SCAA Brewing Standards: We’re Committed

Coffee Temperature test warmI realize this article will be read mostly by coffee enthusiasts already so involved in brewing that they likely have their own views regarding brewing, and its three most important variables: time, temperature and grind particle size. But, lately there’s been dissention over what for many years appeared to be consensus among the trade. As brewing as an art and craft (hence my book’s title) has developed, there are those who question the basics.

Questioning the basics is, I think, a good thing. Anyone who’s been in family counseling knows it’s a healthy thing to revisit how you divide labor. When it comes to processes, it’s a good thing to reconsider the variables. My observation is that coffee brewing is still being analyzed. Don’t forget that as roasts, types of beans, brewing methods and consumer tastes change, it’s a good idea to do a few experiments. If they confirm the basic parameters, so be it. But, they may not, and why keep doing something wrong?

Historically, much coffee was boiled. I can think of all kinds of reasons for this: pre-chlorination food safety, ease – the bubbles tell you the water’s ready, and thrift – the cheapest way to maximize extraction strength is to use the highest temperature.

The Coffee Development Group, or was it the Pan-American Coffee Council – some predecessor to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), did extensive testing, using food experts, not just coffee folks, which resulted in the standards that have been in place for many years.

They include:
• Grind size specifications, basically finer for short extraction times, coarser for longer ones. The current challenge with enthusiasts likely to grind at home, is how to confirm this. It used to be written right on a coffee can.

• Brewing Temperature – It’s easy to tell consumers: “Under Boiling”. Everyone seems to get that now. The last percolator I came in contact was in my late Aunt’s estate sale. BTW, 195°-205°F just tightened to 196°-205°. The extra degree may or may not matter to you, but according to my little birds, the US and European specialty coffee groups wanted to share the same standards for a variety of reasons.

• Contact time – In my observation, this is the one most difficult to control, partly because it’s so difficult to measure, especially in intermittent drip methods. Ever tried?

Recently, I’ve run into a number of enthusiasts, baristas, brewer designers, who complain like music composition students do about tonal scales. Recently, I was sitting in the office of one of the most influential big-coffee business owners, who many would say personifies the word establishment and he told me he believes 200°F is too high a brewing temperature. I’m sympathetic. After all, what kind of thinker would I be if I didn’t like to challenge rules? “Question Authority” – That’s my bumper sticker!

But, I’m here to re-commit CoffeeCompanion to following the rules, at least for now. We need some kind of reference point, or a dialogue is useless. The fact is that a great number of culinary experts were consulted in creating the standards. These folks had taste buds. This wasn’t a casual industry lock down for convenience.

I will always challenge the established rules. I will also follow the standards and use them for my tests. I may expand my tests in certain instances but I will always strive to identify those instances.

Meanwhile, I urge those of you who are doing your own home experiments, playing with brewing parameters to customize your methods to your individual tastes, a worthy pursuit even within the parameters, to start off following the standards. If you decide your Chemex or Aeropress tastes milder, better straight (minus cream or sweetener) when brewed at 180°F, no one is going to take the children from your home.

But, as my music theory teacher said to us in college, “Learn the rules so they can be broken by design, not ignorance.”

We are living in a golden age of brewing. There are all kinds of new brewers, the re-discovery of old ones. The profession of barista confirms that the industry gets that how its coffee is created in a coffee establishment makes a difference. Remember: Wine tastings don’t need bartenders, but coffee tastings need baristas.

CoffeeCon, my ‘lil ol’ coffee show is great fun, but I have an agenda as plain as Karl Marx at a school board meeting. I want consumers to discover coffee as a culinary art and invest the same passion they do into cooking into brewing their coffee. Anyone can do a coffee tasting. We are a coffee university.

So, just FYI, I will keep taking any coffeemaker’s temperature, use a stopwatch to check how long it subjects your (ever-increasing-in-cost) ground coffee to hot water, and play with grind and include those results in my reports.

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.

Why I Created CoffeeCon

Kevin Sinnott AKA CoffeeKevin

CoffeeCon is a lifelong dream to give consumers a chance to see and compare different coffees and coffeemaking gear. When I first started my interest in coffee, there were few coffeemakers. Now there are many. The internet’s role in this is obvious. It’s now easy to see and read about so many methods and bean varieties. But, the internet has one limitation: It is not possible to come face to face with these methods. Like shoes, loudspeakers or other products, the missing element is undeniable and huge. I’ve ordered so many coffees and coffee brewers, only to find they did not suit me. Sometimes just a taste will tell. Other times I’ve held off, only to find by chance that a given method was perfect for me.

Well, CoffeeCon answers this need. You simply come and compare. Have you wanted to see what the Chemex fuss is all about? Wondered if the vacuum method is too complex? Will the French press give you too many leftover grounds in your cup? Now you’ll know.

There’s a second reason for CoffeeCon. I’ve met a few experts during my quest, who know things, some big, some little, about how to brew with various methods. Coffee can easily produce as complex a beverage as wine, but wine comes to us as a finished product. Chill, open and drink. Coffee does not. Coffee requires some knowledge. It is really a cooking art. Not everyone wants to become a renown coffee chef, but to be able to brew a perfect cup is not really beyond the scope of anyone, but, like riding a bicycle, baking cookies or any other worthy creation, we need to be shown once by someone who knows how to do it. I say this as a published author of two books on the subject, a producer who created a how-to coffee video and writer of countless articles on the subject. None of it is as effective as seeing it performed by an expert, and then doing it yourself with some help. Again, the web cannot really do this. CoffeeCon can.

If you stop reading and sign up for CoffeeCon here, that’s fine. But, there are a couple more reasons I think CoffeeCon’s time has come.

Consumers are a powerful force in any industry. They are not organized and never meet. We are isolated and that prevents us from having the clout we need. I think people in the coffee business will benefit from meeting us. They need to hear our concerns. They try to buy focus groups and mimic other industries, but there’s not substitute for them hearing from us just what we think. A year ago, some people in the coffee business got together to discuss some important world coffee ecology issues. The attendance was several coffee roasters, a coffee importer, a brewing manufacturer and a trade organization administrator. Like Christ at the United Nations, not a single coffee farmer was invited, nor were any consumers. CoffeeCon changes this.

The final reason is so simple I’m surprised no one has considered it before. Coffee aficionados have something in common. I’ve attended wine tastings and one of the fun aspects is meeting other red wine enthusiasts and hearing their opinions, not just about wine, but where they come from, what their best experience so far was, that kind of thing. Again, the web does not really bring us together, well it does, but only so close.

Come be a part of CoffeeCon 2012. If nothing else, I want to meet you. I want to share a cup or two. I want to show off my favorite brewing method. What is it? Come and find out.

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