Experimenting with coffee by Matt Giwer, © 2010 [Jan]

Matt Giwer
Matt Giwer
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Experimenting with coffee
by Matt Giwer, © 2010 [Jan]

This may turn out to be nothing but a passing fancy in which I will quickly lose interest. If so 'tis best recorded quickly. I found a use for 'tis which is worth all the effort.

I am trying to avoid useless detail and simply mention what matters. If you are interested in the details of the things that matter there is google. For example immediately below I mention there are several ways of separating the fruit pulp from the seed. I mention they produce different tastes which is all that matters. If you want to know more about the methods, google them.

Coffee is
Coffee is the seed of a fruit. It is called a bean but it is not a bean. It grows on a tree. This fruit is called a cherry. It has no particular relation to a cherry tree than to any other fruit tree. All fruit trees are related in a Darwinian sense.

There are several ways to separate the seed from the fruit pulp. These different ways are the first of many ways to affect different tastes of coffee. There are so many ways every person along the way can cause different tastes after the climate, sun, rain, and soil do their thing that you must be prepared to find the perfect coffee for you that never appears again.

There are two types of coffees, arabica and robusta. Arabicas always cost more because they have to have a moderate temperature year round which means a half mile to a mile up the side of a mountain in the tropics. Robusta will grow at sea level in the tropics. It is obviously cheaper to grow Robusta coffees if for no other reason than the price of farm land.

They are different. They taste different. Arabica is considered the better by almost everyone. That has nothing to do with your taste except for the snob appeal. Arabicas are often so poorly processed from farm to roaster that the type is a negligable consideration.

The pros know what they are doing even though it may not be to your taste. National brands, the kind that have TV ads, produce the same taste year after year that appeals to a broad market. If you find one you like AFTER trying a range of coffees don't be a snob. Enjoy the national brand.

Sucks. Don't. There is a reason it sucks. When first introduced it was discovered people would not pay a premium price for it. Problem is taking out the caffeine is an extra step that costs money so to get the same quality it has to cost more. The solution was to use all Robusta beans, the cheaper and poorer quality of the two, to make decaffeinated coffee.

Standards means enforceable beyond the native honesty of the vendor. There are none.

There are at present no useful standards for coffee. Some vendors are attempting to create them. This means anything you read in advertising cannot be a lie because nothing is true except maybe country of origin. The bad news is, country of origin, even if it is Columbia, is meaningless information. This also means anyone can legally call the cheapest coffee by the most desirable name. Get to know your vendor.

Tobacconists are common. Tobacco is highly regulated. When a variety name is used it must be that variety although there is little to be said for quality claims.

Shops specializing in coffee are rare. Fortunately there is the internet. Fortunately also speciality coffee dealers are riding the wave of popularity that motivated you to google the subject and find this article. Some such as peetscoffee.com of California have found their way into national chain grocery stores such as Sweetbay, aka Kash'n'Karry, here in Florida. Take a look for specialty coffees next time you shop. Guys get off your fat butts and join your wives for once. You can spend as much time studying and choosing the perfect coffees as she does buying everything else.

The problem for coffee growers is the lack of standards. Coffee is a commodity. The price from best to worst is far narrower than for wines. Consider national brands to be like table wines. In a typical grocery store you can find a range of ten to one in price per ounce from table wine to a bottled wine. For coffee the range is barely two to one.

What might be called co-ops for coffee are common which means everyone's beans are mixed and sold in large quantities for a single price. The generic name Columbian coffee is an example of this. National brands need to produce the same flavors in huge quantities year after year which is made possible by these co-ops. They have their place. I simply point out you can do better.

The down side of this is there is no great profit to be made from high quality specialty coffees as there is for producing a quality wine. That means there might be a Dom Perignon of coffee out there but there is no market to pay the price of the cost of producing it. Some are trying to change this. Success is not guaranteed.

You can find a trustworthy coffee supplier who will deliver very specialized types and blends that are head and shoulders about the mass market quality for barely double the the price national brands. American wines were like this fourty years ago. Enjoy coffee this way before you can't afford the good stuff.

You can get a quantity discount for the 8 Oclock blend from Amazon for $0.50 per oz or get some premium single bean from a small orchard half way around the world for $1.00 per oz. Yes there are coffees offered for more but you have to look hard to find them at $2.00 per oz and you might have to have sucker written on your forehead to pay it before you have mucho experience. You are most likely to settle in the $0.75 range.

There are roughly four 5 oz cups per ounce of coffee beans at one rounded tablespoon, 7 gm, per cup. To do your own calculations there are 25.4 grams per ounce.

Don't kid yourself. There is inherent difference and complexity and great variety but there is no absolute better much less best any more than there is for wine. Even those with the greatest taste in fine wines have a favorite and affordable every day table wine. You can find the same for coffee. There is so much variety available you can't help but find an affordable favorite if you take the time to look.

The upside of this is the price spread is so narrow you don't need to find the equivalent of a table wine for coffee. You can have the best all day long for pennies more than normal.

Some dealers hype rarity and price as going together. There is no connection between rarity and quality. Coffee is not wine. In fact wine is not wine. It is not just the type of winery but the year. The same kinds of seasonal variations that affect wine quality also affect coffee quality.

Coffee does not age to a better quality. When there is a good year, enjoy it. The best you can do is buy well sealed small packages and store them in a deep freezer. Do not take out and refreeze as moisture will condense on the coffee and that is not good.

It is all in the roast
Coffee must be roasted to given it any flavor at all. All kinds of chemical reactions take place with roasting that are far beyond any non-technical discussion to address. See the book on Caffeine below as a start if it really interests you.

Coffees are blended for particular roasts. Trust your supplier's judgement. If you prefer dark roasts look for coffees recommended for dark roasts. Your supplier is interested in you for repeat business not as a one time shill. Once you learn what you like you will forget all you read here.

Single beans generally do best at a particular degree of darkness. Again your vendor has experimented and found a good level of roasting. Do not go by a named roast. There are no standards. They are just descriptive names. French roast does generally mean very dark but that may not be best for a particular bean. So do not search vendor websites for named roasts. That is like choosing a car by color. If you like dark just look for dark. You will find coffees that are best roasted to the dark side and to the optimum darkness for the bean.

A generality is that light to medium roasts bring out the inherent flavor of the bean while medium to dark adds flavors inherent to roasting. Consider it a bit like making toast.

Considering the commodity pricing of coffee it is surprising so much research effort has been invested in it and its active ingredients mainly caffeine but also some closely related compounds.

See: Caffeine ed. Gene Spiller, 1998 CRC Press, ISBN 0-8493-2647-8

Compare the detail in the section on coffee to the section on tea. A degree in organic chemistry wouldn't hurt either. Without one just look at the quantity of detail. It is the sort of thing you might expect from chemists wired on coffee.

Lets face it caffeine is why we have a fetish for coffee. The stuff really does not taste that good. It is an acquired taste. If it tasted as good as it smelled everyone would love it. It is the same for alcohol. There are non-alcholic beers and decaffeinated coffees. They exist for the socialization that goes with drinking them not because they taste good.

We want the buzz from caffeine. It comes with the taste of coffee. Finding a better tasting coffee is making the best of a bad lot while indulging in the social belonging. But since we have acquired the taste for coffee there are quite a variety flavors just as there are flavors of whiskey around the basic alcohol.

My personal experience is that in a high pressure office job I could and did drink ten or more cups a day without jitters. I did try caffeine pills at that time. They always gave me the jitters. As with tea, I suspect there are counter-balancing chemicals in coffee which prevent jitters. You mileage will vary.

Making coffee
There are seven basic methods of coffee brewing. Given the varieties of coffees, the different roasting levels, the different grinds and the methods one could legitimately spend several years doing broad testing of all the combinations. Therefore when you find a coffee you like, ask how it was made.

In the US drip coffee is the most common. Drip grind is the most common kind in the stores. It is also a medium grind so you can try finer and coarse to fine tune the taste. Of course the down side of fine tuning the taste is a different coffee or different roast of the same coffee and you start over.

Generally the rule is the longer water is in contact with the coffee the coarser the grind should be. Accordingly espresso being the shortest at about 25 seconds has the finest grind. Problem is Turkish coffee is highly regarded and is so fine it is described as a powder and is brought to a simmer three times before serving. Consider anything and everything said to be no more than a suggestion as a good place to start.

Make coffee every which way you can to find what you like. It is proper to say there are no rules. Keep in mind that a great method for one coffee might not work for a different coffee nor is the same coffee made by different methods going to taste the same.

The reason is the taste is governed by how much of which compounds are extracted from the bean. This is determined by both water temperature and the time it is in contact with the beans and the fineness of the grind. What tastes best to you has no connection with time or temperature so every method is a compromise. There is no best.

Simple rules

1. If you grind your own coffee beans start at medium.
2. Make a big change finer and coarser to see which direction tastes better and refine from there.
3. After getting the taste you like change the amount of coffee to get the strength you like for that particular coffee.

You can see from the entire process why you can either make a hobby/fetish of making coffee or you can find one you really like and make it the same every time.

Cup size
There is no agreement on how many ounces in a cup. That includes home coffee machines which range from 4.5 to 6 oz per cup. The right amount of coffee per cup of water as marked on your machine may be wrong for your neighbor. The old amount may also be wrong for your new coffeemaker. Change quantity first or stick with the same manufacturer or use a standard measuring cup and not the filler lines on the pot or machine. The quick solution is to use the pot of the old machine to measure the water regardless of the markings on the new machine.

It is easier to change the amount of water than to deal with level and rounded and heaping tablespoon as measures of the amount of coffee.

Roast your own
All roasting methods produce smoke as a thin skin around the bean burns. Producing a dark roast without a fire is a challenge. Producing a consistent roast requires lots of practice.

In the good old days Ma would put green beans in a pan over the stove and when roasted add water, bring to a boil and serve. Ma ain't what she used to be but in the old days she had a lot of practice. Ma had a wood burning stove so there was already smoke in the kitchen.

Grind your own
Green beans suffer a slow deterioration over a year. Roasted beans deteriorate quickly. Ground roasted beans, the kind you buy, are quickest of all.

In the good old days Ma roasted the green beans over the stove then added water and brought to a boil. In the middle of the 19th c. coffee grinders started becoming common. This gave more control over quality. Coffee pots simply had a strainer behind the pouring spout to keep the grounds out of the cup.

In living history roasted beans were sold in convenient bag sizes and grocery stores had powered coffee grinders. I remember them back in the 50s in the A&P. After that convenience ruled and they disappeared. Recently they have a made a return with displays of specialty coffees in bean form.

This is better but it does not solve the main problem. As soon as you grind it rapid deterioration starts. The longer it takes you to go through a bag the lower the average quality.

And it is sold in cans. As soon as a can is opened fresh air starts deteriorating the coffee. The smaller the can the better? A week's worth in a can is better. Several small cans are better than a large can.

We have progressed from the best way to make coffee, roasting just before brewing, to the worst way to make coffee using pre-roasted, pre-ground coffee from large cans.

Making the best coffee means stepping backwards in time. We are shedding layers of convenience in return for quality.

Grinding is the only way
The first thing to try is buying in roasted bean form and grinding before brewing. The problem is a grind should result in uniform size. A blender does not so you need a special make grinder. Cheap grinders that are small blenders have the same problem. Burr grinders are the only way to go and start at about $50. Find one by Krup at Sears for about that price. US made burr grinders rarely produce uniform grinds. European grinders almost always produce uniform grinds and as European grinders are also made in China the price still starts around $50. Of course you can pay hundreds if you like. Your choice. These also suffer from the problem of no standard cup size so you will have to adjust the amount here by trial and error.

But before you buy see what your blender will do. Back in the 70s I used a Hamilton Beach blender to grind beans and it worked just fine. It produced a uniform grind that was finer the longer it ran exactly as it should do. In my present Black&Decker blender it is far from uniform. To be fair it is not advertised to grind coffee beans. It produces all sizes from powder to large chunks. That is not good as you will lose control of what you produce. I have no idea what today's Hamilton Beach blenders will do.

Grinding can be easily done just before brewing. Just before is imporant. When you grind coffee the kitcen will fill with the fine aroma of coffee. What escapes to the air is not available to rise from the cup of coffee and smell is most of taste. Ground coffee should go immediately into an air tight container. Consider Mason jars that are used for canning food if you need to grind a lot at one time. They are cheap and last forever. Store them in the dark if possible but never in direct sunlight. This is not critical as light cannot penetrate very far but if you are going to the trouble in the first place there is no need to make matters worse.

The Krup model grinds the amount you set and keeps the unground beans in an air tight hopper. It adjusts for both amount and fineness and shuts off when when the amount set for is done.


* Paper filters remove oils one of which significantly raises serum choleterol. Removing oils reduces the "body" of coffee as expressed by mouth feel. Serum cholesterol is the kind your doctor warns you about being too high.
* Other names for coffee come from its history. Mocha is a port in Yemen on the Red Sea which was once the major port for Arabian coffee. Java was the colony where Holland created large coffee plantations to meet the demand in Europe.

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