National Coffee Day Reflections

I saw several signs this morning: “Free Coffee in honor of National Coffee Day”. Instead of looking for a free cup of coffee today, I suggest you go the other way: Try a coffee a notch above what you usually purchase. You might be surprised by its taste, its aroma. If you like cream and sugar, go ahead. It should still taste better yet. According to inventor Alan Adler, this final press of foam is a mistake.

My thinking is this: The average coffee farmer lives hand-to-mouth, paycheck to paycheck. Actually, since more than half the world’s coffee is grown by small family farms, there really aren’t paychecks. There are no holidays, no sick days. The family works the farm every day. The farmer usually grows multiple crops. The coffee is a paycheck once it’s delivered.

It’s a tough business model. I doubt there are any hotel seminars in coffee growing countries teaching how to break into the profitable coffee growing business. The average coffee grower’s age is near 60. It is physical work. You and I might think of sustainability in terms of our wish to be able to obtain quality coffees in twenty years; the middle class “will our children know what a true Ethiopian Harar tastes like?” kind of concern. Whenever I’ve asked farmers what sustainability means to them, they wonder if they’ll be growing coffee next year. Period. No romance about keeping an heirloom coffee going for posterity. Most of the world is still stuck in survival mode.

All that free coffee being pedaled today is the lowest-quality coffee. It’s only a bargain because those who create it are not getting paid a fair wage. Since I know better than to preach morality, I’ll preach self-interest instead. If you taste a great coffee today, won’t you want it tomorrow? The coffees I’m talking about are more likely to be available because someone made money, their bills were paid and they will grow more next year.

Even if I’m just thinking of myself, I want to taste the best every year I have left on this planet. Speaking of sustainability, it goes further than growers. The folks who roast and then brew it in your local coffee hangout work for their wage, too. As someone who regularly pitches buying exhibit space at my traveling CoffeeCon event, I think they’re also facing sustainability issues. Most of them are following the 80/20 rule — 80% artist and 20% business, and they literally go into the red to get the top coffees you and I enjoy so much. Maybe toss an extra dollar in the tip jar to help keep the barista sustainable as well.

So, my advice: Splurge in honor of National Coffee Day. Give yourself one you’ll truly remember.

What I Really Think of K-Cups

K-Cup La MinitaRecently, I reviewed every brewing format in the U.S. I freely admit I was previously strongly biased against pods in general and specifically the K-Cup, the number one pod format. My reasons weren’t simple connoisseur snobbery, but cool analysis based upon the following industry givens:

  • Coffee must be brewed within two weeks from roasting.
  • Drip coffee must be brewed over four-to-six minutes.
  • Small batch, top-end roasted coffee isn’t available in K-cups.

Oh, and don’t forget this one:

  • Anything too popular has to be bad.

With me so far? Good. Now, a few things happened since then to open my mind to at least the possibility that K-Cups might be a viable format. First, there is the Bunn My Café machine. In my tests this one machine was heads above the others in its ability to extract coffee. Keep in mind that for years Bunn has specialized in three-minute extraction through its almost-power-washing sprayhead design in traditional drip machines. The My Café gets the water up to industry-standard temperature heights and somehow (I’m not yet able to see into the brewing chamber) this results in a much better-than-average cup.

Second, the K-Cup patent expired. This means machinery entrepreneurs will be exploiting the format, perhaps even beyond what Bunn’s done (Bunn’s was developed through licensing prior to the expiration). The patent’s lapse also means a wider variety of coffee brands will be free to flood the market with K-Cups.

Third, new smaller-run K-Cup packaging machines have emerged to make it cost-effective for local roasters to make their own K-Cups. This has caused a virtual explosion. While some specialty roasters are still keeping their distance, several have announced top quality coffees in K-Cups to the general public.  This brings us the likelihood of neighborhood, fresh coffee.

Last but not least, there are new in-cup technologies. In some ways these are the hardest to understand, much less describe. Boyd Coffee introduced a new K-Cup of their own design at the 2014 SCAA Conference. Even with all the coffee samples I’d had that day, the Boyd’s design was night and day better than I’d previously tasted. Boyd’s has a new type of bottom to its pod that is closer to a traditional filter. While it seems like it would undermine the already-short contact time between hot water and ground coffee, it clearly resulted in a more thorough extraction.

This travel photo shows why this pods are important to good coffee.

This travel photo shows why this pods are important to good coffee.

I finally tasted close to coffee nirvana later at that same event when I had a La Minita K-Cup. This design, as explained by CEO Bill McAlpin, utilizes material obtained from the surgical profession that is both slow to release but allows greater transfer of flavor oils, thus coming closest yet to what the industry calls “Gold Cup” standards.

I realize McAlpin’s coffees are already pinnacle specialty coffees that score in the 90s among coffee reviewers, but this cup truly floored me. McAlpin, more than anyone else I’ve met, convinced me he truly understands the entire process. His K-Cup’s design takes full advantage of every second of contact time inside the K-Cup (something under one minute!) and then that special material at the K-Cup’s bottom makes sure the coffee essence exits the cup in its full glory and into your cup.

McAlpin claims he’s done blind tests among the top roasters and they are unable to distinguish between their roasts brewed using a traditional drip brewer versus the same coffee prepackaged in his K-Cups! I can only underscore that I believe this might be possible using this technology and a top quality K-Cup brewer!!!

I’m sure that some jaws will drop after reading this last paragraph and my having written it. My position is I try very hard to be a coffee objectivist in what surely must be understood to be a largely subjectivist world.

I am certainly not urging anyone to discard their Chemex, Hario or French press makers for K-Cups, nor for that matter their Technivorm, Bonavita or Behmor traditional automatic drip machines. What I am suggesting is to consider what this offers in terms of consumer choices and the possibility of getting a good-to-near-great cup of coffee fully automatically and conveniently. Even I must have an option for those times in my life where the process is not the goal, but a necessity of my real goal: getting a savory cup of coffee. Such times are quick morning starts, mornings when I am heading to an airport for an early flight. Sometimes a friend drops by and we want to share the coffee, but not the time it takes to make it the manual multiple step way.

Let’s remain open minded. Let’s also retain a healthy dose of skepticism. I am simply declaring that it’s now been proven to me that it IS possible to get a very good cup of coffee with a pod machine. Once it is POSSIBLE, it’s just a question of determining how it was done, then doing it that way. Remember, The Coffee Companion’s mission is great coffee, not labor, nor for that matter technology. Stay tuned!

Keurig 2.0 Debuts!

Keurig 2

As I write this, the next generation Keurig machine is moments away from hitting American consumers. Keurig is doing everything to get the word out. I’ve had a sneak preview here and there, places such as SCAA’s recent Conference and the International Housewares Show, where prototypes were on display. I will disclose that they’ve even brought me out here to Los Angeles to witness their opening night amidst a hand-selected group. To their credit, Keurig has not attempted to influence my view of the machine, which I have not of course, had enough experience with to review. I’m to offer tasting notes on some of their blends and discuss food pairing,  Actually, it’s refreshing to see a coffee maker manufacturer start off high be discussing both their machine and coffee, but of course this is a benefit of Keurig’s and Green Mountain’s marriage, a company large and sophisticated enough to really understand both the hardware and software aspects of their product.

The Keurig 2.0 has several interesting aspects. Most amazing is its ability to accommodate both the K-Cup and Vue pods. This is fortunate because the Vue was Keurig’s attempt to put forth an improved K-Cup that might appeal to high-end Third Wave coffee holdouts. It held more coffee grounds and used a different piercing technology to introduce water to the pod, with the result of more thoroughly extracting the coffee flavor. It failed as a standalone product only because it caused market confusion.  Potential Vue customers had last minute sales resistance about getting hardware that offered fewer software choices. That killed it for many, many enough that Keurig withdrew the Vue this past year.

The Keurig 2.0 employs a complex mechanism to allow their new 2.0 to use both K-Cups and Vue pods. This also offers the public who did invest in Vue hope that their format will continue to be supported. I’m hopeful that 2.0 will retain the Vue’s improved brewing temperature range.

Even more profound for consumers will be the 2.0’s offering an even larger batch size. Keurig realizes that the brewing public wants 1 to 4 cups, and they’ve done that. I viewed their approach and new pod sizes last night and I suspect this will really be well received. Flexibility, with none of the down sides to compromise taste, nor having to figure anything out.

My hobby is brewing coffee, but I’m enough of a realist to know that this is simply not true for most people. They simply want a good cup, quickly, with knowledge equivalent with their other consumer needs. The Keurig 2.0 appears to solve several needs for them. For many coffee drinkers, this introduction is exciting news.

 

Aeropress: Little Coffeemaker that Could

Aeropress 1 The Aeropress marks the longest I’ve ever waited for formally review a product. I met inventor Alan Adler nine or more years ago. We were introduced by then Bunn VP Aimee Markelz. Just to show how gracious some people can be even in an industry with such hot competition as coffeemakers, Ms Markelz was walking through the International Housewares show before showtime and spied this new coffeemaker. When I did my usual walkaround at Housewares she handed me a slip of paper with the Aeropress booth number on it. She told me she thought I’d find it interesting. I did. I do.

The reason I waited so long to review it? I guess I took it for granted. But now I feel a little guilty and negligent. Or it’s such an open-ended device it all depends on how you use it. Honestly, I can’t tell you why. Is it because it has no engine, no water heater? That can’t be. Neither does the Sowden SoftBrew nor does the Chemex. Is it due to it’s cost – as in low? Nope, I’ve reviewed the Melitta single cup, and I’ve packed three of them into knapsacks of my college bound sons.

So, let me stop the self analysis and proceed to make amends for my lengthy review time. The Aeropress, though wholly innovative and original in its design, seems to provide the features of all the world’s coffeemakers through time. Like a modern Hollywood film, it has elements of all that came before it in its genre. The Aeropress has some elements of the French press, namely the press, both in name and procedure. The Aeropress has elements of the Chemex, particularly in its filter and its brewing temperature recommendations. Finally it has elements with the vacuum or siphon coffeemaker, mainly its mass-compressed grounds puck.

The Aeropress is perhaps the ultimate flexible coffeemaker. It can be used conventionally, where it gives the impression of being a somewhat leaky manual drip maker. It can be inverted, placed upside down, its filter cap removed and it becomes a settling tank where coffee is steeped like a tea before its cap is replaced, it is flipped over and then pressed to completion. Which is it for me? I’ve spent several years in each camp. Finally (or just lately?)

I’ve settled on the conventional method. I believe I’d done this out of simplicity, and perhaps a little out of my desire to set the record straight on what I consider the Aeropress myth of being a leaky drip maker. When people pour a little hot water into the Aeropress and stir so that the grounds get plenty wet and are allowed to swell and settle before the press is used, a minute amount of water travels through the grounds and out through the filter and into your cup. There is nothing about this that is going to affect your coffee end result. It is no different than the initial drips of any drip coffee maker. Coffee is all about grounds/water contact time and nothing else.

Aeropress brewing temperature is, or should be, controversial. I know it’s manual so you can use whatever your lil’ water heatin’ vessel can provide. I have a fancy schmancy BonaVita kettle with dial and hold temperature settings. Inventor Alan Adler says Aeropress competitions tend to be won at brewing temps of 185°F for the super light roasted coffees and 175°F for medium to dark roasts. What does all this mean to the coffee industry, who’s fought so long and hard to convince us to brew hotter into their 10 degree (195F-205F) window? That’s a tough question and likely a subject for a different article. For the moment I’m going to use the ole’ reviewer copout #7 that we should view the Aeropress on its own terms. Of course you can use your Aeropress at whatever temperature you prefer, but after a number of tests in my kitchen, I’m inclined to operate mine at the light roast winning temperature: 185°F.

Speaking of roasts, here are some coffees that I tested:

  • George Howell Coffee’s La Minita I got spectacular results with this coffee. Man that is one complex beverage as brewed in the Aeropress. Like a great symphony orchestra, La Minita’s Bill McAlpin is unable to create a bad note. This coffee, third wave light roast and all, is just a perfect match for the Aeropress. Did I hear chocolate? I know most coffees give this note at this brewing temperature, but it’s the quality of chocolate note that this coffee provides.
  • Sight Glass Colombian Finca Alcatraz – I recently became smitten with this coffee in all brewing methods. I don’t know what to say except I just enjoyed its richness and cocoa and nougat notes. I admit I feel the lush fruit notes are boosted by moving the brewing temperature back into the 190°s.
  • Counter Culture Finca El Puente Honduras – I couldn’t resist trying some coffee farmed by CoffeeCon presenters Marysabel Caballero and Moisés Herrera and their latest coffee. Counter Culture roasted it at the light end, although to be fair, not too light, which I found to be a perfect match for Alan’s observed 185°F brewing temperature. Okay, I probably sneaked up to 190°F. I got that black cherry flavor kick right away.

Conclusion: The Aeropress is just a wonderful brewer. If you are caught between gigs, you likely can afford it. It is easy to use, to clean up. And, it delivers an ultra clean taste, with plenty of viscosity but virtually no sediment. If this is the cup you seek, the Aeropress is a brewer used must have in your brewing arsenal. Period.

Photo note: Aeropress Inventor Alan Adler says, “I do like clear glass which reveals the flow (drip), but recommend a wide-bottom, sturdy mug like the attached pic.”

Alan Adler recommends robust glass only.

 

 

 

 

Another Coffee is Wine Article

Oh, no! Not another coffee is wine article!! Ever since the coffee trade learned how much wine is marked up before you and I buy it, they’ve salivated over this analogy. Is coffee like wine? Of course it is, just like maple syrup, blueberries and salmon. There are grades and flavor differences based upon where it was raised, how it was processed and just flukes of nature that are recognized during evaluation and priced accordingly.

Let’s go through this article, which appears in the Wine Enthusiast, and see how they did. Here’s the link:  http://www.winemag.com/February-2014/The-Wine-Lovers-Guide-to-Coffee/?goback=%2Egde_150968_member_5826407454983876609#%21

“Joe-ography.” Cute. Okay, let’s talk about geography. The writer makes the argument that coffee is like wine and geography affects the beans’ flavor as it does grapes. I basically agree that geography appears to affect coffee. But, of course there’s much more to the story and differences abound. Most of the world’s coffees are from two types of bean (He acknowledges this in paragraph 2). Wine is from lots of different grapes and of course geography affects a chardonnay grape, so that one grown in France tastes different then one grown in California. He says wine can be divided into old world and new world. I can’t see how that applies to coffee in any way.  While geography is important to coffee and wine, the paragraph does nothing to convince me that coffee is like wine.

Things You Didn’t Know About Coffee. All of these are ostensibly correct. A few of them would make me see similarities to wine, back to terroir (where it was grown and climate conditions). The rest, things like dark roast (which he recommends at least twice) are not analogous to wine. Can you imagine a why don’t you drink wine article in a coffee magazine pointing out the virtues of heavy oak? That’s more like roast, as it’s among the things the trade does to goose up flavor after the harvest so to speak. I’m sure the coffee folks he relied upon told him to point out that certain coffees feature more acidity, but I think it’s better to say that different coffees feature different acidity acidity and character due to their geography (again) and leave it at that. Obviously he has mixed acidity and acid as the same. They are not the same and titling the point “acid trip” adds confusion.

America’s Seven Best Roasters. If a coffee magazine featured a wine extolling article and claimed there were top seven winemakers, I propose by next morning there’d be one few coffee writer, no doubt buried in an undisclosed winery as a message to trade writers like us never, never to do this again. I happen to have had coffee from every one of these shops and they are all in the top rank but there are dozens of equally good roasters, and while I like to extol the roaster’s role in coffee, to be brutally honest, there is a lot more variance in the quality of even the best roaster. Dare I suggest that the roastmaster’s job is to roast just enough to maximize acidity, but at the expense of  so-called development, or balance. I’d argue that wine is inherently more created. Since wine is truly a prepackaged beverage, the choices of variety are expanded, blends are the rule, not the exception. Brewing is done for you, perhaps years before. Coffee brewing, the point of consumption culinary art that you and I, or our neighborhood barista has mastered to extract exactly the right flavor balance from even the best grown, best roasted coffee is never mentioned.

The Wine/Coffee Connection. This is an, if you like this wine, you’ll like this coffee section. Actually here I think the writer succeeds. In most of the examples I think he got it close to how I see it. And, I think it’s analogous. There is a spice in most Sumatras. A Pinot Noir has more lightness like a Central American, although here again, there may be more differences variance between coffees. I’ve had some incredibly big Central Americans as I’ve tried more small plot samples.

I’m sure the coffee business says, “Great they spelled our name right.” I’m not against the idea of promoting coffee to another culinary consumer group with deep pockets and finicky taste buds. But, overall, they missed the boat. Coffee is like wine in its complexity. Beyond that, its geography factor is different, its delivery state to the consumer is different. The roaster’s role is more limited than the vintner’s. The consumer’s role is much greater than the cork-popping wine aficionado’s. Oh, and wine has a giant shelf life where coffee has virtually none. Nonetheless, I applaud the attempt.

 

 

 

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