It was great to see you in Cape Town recently. Hopefully the return to dreary London wasn’t too painful!
You asked me to write you an email with some tips on “how to coffee” and as I finally started writing it, I realised that there may be others out there who would benefit from just such an email, so I decided to make this an open letter. Hope you don’t mind!
What follows is the very basics of enjoying coffee - the table stakes if you will.
Don’t burn your beans
While this may be a pretty common tip, it’s also a pretty crucial one. Your coffee shouldn’t be making contact with water that is too hot, and, as you’re at sea level in London, that means that freshly boiled water is too hot (our friends in Jozi don’t have these concerns).
93ºC is the most commonly referenced brewing temperature that I’ve found, and it’s always my starting point, but in broader terms, you’re shooting for somewhere between 90ºC & 95ºC. Without the benefit of a thermometer, I’d suggest giving it 2 mins after the kettle boils before you pour (but not much longer than that).
That’s right, I said beans!
You mentioned when we chatted that you don’t yet own a coffee grinder. In my (not so) humble opinion, buying pre-ground coffee is a terrible coffee sin. Pre-ground goes stale in days - that’s right, days! Some of the aroma is lost within just minutes of grinding.
Whole beans can stay fresh for up to 4 weeks from roast, possibly even 6 in some cases. Grab yourself a manual grinder if you fancy a little bit of extra exercise or invest in an electric grinder for convenience, but get a grinder. It’s the most important part of your coffee brewing setup, and friends don’t let friends do pre-ground.
Burrs not blades
When it comes to choosing a grinder, I’ve been known to get as geeky as you do about analogue sound, but I’m going to resist, and give you just one purchasing criterion: burrs, not blades. Blades may be cheaper, but they chop up your beans into indiscriminate sizes, whereas burrs give you a more even (and adjustable) grind. Make it a burr grinder.
Control your other variables as much as you can
Now, this is where we coffee geeks sometimes elicit peals of laughter from the peanut gallery who are firmly committed to the romance of doing things on a hope and a prayer. Coffee extraction is chemistry, so variables matter, and I’ve never met a person who can eyeball a gram or time 4 mins by gut feel. Suspend your disbelief and embrace the fact that a little bit of variable control is the difference between consistently good coffee and wildly varied results.
The easiest variable to control is probably time. Everyone’s got an iPhone (maybe a blackberry in your case). Most people have a kitchen timer. Leaving your coffee to extract till it feels right is often going to result in coffee that is sour or bitter. Hitting the sweet spot is what it’s all about. I know your weapon of choice is the classic french press or cafetiere. Shoot for 4 mins from pour to plunge.
If you’ll permit me to nerd out for a moment, it has been shown that coffee tastes best in very particularly dissolved concentrations in the cup and outside of that range, it just doesn’t taste very good. If you want to hit that sweet spot, you’ve got to measure the amount of coffee and the amount of water you’re using.
Coffee’s density varies wildly, so the only reliable way to do this is with a scale. Water’s density is obviously 1, which means that you can also use that same scale to measure the amount of water you use.
I like 70g of coffee per litre of water, but many prefer it closer to 60g per litre. You’re not going to want to go too far south or north of that, so use your kitchen scale or invest in a proper coffee scale. In practice that means something like 15-17.5g of coffee for 250g of water. You can find your personal sweet spot within that range but then try to be consistent with it!
Know what you’re drinking
Coffee is both a commodity and a luxury product. For reasons that I won’t go into here, if you’re drinking the commodity stuff, you’re doing both your taste buds and the world a disservice. Given that you, I, and anyone who cares about coffee should appreciate it as the precious luxury beverage that it is, it behooves us to know a thing or two about where it came from.
Here are some questions that you should be able to answer about your coffee; either by asking the question to the seller, or reading on the packaging.
- Where was it grown?
- Who (or what group of people) grew it?
- What variety (or varieties) of coffee is it?
- How was it processed?
- Who roasted it?
- When was it roasted? (more on that later)
If the person you’re buying from can’t answer these questions (or at least most of them), then you probably shouldn’t be buying their coffee. Some of the answers to these questions may sound as Greek as my surname initially, but you’ll start to recognise patterns pretty quickly, and you’ll get even more benefit from understanding the connection between these factors and the character in your cup.
A note on blends
I think a lot of the pleasure of coffee is in exploring single origins, but there’s nothing wrong with a tasty and balanced blend. Who doesn’t love a bit of a mix? Ideally, the supplier of the coffee should be able to answer the above questions for each component of their blends however!
Decaf can be delicious
I know you’re one of those people who is blessed with enough innate caffeine, and you prefer your cup of joe decaffeinated. Despite what some might say, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Everything I’ve mentioned so far applies, regardless of caffeine content. However, choosing a good decaf requires even more scrutiny of its origins, particularly with regards to the method of decaffeination. You see, commodity decafs are stripped of their jittery goodness with the use of chemical solvents. Residue of those solvents will remain in the coffee and will probably be worse for you than the caffeine.
Thankfully, there are organisations out there that have created decaffeination processes that don’t involve the use of industrial chemicals. Look out for the following decaffeination methods in particular:
- Swiss Water
- Mountain Water
Make it fresh
It warrants repeating. Coffee is a perishable product, so you’re going to get best results when it’s fresh. If you’ve been drinking pre-ground, old coffee, you may not even realise how good your coffee could taste.
Good coffees will always have a roast date on the pack. Often this means that you have to buy it from a roaster or specialist retailer (like CCB!) to get the good stuff. However, in the UK, some of the grocery stores with their next-level supply chains have forged partnerships with good roasters, so you may find some decently fresh coffee in certain stores. Just make sure you check what you’re buying.
Try to drink your coffee within 4-6 weeks of roast, and ideally on the lower end of that range. Many believe coffee tastes its absolute best somewhere in that 7-14 day window, but I’ve tasted great stuff at older ranges than that.
A final word
That might seem like a lot to think about, but that’s partly because I’m long-winded. In truth, these are reasonably straightforward tips, and they should make your coffee infinitely better. Think vinyl vs. 128kbps mp3 - I’m serious.
And don’t forget… the coffee’s pretty darn good here in Cape Town. Come have a cup more often!