As part of my self-improvement goal to become a kinder gentler person, I’ll resist the urge to ask, “What were they smoking?” Like a lot of baby boomers, I have a nostalgic appreciation for Consumer Reports. They represent the hard-line leftist/socialist bent of many workers in post-World War II. They stand for uniformity, the illusion of tight product tolerances. The skinflint in me wants to believe I can sneak by using no-brand paints, cheap tires and generic orange juice.
The problem I have with them is not philosophic. I truly want to find ways to live the good life on the cheap. Problem is, so often I’ve gotten Consumer Reports (from the library of course, if not a free read at Borders) and been disheartened by the results using their best buy ratings as a guide.
Years ago, I chastised them for ignoring standards of any kind, and only using their “test panel”. I’m guessing it was a bunch of prune-faced cheapskates who simply wanted to pretend to like products that were inexpensive. My Italian mother-in-law who always complains about the food in restaurants is the model of the sort of person I mean. She’s bound and determined to dislike anything that costs more than she can cook if for. It’s an affirmation of her staying home and cooking every meal herself. In her case, it’s partly justified because she can cook on par with most restaurants. She just doesn’t get that part of the enjoyment of a restaurant meal is sampling someone else’s artistry.
Consumer Reports doesn’t give you truly good alternatives, in my opinion. They just give you less costly ones, ones chosen by people, who, again in my opinion, don’t have any better idea than a random consumer about what’s really good versus what’s not. They might argue this is one of their strengths, but to just sample a cross section of consumer reviews, Amazon or epinions.com has it covered. I expect a magazine that charges to test using objective criteria and to publish both the criteria and results. The title of the magazine is “Consumer Reports” and I assume this means a report to consumers, not by consumers. This is a major problem with their methodology. I recall a quote from someone who said “the trouble with staying free of industry influence is you end with a bunch of peers who don’t know anything”.
I’m not challenging Consumer Reports’ freedom of industry influence, but this does not make them neutral. They seem too eager to become willfully ignorant in the bargain.
Take coffeemakers. The latest Consumer Reports article starts off well enough. They drop a name I agree with…. Technivorm. Technivorm is an industry standard auto drip coffee brewer. They use it as a standard of comparison. I’m not only fine with that, I would agree. But, then, they don’t rate it number 1. In fact, they don’t even put it in the top ten! Why not?
Consumer Reports gives a nod to the industry standard requirements for a coffeemaker to get the water hot enough, 195˚ to 205˚F, noting that the Technivorm readily achieves this. Again, I concur. Then, they proceed to rate other brewer’s as best buys, citing an $80 Kaloric and eight others CR claims “brewed comparably”. Then, they recommend a $20 Black and Decker, described “for someone a little less fussy about their coffee” and claim it is “almost as good”. Never are any measurements given to back up their claims. My point is, if they publish stopping distances for cars, they should publish contact temperatures for coffee brewers.
Also, where are the other measurements that would allow the reader to judge the ratings to be valid? Nowhere is there any mention of how long any of the top-rated ‘almost as good’ coffeemakers keep the grounds soaked in hot water. I’ve tested many brewers that peak at between 195 and 205, but spend the first several minutes of the brew cycle at temperatures well below the ideal range. The Technivorm keeps your grounds in hot water for no more than 6 minutes. That’s because, as the coffee industry’s standards specify, any longer than six minutes and bitterness becomes progressively pronounced.
There are brewers out there that subject your grounds to hot water for more than twelve minutes. CR doesn’t list contact times anywhere.
Another problematic area of many auto drip brewers is that of submersion of the grounds in water. The French press has become the darling of the smart set due to its automatically keeping all the grounds well under water throughout the brewing cycle. Does CR even know this? Do they test for it? Many auto drip makers are prone to leaving dry grounds, so inefficient are they at getting all the grounds wet. This means you wasted money by buying and using grounds in your brewer that never “gave” anything to your cup of coffee. It means your coffee is weaker than it should be, right?
And, who is their test panel? If they don’t publish their test criteria, they are basically saying their results are “because we say so”. So, who are they? Are these professionals or consumers?
At the moment, these are the questions that come to mind. I have to say, I can’t take each unit and offer a ranking different than CR’s, without testing and this is my next step. What I can say, is Consumer Reports offered no evidence that they tested these units with any but the most casual attention to the standards for good extraction. It’s not brain surgery and their readers deserve more. So far, I would not put Consumer Reports as a best buy when it comes rating which coffeemaker to buy.
Those of us who’ve ever asked a coffee professional how to brew coffee have likely gotten the following industry recipe:
6 ounces water
10 grams ground coffee
4-6 minutes contact time
Water temperature: 195-205º F
Extraction target: 18-22% extracted soluble solids by weight
This all seems pretty clear. Except, maybe the “extraction target”. But, how many people end up really brewing using this formula? I have no statistics but I would venture that very few do. I know I personally start with every new sack of coffee using these measurements. Then, I vary, sometimes quite a bit.
I often am asked how strong I like my coffee. It is a difficult question, one I suspect does not have as defined an answer as we might suppose. The standard for coffee has been 1.35% soluble solids extraction, but who determined that? Does that really represent coffee strength?
The history of coffee strength is based upon panels of industry experts telling the public what it is supposed to like. Now, in my opinion, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It is true for many products, so coffee’s industry experts need not feel too elitist, or if they do, they should not feel uniquely elitist. It is common for wine groupies to head for the local wine store and have a wine guru (almost certainly someone with a vested interest in a wine business) lecture them about what to notice/like in a wine. Why shouldn’t it be the same with coffee? In the 1930s, a bunch of coffee industry cuppers decided to publish standards, including brewing temperatures and strengths. This commission published their formula in what is currently reprinted as the CBC Workshop manual. They are a quite useful tool. These specifications, though, are a bit like small, medium and large T-shirt sizes. You just might find you don’t quite fit into those sizes.
Coffee is typically brewed by individuals. Unlike wine, every coffee drinker gets to ultimately decide his own strength. I routinely offer coffee as gifts to friends who seem to delight in informing me that they brew it lighter than I did when they had it at my house.
I know this is a challenge to anyone who’s reprinted the coffee industry’s formulas, but how strong is enough? Is the 1.35% soluble solids specification really the one size that fits all? Should the industry attempt to force end-user conformity to any specific standard?
How do we define strong? I would suggest that strong is when the coffee flavor is enough, but before the bitterness becomes objectionable. There is probably an association between the size of this window of opportunity for a given coffee and our enjoyment of it. In other words, if you like a light roasted Colombian coffee, it is because it has an easy to find spot where the flavors and tastes you like can be found, but there is little or no
Well here are a few answers. We know that one size does not quite fit all. How to we know this? Well, for one thing, the European coffee standards are a bit different, and stronger, than the American ones. The Europeans accept more bitterness, as their standards accommodate a longer brewing time and finer grind coffee.
The American, and European, standards were achieved by taste panels, panels that used the currently available coffees and ones that were light roasted. The American coffees were almost certainly lighter roasted and they were likely what is not called cinnamon roast. Does anyone know if dark roasted coffees taste equally strong at 18-22% extractions and 1.35% soluble solids as an light roasted coffee. We know they do not. That is common sense. The amount of bitterness is certainly higher. It might be a nice and tidy world if they tasted the same except for roast, but they don’t.
Why do I bring all this to your attention? Simply because so much emphasis is spent in the coffee industry to try to get you to brew to achieve a certain extraction % to achieve a certain percent soluble solids. But, if varies with each individual what strength they prefer and it may vary per individual per roast type. I may like coffee stronger than you. I may like dark roasted coffee less strong than I like my light roast coffee.
Now, this one specification of coffee strength, the how strong, would be just intellectual curiosity if it were not for its being the holy grail of coffee perfection. It is the number that all the other measurements in brewing formulas are designed to serve. We use ten grams per 6 ounces of water, keep it in contact with the specifically ground coffee at 195º-205ºF for 4-6 minutes in order to achieve 18-22% extraction resulting in 1.35% soluble solids. Every single coffee brewer made is somehow expected to achieve this result.
Well, I’m here to tell you to free yourself from the tyranny of this goal. Today’s wider range of roasts means it might make more sense for you to back off the amount of grounds to get your best tasting cup. If you’re using a French press or manual drip, maybe you want to take the kettle off the heat an extra minute before pouring, which will reduce the extraction. Maybe you want to press the plunger on your press down a minute sooner, or later. Or grind a bit finer or coarse, perhaps the best way to increase or reduce strength using an automatic drip maker.
Play with it. Don’t feel you have to color inside the lines.
How strong? As strong as you like it. That’s how strong.
©Kevin Sinnott 2009