About five years ago or so Alan Adler, the inventor of the Aerobie Flying Disk, created the Aeropress because he wanted a cup of coffee was full and rich, similar to the results from a French press but with cleaner, less acidy attributes. After some experiments and prototyping, Alder solicited feedback about his creation from well-known coffee professionals before releasing it to the market. The critics loved it and the popularity of this device and new ways to use it continue to grow.
I will totally admit that it took me a long time to get on the Aeropress band wagon. When I first saw the device a few years back I even outright dismissed it. There was no way I was going to brew a cup of coffee for myself in something entirely made from plastic. This really had nothing to do with any BPA poisoning fear, but far more to do with my numerous experiences with cheap drugstore coffee makers and plastic lined travel mugs that destroyed coffee by giving the brew a clear and distinct plastic flavor taint. In fact it was not until 2008, and the first Aeropress World Championship that I started to think that maybe there was something to this gizmo. This, plus my growing love affair with single cup, manual brewing methods and devices that made me want to test winning brewing methods with the Aeropress as well as create my own special technique.
With so many baristas and home coffee geeks fooling around out there there are plenty of Aeropress brewing techniques available for viewing on the Internet, and The World Aeropress Championship web site displays the winning brew recipes from past competitions. There are also instructions that come with the brewer, though I did not like the results that I got from them. I must say that the method I developed is inspired from many that are on the net and has been altered to satisfy my taste. I would encourage experimentation to achieve a brew that suits you, and is easy for you to replicate.
To start, you will need:
The Aeropress is a three piece device that closely resembles a syringe. There are two cylinders, one of which fits snugly into the other. Both are flanged at one end. The smaller of the two is the plunger and has a rubber piece at the non-flanged end that creates a water tight seal when inserted into the brewing chamber (the larger of the two cylinders). The third piece is a black perforated filter holder that is about one half inch deep. A filter is placed inside and secured to the brewing chamber with a quick twist.
My technique, and those that are similar, are collectively called the upside down brew method. To start out you’ll need to disassemble the Aeropress by removing the black filter cap as well as the plunger. Set the black filter holder so that you can place the Able Disk into it with the words facing up. Next you’ll want to wet the black rubber on the plunger in order to create some lubrication when you press out your final brew. The Aeropress had graduation markings from one to four and you’ll want to push the plunger to just above the four mark so that you’ll be able to get the right amount of water into the chamber. After this is done place the Aeropress on a flat surface plunger side down.
By now you should have started a kettle of fresh cool water to boil. Keep in mind that you’ll want to let the water cool from boiling to between 200 and 203 degrees Fahrenheit for optimum flavor extraction.
Weigh out 16.5 grams of coffee and grind slightly just finer than you would for an automatic brewer and pour it into the Aeropress using the funnel that is included. It’s important to level out the grounds in the chamber so that when you pour your water you’ll be able to evenly saturate the coffee. This can be done by simply shaking the entire brewer gently from side to side or lightly tapping it with your hand.
Next, place the brewer on your digital scale and hit the tare/zero button so that the display reads zero, start your timer counting up and start pouring in your hot water. I have found that to properly saturate all the ground coffee that I need to employ a bit of technique when I pour. Start the pour slowly and aim a thin stream of water straight down the side of the brew chamber and slowly twist the entire brewer 360 degrees. When the water level is just about between the two and three marks remove your hand so that you will get an accurate weight reading on the scale and pour directly in the middle of the brew chamber. The total amount of water that you pour should be 235 grams and the pour itself should take approximately 15 to 25 seconds.
If you have very fresh coffee, one to ten days off roast, you will notice foam develop while you are pouring. This is the coffee releasing gases that are still trapped within the grounds; this foam will mostly dissipate in about 20 seconds. Once it has, secure the filter holder with the Able Disk inside onto the brewer and at one minute twenty five seconds carefully flip the brewer onto the top of you mug. Wait about five seconds for the brewing coffee grounds inside to rise to the top and begin to press the plunger down. Your total press time should be between thirty and forty five seconds making the total brew time right about two minutes. Now all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the coffee.
Clean up of the Aeropress and the disk is simple and takes only seconds. You just remove the cap and the disk and push out the spent grounds by pressing the plunger all the way in, then rinse off the disk. I like to hold the disk up to a light source after rinsing to make sure that there are no grounds stuck in it. If there are, you can use a tooth brush or some other soft bristled scrubber to remove them. The brewing chamber has already been cleaned by the plunger so you just need to rinse the coffee off the end, wipe it with a clean dry towel and you’re finished.
The Aeropress can be found in use and for sale at many quality coffee shops for around US$30.00 and the Able Disk for around US$15.00 so the investment is miniscule when you compare it to the quality of coffee that you are able to achieve.
If you frequent any one of the high end specialty coffee shops around the country these days you have observed the popular revival of manual, hands-on brewing. The movement has spawned books and blogs and even contests world-wide, but I think that the most beneficial thing to come out of it all is the consumer education that happens when the barista shows off their methodology while talking about their technique and the coffee that they are serving. This in turn creates not only customer loyalty, but also serves to inspire people to want to create great coffee at home themselves using the same techniques and equipment that their morning cup is created with. I find that the simple design of the manual brewing devices adds an intimate connection to my morning cup and the brew time and technique myself encourages a more direct and sensory connection to the process. Unfortunately the manufacturers of these devices had somehow seemed to forget one of the fundamental café experiences,–espresso.
There have been home “espresso” machines on the market for a long time now and the refinement of their capabilities and the advent of “pro-sumer” machines have put the ability to pull a great shot into the hands of the home barista but the price tags are large enough to keep most impassioned coffee lovers at bay. The closest thing I had found to a manual, inexpensive, “espresso” brewer was the Mokka pot, which produces something close to espresso if you pay close attention to the brew cycle, but makes it very easy to accidentally produce a bitter, over extracted, beverage. Then a friend of mine introduced me to the Presso Espresso Machine. I was hugely skeptical when I first started playing around with it, but being such a coffee geek I couldn’t help but experiment. I was pleasantly surprised at the results that I achieved: authentic espresso.
The Presso is a well-made machine requiring no electricity and only a small dent in your bank account. It retails somewhere in the neighborhood of $150.00. It is light-weight and small enough to throw in a backpack to go camping and is attractive enough to keep out on the kitchen counter. I found that it produced a good ristretto shot of espresso but there is a method that I found personally to be somewhat essential to follow. It works well for me to consistently get proper extractions however I would highly encourage experimentation.
What you’ll need is:
The first thing you’ll want to do is preheat the Presso. Fill up your kettle and bring some water to a boil. Since the Presso is made of metal it will act as a heat sink causing the water to drop from the desired extraction temperature which is around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Lower temperature extraction produces sour tastes in the final brew. With the arms of the machine in the down position pour boiling water into the water chamber all the way to the top, being careful not to scald yourself. The chamber has small openings on either side of the levers so having a kettle with a small spout works better because it allows for more control of the water stream.
Place a glass at least six ounces in size under the portafilter. Next pull the levers all the way up in order to draw the water into the chamber. Do this slowly to avoid spilling the hot water out of the top then press the hot water out of the chamber by pushing the levers down. You have now successfully preheated the Presso. This step also serves to clean the Presso from any residue from previous uses.
Sometime between setting the water to boil and actually pouring the boiling water into the chamber to preheat the Presso you will want to grind your coffee. I use about 18 grams for a 1.5 ounce shot of espresso. If you don’t have or want to use a scale the scoop that comes with the Presso holds about 9 grams of ground coffee when you level it.
It may take several attempts to find the grind that works best for you. Too fine a grind will stop the water from going through the bed of ground coffee, and forcing the arms down in the face of such resistance may damage the machine. Too coarse of a grind will result in the water gushing past and under extracting the coffee and create a thin, bitter brew. What you want is a steady, narrow, tapered stream of coffee that appears thick and viscous.
Now that your Presso has been preheated remove the black handled metal brew-basket called the portafilter from the body of the machine, wipe it out with a clean dry towel and scoop the coffee in. Eighteen grams of coffee seemed to produce the best results and will most likely end up creating a mound protruding from the top of the portafilter, but you can use a finger to evenly distribute the coffee in the basket. Sometimes a light tap on the side may help as well. Now take the scoop, which doubles as a tamper, and use the back of it to evenly compress the coffee down into the portafilter. The scoop works okay for this step but if you find yourself attached to your new brewer you may want to invest in a 49 millimeter metal tamper, available through web sites like http://amzn.to/p7EDbg.
Lock the packed portafilter back in the machine securely and place a receptacle for the brew underneath. Add the water just off boil into the chamber only this time filling it up to the top of the two cups that are just above the fill line for a double shot. Filling it to the line just below the two cups didn’t produce the beverage that satisfied my taste and I believe that a bit more water helps to create more pressure during extraction and provides a bit more heat stabilization.
Now slowly lift the arms all the way up then press them down until you start to get some coffee dripping into your cup. At this point bring the arms all the way back up, and press then down all the way until you gotten the desired 1.5 ounces of brewed coffee. During the extraction you will notice that the stream of coffee lightens color and this is a great indicator of when you have extracted all the good tastes and aromas from the bed of coffee. I always stop the extraction when the stream starts to turn pale by stopping the downwards pressure and pulling the levers back up again, because at this point you are just getting a bitter brew and I certainly don’t want any of that in my cup.
This is, of course, not the only way to use the Presso. Let your inner lab rat get the best of you and experiment with every variable you can think of to find a way to produce a great cup of coffee that fits your palate and style. I think that the ability to do this with manual brewing methods is what makes these methods such a great fit for the coffee geek within as well as for those that just need a really good single cup in the morning to get up and going.
Clean up the Presso is simple, just knock out the spent grounds from the portafilter into you garbage can and rinse the underside of the machine that come in contact with the coffee and water and you are set to pull your next shot. I think for the price and the results you would be hard pressed to find a better machine to produce your morning shot whether it is at home or in some beautifully scenic state park.
For more information and tips go to: http://presso.us/
There is hip and there is hip. The Hario V60 is definitely what the doctor ordered for the new slow coffee movement, that is brewed coffee done by hand, one cup at a time. I heard some marketing guru state the other day that the single-cup coffee market was going to be big. Really? That would have been big news a few years ago. Frankly, I’ve been using one-cup brewers for a dozen years, but I’m not claiming to be psychic. They are just what the doctor ordered for upscale expensive beans, and my desire to drink a brewed cup par excellence. Manual drip brewing is a superb extraction method. Realize that brewing 10 cups at a time is difficult for drip because it takes so long for hot water to get hot and get through the grounds without over-extracting and becoming bitter. One cup? No problem.
Let’s look at what’s different about the Hario and why it’s getting such a buzz.
Brewer – the power of this brewer is the bottom, where the coffee exits. Usually it’s a tiny hole. This allows the brewer to regulate the water to help control how long the water is in contact with the grounds. If the water goes through too fast, you just get hot water. If it’s too slow, you get bitter coffee. The Hario hole is so big, it hardly controls the flow at all. This allows you to grind super fine and that is mostly a good thing. The Hario presumes you will grind your own coffee. If you use preground drip grind, it the water will run through too fast. The key to grinding is to grind fine enough to slow the drip, ending up with between four and six minutes contact between the water and grounds. In this way, it is similar to the Chemex, which also has a large gap at the filter bottom.
The filter is an extension of the philosophy of the exit hole. The filter appears designed to encourage flow, not hold it back. Again, this will encourage you to grind fine. The filter paper is designed to be practically transparent, quite different from Chemex’s, which seem thicker and slower in comparison.
Grind – so what is the grind you should use? I said between 4 and 6 minutes is the ideal contact time. But, why such a large spread. Well, this allows for your personal taste, but also when you grind finer for drip, there’s a double effect. The finer grind slows the flow, but it also increases contact area between the water and grounds, so trial and error is necessary. I found when brewing four cups, which this brewer is capable of, I ground slightly coarser, still a fine grind, but just a bit less fine, so that my entire batch was ready in six minutes. When I only needed to brew one cup, I ground superfine, but it still took less because there was less water to run through the grounds, so I had to grind very fine, almost a powder, and due to the increased ground surface exposed to hot water, I got the same strength in about four minutes. Is that clear? I hope so.
The Hario has these swirling fins inside. One colleague of mine was just overwhelmed with this brilliance of this innovation. I must just be different, but I fail to see how important these are. They add a nice design touch, but I seriously doubt if they really encourage a specific flow in any significant way.
Here’s my method: Boil some good tasting water. Place one 10gram scoop of coffee. I used Counter Culture’s Peruvian Valle de Santuario for my tests. Grind fine, finer than for auto drip, but definitely not espresso grind. As grind is so important to this brewer’s performance, expect to do some futzing to get the taste you like. Also expect to alter your grind if you change the amount of coffee you brew. For four cups, I weighed 40 grams coffee, and did almost an auto-drip grind. That prolonged the contact time between grounds and water to just shy of 6 minutes. This particular coffee has vanilla, fig and chocolate notes in it and the Hario brought out all the noble acidity and richness I could ask for. I suspect the filter paper webbing has a lot to do with the extraordinary success of the Hario V60. The filter is the closest to a glass or fine mesh filter with all the flavor and oil you could ask for, yet absolutely no sediment.
The Hario V60 is a fine brewer. It does not displace either the Melitta cone nor Chemex, but it offers a fun and good tasting option to manual brewing, and places a healthy emphasis on grinding fine, rather than counting on the exit hole or filter to regulate contact time. With its innovative filter paper that offers the best in flavor transparency, the Hario is a winner.
A few weeks ago I took a few steps across a relatively new frontier of coffee connoisseurship known generally as “pairing,” i.e. recommending certain coffees that best pair with certain foods. Although I’ve always found the pairing process interesting, I’ve never pursued it in any depth. But when I was offered an opportunity (in this case a modestly paid opportunity) to attempt to pair coffees with chocolates I took it up.
Pairing coffee and chocolates has always seemed a bit more apropos to me than pairing coffee with porcini mushroom soup or pomegranate braised duck leg. For one thing, coffee and chocolate share origins and processes that both overlap and diverge in fascinating ways.
Plus I had as my co-taster Mark Magers, currently CEO of the North American distributer of Divine Chocolates, the producers of a line of attractive chocolate products that incorporate cacao produced by a Fair-Trade certified cooperative in Ghana. Mark, with whom I have on occasion worked before, is, in the old vernacular, a cool guy, calm, incisive, and very fair-minded. Mark coincidentally also has a long connection with coffee, most recently as a manager at TransFair USA, the organization that provides Fair Trade certification and promotion for coffee and other products in the U.S.
The “deliverables” for this project, as they say in the business world, were sets of notes for six pairs of chocolates and coffees, with the coffees provided by Paradise Roasters and chocolates chosen from a selection from four different companies. We ended by including chocolate bars from three companies in our pairings: Amano Artisan Chocolate, Divine Chocolate and Lake Champlain chocolate. Readers interested in the results can find them at https://www.paradiseroasters.com/categories/Merchandise/Gifts-And-Samplers/For-Chocolate-Lovers/. Keep going past the rather fervent sales pitches for the paired products (for which we bear no authorial responsibility!) to the product description pages, where you will find the actual tasting notes I delivered with Mark’s help near the bottom the pages devoted to specific chocolate/coffee pairings.
Most of the relatively small selection Paradise coffees made available for our tasting were familiar to me. On the other hand, we had a huge stack of chocolates to choose from. Mark agreed with my essentially purist’s decision simply to not test the chocolates that had things added to them: hazelnuts, fruit, etc. We experimented with all of the pure chocolates, however, both dark (minimum 70% cocoa solids) and milk (30% cocoa solids).
Basically, we approached the pairing experiments with a simple two-part schema: we started by testing coffee/chocolate pairs that promised intensification of similar or overlapping characteristics (like +like), then went on to pairs that contrasted in certain dramatic ways while promising to complement one another by creating balance through difference.
Here are a few things I learned from this experiment:
– Properly tasting chocolates requires patience. One is asked to allow the chocolate to slowly melt on one’s tongue, observing the changes in sensation as it melts, including texture or mouthfeel, basic taste structure (particularly bitter and sweet) and the development of various flavor notes. The long melt on the tongue could be taken as analogous to the coffee cupper’s practice of repeatedly sampling the same coffee as it transitions from dry fragrance to hot aroma to room temperature cup, a sequence of acts aimed at capturing the full trajectory of the coffee’s sensory expression.
– The beauty of the coffee-chocolate pairing is the opportunity to literally combine the coffee and chocolate by waiting through the melting-on-the-tongue routine until the chocolate is almost liquid, then taking in a mouthful of coffee into or over the liquefying chocolate and experiencing the interaction from first contact to finish. I found it interesting to experiment with introducing the coffee at different moments in the trajectory of the melt; the best and most telling moment for me was the point at which the chocolate had almost but not quite resolved into a heavy liquid.
– Some chocolate companies, like Divine, offer only two (both excellent) pure chocolates: dark and milk. I suppose this is roughly equivalent to coffee programs that build their businesses around a medium roast and a dark roast of the same single-origin coffee or blend. On the other hand, such chocolate companies have the opportunity to diversify their offerings by adding dried fruit, nuts, etc. to the two basic chocolate styles.
– Other chocolate companies, like Amano, offer diversity through a geography of single-origin chocolates. For years I have trundled back from northern Europe with gift assortments of origin-specific chocolates for family and friends. I always enjoyed nibbling on them myself, but this was the first time I systematically worked my way through an entire range of origins. I found this experience remarkable, both owing to the quality of the sensory profiles of the single-origin chocolates as well as to the clear-cut differences among them. I also was struck by how much overlap exists between the sensory repertoires of single-origin chocolates and single-origin coffees. It’s true that coffee appears to offer considerably more sensory range, both positive and negative, than chocolate, given that coffee is a much less processed product than a single-origin chocolate bar. Experiencing cacao in a chocolate bar is, I suppose, analogous to always tasting coffee with some milk and sugar added. Nevertheless, the various Amano single-origin chocolates, particularly the dark chocolates, were impressively distinct and immediately recognizable once one had cracked their sensory code.
Flowers and aromatic wood situate at opposite ends of the sensory range for coffee, though they both are among the most common and attractive of aroma and flavor notes.
Floral notes appear to be a direct expression of the floral tendencies of the coffee fruit and seed; at times they show up as pure expressions of the perfumy, jasmine-like scent of the coffee flower itself. Those new to coffee often are able to pick out and enjoy floral notes in coffee for the first time if they focus on the recollection of various heavy-scented, white flowers, the kind that send out their intense perfumes at dusk and into the early evening.
Influenced by a variety of factors – from darkness of roast, to the presence of various complementary fruit notes, to processing method, to the botanical variety of the trees – floral notes can range from heavy and carnal (lilies for example); spicy and deep (roses); meadowy and refreshing (violets), slightly vegetal and green (sweet flowering grasses). In coffees that are both very pure and free of taint and light-to-medium roasted, flowers often appear as a component in a honey-like character; in other cases the flower-related sweetness is more molasses-like and vegetal, in other cases round and peach-like. One of the most impressive aspects of floral notes are their persistence in darker roasts, even ultimately dark French roasts, where they often float at the top of the profile, evanescent, sweet and delicate, even after most of the other fruit- or plant-related nuance has been driven out of the beans by the roast.
Ethiopia coffees are most celebrated for their floral character, but floral notes can surface in almost any coffee of the Arabica species, and occasionally and surprisingly, in some of the best wet-processed, high-altitude Robustas. In general, floral notes are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to purity of fruit removal and drying in coffee. They flourish in coffees that preserve fruit nuance yet are free of any hint of the aroma-dampening taints acquired while the coffee is drying.
Aromatic wood is our general term for notes reminiscent of fresh-cut cedar, fir, or even sandalwood. We distinguish between aromatic wood notes, pungent, fresh and lively, and plain old wood notes, meaning the dead, flat scent of dried-out wood that long ago lost its aromatic oils. Wood, the tasteless kind, is a characteristic of green coffees that have faded and lost their aromatics through age, or roasted coffee that has begun to stale.
On the other hand, the intense, clean odor of fresh-cut fir or cedar is almost universally attractive to human beings, and in coffee often deepens and balances sweeter fruit and floral notes. Although aromatic wood notes appear most frequently in medium through dark-roasted coffees, they can emerge, particularly as fir, in lighter-roasted coffees as well.
So let’s blog again like we did last summer. Reviewing three or four descriptive terms per week is the new plan.
Judging by an occasional puzzled email, sweetness may be one of the more confusing terms for those new to coffee description. We use the term regularly in our reviews, and it’s one of the most important technical descriptors used in evaluating quality in green coffee.
Yet readers who buy a coffee we call “sweet” will be disappointed if they expect it to taste like sugar. Sweetness in coffee is subtle, yet also pervasive and precious. It underpins much of what we value in coffee, from the honeyed floral notes of light-roasted coffees to the pungent dark chocolate of darker roasts.
Yet coffee is, after all, a naturally bitter beverage, and bitterness too is part of its appeal. But we can take bitterness for granted in coffee. It will always be there. Promoting natural sweetness, however, requires effort, a lot of effort.
If you taste a ripe coffee fruit of the arabica species, fresh off the tree, several sensations probably will strike you, among them: it tastes a little tart, a little bitter, but also a little sweet. Not extremely sweet, but discernibly so.
Returning to the effort part, almost any act of carelessness as coffee is transformed from ripe fruit to roasted bean will promote bitterness and reduce sweetness. Too much green, unripe, bitter-astringent fruit in the harvest, for example, rather than sweet, ripe fruit. Failing to dry the beans properly, allowing the formation of sweetness-dampening moulds. Failing to transport or store the beans properly. Roasting them too dark too fast. And if the coffee makes it through all of that, we can destroy any amount of natural sweetness by letting the brewed coffee sit on a hot plate for more than a few minutes.
So a good part of the care that goes into harvesting, removing the fruit residue and drying a fine coffee is aimed at preserving the original fragile sweetness reflected in the taste of the fruit. It makes everything else going on in a fine coffee better: the acidity (fuller and less sharp), the floral and fruit notes (more honeyed and ripe), caramelly and chocolate sensations in a darker roast deeper.
Essentially, many coffee drinkers are so accustomed to the dominating bitter character of ordinary coffee that they automatically add whitener and sweetener to their cup. At Coffee Review we value sweetness in particular because it encourages coffee drinkers to take their coffee black, or at least without sweetener, and experience the coffee itself, its subtle pleasures unwrapped for us by a sweetness given by nature but obsessively nurtured by grower, miller and roaster.
In a few days: flowers and aromatic wood, two positive though rather opposing descriptors we use often in our reviews.
When I first laid eyes on this brewer, visiting Oren and Nancy Bloostein, I thought it was a teapot. Elegant, it was attractive. Maybe I thought it could serve coffee, but who transfers coffee from the brewer to the server anymore? Oren insisted I take it home and try it out. All the way home all I could think about was the opportunity to try out a new technology.
I’m beginning to think there are two kinds of coffee brewers, those that utilize stillness, the steepers such as the press pot, and those that utilize motion such as drip, vacuum and, at the far end, espresso. The SoftBrew is definitely a steeper. It is simply a carafe, albeit a sleek one, and a patented screened cylindrical filter. What separates it from the press is the lack of press. There is no plunger to push down. According to the directions, you simply toss your grounds into the cylinder and add near-boiling water. After between four and eight minutes (quite a range), you simply pour your coffee. They make a variety of sized models. The one I tried is, I believe, a four-cup version.
The first time I tried it, I was happy with the results. As it was Oren’s Daily Roast Sumatra I’d purchased on the way to my train (yes, I took Amtrak home) it was very, very nice. It had what I’ve come to expect from a steeped method: Low acidity (even for a Sumatran), a rich, burnished acidity – almost hot-cocoa-like in its texture. I couldn’t help but try to make it do more in terms of matching a high-temperature vacuum brew. For my second batch I scalded the pot with boiling water, then added the grounds and near-boiling water to see if a raise in brewing temperature might change the flavor profile. It did, but not to the good, in my opinion.
As is my procedure when testing, I brewed using the SoftBrew a variety of ways for the next two weeks. After this battery of tests, conducted while monitoring the contact temperature, I ended up noting my most satisfactory flavor by not preheating the pot. In fact, the most casual method yielded my best results. I noted that using this meant that the majority of contact time the coffee brewed at well under industry-standard temperatures. I also found that above-average grounds portions gave me the best flavor without any noted bitterness. When using less grounds and maintaining the brewing temperature at between 195°F and 205°F I detected a strong sharp entry note. Using more coffee and a lower temperature, this note disappeared. I urge anyone to conduct their own test. It was unsubtle.
I used a contact time of 4 minutes. By that, I mean I poured my first cup at four minutes. Since there is no press to consolidate the grounds on the bottom it can be argued that the SoftBrew never really stops brewing, although certainly as the coffee cools, the brewing slows significantly. I did not find the second cup appreciably different than the first, other than it was slightly cooler.
Around the same time, a shipment of Sumatra from Paradise Roasters arrived on my doorstep. This coffee, as you know, is rated 94 by Ken Davids. This coffee was actually rather finicky to brew in some machines. I preferred it in the SoftBrew to its flavor in the highly-rated Technivorm. It just tasted more right, it’s balance was there and the spice and vegetal note were what the review promised. In comparing the Paradise Sumatra with Oren’s, the Oren’s did not exhibit the vegetal note. Oren told me he eschews Sumatrans that present that particularly flavor. It’s just personal preference. Both coffees reached tasted their best in the SoftBrew.
I still prefer some coffees in other methods. My tests using Open Sky Coffee’s Columbia Fair Trade just tasted lackluster compared to its showing in my commercial Bloomfield brewer.
The only other thing worth noting is the patented cylinder. Yes, it is easy to clean and does the same thing as the press in the press-pot. But, the one thing I want to point out is there is more sediment than I expected, and probably more than I prefer. This brewer exhibits a high degree of sediment in the cup, nothing such as boulders or large grounds, but never anything resembling a cloth or paper filter. If you use a metal filter in your drip maker, you may be surprised at how much more particulate is in your cup. I don’t want to present this too strongly. It was never truly objectionable to me, but I generally prefer a cleaner cup – my preference, and by no means universal. If you want a steeped cup minus the sediment, may I suggest the Aeropress?
Speaking of grind, you’re probably wondering what grind I used. I tried various grinds, possible since there’s not plunger to get hung up on and the cylinder’s laser-cut holes are quite small. I ended up preferring a slightly coarse grind, the same as I use for a Chemex.
The Sowden SoftBrew is certainly an innovative product. If you like the press pot, but find it difficult to clean and want a beautiful way to brew and serve coffee for a two to four people, it might be a very good choice.
I recently received an email from a self-proclaimed, coffee obsessed reader. The question she asked was a difficult one to answer. It had to do with that feeling many coffee drinkers have had. You know the one, that feeling of coffee being in some way better in the past. It could have been last year or twenty-five years ago, but that memory of the way coffee used to taste lingers. Maybe it was your first cups of specialty coffee after years of drinking canned conventional coffee. It could have been those espressos you had while on vacation in Rome, or when passing through Seattle. Those moments might have been in your own home, in the still morning hours, when the stars were aligned, with fresh packages of coffee, and those ritualistic sequences of events – the boiling kettle, the purring grinder and the Hario V60 dripping into your mug. You remember it like it was yesterday, sublime. Yet somehow you can’t seem to duplicate that taste again, either at home or in your favorite cafes.
“That” taste that is so hard to define. Everyone has a unique relationship to coffee that is influenced by factors such as where someone has lived, how old he or she is and the cultural traditions they have experienced. Someone who grew up in an immigrant household in New York’s Little Italy in the 1960s likely has a different relationship to coffee than a 25 year old living in Williamsburg today. So to offer one answer for all coffee drinkers is task beyond an emailed response or even this blog post. The Coffee Review website endeavors to provide context needed for individuals to figure out on their own what that taste is and how it can be rediscovered.
For many adults living in North American, however, the coffee taste remembered from many years ago can often be found in medium roasted, washed processed, heirloom varieties of Colombian coffee. There has been a long tradition of importing coffee from Colombia into the United States and Canada, and there are generations of people who have come of age drinking this type of coffee. As an agricultural product coffee changes over the course of seasons and generations, sometimes by naturalization and sometimes by design. This holds true for Colombia as well as other coffee growing regions throughout the world. Over time many farmers in Colombia have been encouraged to transition to from traditional varieties to higher yielding ones and this, in part, has had an impact on the way much of the coffee from this country tastes today. Still, there are many small-holding farmers in Colombia that produce the older heirloom varieties that deliver flavors that will remind many coffee drinkers of the taste they remember from years past. Over the last few months we have received several Colombian coffees in the Coffee Review lab that might very well meet the expectations of this group of coffee drinkers. I won’t list them here, but those of you who are interested can search the site to uncover these hidden gems. If these coffees don’t match up with your memory of “that” coffee experience, then there are a myriad of other reviews to peruse to help you rediscover the flavors you are looking for.
How many of you measure coffee using a tiny scoop that came with your coffee maker? Maybe things are different around an august group of coffee aficionados, but I just returned from a weekend retreat and all I could find was a subminiature spoon. I resisted the urge to remove it from my hosts’ residence for evaluation, but I suspect it measured between 5 and 7 grams of coffee.
This let me to a topic that’s made measuring problematic for many of us just-awakened people trying to just make a fresh batch of coffee: How to measure.
The classic coffee scoop is 10 grams. Sometimes it’s labeled a coffee measure. It is, volumetrically two tablespoons. This works out pretty well for a 6 ounce cup of coffee. What I think happened is the influx of foreign products into the US. I’m talking German and Dutch ones mostly – this was before our current overwhelmingly Chinese product invasion. The European brewers measured their cups in metric, which added enough confusion, but they were smaller besides, roughly 5 ounce cups. This threw everything off. It also gave them a perceived value advantage, in that it gave comparison shoppers the illusion that they had greater capacity, which of course they didn’t. But, a casual consumer reaching to grab a last-minute wedding present would see a Braun coffee brewer that claimed 10 cups next to a Mr. Coffee that claimed only 8. Although only 2 ounces apart, the consumers started picking up the European-source brewers, at least that’s what the appliance industry reckoned. The last hold-out was Bunn, who only changed their cup markings a few years ago, after paying the price in the volume sweepstakes for more than twenty years.
Now consumers, never wanting to think too much about a detail like measuring, started receiving downsized measuring scoops. The canned coffee industry didn’t help things, because concurrently, perhaps in response to the market confusion, took the old corporate number 7 response and started imprinting the nebulous “use more or less according to taste”. I recall a local Chicago brand, Stewarts, who claimed their coffee was so much more flavorful that their tiny supplied spoon allowed you to measure less and still result in great tasting coffee.
When I began my coffee connoisseurship, I was so confused, in desperation I finally bought a cheap diet scale and started weighing my grounds. In fact, that’s my preferred method to this day. First, I think it’s more accurate, and that’s confirmed each time I measure, as I use a 2-tablespoon scoop and find it can vary a bit. Second, it allows me to measure accurately before I grind, reducing waste.
But, there I was, with a non-standard scoop, early in the morning in my friend’s kitchen, faced with the prospect of brewing some wonderful beans I’d brought with me. I even brought a Chemex coffee maker along, but alas no scale, or for that matter, no standardized scoop.
I quickly did some quick conversions in my head. I figured the scoop to be 6 or 7 grams, and the Chemex I brought took 50 grams per pot (It holds 30 ounces of water). I used 7 scoops. It turned out just okay. It was an Alterra Coffee Sumatra Mandheling, and I know the coffee – it could have been better.
Next time, I bring a scale. But, what would you do? How do you measure? Do you know what size scoop you have? Anyone challenge the 10 grams/2 tablespoons per 6 oz cup formula? How much do you use? Also, a number of brewers have confusing cup measurements (Technivorm is one, using 4.5 ounce cups). Does this throw anyone off?
There are many unknowns in coffee. Regardless of how scientific some of us can make it sound, most of the brewing practices are a product of tradition, not science. At best, it’s practical observation, a very good first-step in scientific inquiry, but hardly definitive.
Let’s take the agitation of grounds during brewing, sometimes called turbidity. One analogy expressed is that of a clothes washing machine, which features an agitator, to swirl the clothes around during the wash cycle. This is to get the detergent thoroughly mixed with water, and to help powders to dissolve. It also gets clothes to rub against each other, the modern equivalent to rubbing against a washboard.
What does agitation do during coffee brewing? In order to brew at all, it is a given that the grounds must all come in contact with hot water. If the grounds don’t get wet, you’ve wasted them. A poorly designed automatic coffee brewer will leave dry grounds. Sometimes, it’s not the coffee brewer’s fault. End users may have overloaded the grounds basket. The grounds may have been too coarsely ground – good drip brewing involves a controlled backup (think rush hour traffic) so that the grounds are under water throughout the brew cycle. The grounds may be too fresh. I know, roasters are always stressing the importance of freshness, but just-roasted coffee foams up like beer, and the grounds floating atop the foam are chemical loafers – let’s call them “supervisors”.
So, agitation follows the washing machine analogy to this end. Everyone who’s brewed using a manual drip machine has probably swirled their brewer around in order to help get all the grounds good and wet and settled.
But, the analogy gets lost after that. Unlike powdered detergents, there are not coffee grounds that need to be dissolved. The grounds do not, as far as I know, brew by rubbing against each other. Supposedly, coffee extract is removed from the grounds using heat, hence the importance of ultra-hot, just under boiling brewing temperatures.
So what happens next? How does designing an automatic brewing sprayhead to power wash the grounds result in more extraction or affect it at all?
Lacking any credible scientific research, we can only turn to observation and precedent. The famed Vacuum coffee brewer, which dominated brewing during the first half of the 20th Century, has plenty of turbidity during its relatively short contact time. Once the hot water shot up the tube and into its upper bowl, the brewing water/grounds mixture bubbled nicely, like a hot tub with its jets on full. Perhaps this was observed as part of its ability to turn out rich coffee within three-to-four minutes. I always thought this was due to its using fine grind coffee.
Curiously, an equally revered brewing method features the least turbidity. The French press uses a coarse grind. In fact, if you grind fine, you just might break it trying to force the press down. Once you initially stir it, you’re supposed to place the press inside, virtually ensuring no-agitation throughout most of the contact time. Let’s see, no agitation, the coffee is ready in three-to-four minutes, using a coarse grind.
How can that be?
I’m not saying that turbidity is not a factor. What I’m saying is we still don’t really know why it is a factor, and, even if it is, it’s still not the only way to make coffee. I’m suggesting there’s a lot more to discover about just what brews a great cup of coffee.