I 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.
• 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.
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.”