An Introduction To Speciality Coffee and Brewing.

Coffee is the world’s second most valuable traded commodity, behind only petroleum. Many of us treat coffee like a simple commodity; a hot delivery of caffeine to keep us alert during our busy days. Directly juxtaposing convenience and chain store coffee is the world of specialty coffee. “Specialty Coffee” is a phrase coined in 1974 by Enna Knusten to describe high-end limited-quanity green (raw, unroasted) coffees sold to small roasters.

It’s easy to compare specialty coffee to fine wine. Like wine coffee is very much a product of agriculture and microclimates. Terroir is a French word commonly used in wine production that describes the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place interacting with plant genetics impart on agricultural products. Coffee cherries grown in different regions have discernible flavor characteristics. Coffees from African countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia are renowned for their lively wild citrus fruit and berry flavors while Central American coffees are commonly associated with flavors of stone fruits, chocolate (pears, cherries, dates) and nuts.

What makes coffee an extremely fascinating beverage is unlike wine where a consumer simply has to remove a cork and the beverage is ready to drink, the coffee consumer still has to prepare the beverage. Great care goes into growing, shipping and roasting coffee, but the end result, the way the coffee is intended to taste by the coffee roaster lies directly in the hands of the person preparing it. Coffee is an extremely volatile beverage; brewed coffee stales within 30 minutes and roasted coffee is at its prime within 2 weeks after the day it was roasted.

Brewing a great cup of coffee that makes the terroir of a particular coffee shine is relatively simple and doesn’t require any high-tech equipment. The brewing method I will be demonstrating is known as manual drip coffee or “pour over”. It’s essentially the same brewing method that is used to make a regular cup of black coffee, just without an electronically automated machine.

The most important ingredient to a great cup of coffee is the coffee itself. Choose coffee from a reputable coffee roaster that develops relationships with farmers and pays them well. Any specialty coffee roaster will print the date that the coffee was roasted on bag. Try to use the coffee within two weeks of this date.

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The most important and expensive tool in making coffee is a coffee grinder. The grinder I’m using for this demonstration is a Baratza Virtouso, which retails for $230. You can often find refurbished versions for $130-150. This may seem like an incredibly steep price to pay, but a high quality grinder is imperative to making a flavorful cup of coffee. They also last a long time. I’ve had mine for 2 years and I’m still using the original burrs. High quality grinders are able to repeatedly grind coffee into uniform particles while grinders of lesser quality produce a grind that is all over the spectrum of coarse and fine.

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Finer particles extract quicker than coarser particles, thus a lower quality grinder will produce a cup that is both bitter and sour. I highly recommend the Virtouso, but if you’re on a budget, Hario sells a hand grinder that works reasonably well for around $40. The only downside is it does take quite a while and a bit of arm strength to grind coffee for even a single cup. Adjusting the grind size requires disassembling the lever.

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This is a “goose-neck” kettle made by Hario. It may seem unnecessary at first, but pourover coffee requires a slow and even pour of water. If you were to try to use a standard teakettle for this brewing method you would make a giant mess. There are many kettles on the market, especially in Japan, but this is the most ubiquitous kettle on the market and retails for around $60.

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The next thing you will need to choose is a filter cone, a simple device that holds a paper coffee filter and has a hole or multiple holes on the bottom. Water is dispensed over ground coffee held in the filter and the finished beverage drips through the filter into a cup or carafe via the cone’s holes.

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This is my personal arsenal of drip cones. Fundamentally they all serve the same purpose, however their designs dictate the rate at which water flows through them; some drain quicker than others. Some of these cones use proprietary filters while others will take filters that you can buy in any supermarket.

I could spend an hour discussing the merits of different drippers, but I’m often drawn to the Beehouse due to its slow flowrate and the fact that you can use a supermarket #2 or #4 filter. It’s perhaps one of the simplest coffee drippers to use.

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A digital food scale and timer are necessary to produce a repeatable cup of coffee using a recipe. You could rely on “guestimations”  but the quality of your beverage will vary from cup to cup. Most scales on the market are very accurate, however their precision varies. The one I own is visually striking however it displays measurements within 3 grams. For coffee I would recommend a scale with a precision of at least 1 gram.

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The coffee brewing process begins with boiling water in either an electric kettle and then transferring it to a goose-neck kettle or with the kettle directly heated on a stovetop. Certain people like to obsess over water temperature, however temperature can be difficult to control within a single degree. The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends using water within 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure proper extraction. This is easy to achieve by simply boiling the water and using it as quickly as possible

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Fold and place the paper filter into the drip cone and wet it with boiling water. This accomplishes 3 things: 1. Washing out any papery taste the filter might impart on the coffee 2. Sticking the filter to the walls of the drip cone. 3. Heating the drip cone and carafe. Cold coffee equipment acts as a heat-sink and can reduce your brewing temperature dramatically.

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Don’t forget to dump your filter water out of your carafe. This may seem simple, but coffee is often brewed when one is half-awake. This is an easy mistake to make.

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While the water is boiling, I like to measure the amount of coffee I will be using. This recipe calls for 25 grams of coffee, and like I said this scale isn’t super precise so a reading of 26 will have to do.

Coffee recipes are simple ratios. Results from a study researching coffee preferences found that most people like coffee brewed with 1:15-1:17 coffee to water ratio.

The following recipe makes about 12ozs of coffee. It uses 25 grams of coffee to 390 grams of water or a 1:15.6 ratio. This is a bit on the stronger side, but it’s a ratio I used at a cafe I worked in and have become quite found of it.

It is commonly recommended that pourover coffee is brewed within a 3-4 minute range. This particular recipe aims for a 4 minute total brew time.

This recipe consists of 3 pours of water. The time and amount of water poured is as follows:

0-30 seconds: Pour 130 grams of water

30 secs to 1 min: Drain

1 min to 1:30: Pour 130 grams of water (260g total)

1:30-2min: Drain

2-2:30: Pour 130 grams of water (390g total)

2:30-4 mins: Drain

Pouring multiple times, or “pulse brewing”, as opposed to a continuous pour over four minutes has many advantages. It keeps the coffee bed low and even, eliminating “high and dry grounds,” coffee grounds that stick to coffee filter that are not incorporated into the coffee slurry during drawdown. Even extraction is the name of the game in coffee brewing. We used this method in a cafe I worked in because it’s very practical in a retail setting. The 30 seconds between pours allows you talk to customers. At home you can use this time to start cooking oatmeal.

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Different coffee varieties and roasts produce coffees of varying densities. Drain times vary between coffees and grind size needs to be adjusted per coffee. Number 22 on the dial of my virtiouso is usually a good starting point. However, your grinder may be calibrated differently.

IMG_7175 IMG_7176Tare the scale with the cone and carafe on it and weigh the ground coffee. Coffee grinders like to hide coffee so it’s good to double check your weights.

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Give the dripper a gentle shake to even out of the coffee bed.

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Tare the scale again and begin pouring.

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I had the kettle in one hand and a camera and the other; this pour isn’t perfect. However, the idea is to pour the water in concentric circles to evenly cover the coffee grounds with water. A uniform light brown color is a great indicator that you’re doing it right.

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The coffee bed should be more even than this, but as I said, I was holding a camera while pouring. I went a little over on this pour, but this won’t ruin the coffee. Don’t fret if you don’t pour exactly 130 grams in 30 seconds

IMG_7182The coffee “draw down” between the second and third pour.

IMG_7184The final pour achieved at 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

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How long the coffee drains will vary based on the coffee being used. With this brew method it’s ideal to shoot for 3:30-4 minutes. A finer grind will make the coffee drain slower and a coarse grind will make the coffee drain quicker. Taste is the best indicator of the grind you should be using. If the coffee tastes too bitter, coarsen up the grind. If the coffee tastes weak, make the grind finer.  This was my first time brewing this particular coffee and a grind setting of 22 was a great guess as this coffee drained in 3 minutes and 40 seconds.

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For most people the process detailed above seems extremely complicated for the average coffee drinker. If you’re accustomed to getting a large regular at Dunkins’ I might suggest trying a drip coffee at a speciality cafe without milk. If you’re a coffee drinker whose in pursuit of the perfect cup, a simple manual brew set up might be what your looking for. A well-brewed cup of pourover coffee has a discernible sweetness and complexity that is unrivaled. It may seem time consuming at first but the process becomes second nature quickly. 

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