the better your coffee will taste.

As always, if you are still on the fence and would like help, I (Jason) am always available via our Contact form, and I would be more than happy to help guide your decision based on your needs.  Happy brewing!

Jason Haeger

Home Brewing Basics: Enjoy Better Coffee at Home

If you have ever had a cup of coffee at your favorite coffee house, bought a bag to take home, and wondered why the coffee just didn’t taste the same from your coffee maker, this article is for you.

Remember, coffee is best when freshly roasted, and ground just before brewing.  There is a reason why we only sell coffee in whole bean state: we want you to get the maximum enjoyment out of it.

The first main difference is: Brew Temperature

Most counter top coffee makers simply don’t get the water hot enough for a full extraction.  When using stove-top brewers like a percolator or a moka pot (also commonly called stove-top espresso), it is often very easy to over extract the coffee.

It is for the above reason that we generally recommend using a manual brew method that requires you to heat the water separately.  Whether you prefer paper filtered (like Chemex, V60, Beehouse, etc..) or alternative filtered (french press, Eva Solo, Soft Brew, etc..), choose a brew method that produces results that you enjoy.  Heating the water separately in a kettle (electric or stove top.. your choice) ensures that the water will be at the optimum temperature for brewing.

The optimum temperature range for better brewing: 195 – 205F.  

The second main difference is: Brew Ratio

On the label of most commercial packages of ground coffee on your supermarket shelf are instructions to brew with “1 scoop per 8oz”.  What they don’t say are that the scoop that they include in the packaging is only 1T (one tablespoon).  We have discovered that many commercial blends actually taste better at such a low brew strength, which is half of the explanation.  The other half is that since most people buying commercial pre-ground coffee are doing so because of how cheap it is, then using roughly half of the amount of coffee for the same volume is in the exact same line of thought.

However, If you’ve purchased a bag of AJ Coffee and found that brewing it the same way doesn’t yield the exceptional results you expected from the description on our web site, you might be left scratching your head.  If you are one of our customers, you clearly value quality and ethics over cost, and you know that getting the most enjoyment out of your coffee is more important than making it last longer.  Along the same line of thinking, it makes sense to use a base line starting point brew ratio used by the Specialty Coffee industry.

The optimum brew ratio is 60 grams(2.12oz) of coffee per 1 liter(33.8oz) of water.  A handy estimate rule of thumb is 1 ounce of coffee to 1 pound (equivalent of 1 pint) of water: oz : pint

If you enjoy stronger coffee, use more coffee to the same amount of water.  If you find that your coffee is too strong for enjoyment, we suggest that you brew at the above ratio and add water afterwards to achieve the desired strength.  The resulting cup simply tastes better this way.

An important factor to consider: Dwell Time

Different brew methods often call for different grind sizes and brew times.  It is possible, however, that you may have a grinder that performs best at a finer setting or a coarser setting.  We recommend using the best grind quality you can get and adapting what’s known as the Dwell Time to match it.

As a reference, just remember that espresso uses fine ground coffee and brews in only about 30 seconds, and that a french press generally calls for coarsely ground coffee and a time of 4-5 minutes.  The key point to notice is that fine ground coffee requires less time, and coarse ground coffee requires more time for proper extraction.

Troubleshooting: If the result tastes sour, try more time.  If the result tastes bitter, try less time.

The Take Away

Water at the proper temperature: 195205F

Proper brew ratio: 60g to 1l (Quick Reference Estimate: 1 oz to 1 pint)

Appropriate dwell time: adjust to the grind setting.  Coarse coffee:more time | Fine coffee:less time.

Follow these simple rules, and you’ll be on your way to enjoying consistently better coffee at home.

Now, browse our shop for a flavor description that sounds appealing, place your order, and enjoy!

The Truth About Caffeine and Dark Roast Coffee: Today

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

If the above video doesn’t load, click here: Breakfast: What to eat? @ 2:50 mark.

Does Dark Roasted Coffee Have More Caffeine?

During a segment of this morning’s Today Show, Joy Bauer was asked by a caller if dark roasted coffee contains more caffeine.  Before answering, Joy said that the answer would surprise a lot of people.  She then said that since some of the caffeine is lost during roasting, dark roasted coffee actually has less caffeine than milder roasts.

The truth is, as usual, just a bit more complicated.

If we were to look at two coffee beans (more properly, coffee seeds), and compare the caffeine contents in a single dark roasted seed and a single medium or light roasted seed, then Joy’s response is correct.

However, more is lost during roasting than just caffeine.  The result is that not only is there less caffeine in the dark roasted seed, but there is less mass in the dark roasted seed.  This means that it takes more dark roasted seeds to match the weight of a few medium or light roasted seeds.  The net result is that dark roasted coffee when brewed by weight (the correct method, and the method used by specialty coffee retail shops nation wide) will yield a cup containing more caffeine.

The Takeaway:  If you are  brewing coffee at home using a scoop(brew by volume), then the odds are good that there is less caffeine in your dark roast coffee, but if you brew by weight or if you go out for coffee, then dark roasted coffee will contain more caffeine.