Assorted recent news, 5th August 2014

Coffee is what I spend a huge majority of my time doing, and if I’m not actually doing something with coffee directly, it’s never too far from my thoughts, for long. Continuously. What I publish here on the blog is only a tiny fraction of what I write about coffee (mostly daily brewing notes, across all methods). To say it consumes me, more than I it (but in a way that’s still healthy …just!), might not be too far from the truth. So, as it’s been a while, there’s lots I could mention. But, just a few of the highlights that have occupied or entertained by coffee brain enough recently to come into focus here, are unpacked as follows.

Gifts:

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Not long ago, I received a lovely gift of samples from UK-based coffee subscription company Press Coffeehouse. They sent a couple of samples from their list of world roasters: USA’s Madcap’s Ardi Ethiopia natural, and Germany’s Five Elephant’s Los Guacharos washed Colombia. I’d heard good things about Madcap already, whilst Five Elephant was new to me, but both coffees came with a wealth of information, and it was clear this could be tasty.

Initial inspection of the beans/roast in both cases was full of promise, and I was not disappointed. Both coffees were great! The Madcap was especially brilliant (but then I’m a sucker for great Ethiopian coffees!), ripe, sweet, and intoxicatingly floral. Five Elephant was lovely too though, a transparently light roast, and very clean and juicy.

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There’s much that can be said against ordering coffee from overseas roasters, although there are of course many awesome ones, for various practical reasons (freshness, unsuitable transportation environments, costs, to name some key ones), when we have such brilliant roasters here in the UK. That said, it’s very tempting to do so, and it’s fun that a company like this takes the headache out of getting hold of them, for those that want to try.

As far as freshness goes, the Madcap arrived at my doors 16 days post roast, and the Five Elephant at 11 days. There are those who might consign coffees to the bin at two weeks (or sooner!)… But I’m not one of them (coffee freshness is very important to me, and is something I take seriously, but for me, the quality of the bean, the roast, and the brewing/preparation, are all more critical than the freshness, within reasonable limits). I found both coffees had travelled well, and brewed wonderfully at home, as various types of pourover filter.

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Particle sizing:

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A while back, results came in for my latest round of laser particle sizing tests, after submitting grind samples from several top ranking coarse filter grinders (see previous post).

A very brief summing up is as follows:

My modded Tanzania was predictably awesome again, at all settings tested (medium filter to coarse French Press), and was the benchmark from which to compare the other grinders, giving (narrowly) the very best result.

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I had suspected the Hausgrind hand grinder might well equal or possibly even surpass the Tanzania (from having read about it, and seen and tasted grounds from it). It might seem hard to believe that a humble hand grinder could rival a legendary electric commercial filter grinder, but some of the new generation of specially crafted hand grinders are purpose-built to be excellent for coarse grinding, and I see no reason why some cannot do so, potentially. And, at coarse FP settings, at almost identical peak micron sizes, the Hausgrind was indeed very impressive. Without going into specifics, one could place these graphs from the Tanzania and the Hausgrind over each other… and essentially see only one, single, identical line (!). I believe the Hausgrind had benefited from a few tweaks and optimisations, so this is not necessarily representative of every single one, but I would imagine they would be pretty close. The Tanzania’s still a bit more convenient though (but at a price)! The Hausgrind was only tested at coarse FP settings, so I also cannot be sure how it would fair at more medium filter settings.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the plan cafe’s Bunn G3 performed very well too. I had hoped it might indeed be better than is generally assumed (due to various factors I’m aware of). But I was still surprised by just how impressive it’s results were. Pretty much identical to the other two grinders, when compared at matching peak micron sizes. Again, the G3 was tested at a FP setting, and so I’m not sure what would happen to the distribution curve at other grind sizes.

The Hario Skerton was then also added to the list of grinders tested (just to compare, by the lovely Matt Smith who makes the analysis available, as this is his own grinder). This is a nice enough hand burr grinder, but not meant to be in the same league as the others tested. Predictably, here we saw the biggest difference. In comparison to all the other 3 grinders, this had a very shallow and wide peak (although still essentially a single peak), and with a lot more fine particles in the 0-100um/microns range. Completely different to the other three.

Cold Brew Coffee:

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This summer, I’ve introduced a new drink for the plan cafe: Cold Brew coffee.

Cold Brew has already been popular for a long time in (warmer!) countries like the USA and Australia, but has rarely been seen here in the UK until more recently, but this summer it’s been flourishing at a few artisan coffee shops, particularly in London (Thanks to @CaffeineMag for some inspiration on this initially!).

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This method involves steeping (or drip brewing) grounds with cold or room temperature water for many hours to extract the flavour, rather than relying on hot water to do the job in minutes, or seconds. Brewing slowly with cold water gives a completely different kind of flavour, and allows for a concentrate to be brewed that can be served over ice without becoming diluted.

I spent a few weeks researching and experimenting with recipes (with some unpleasant results initially), before reaching something I was satisfied with (thus adding to the already long list of brew methods for which I have brewing notes written up in extensive detail, and continuously updated, in separate, method-specific files!).

It’s slow going, changing one factor at a time, when you have to wait 7-24 hours (and this range can be even wider) to sample the results! And, as with any brew method, there are so many variables at play (the coffee, the grind, the time, the temps at different stages, agitation, technique, filtration, water, roast profile, flash hot bloom, or cold only, room temp, fridge, iced water, etc), that the variation in the results can of course infinite.

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I’ve experimented with the alternative Japanese iced coffee method at home before, and that certainly appeals to me, like many others in specialty coffee, because it can better preserve the brightness, acidity, florals, aromatics, nuance, complexity and character that we love in light roast, high quality coffees (although it does have its own issues; really good pourover is very technique dependent under normal circumstances as it is, but when you remove half the brew water, extracting successfully and correctly becomes a real knife-edge).

As such, I was a little sceptical, but intrigued, about the slow Cold Brew method, as it is often described as the opposite: all mellow mid tones, and no acidity or individual character.

But, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Whilst all the above is true to an extent, Cold Brew can be delicious in its own particular way, and, with some tweaks to the method, I’ve found it’s possible to balance the best of both worlds, retaining a good degree of acidity, aroma, and the character of the individual coffee, together with a creamy mouthfeel, and an overall flavour that is delicate, smooth, and very refreshing and approachable.

In fact, I was shocked how identical the aromas of the finished product can be to the aromas of the specific beans. Perhaps even more so, albeit in a very different way to hot brewed coffee.

And the colour, well filtered, is WOW! Beautiful, deep reds, orange, and amber, with wonderful clarity. I’ve been enchanted by the beauty of the clarity and colours of hot pourover coffee for a long time, but pure Cold Brew, over ice, is something else – super stunning visually!

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And what’s more, I’ve found it can be a great way to successfully encourage people to try, and enjoy, coffee black, without milk (which is always a positive thing!), precisely because the drink’s intrinsic flavour profile is so soft and delicate.

People often describe using darker roasts for Cold Brew, and it then being a good vehicle for adding cream and sugar. But if you think about it, that’s just like hot brewed coffee, and it doesn’t have to be like that.

From the outset, just like any hot brewed method I would use, my aim was to use lighter roasts, and create something that would be nice on its own, black, and representative of the coffee.

And if you make this your desired endpoint when experimenting, you can work towards achieving this aim, even though Cold Brew might always lack much of the range, complexity, and intensity of hot brew.

I did try some (relatively light) espresso profiles, but was not at all keen on these, finding them just way too much, although I could have experimented more to make them work. One or two people who prefer a real punch, or who definitely only like coffee with milk, preferred these though.

So, I’ve settled on using light filter profile single origins exclusively, and have found these can make clean, juicy-yet-smooth-and-creamy, delicate, refreshing, and interesting Cold Brew.

And the filter profiles are actually best black, as the brew is nice and delicate, whereas adding milk to these drowns it a bit.

Some might use something middle of the road for Cold Brew, believing anything else to be a waste of good coffee, or because they’re just going to add milk or cream to it… But I’ve gone in the other direction, as I wanted to give the brew method the best possible chance, and have mostly experimented, and launched, with a really premium coffee: Colombian washed Finca El Faldon filter profile from James’ Gourmet, grown by Arnulfo Leguizamo (the same farm and farmer that produced the 2011 WBC winning coffee). This has notes of jellied plum, toffee, and candyfloss as Cold Brew.

We’re serving our double filtered, bottled concentrate at the side of a chilled glass of ice, with a little cold water to dilute to taste, if you want. If you want milk, or some homemade simple sugar syrup, no problem, just ask, but maybe give it a try without, as it’s surprisingly delicate and mellow!

The availability of the Cold Brew will be limited each day when it’s being served, and it won’t be on every day. Check the Twitter, or feel free to @mention if you want to know.

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It’s essentially a very easy brew method, which is all about experimenting a lot, carefully, with the detail of the recipe and variables, until it works well for a certain coffee, rather than needing any skilled technique as such. It’s therefore great fun to try at home – you don’t even need any expensive equipment whatsoever, just some good beans!

Despite a lot of work getting to a recipe for the El Faldon that I’m pretty happy with, I’ve really only scratched the surface with Cold Brew and there are so many further variations I could try. Sieving would be just one interesting option to try (I even read about someone talking about brewing whole beans as Cold Brew, which is something I’ve toyed with the idea of before, as a way of getting past the issues caused by grinding!). If I continued to dedicate just a fraction of the time and research I do for hot brewing for this, I think the method could potentially be improved further. Certainly worth playing with.

There’s lots of info around online about slow Cold Brew if you want to have a play at home, whilst the sun’s still shining and hot!

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Espresso brew ratios:

For several years now, I’ve been using low brew ratios, and doses, for espresso, for pretty much all the (relatively light roast) espresso profile coffees I use (both single origins and seasonal blends), and I’ve been watching with interest over the last few years as indications have emerged that a few others in the speciality industry, in the UK at least, have been gradually beginning to move in the same direction, here and there.

I’ve followed this closely, as part of my general, continuous research, and these movements have been very gradual, but consistent, in the same direction.

Using low brew ratios did not come easily, and was something that confused me, and even seemed ‘wrong’. Why? Almost all the brew ratios and recipes you saw within modern, speciality, ‘Third Wave’ coffee, until more recently, recommended high dose, high brew ratios.

So for a long time, I fought against it, and tried (jumped through hoops) to do what was apparently ‘correct’ for this type of coffee.

In the end though, I stopped resisting, and navigated by taste, instinct, and experimentation, towards consistently lower brew ratios, for pretty much any coffee, even coffees designed and recommended for higher doses and ratios (although with slight variations depending on the specific coffee and scenario, etc, as presented when dialling).

It then felt as if I had previously just been trying to ‘force’ the coffee into a little box, where it, and I, were often not happy, and where the results rarely seemed to be the best expression of what the coffee should, or could, be.

Whereas at lower brew ratios, I consistently found a more balanced, rounded, articulate flavour, a more true sweetness, a lighter, more delicate, but more appealing crema (visually and texturally), and I generally felt it simply gave me a better representation of the coffee’s flavour. If I just ignored the weights until after dialling to where the espresso simply looked and tasted best, this is where I’d end up. It just seemed more ‘right’ (and not simply personal preference either).

So, I stopped trying to follow the fashionable recipes, and just did what worked for me. I didn’t understand quite why I found this to work better, when everything I saw elsewhere recommend otherwise (although I had theories).

I thought maybe it was just some quirk of our particular equipment set up. And to some extent, this is still true; our equipment does certainly seem to prefer, even require, lower doses, and lend itself towards lower brew ratios too. But this alone didn’t completely explain the situation, and didn’t help to alleviate the nagging feeling that the recipes I was using were somehow ‘wrong’ (at best, ‘traditional’ or low end ‘normale’), and not ‘proper’, modern, speciality – because everything you read would recommend different (higher) doses and ratios.

But it worked best, for me, and I gradually just stopped worrying about it (as much).

Several years ago (but not that long ago), at that time, most of the speciality or Third Wave recipes you would read about were in the 65-100%+ region. Triple baskets were the thing, and ristretto was king (and this is often all still true).

Often the few recommendations you might find for lower doses still came hand in hand with a relatively high overall brew ratio, at or towards ristretto.

Then, a few years ago, a slight shift downwards got a lot of airspace on the top blogs and forums, with people talking about recipes more down at the 65% end, quite specifically.

I still felt like something of an anomaly…

Then, just a year or two ago, I noticed a few (leading) figures in UK speciality coffee talking about recipes in the region of 55%, as something of a norm, for the light roast espresso they worked with as standard.

This gave me a little hope that maybe what I was doing wasn’t so very odd after all, although even this still did not quite reflect what I was generally using.

But now, even more recently still, a few prominent sources have broken the 50% seal though, and have been talking about 55-40% brew ratios, and even beyond (and non of this is even with regard to something altogether different like lungo EK coffee shots – just ‘normal’ espresso making).

And some of these sources are the very same ones that were at about 65% just a few years ago.

It feels strange to contemplate that finally, almost comically, the recipes I’ve been using for a long time might actually be becoming somewhat fashionable and on trend (or at the very least, used by a few others), after for so long feeling at odds with this one aspect of the very movement I’m part of, and wholeheartedly promote.

Why’s this happening? Has speciality UK roasting undergone a such a significant shift over the last few years that it suddenly requires these lower espresso brew ratios? I don’t think so – the top handful of microroasters have been pretty (even very) light for some time already. Who knows, there’s a lot at play, and any possible reasons for it are really another story.

I just wanted to point out these observations, and put them out there.

I’m not saying this is how all espresso should be brewed, by any means. And I’m not saying I’m always happy with the espresso I achieve now. I’m not even saying that I only like espresso brewed like this (I’ve had hugely enjoyable shots made in other places, brewed in the high dose, high ratio way). Different brew ratios and practices can all make delicious shots when successfully executed. And some will simply not like espresso made with a low brew ratio, out of personal preference.

And I’m not suggesting that those using 65% or more a few years ago, and who are now using 55% or below didn’t already know (far more than I) what they were talking about back then. I don’t think they’ve suddenly ‘figured out’ that lower is better.

And, what works best in a certain situation for one person can be highly specific to the individual site and equipment (coffee, machine, baskets, pumps, grinders, water, technique, etc, etc), and not necessarily transferable, as any kind of wider ‘truth’ that will work for others. And, it’s certain that particular equipment set ups will lend themselves more towards making high brew ratio shots very nicely, and people using such set ups might rightly navigate towards higher ratios, perhaps even as an ideal for that set up.

I’m not really trying to say anything specific at all! It’s just been interesting, and refreshing, to observe these murmurs of a possible gradual shift in perspective for some highly regarded figures at the very forefront of speciality coffee in the UK in recent times, and a loosening of the previously accepted ‘rules’, towards something that I’ve long found to work, for me.

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Silly Article:

A month or two ago there was a depressing and surprisingly negative article in the Observer Magazine about modern speciality coffee in the UK by someone I would really have expected to have a more positive and enlightened attitude towards something exactly like this movement. The bile that followed in the comments attached to it online lowered the tone even further. There were a few possibly pertinent points made that might have been interesting and productive to explore, but the overall tone of blinkered reactionary negativity eclipsed these. A real shame. But with each juicy, sweet, clean, and characterful cup, I smile, and the memory fades!

Current Coffees:

In right now for French Press service at the cafe, or filter beans to take home, are delicious new Kenyan Kiri (summer fruits, blackcurrant, brown sugar, floral), and Guatemala Finca El Pelicano (biscuity and ripe white grape), and the smallest amount of El Salvador Guachoca natural, if you’re very quick. Naturelle (yes!) is on for espresso, currently composed of Brasil Santa Maria natural and Suke Quto washed Guji. And, El Faldon Colombia is on as Cold Brew of course, when available, whilst this particular coffee lasts..!

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One Response to “Assorted recent news, 5th August 2014”

  1. July 2015 | The Bean Vagrant Says:

    […] some of the magic happens in the opening seconds). For more about this brew method, there’s this post from last summer (about halfway down the […]

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