The World’s First Consumer Coffee Conference

Ah, the perfect cup of coffee. Once we’ve had it, we spend our lives trying to find it again. There are so many brewers and brewing methods, grinders, not to mention all the beans from around the world. I’m Kevin Sinnott and I’ve spent my life as a passionate prosumer. I’ve never gone to the dark side and started my own coffee company. Why?  Because I’ve had the opportunity to get to know just about everyone in the business. I’ve never had the desire to become one of their competitors and because of this I have the industry’s trust. The top coffee players talk to me and continue to share their extensive knowledge base for which I’m grateful.

I want to share everything I’ve learned about the bean and brewing with you the passionate coffee drinker. At CoffeeCon you will get to meet the industry leaders, top coffee bloggers, learn the best brewing techniques, becoming an expert in all brewing methods. In fact after attending the classes you will get a Coffee Companion Certification recognizing you as a Certified Coffeeologist.

You will sample coffee from a wide variety cafes and roasters. You will be introduced to new interesting coffeemakers and some not yet been released. Want to know what Fair-Trade or organic labels mean? You’ll know after attending this event. It will transform you! During the coming weeks watch this space as we grow CoffeeCon into the coffee event of the year.

I want to hear from you in designing this event. You and I are the consumers and drivers of this industry. This will be a two-way dialog as coffee drinkers are the ultimate experiencers of the beverage. The coffee industry is waited to hear from us. The event is being held at the ultramodern IBEW building right off the Reagan/88 Tollway in Warrenville, IL.

Space is limited and this event will fill-up quickly so register to attend now.

Watch this space in the coming weeks as new information, videos and details emerge.


Coffee on Classic TV

Andy Griffith Show without Sheriff Andy Taylor making a trip to Aunt Bea’s lace-curtained kitchen and pouring himself a cup of Maxwell House from the percolator.

My father had a somewhat different reaction to the trouble that boys make than television’s Leave It to Beaver father Ward Cleaver. Ward should be brought back, if just to prove it is possible to have a cup of coffee to face every life challenge and still maintain calm. Although every episode I remember featured the electric percolator, there is a persistent rumor among coffee aficionados that there are early episodes showing a vintage vacuum coffee maker in June Cleaver’s pristine kitchen.

Perry Mason - Lawyer - Coffee Drinker

Those impressed with the legal might of the recent “dream team”, must have forgotten Perry Mason. Raymond Burr, television’s he-man lawyer who would have scoffed at the “power tie”, took just fifty-four minutes each week to have his client found innocent rather than the sheepish “not-guilty.” Mason, fueled on coffee throughout the seemingly twenty-four hour days he worked, plowed through and did the police and prosecution’s work as well, never ending a case until he produced the real murderer. No wonder the LA police have never recovered from his cancellation. Della Street, in Barbara Hale’s superb and understated performance, insisted on bringing fresh coffee into every scene. I viewed one episode where Mason brought a half-dressed suspected damsel to Miss Street’s apartment in order to hide the accused from Lieutenant Tragg. 3 a.m. or not, Mason’s secretary instinctively went to the kitchen and brought forth freshly brewed coffee.

James Bond may have been the movies’ first spy, but for most American kids, it took two spies, Napolean Solo and Ilya Kuriakan in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to really cement our relationship to these dogs of the Cold War. U.N.C.L.E. headquarters was stocked with both young studs whose muscles were held in check by firearms in shoulder holsters and beautiful false-eyelashed women carrying coffee carafes. Napolean and Ilya didn’t bother to wait to arrive at headquarters to drink coffee. A favorite coffee moment occurs right at the start of “The Deadly Decoy Affair.” David McCallum, as Ilya, darts out of his New York jazz lp-filled apartment brandishing a coffee cup and, still sipping, slips neatly into Robert Vaughan’s (Solo) convertible. Moments later they drive up inside the U.N.C.L.E. garage, where they do gun battle with some enemy THRUSH agents. Although the coffee cup disappears in order for Napolean to shoot two or three of the jack booted thugs, his coffee-charged bravado carries him proudly when, surveying the mass of bodies he and his comrade have just eliminated, he deadpans, “We haven’t even punched in yet.”

My parents always tried to stop my watching Dobie Gillis. I don’t know why this particular program ranked so low in their book. I remember my mother voicing concerns that young people might “get the wrong” idea watching Maynard G. Krebs, Bob Denver’s beatnik character. Naturally, we watched every episode, although the only striking memory I have is of seeing cans of coffee in father Herbert T. Gillis’s corner grocery stacked behind a sign advertising 99 cents per pound prices. I always longed for a scene where Maynard would introduce us to his beatnik friends at a coffee shack, but somehow the show’s producers failed to utilize Maynard as anything but a way-out loner, with no other links to the subculture but his dress and scruff-beard. At the other end of the unreality spectrum, there was Hazel, an already out-of-date character developed in the post World War II GI promise/fantasy of upper-middle class luxury for having beaten both Germany and Japan. My parents both watched this program, laughing buckets when Shirley Booth ran her buxom frame at trot-speed in response to any irrational requests from her scatterbrained family employers. Hazel‘s ultimate obnoxiousness was that she appeared not to pay any attention to how many scoops of canned coffee she spooned into the by-then standard electric percolator. Here’s hoping the coffee was better served at the inevitable family therapy sessions where this dysfunctional broadcast clan must have gone, maid and all.

Coffee was best left to the working class, after all, television’s real audience backbone. While Hazel’s boss hardly touched his coffee, Dragnet’s Joe Friday took his coffee like communion, especially in the series’ 1950’s heyday. First with partner Ben Romero (shot and killed in the series after actor Barton Yarborough died of a heart attack) and then with Frank Smith, Friday lived on coffee and cigarettes, a diet no longer fashionable. Unlike modern police methods, Friday’s always produced the right suspect, with airtight evidence and likely a fully signed confession, although the use of a high intensity lamp aimed directly at the suspect’s beady eyes seemed to help.

Jack Webb‘s staccato production style seldom allowed for close-up shots of coffee making, but when he and a sidekick poured themselves a steaming cup in their squad car during a stakeout, you knew it was good and strong. No matter how many cups, Friday never had the coffee jitters. If he did, he knew he could release them by taking an extra long puff on a filterless Chesterfield cigarette, or by delivering one of his famous clipped lines of sarcasm to a reluctant witness, always to the nods of everyone present. I like to picture Webb, night creature, sitting in a late-night coffee bar, sipping hot java (even his first name was slang for coffee) in his trench coat. That dream, by the way, is still in vivid black and white. Later Webb shows, filmed in weak color, fail to provide any of the atmosphere of the early series. It may be my imagination, but I don’t think there’s much coffee, either.

A lot of people have fond memories of Bonanza, but not I. I remember it being on Sunday night, which was right before Monday’s school week began. Wrestling with bouts of depression looking towards another week of academic imprisonment, I felt little affection for this all-male ranching family. Their coffee came from stovetop pots, indicating that they were boiling the brew. There is no romance in any aspect of old west coffee making.

I couldn’t really pretend to discuss television’s treatment of coffee without mentioning that 60’s angel of bad coffee-making and domestic meddler, Folger’s Mrs. Olson, played by some bad actress whose name escapes me. The script was the same for all these ads: A 60’s housewife, distraught at having her lack of social and culinary skills exposed before her husband’s boss/mother/golf buddy is about to fall apart (too many diet pills?) behind the kitchen door, when in comes this smiling patron saint of middle brow entertaining, Mrs. Olson. The young woman moans that she’s never made good coffee (the most believable piece of dialogue contained) and now is compelled to perform. Does Mrs. Olson glare over at the electric percolator and accompanying can of supermarket swill and growl, “There’s your problem, Bimbo!”? Of course not.

In true corporate form, Mrs. Olson, trademarked “Svedish” accent in high gear, assures her tenderly that there’s no secret to making good coffee. Then she ushers her young charge back into the living room and proceeds, I believe, to pull a small sack of beans out of her purse and probable hand grind them and then brew them using a vacuum coffee maker. All the audience knows is a few frames later, in walks Mrs. Olson with a percolator (no doubt as a serving vessel) full of fresh-made coffee. Hubby, realizing it’s the weekend and bubbling with testosterone, looks over at his wife and exclaims “Honey, that’s the best coffee I’ve ever had.”

Not bully content to remain a backroom consultant, Mrs. Olson cattily pokes a small hole in the hostess’ ego, by crediting THE PRODUCT. “Folgers is mountain grown.”

“Mountain grown?”, cries the chorus.

‘It’s the richest kind,” responds Mrs. Olson, apparently satisfied that she’s thwarted any kind of false glamour that might be ascribed to either the hostess or the coffee maker.

It’s this kind of thinking and false advertising that will someday be known as having led to our tumbling post-World War II empire.

In recent years television seems to have been content to limit itself to products more in keeping with their audience’s true sophistication, such as instant coffee.

Perhaps it’s best, as I have yet to see a truly fine product or proper coffee making appear on television. Apparently, like the Irish language and freedom in Eastern Europe, fine coffee remains a person-to-person art form best left off the tube.

Meth Coffee

This is a shocking product, which might just make it successful. But, from a coffee aficionado’s point of view, this is the worst of everything.

Really.

For one thing, it is sold as a drug, and an unnecessary one. That’s not a problem. Half of any Walgreen’s might be deemed unnecessary. But, this drug is caffeine. Caffeine is known as a generally safe stimulant. One reason I’m convinced coffee has stayed as popular as it has is because it delivers a small amount of this stimulant at little or no risk. This product intermixes Arabica coffee beans with Yerba Mate, a tea-like herbal stimulant. Yerba Mate is hardly a new product, and normally I would have no objections to it. I will reserve judgment on flavor until I taste it, but there are better ways to increase caffeine content without intermixing substances into it. Most canned coffees already do this at a bargain price by using most of all Robusta coffee in their blend. Robusta was a wild-growing coffee that had little or no market value and wasn’t even cultivated until the 1940s when shortages of good Arabica beans caused the industry to look into them. Robustas can offer twice the caffeine content of Arabica. It’s still all coffee and, believe it or not, there are some that are quite tasty.

The problem in the coffee business is the audience is moving away from high caffeine and has been for years. The modern coffee drinker is consumed with flavor. There’s even a sizeable market for no-caffeine coffees. Most coffee drinkers I know prefer low caffeine Arabica because they can have more coffee. I don’t stop drinking coffee because I get tired of the taste. I get tired of the caffeine.

But this product is not marketed to coffee drinkers, is it? It’s marketed as a legal version of illicit stimulants. Last year, I worked on a short video spot in Oregon, one of Crystal Meth’s highest use regions. It wasn’t pretty. This is a drug that can cause its user to forgo eating – the classic laboratory rat story of preferring a substance to food. This was the drug involved when a woman sold her child for money. That’s the drug this product is tying itself to.

The only reason I’m writing about it is because they’ve tied their product to my passionate product and I wanted to make sure if I publicize them, that I also publicize the terrible life they are selling along with it.

It’s just my way of introducing myself to the anonymous folks who are bringing you this product.

It’s one of those products I’d go out of my way not to buy just to not support it.

Krups Moka T8

Krups Moka

Here’s a classic case where the marketing department tried to get a basically very good machine to do something it was not designed to do. The packaging indicates it as a way to make an espresso beverage for several people at once. Meanwhile, the product styling makes it look like just another automatic drip machine, which it definitely is not.

What Is It? — The Krups Moka is, if anything, an attempt to make a large quantity of something called a Moka. Moka is a problematic word. To much of the world, it means chocolate or a coffee bean varietal from Yemen. In Europe, it means a sort-of stovetop espresso beverage. The Krups Moka is none of these. It is a slightly pressurized automatic drip machine, a sort of hybrid. I would hesitate to compare it to a stovetop Moka and it is certainly not any kind of “mass espresso” machine.

I decided to test it according to drip standards, although, as you will see, it is really in its own category and you will be happiest if you regard it for its own value, rather than attempt to slot it as a preexisting type.

Temperature — The Krups Moka T8 works like an electric water kettle. The water boils and that pressure forces it up and over the grounds. Most automatic drip brewers are designed to deliver the water to the grounds at lower-than-boiling temperatures; the standard is 195 to 205 Fahrenheit. Here was see boiling or very near it water, with somewhat long gaps between as the water is boiled in pulses.

Level but don't tamp

Time — This makes it very difficult to determine the exact water/grounds contact time. The time from when the water first hits the grounds until the last drop leaves is something like seven minutes. If boiling water is truly in contact with fine grind coffee for this duration, we could expect some pretty bitter coffee, couldn’t we?

Almost a mouse tail

Grounds saturation — The Krups Moka T-8 does a very thorough job of getting all the grounds wet. The combination of a sealed grounds chamber and the pulse flow of pressurized water makes sure no flavor is left behind. There are also six exit holes in the filter basket, encouraging a quick escape once the water has contacted with the grounds.

Spent grounds are bone dry, just the way you want them.

Cup tasting — I have observed that lighter roast coffees seem to handle higher brewing temperatures. George Howell, Terroir.com, has many beautiful light roast coffees. He buys micro lots of prize winning coffees and it shows in both the cup and my monthly charge card statement. He’s got a long-term relationship with La Minita Costa Rica coffees. I put sixty grams of fine grind La Minita in the Krups unit and it tasted fine, with surprisingly no bite that one might expect using these high brew temps. What really surprised me was putting some Boyds coffee preground in this brewer. It’s ground for auto-drip and it’s a comparatively dark roast. I’d expected the unit to favor lighter roasts, but this coffee compared favorably to the La Minita. It’s a blend and a complex one, far more than I realized. My previous cuppings had been in a Technivorm.

I expected light roasts to taste right, but I didn’t expect a darker-than-average coffee to shine. But, the Boyd’s Rip City Blend, tasted about as good as any coffee I sampled. Perhaps a greater surprise is that it’s pre-ground. I know some of you are going to be shocked, but it’s true. I was pondering why, and I think part of the reason has to do with the excellent grind pre-ground coffees have. It’s one area where they exceed almost any grind possible at home. Also, as Randy Layton expressed to me as far back as when we served on the Specialty Coffee Association’s Technical Standards committee, as well as in our recent video Coffee Brewing Secrets, he thinks that coffee needs to rest after roasting before it extracts to its potential. I know I’m speculating, but it seems possible that high pressure brewers require more exact grind in order not to impede their flow rate. That’s a guess, but the results I got with the Boyd’s sample was as complex a cup as I’ve had, with absolutely no bitterness.

Conclusion — The Krups Moka is not for everyone. Many consumers won’t understand why it takes nearly five minutes just to heat the water up before its first burst. Nor will they appreciate that the seemingly overside bottom water boiler is not truly a warming plate. The first cups will be piping hot, but the coffee won’t keep warm for hours like it does with some auto drip machines. The exact placement of the brewer under the hot water release valve is critical. I misaligned it once and it was quite a mess. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not difficult, but it’s non-standard.

What sets the Krups Moka T-8 apart most though is the outstanding cup quality. I truly wish they’d reintroduce it to Americans as at home coffee is getting more serious. Perhaps they will. Meanwhile, check the auction sites. It’s a winner.

Cook’s Illustrated Coffee Brewer Review: Are Their Results Credible?

Like a lot of “foodie” types, I read Cooks Illustrated. I’m not a subscriber but I scan each issue for recipes. Naturally, when they covered coffee brewers I had to read what they said. Technivorm’s Gerard-Clement Smit told me he was excited as they’d just chosen his unit as their best choice. That’s a good start. Consumer Reports has never, ever really chosen a decent coffee brewer as a Best Buy. Right away, I thought that someone credible might be reviewing if they recognize the Technivorm. How about the rest of the review?

Well, I have not yet reviewed every brewer they did, so I’ll reserve judgment unit per unit. But, I have a few quibbles with the big picture. I believe Cooks Illustrated did three tests: an objective temperature test, a brewing time measurement and a subjective taste panel evaluation. They did not identify who did their tests, but it’s a reasonable start and Consumer Reports has never identified any but a subjective panel test, so Cooks is to be commended for at least including two real tests.

In appliance theory, the time and temperature are perceived useful because it is easy to taste that the amount of time it takes and how hot the water is are the two major factors to extraction. But, in our desire to make things measurable we sometimes make things too easy. Consider fact that, according to Cooks Illustrated standards, they would never have chosen several of my favorites and one particularly well-regarded coffee brewers as best buys because they don’t meet those standards very well is interesting.

I looked for the French press measurements but they were nowhere to be seen. Sure enough, the brewing time is set by the user, so that’s understandable. But, how about brew temperatures? Does anyone but me measure the French press’s brewing temperature? And, I’m assuming we’re all following the longstanding practice of boiling water, letting it stand for a minute off-the-boil and pouring. It might be instructive because it explains my theory; that is that temperature is number three of the three brewing parameters that should be measured.

There, I’ve said it. And, now that I’ve said that, I’ll list what I think are the factors, in order of importance, for a coffee brewer:

Brewing contact time – we want to know just how long the hot water is in contact with the grounds. With some brewers this is easy. You can simply pour hot water into the French press and start a stopwatch, press the top down and stop your timer. In a drip brewer, you must factor in a delay, sometimes up a minute after you turn it on and the last water drips through. Also, some automatic drip makers actually stop from time to time during brewing, either to allow their heaters to recharge their energies or as designed to offer the grounds a chance to swell up and rest between pulses; some connoisseurs think this gives a better extraction, particularly with fresh coffee, but it makes timing the contact time a more complex procedure. But, contact time is the single most important factor in the final taste in your cup. Too short, and it will be underdeveloped; too long and it will be overextracted and bitter.

Grounds saturation – how well saturated are the grounds in your coffee brewer? Consider what it’s like when you take a shower. There is a fixed head above you (most commonly) and you move about to make sure every inch of you is properly cleaned and rinsed. Coffee grounds cannot likewise adjust their position during brewing. It is the role of the designer to make a showerhead that is designed to saturate the grounds thoroughly from beginning to end of the brew cycle. It becomes particularly challenging as consumers begin using larger grounds portions as they discover the joys of full-flavored coffee. Often the showerhead is simply a drip spout or it sprays at a midpoint in the grounds bed, hoping that the water will eventually fill and cover all the grounds. Fresh roasting and fresh ground exacerbate the situation because fresh coffee de-gasses carbon dioxide as it’s brewing, interfering with extraction chemically, but also causing the grounds to physically expand, even making them a larger and more difficult-to-cover target for the showerhead. This is THE notable flaw in many brewers, even those who reach the industry’s recommended water brewing temperature. Methods such as French press and vacuum have maintained cultish favor with connoisseurs precisely due to their inborn skill provide great grounds saturation.

Brewing temperature – the single most overrated attribute of a coffee brewer is its brew temperature. Am I saying it’s unimportant? Absolutely not, but it is in third place. Why is it number 3? I suppose because it’s the easiest to measure. If you want my honest opinion based upon years of observing coffee brewers and measuring the brewing temperature, it is that any brewer that brews between 180 and 212 CAN conceivably brew very good tasting coffee, PROVIDED the contact time is kept under six minutes AND the grounds are well and equally saturated.

Take a few examples. Have you measured your French press’ temperature lately? I think you might be surprised at how low it is, in consideration of the Specialty Coffee Association’s recommended brewing temperature (200 degrees Fahrenheit +/- 5 degrees). If you don’t like the press (and Cooks Illustrated didn’t) it is likely due to other factors, such as the amount of grounds left in the cup (I prefer paper filtered “cleaner” coffee – press coffee is too muddy for me). Most press brewing is done well under 195. Generally, if used according to directions, the press will drop off below 195 within a minute of pouring the water into it. It regularly ends contact time at under 185. I once heated a press during operation to maintain 200 degree contact heat and I thought the coffee tasted worse for it. If you are fond of manual drip brewing, such as Melitta’s or Chemex, the results are similar. You continuously pour off-the-boil water into the grounds and wait for the water to run through the grounds bed. If you chart the temperatures over the course of manual drip brewing, it will be series of low hanging telephone lines, each dipping well below 195. If it were not for having proper vacuum preparation coffee, I’d be inclined to regard below 195 temperatures as superior.

Speaking of the vacuum, it is my considered belief that the original industry brewing standards adopted by the SCAA and other trade organizations was based upon observing the once-standard vacuum machine as a peerless example of good brewing. So, the standards were simply reverse-engineered to become THE standards. While at first glance, this seems sensible, it is too confining and it sends well-meaning appliance designers in the wrong direction. Again, my observation is that there are various good and interesting coffee flavors extracted throughout a wide range of temperatures. Some years ago I was a member of the Specialty Coffee Technical Standards Committee. I challenged our group that we’d recently denied certification to Kitchen Aid for their 4-cup maker because it only reached about 190. Meanwhile, we were enjoyably sharing our Chair Kevin Knox’s French press coffee (Kevin at the time ran Allegro Coffee’s roasting operations) which I pointed out was brewed at a temperature in line or below the Kitchen Aid unit. Is there anything wrong with a solid 200 degree contact time? No, and it might arguably extract some of the very finest flavors from coffee. But, there are credible machines that produce excellent tasting coffee (above and below) this range. Meanwhile, there are machines that get the water to the right temperature but fail to keep contact times between four and six minutes and/or fail to get all the grounds consistently wet. Give a choice between a machine that is outside the temperature range or one that either does not get all the grounds wet or takes longer than six minutes, I’d choose the one that’s temperature is non-standard.

So, Cooks is to be commended for trying to follow industry standards and indeed for even emphasizing the importance of a good brewer to coffee taste. But the industry needs to reexamine the standards as well as their order of importance, given the new consumer interest in fine coffees and how to enjoy them at their best.

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