“How to Brew Old Coffee” article. For Real?

I admit I was surprised when the highly regarded Fellow coffee maker manufacturer posted this on their site. I was surprised mostly because it was both innovative and, upon reflection, largely true. Roasted coffee freshness is an elephant-in-the-room issue in the coffee business. Through much of the industry there’s a lot of emphasis on grinding fresh, but that presupposes beans that are fresh, and mostly they aren’t.

fellow-coffee-makerSince “old” is in this case a euphemism for “stale” I feel it’s a good time to share what I know or at least think about freshness and its successor, staleness. I’d also like to address their recommendations in future articles, but let’s start with freshness and how to keep coffee from getting stale. Most supermarket coffee, even in bean form, is by industry standards, stale. That is, it has been two or more weeks since it was roasted. According to industry experts, coffee should kept in bean form until just before using, but even then, its peak flavor lasts roughly ten to fourteen days from roast.

For most of the large roasters and many consumers, this is a market impossibility. The supermarket distribution system alone makes it highly unlikely that much coffee is being purchased, let alone brewed within this time frame.  One of the exceptions might be Peet’s, who in my observation, seems to lead the industry in its scrupulous overseeing its supermarket slots. My mother is a Peet’s fan, and I often pop into a mass supermarket chain to snare her beans. Peet’s scrupulously stamps roast dates on its packages, while many roasters succumb to supermarket pressure to post “best by” dates, which are definitely not the same. Some best-by dates euphemistically project a year of freshness. Careful packaging which includes nitrogen flushing to drive away oxygen and that little one-way valve added to the package work to help prolong freshness, but no one has ever claimed they “freeze” the staling process, although some of my industry friends claim they are pretty happy with the results. peets-major-dickasons-blend

Speaking of freezing, the late roaster/inventor Michael Sivetz once told me his future vision of coffee being sold in the freezer section. Needless to say, this has not yet happened and many in the industry scoff at freezing beans. Nonetheless, I have done many anecdotal samplings using Sivetz’ recommendations and found freezing to be a no-brainer better solution compared to any alternate storage method past the two week window. The more I’ve sought to intermix my snooty connoisseur instincts with the solid practicality of a socially and fiscally responsible citizen, the more appealing freezing has become. Put in plain language, it can’t help the rain forest to have a bunch of coffee snobs tossing out three-week-old beans.

How can you tell if the beans you’re grinding are fresh? The most reliable indicator that is not entirely subjective is to grind and brew some coffee. If the beans still have what I’ll call “life” in them, they will foam up as you first pour hot water over the grounds, in either an automatic or manual coffee maker. This denotes the presence of carbon dioxide. I’ve seen roasters find some coffee laying around unmarked by a date on its package and brew a small batch. After they saw no foaming, they simply pronounced it “dead” and tossed it out.

Speaking of roasters, in my experience, most of my friends who roast are not ideal guides to dealing with preserving freshness or how to use stale coffee to its best advantage. Simply, it’s like asking a wine merchant how to best utilize cheap bottles of wine. Why on earth would they take home cheap bottles, when they have discount (free?) access to the best ones? Most roasters simply take home a small amount of today’s roasted coffee for tomorrow morning’s home brewing. They also likely pay little or nothing for them, so if there’s any question, they can afford to toss them out. So, you really need to find others like myself who are stuck with buyer’s remorse and stale beans on occasion and must learn to struggle to make them work, which is why Fellow’s post is so noble and why they just might know something. chemex-fresh-coffee-foam

I have presupposed that most of our readers own a grinder and buy only beans. Frankly, pre-ground coffee is often the best ground coffee – that is, no matter which home grinder you own, it is unlikely to grind as authoritatively or meet specs as rigidly as does any commercially ground coffee from a major coffee company. In a perfect world (I can dream can’t I?) coffee would be pre-ground and packaged so perfectly as to figuratively freeze its attributes. From my subjective tastings, the most knowledgeable company in the world regarding packaging pre-ground coffee is Illy. They do a lot of R&D on packaging and if anyone could really claim to rival home ground fresh coffee with their pre-ground canned versions, I think it would be them. However, they really focus on a select market which is too limited to satisfy my appetite to drink coffee from various small farms around the world, which is the hobby of so many of us.

I hope to post more about this subject as I more thoroughly study and digest the Fellow article’s recommendations. Stay tuned.

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Coffee on the Auction Block

Marcel Duchamp upon viewing an airplane propeller close-up for the first time in 1934. “There is no way painting can compete with this”, was his final proclamation.

While I’m not ready to toss out my favorite objects d’art to collect only assorted industrial designs, I will admit to a certain fascination with inventions of the machine age.

While conventional artworks adorn the walls, or take up space in an otherwiase vacant corner, machines look cool and do thing. Some of the best designed coffee gear is beyond function in its appeal, at least I think so.

Apparently so do others, all gathered together under a canvas tent to outbid each other on some of the treasures sold from the recently closed John Conti Coffee Museum, in Louisville, Kentucky.

So it was, that Patricia Fitzibbon and I flew in for a visit and the possibility of finding some new acquisitions for our growing collection.

Like all great artworks, great industrial designs tell a story, the development and refinement of human invention. For this reason, as much as I detest certain aspects of shopping malls, for example, they are, in effect, modern art museums. Often, their “exhibits” are a better reflection for the life and times of our modern world than the so-called modern art museums, which often appear to me as out of touch embittered mausoleums for the rich, demonstrating only how remote the aristocrat has become from their previous leadership roles. Of course, to deny the rich their role in defining the shopping mall would be in itself a great mistake.

Anyway, back to Louisville, John Conti, Louisville’s premier local roaster, amassed quite a collection over the past 17 years, and had until this year, displayed most of it in a museum open to the public. Although well attended, Conti, probably realizing he had at least one of everything, decided to call it quits, keep a few choice items and allow his booming wholesale coffee business take up the museum space. His museum closed officially in January.

Auctions such as this are as close as most collectors can get to a Las Vegas-style adrenaline rush, and energy to all this that I found quite appealing. I was probably lucky that I forgot my check book, or this issue would be printed on cheaper paper stock. First, the most surprising thing to me is that old coffee tins do very well in commanding respectable or perhaps the word is “outrageous” prices. Save your old Maxwell House cans. Or is it just nostalgia for the time when these brands were still quality names, which means any can after 1075 is likely worthless. For what it’s worth, I saw Saturday morning sales of 1940’s Folgers coffee cans starting at $70. All I know is I was saving my cash for more interesting stuff.

I was glad I did because soon, the bidding moved on to some classic coffee grinders. Those who think latest is always greatest will be surprised when I tell you that coffee grinders were better fifty years ago. Hobart and others built grinders for shops that did a better job on the grinds most customers used then (and still do). The fact that they were so well built is in evidence by the number of them still in existence, and for this reason, they are the bargains of collectors. I was able to pick up a 1920’s Hobart for just $40. As expected, the unit performed perfect grinds, with no adjustment the moment I got it home. I picked up another less-well-known grinder for $12. The ultimate slap in the face of new technology came when the auctioneers raffled off an almost-new Ditting Swiss grinder (current new retail: $1,200) for five dollars. It was a surreal moment, but I have to remember that I was among collectors and, in fairness to the Ditting, it isn’t bad (although it does nothing to unseat the Hobart) it’s just not rare or old.

Many of the action’s participants were members of the Mill Association, a collectors’ group dedicated to old grinders. One of its members told me that he doesn’t even drink coffee, after I asked him which grinder he thought did the most even grind. I still can’t quite understand what possessed him to become obsessed with grinders for a product he doesn’t consume, but, I will say that this group added a strong presence to the ceremonies. There were others who were also coffee connoisseurs and our discussions were lively and fruitful. It was nice to discover that there were others outside the few I know, who realize the value of these products.

This article would be remiss if it did not highlight the presence of Ed Kvetko, former CEO/co-owner of Gloria Jeans Coffees. Kvetko, who long ago told me of his dream of establishing his own coffee museum, was there, along with Gloria Jean herself and his now-endless supply of money, which on at least one occasion, he used to outbid me.

It became first unusual, then irritating, and ultimately humorous to hear the auctioneer’s gavel pound the table, followed by “number five”, Ed’s bid number. After awhile, members of the audience, having no recourse since they were constantly being outbid, behind chanting Ed’s number in unison in sync with the auctioneer. Whereas I and others needed to raise out hands to grab attention of our bids, “number 5”, never out of the interest of the auctioneer, was able to take home all kinds of objects by the slightest raise of his eyebrows to signal interest. Ed’s body language was the only clue one had as to the possibility of outbidding him. At times, when an object would obviously only serve as backup for one already in his possession, Kevtko would sit relaxed in his chair and conveniently stop bidding at just over $20, allowing the middle class participants an opportunity to pick up this or that knick-knack.

Other times, however, Ed would move forward on the edge of his sea, at rapt attention, cigarette dangling from his lip and immediately outbid even the bravest of competitors. Considering that I know Ed has been around the world on similar expeditions, I can’t wait to see his final museum, which he told me he’s locating near his house in Fort Myers, Florida.

After finally outbidding “number five” on a Michael Sivetz-designed (and signed) home roaster, I finally relaxed, only to enter an accidental bidding war with Patricia. Although she was sitting immediately to my right, we became confused during a bid for a 1970’s Kitchen Aid consumer grinder. Knowing how much I wanted it, Patricia entered a bid, which I heard but did not realize she had made. In the tension and confusion, I raise the bid, to the surprise of the auctioneer, who knew we were together, although he realized a good thing when he saw it, and snapped his gavel to close the sale. I glanced over at Kvetko, who smirked.

Now I know why Gloria Jean kept silent the whole time.

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