I said to the friendly strangers next to me, “Let's not make her nervous.” We were having a little out-of-earshot fun, at the expense of the college-age woman trying to maneuver her subcompact into a space barely large enough to fit a full-sized SUV. She had sufficient room to do it the easy way, head in, but was defaulting to the back-in method she must have learned from a driving instructor. The driver may have been a pre-med student, or a math major — though probably not in geometry — but the parallel parking thing found her totally intimidated. After three tries, and finding her narrow car still sticking into traffic, she accepted defeat and went in search of a parking lot.
No matter how competent we are in some areas, we have our weaknesses — some physical, some mental. My weaknesses have been learning to program computers, and learning martial arts — despite putting in the years. What I have learned (and I've been at it even longer than martial arts and programming) is how to make, with neither much fuss nor high cost, a damn fine cup of coffee. Here's the great thing: if I were an expert in programming, or martial arts, it'd take years, if ever, to pass that ability on to you. But I can pass on how to make an excellent cup of coffee in the 15 minutes it will take you to read this post. How cool is that?
Hackers & Baristas
In 2010, dot-com rich guy, and venture capitalist, Paul Graham, issued Hackers & Painters, a series of essays with two major themes: (1) geeks such as Paul Graham are cooler than ~~Tom Brady~~ ~~Aaron Rodgers~~ Tom Brady (keep telling, yourself that, Paul) and, more to the point, (2) painters are very much hackers. While his title essay makes less than a convincing argument that “hackers and painters are creatively similar,” his description of makers, as those who turn technique into artistic expression (or in my words, turn work into play), is alive and well in the world of specialty coffee.
To me, these days, the most interesting hackers are roasters and baristas, both professional and amateurs — but not just hackers in terms of creative spirit as Graham suggests, but hackers in terms of the commerce of coffee.
In God in a Cup, focusing on three specialty roasters — Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture — Michaele Weissman tells the story of non-exploitive, cross-cultural relationships being created between coffee farmers and roasters. With these direct trade relationships, the farmers make more money, the roasters have access to superior coffee, and customers willing (and able) to pay higher prices for coffee get a far better product. While the largest-traded commodity in the world, oil, may be the most divisive element among nations and cultures, the second most-traded commodity moves us a smidgeon in the opposite direction. Every bit helps.
It's the brewing that brings out hacking as creativity. There are so many ways to make coffee that, as with any art, people use it as a means to express themselves, to attempt to create novel forms of flavor and presentation.
For example, from all over the world, baristas come to compete for the title of world champion. They work their brewing magic using machines that cost upwards of $12,000. For a coffee fanatic, these competitions are exciting in the way watching the Miami Heat is exciting — watching the very best do what they do. And, as with big time sports, these star baristas practice for competition with the support of trainers and coaches. Reputations of roasters and cafe chains are at stake.
The coffee-making competition I prefer is the world championship Aeropress competition, where baristas work their magic with equipment that can be had for less than a night out at happy hour. It's a low-status event where, unlike with the barista championships, skill with multiple drinks and a polished presentation are not part of the competition. You make your drink, typically, with no audience, (let alone, fanfare) and it gets passed to the judges for tasting. The winning competitors' recipes are posted along with videos of brewing and interviews with participants. It's exciting — well, not exciting — it's educational, the way watching a Tai Chi clip on YouTube is educational. My recipe for my current favorite brew (see below) came from watching these competitions on YouTube. While the 2013 winning technique is on the fussy side, it's a great example of Aeropress creativity.
Microeconomics of Coffee (how much does your cup cost?)
Whether it's about black holes, quarks, or Tim Tebow’s throwing motion — physics is commonly regarded as the most mysterious of all that occurs in nature. I disagree, there’s a more elusive mystery than even that of physics: what beans to buy, and how to store, roast, grind, and prepare them. How to buy coffee that, not only tastes good, but doesn’t destroy the environment or exploit poor people and children. And, the main one, how to order in a cool fashion at Starbucks. (Just kidding, if you’re at Starbucks, you are not cool.)
Good coffee shouldn’t be as mysterious as it seems to be, it’s just water and beans. And you don’t even have to know much to make great coffee. You can spend many dollars and many hours, buying fancy equipment and learning to become a barista virtuoso. The following is a simple guide to buying beans, and to using inexpensive equipment to transform those beans and some hot water into great coffee.
How important is water to brewing? Sufficiently important that some competitors in barista contests bring their own. For us mortals, a decent water filtering device such as a Brita pitcher will be sufficient. I get pitchers and filters at Costco, cheap.
Mystery solved score: A
Degree of difficulty: 1 (from range, 1 – 10)
Did you hear about the guy who owned a $60,000 German car, and replaced the worn tires with whatever was on sale that day? Did you hear about the guy who bought a $2000 SLR camera body, and used it with only the oh-so-convenient $250 zoom lens that came with it? Did you hear about the woman who bought a $2000 espresso machine for her home, and bought pre-ground beans at the supermarket, labeled, “Best if used by July, 2015”? Don't be one of those guys: the cliche is true, a procedure is only as good as its weakest link. How beans are grown, processed, stored, roasted, and ground matters.
In the Seattle area, there are numerous choices of specialty beans and, therefore, this is where it’s easiest to go wrong and make choices based on fashionable rather than knowledgeable criteria. For example, very dark roast is not the connoisseur's choice. On the contrary, the first beans imported by the French were of such poor quality, they were dark-roasted to kill the flavor. While it’s true that a longer roast may highlight different notes (flavors), there’s a point in which you may as well dump a cigarette butt in hot water and enjoy. Cheaper, too.
Good beans are both tasty and fresh, and fresh is ridiculously difficult to find. First, do I even need to mention that no one who really likes coffee would buy coffee in cans? First, all ground coffee in cans are packed stale, because fresh-ground coffee gives off gas, which would disfigure a can. Second, oil run-off from the ground coffee turns rancid in the can. Third, coffee from cans could threaten a marriage.
What about those expensive specialty coffee choices sitting in bags? If the coffee is pre-ground, it’s long lost its freshness. Beans are best when ground moments before brewing. If it’s sitting in bags, even whole beans are probably past their prime. Beans begin to lose their freshness (and flavor) after, depending on whom you believe, somewhere between a couple of days and a week; and those beans could be sitting on shelves for weeks or even months. Two weeks and your whole-beans are old. Loose beans in bins have a reasonably quick turnover in some stores, — more reliably, in an upscale grocery store. If you find some you like, loose beans in bins are often relatively inexpensive at $10 to $13, a pound.
My problem with loose specialty beans is that they’re nearly always blends, which usually include a large number of mediocre varietals. Peet’s coffee cost more because they’re selling better and more expensive-to-obtain coffee. Stumptown costs even more, because they’re selling even better and more expensive-to-obtain coffee, and because all their coffee is purchased under their program they call Direct Trade, which I’ll explain, below.
What about beans at specialty chain coffee shops, such as Starbucks or Tully’s? Meh. Mediocre to start with, or just on the shelf too long? I don’t know, possibly, both.
You can get high-quality fresh beans, and you can pay a lot or not a lot. If you don’t mind paying a lot (really, a lot!) for excellent fresh beans, get them at Stumptown (or equivalent) or, if you like darker-roasted beans, Peets (or equivalent), or get them through the mail, if you’re not near one of their stores. They will be good, fresh, and very expensive (though cheaper and better than going to Starbucks for even their smallest drip).
If you're not a fan of the West Coast dark-roasting tradition, a better choice than Peets, at about the same price, if you include shipping, is Sweet Maria’s bi-weekly subscription. Two varietals, one pound of each, every two weeks, for $35, which includes First Class USPS shipping. Does that sound expensive? I use (about) 17.5 grams1 of ground coffee for (about) 7 ounces of black liquid, which translates into 26 cups per pound. That's about 67 cents a cup. To compare, from Stumptown, at current prices, a Guatemalan is $1.17 per cup while Kenya is a whooping $1.64. These prices assume you’ll have the 12-ounce bags shipped at the cheapest cost.
Costco used to be a great place to get very good, fresh coffee. Now, as with most West-Coast coffees, it’s dark-roasted. If that’s to your taste, skip the coffee aisle, where you’ll find numerous three-pound bags of so-called specialty coffee — on the shelves for who knows how long. Instead, buy the two-pound bag of whatever is the specialty coffee, which sells for $14.95. As they roast on the premises, you won’t find fresher coffee than Costco brands. Less than 30 cents a cup. Wish they still roasted lighter.
If you don’t live near a Costco, or feel the same way as I do about dark roasts, and can’t afford the expensive beans from the likes of Stumptown, there’s another way to have superb beans — something that will appeal to only a small segment of coffee drinkers. It’s the anti- go-to-Starbucks for a cup: you have to roast your own beans.
I roast coffee beans over alder wood, lighting the wood by rubbing two sticks together, and roast the beans on skewers made from acupuncture needles. You’re not going to do that, so my coffee will always taste better than yours. But you can come close. You’ll need a roaster and a source for raw coffee beans. Here’s how the economics work. Serious home roasters (the machines, not us crazy people) cost between $100 and $1000. But, there are only two with smoke suppressors, which means that, unless you plan to simultaneously roast your beans and smoke a pig in the middle of your kitchen, only those with smoke suppressors should be used indoors. The Nesco makes 3 to 4 ounces at a time, the roast cycle takes about a half-hour, and it lists for $159. I’ve owned three. The first one was good during its two-year life, the second dived off the counter, sans parachute, and the third one never worked well, even after I sent it for repair. As with most motorized kitchen appliances, expensive ones pay for themselves with high-quality motors that last. My fourth and current roaster is a Behmor. It roasts up to a pound at a time and costs twice as much as the Nesco, and it’s worth many times more. A video of the Behmor in action.
Unroasted beans that I favor cost between $100 and $130 for 20 pounds. To calculate, I’m going to split the difference and say $115 for 20 pounds, and $8 for shipping, and no tax outside California. Green yields about 15 percent less in roasted weight, so taking that into consideration, using my method of making coffee (more on that later), one pound green makes about 23.5 cups, figuring seven ounces of liquid coffee. That’s $115 for 20 pounds of coffee, $8 for shipping, 85 percent weight yield after roasting, and 23.5 seven–ounce cups: ((123/20)*.85)/23.5 = 22 cents per cup for the cost of the beans.
My cost calculations for the Behmor Roaster (I’ll spare you) is ten cents a cup, if it lasts a mere two years (a very pessimistic forecast), and six cents a cup if it last three years. Fantastic coffee for around 30 cents per cup. A bit more if you add electricity costs for roasting.
Per cup (at current prices)
Stumptown: $1.64 for Kenya, $1.17 for Guatemala
Sweet Maria’s subscription: 67 cents, roaster's choice of two varietals
Starbucks: 50 cents (for a pound at $11.95)
Costco special: 32 cents
Home roasted: 35 cents, 40 cents for Kenya.
To compare my costs, the math is simple. Coffee per pound (most specialty coffees now come in 12–ounce bags), add shipping, if necessary, and divide by 23.5.
Mystery solved score: A-
Degree of difficulty: 6
How to Purchase Ethically-produced Coffee
Here’s where I explain why beans from Stumptown (and equivalent premium roasters) costs so much. In recent years, we’ve been given guidelines for ethical food purchasing. Unfortunately, for example, with free-range chicken, the guidelines are designed to make the buyer, rather than the chickens, feel good. For ethical buying, coffee has no government-backed designations or labels. The widespread standard for ethical coffee purchase is The Fair Trade label. The Fair Trade label (unlike free range which means nothing at all meaningful), in theory, guarantees a certain amount of money to the bean growers. Sounds good but, in practice, it’s a game of chance. There are many reasons to doubt the effectiveness of the Fair Trade label. Some highlights:
- There’s insufficient evidence that the extra money collected gets to the growers in most cases.
- Middlemen mix so-called Fair Trade coffees with non-Fair Trade coffee and label it Fair Trade.
- It costs bean growers money to get inspected for the label. The poorest growers can’t afford it.
- For many other reasons, the label helps the better-off growers rather than the poorest.
- Fair Trade prices can drop below non-Fair Trade prices.
Buyers of ethically-grown coffee, are usually also concerned with the environmental effect of farming techniques. Unfortunately, eco-certifiers such as the Rainforest Alliance are concerned with only the welfare of the environment, not at all with the producers. They certify farms of any size, which gives wealthy growers a huge advantage, and require only 30 percent of the bean blend to meet their environmental standards in order to get certified.
What is clear is that sustainable goes far beyond organic, if sustainable includes coffee farmers' long term viability. Chicago-based premium roaster, Intelligentsia, puts out a clear, concise report on the combined issues of environmental and economic sustainability: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
What to do. First, get over that buying any coffee is going to greatly enrich the lives of anyone but you and Howard Schultz. Gourmet coffee-bean farmers are among the poorest people in the world. There are, however, companies that invest directly in coffee farming practices that benefit these growers. See the following for examples: Above-mentioned Intelligentsia, developer of the Direct Trade model, Sweet Maria’s Farmgate, Victrola's Farm to Cup, and Stumptown's Direct Trade. This strategy among roasters is growing.
Aren’t you going to mention Starbucks?
If I must. My reluctance is not because I don’t like their coffee, though I don’t. Or because I detest all large corporations, though I am looking forward to the day when I can pop out a Honda and an iPad on a personal 3D printer. I don’t want to deal with Starbucks, because it’s like trying to judge the New York Yankees by polling only Yankee fans and Red Sox fans — Starbucks doesn’t seem to have impartial observers.
After sifting through the cheerleaders and haters of Starbucks, here’s what I believe. As with Fair Trade, their programs are the least helpful to the most needy, small farmers, who can’t afford the time or investment to meet Starbucks's validation requirements, let alone the practices that they need to validate. The direct relationships that the small roasters have (as mentioned, above, and these direct relationships are proliferating all the time) are the ones most reliable in helping the most impoverished farmers. A significant bonus for coffee drinkers is that these partnerships produce the highest quality beans.
If you care about quality and freshness, buying coffee beans takes more effort than plucking something off the store shelves. If you care about quality, freshness, and the sustainability of farmers who produce quality beans, buying coffee takes effort plus a noticeable effect on your grocery budget. Add more effort and cash for sustainability of the planet. The optimum way to know you’re getting quality, freshness, and sustainability for farmers and the planet, is to purchase from roasters who engage in a form of direct purchasing, an expensive option, unless you roast your own.
It could be seen as insensitive to expect not well-off people to buy the pricey beans from Stumptown or Intelligentsia, in order to save the planet and the coffee producers, just as it could be seen as insensitive to encourage not well-off people to buy a Chevy Volt, for the sake of the planet and American car producers. If, that is, you’re not a rich movie star. And yet, lots of not well-off people (students, for example) regularly grab a cup from Starbucks, which costs more than coffee made at home from the most expensive beans. Your choice: convenient sludge, or the finest with a little effort. And with even more effort, if you’re willing to roast your own, you can drink the highest quality for low cost.
Mystery solved score: C
Degree of difficulty: 9
If your focus is on making espresso drinks, coffee brewing is like golf or boating — a pastime for the well off. An espresso machine that will make quality drinks and last years, costs thousands. Grinders, that work well for espresso and last years, approach a grand. You'll need to do time-consuming maintenance and cleaning to keep up the quality. And you'll need to learn barista skills.
If your focus is on pour-over, coffee brewing is like basketball — a pastime for any budget. Along with the far lower expense, pour-over may be healthier.
Over the years, in order, I've employed the following pour-over methods: a plastic cone, with both paper filter and metal mesh filters, dripped into a large thermos; a Chemex; an Aeropress; a Clever Coffee Dripper; and, as this is being written, I'm back to the Aeropress, and experimenting with a simple pour-over cone, the Bonmac.
I used my Chemex longer than any other coffee maker. Easy to clean but, otherwise, a pain. It would be easier now, because two of the hassles, measuring the water and keeping the water at a consistently high temperature throughout the pour, would no longer be a problem — I now use a scale and a temperature-controlled electric kettle. The third problem was keeping the coffee warm during the pour. I wrapped the Chemex in both a homemade cozy and a towel. If you have the right kettle and a scale, I think a six-cup model (designed for 30 ounces) would work for a lot of people. I would stay away from the ten-cup model that I used.
Aeropress, the Clever Coffee Dripper, and the Bonmac
I bought an Aeropress when it first came out, and followed the directions on the box. Those directions advise you to make an espresso-style concentrate, and drink it as either an espresso, or add plain water to make an Americano. With that method, I used two and one-half times (50mg) the amount of beans I use, currently.
One of the criticisms of the Aeropress is that, while it makes great coffee, it looks like (ugly) lab equipment. To the critics, I say, it is lab equipment — that's its strength. While it may not be beautiful like a Chemex, it is functionally beautiful like… um… an Aeropress.
Why did I stop using the Aeropress? Because it used so much coffee, and because I was mysteriously compelled to try the latest coffee toy, the Clever Coffee Dripper. The Clever is shaped like a conventional pour-over cone such as a Mellita, but has the advantages of both a press pot and a pour-over. Its trick is that the hole in the bottom of the cone has a stopper that opens only when placed over the receptacle.
The directions are, as follows: grind finely; place a filter, #4 for the two-cup Clever, #2 for the one-cup; dump in the grounds, then add the water as if you were brewing a French Press; stir at one to one-and-a-half minutes; total steep time is about four minutes.
I've experimented with grind, time and temperature. I use a very fine grind, brew for just two minutes, and it's almost as strong while being slightly less bitter. But, as I explain below, I wish it was even less bitter.
Halfway through writing this article, I decided that I should experiment with drinking coffee black, to become more sensitive to the flavors of my various roasts. My experiment to improve my taste sensitivity worked too well. Without my hot milk froth, the brew from the Clever tasted more bitter than I expected.
By this time, I had become interested in experimenting with Aeropress brewing methods invented by users. As I said, the Aeropress is lab equipment. There are numerous YouTube videos of Aeropress brewing techniques, but I opted to try the trophy-winner recipes from the Aeropress World Championships. For several weeks, my technique was the following:
Grind 16g (or slightly less than an Aeropress scoop) to medium-fine (between drip and espresso). Set to 10 on my Barista Encore.
Using the upside-down method, pre-heat the Aeropress with hot water.
Dump the grounds into the Aeropress, pour about 40g (or just cover the grounds) of 198 – 202 degree water, to bloom the grounds, and start the timer.
At 30 seconds, add water for a total of 250g (or fill it to the top), and stir for about 10 seconds. Attach filter cap with pre-wetted paper filter.
Heat cup in a microwave for 30 seconds (or with hot water prior to the brewing).
At 2 minutes, flip onto empty cup and plunge (aiming for a 20–30 second plunge), and stop plunging when you either see the top of the grounds emerge above the water, or when you first hear the hissing noise.
What I got for my troubles was a brew with — compared to the Clever — more discernible flavors (a “complex cup“) reduced bitterness, and a bit less strong.
The above technique produced the best home-brew I've ever made. But, recently, taking a cue from Ingri's method, I dropped the stir. (Note that pouring the water in a steady circle with my long-nosed spouted kettle is a form of stirring.) I tasted little difference, just perhaps a bit less bitter.
The Aeropress official brewing directions are designed to eliminate bitterness, but their recommended water temperature of 185 degrees for light roast, and 175 for dark, leaves a lot of flavor behind. The nearly unanimous recommended water temperature for all methods of coffee brewing is between 195 and 205 degrees. I use a temperature-controlled kettle, but just waiting about 30 seconds off the boil, should work.
Regarding my current experiments with the Bonmac, my initial impression is that the body, flavor, and bitterness fit between the Clever and the Aeropress.
I used a thirty-five dollar “espresso machine” for several years but, only, ironically. I tried a French Press, but neither my wife nor I like the gritty brew. Finally, I use a Bonavita Coffee Maker for when I want to serve several people at once. The flavor from the Bonavita holds its own with any brewing technique. I grind 80 grams (or 9 – 10 tablespoons) of beans at 16 (fine drip) on my Baratza Encore, and add water to the 8-cup line.
Making good coffee is getting the basics right and experimenting with various methods. After that, it's personal preference. Every specialty roaster lists their favorite brewing techniques. Read about them and watch the available videos to see what they have in common.
Mystery solved score: B minus
Degree of difficulty: 7
AAQ (Awkwardly Answered Questions — pronounced “ack!”)
Question: I can't tell the difference between coffee flavors. How does one develop a refined palate for coffee flavors?
Answer: My palate is not very refined — I can't taste the many notes3 that professionals insist are present. Nevertheless, here's my opinion: there's a difference between learning to taste and pure enjoyment. For example, you may prefer the addition of dairy, or sugar, but you won't learn to taste the variations in coffee brewing or beans. So to learn: drink it black; experiment with brewed, first, espresso, later; experiment with lighter roasts, first, darker roasts, later; try at least 3 to 5 brewing methods; educate yourself by reading a few books and web sites; and, of course, use filtered water, and quality fresh beans; Use a burr grinder if you can afford one; a scale is really helpful.
Question: I've read recently-published coffee guides that state that of the many electric coffee makers, only the Technivorm Moccamaster is Specialty Coffee Association Certified. Is that true and what are the criteria for being certified?
Answer: That was true a few years ago but, currently, four are certified, and others probably could be if they applied. Of the criteria, I believe that maintaining the brewing temperature between 197 and 205 is where most coffee makers fail. The above-mentioned Bonavita is one of the four that's certified.
Question: What are your favorite informational sources on coffee?
Answer: There are books on coffee that offer up the nutrition and earnestness of broccoli, and there are those that go down like potato chips, with all the accompanying sustenance. The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee stands out as both informative and as a fun read. A History of the World in 6 Glasses includes a chapter on the history of coffee trade, and of the importance of coffee houses in various cultures. For example, the London Stock Exchange, the first such trading house, started informally in a London cafe. The above mentioned God in a Cup introduces you to specialty roasters Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture, by way of their direct trade relationships and their out-of-the-way treks to the coffee farms. The documentary, Black Gold is a vivid depiction of the poverty of coffee farmers in the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia, and one man's mission to “save his 74,000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy.” On the Web, Sweet Maria's library, Intelligentsia, coffeegeek.com, Sprudge, Black Gold Foundation and every link in this article, should satisfy the most interested. The most accessible article on coffee science is on the badly designed, but information rich, coffeechemistry.com.
Question: Where do you buy your coffee equipment, and how much do you make when we buy from one of your links?
Answer: I could make money? There are no sponsored links in this article. I buy most of my equipment (and all of my green beans for roasting) from sweetmarias.com. Occasionally, I get something from Amazon, or at a local store on those rare occasions when they have something I'm looking for. Last year, I bought a few things from the Seattle Coffee Gear physical location, which is three miles from my house. Following a very disappointing experience with them, I decided to never shop there again.
Question: There are lots of books, e-books, and web sites on coffee. What made you decide to add to the noise? And what's with the Wholistic nonsense?
Answer: My plan was to do a little write-up for my family and friends, so I didn't have to repeat what I've learned about coffee to each one of them. My goal was give coffee drinkers a basic understanding of everything that contributes to their first sip of coffee in the morning. Grading my success — Mystery solved score: C minus but, if you make use of my links, B plus. Degree of difficulty: 10
Question: You don't mention pod coffee. Yet consumers give some of them great reviews on Amazon.
Answer: Some people prefer convenience above all else, some prefer fashion above all else: do these Nespresso pods make my butt look fat? As with cold fusion, perpetual motion, and finding an ethical politician, a good brew made from an inadequate amount of stale coffee defies the laws of nature.
Question: How do I keep my wife/husband/partner/cat from complaining about the money I spend on new coffee equipment?
Answer: We can learn from stock investing. The value of a stock goes up, not due to its current performance, but due to expectations of an increase in its performance. So while Amazon may report a quarterly loss, its stock price may go up if the loss is less than expected, and if large profits are expected in the future. Conversely, Apple might report a record-breaking profit, but if the increase in the profit is less than the previous year's increase, then the stock price may move down.
In order for you to continue to buy coffee equipment, you have to continuously make a better brew than you did with your previous equipment, and increase the quality beyond what your significant other expected from the new equipment. Obviously, it's important to manage the increase in quality so there's not too great a jump. Microsoft used creative (but, not illegal) accounting practices for years to keep their stock price steadily rising. Then, again, as Microsoft learned, it's impossible to keep it up forever. Some day, you'll have to use a different technique, such as buying her or him a new German car, each time you upgrade your burr grinder.
Question: But my [loved one] doesn't drink coffee.
Answer: Skip right to the German car.