Coffee, One Year In.

I’ve been drinking coffee for a little over a year now. I’m self-aware enough to know how annoying it may be to hear a guy who has only been drinking coffee for a year say that most people are doing it wrong. I’m going to do it anyway. This shouldn’t be surprising though – the majority rules but is usually wrong. The largest beers by market share are terrible and I can’t imagine drinking them on purpose. People still give money to Comcast. Justin Bieber is a billionaire.

I’ve been pretty thorough this past year though. I’ve experimented extensively with nearly every method of brewing coffee, visited tons of roasters, and tweaked and tweaked. Like most crafts, a lot of what the experts say absolutely matters doesn’t end up making a difference to me. A lot of it turns out to be really important. The work is in teasing out the fluff and introducing more rigor into process. Everything else is subjective. Coffee can get wine-ishly snooty in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable. Obviously drink what you like. But with even just a bit more effort you can drink coffee that is more than just a tool. If you want to drink good coffee, here are the non-negotiables:

Your coffee should contain coffee. If you are taking milk or sugar or syrup, I wouldn’t bother with buying expensive coffee which you will just try to dilute away the flavor of anyway. I make exceptions for espresso based milk drinks since 1)the coffee is diluted with milk in place of water and 2)the milk has an additional role for adding texture to the drink. Never sugar.

**Edit: I don’t have any evidence to back it up, but I suspect that most people developed the habit of adding things to their coffee because the coffee they were drinking when they started was unpalatable without it. If my only option was bitter, burnt coffee, I would probably add some cream/milk to it too to try to mute the grossness. Good coffee doesn’t require this.

Grind your own beans, fresh. With a burr grinder, not a blade. Seriously, this matters. You can find suitable burr grinders relatively inexpensively. Blade grinders produce an inconsistent grind which makes extraction inconsistent and doesn’t allow you to control for the different grind sizes required for different brewing methods. Pre-ground grains go stale quickly since oxidation speeds up, CO2 levels are depleted, and volatile oils and flavor compounds become contaminated or absorbed by moisture in the air since they are water-soluble.

Don’t bother with Starbucks. Pretty standard for the coffee snob to shun Starbucks, and I tried to keep an open mind. But honestly, how can people drink this? I suppose if you are ordering their sugary flavored drinks that have a coffee flavor you can detect if you squint hard enough, then fine. That isn’t coffee so I have no opinion (other than why?). But their actual coffee is burnt. Even their medium roast leaves my mouth tasting like I smoked a cigar for the rest of the day. Over-roasting is a dumb trick you use when 1)you want to ensure consistency or 2)your coffee isn’t fresh. Kind of how like a Big Mac in Arkansas tastes like a Big Mac in Oregon. The easiest way to ensure that Starbucks tastes like Starbucks is to optimize for char, since that isn’t a flavor that will easily fade with time or environmental factors.

Control your brew. Here are the variables that absolutely matter: Water to coffee ratio (I think I’ve settled at 1:16 in most cases), water temperature, grind size, brew time. (The coffee and roast obviously matter immensely too, but I’m not including that here since those aren’t things you control at brew time). Most coffee-making methods are trade offs for which of these variables are easiest to control. One of the few coffee brewing methods I didn’t pursue was the standard automatic coffee maker since so few of these are controllable.

DO NOT BUY A KEURIG. Coffee brewed on a Keurig could be fine. But the company took a decidedly evil turn with their 2.0 machine when they started including DRM on their pods. You know, the same sort of protection they used to put on your CDs to prevent copying that worked out so well? The result is that only their approved, expensive pods will work on your machine. All others are rejected. ((Yes, I know there are workarounds for this. None that I would be happy to have to do every day.))

The other thing they did was to remove support for your own refillable, reusable pods. This makes quite a bit of sense when you consider how big of a rip off the pods are in a first place. You end up paying $80-$90/lb for coffee when you buy pods. This is insane. You can buy amazing coffee for $15-$20/lb if you are buying beans. No wonder they want to lock you in with what you are allowed to brew on your own machine. It’s worked out well for razors and razor blades.

The sad thing is that the 2.0 actually seems to be a pretty capable machine. It appears that brewing information like temperature, time, and volume are encoded on the pod lid, so there is clearly a decent pid in that thing. I could be persuaded if  1)There was firmware that let you get at those settings and 2)You could use your own grounds. Neither of these things are true, nor will they be because Keurig is evil.

So those are the bare minimum. Here are some additional observations from this last year.

Balanced is Boring. I can’t think of a single memorable blend that I’ve had this past year. This was partly self-fulfilling since the more unremarkable blends I tried, the more I stuck to single origins. Of course great blends are a thing that exist, and maybe it is just because I’m new to all of this, but at this point I don’t really want a balanced, neutral cup. Single malt scotch is more fun for this reason – I want  a cup that is distinctive in it’s characteristics as determined by the process and environment it was produced in. I want to enjoy lemony sweetness from Arabic coffee from the Yirgacheffe valley in Ethiopia. I want to tease out the acidity and variety that grows through Kenya’s rich volcanic soils.

It’s funny – to me coffee used to be a flavor used to describe how other things taste. The more I’ve gotten into this, the more I’ve realized that describing coffee as a flavor is about as useful as saying something tastes like ice cream.

Step off, French Press.I won’t go through the advantages/disadvantages of every method I explored but I will comment on my favorite, the Aeropress. This beats the pants off the French Press. With the Aeropress you can brew with nearly an espresso grind, which allows for shorter brew times, less bitter/off flavor extraction, a bigger range of water temperatures, less sediment, and easier cleanup.

The French Press is fine. People swear by it. But it’s a pain to cleanup, you have to use a larger grind, you still get grounds in your teeth, and your brewing time is longer as required by your grind. If I’m choosing a full immersion brew method, I go with the Aeropress every time. Larger volume brews are harder with the Aeropress than a big French Press((This is what my 6 cup Chemex is for)), but really I think that may be the only advantage I see. Lots of people claim that the paper filter of the Aeropress is filtering out too many of the oils that the French Press does not, resulting in a less full-bodied cup((Of course, others cite this as an advantage.)). I’m sure the filter does absorb some, but in my experience 1)the effect has been negligible and 2)you still can clearly see oil in the resulting cup that passes through the filter.

My second favorite brew method is probably doing a pour over. This is more time-consuming than the Aeropress, and coffee prepared this way will be different than an Aeropressed cup (some coffees lend themselves better towards one preparation than another). If I have the time though, I enjoy the ritual of making coffee this way.

Your worse options are going to be the ones that continuously apply heat, like percolators, or the hot plate the coffee sits on all day at the diner. These almost certainly lead to over-extraction and a bitter, unpleasant cup.

Anyway, I’m just scratching the surface here. You can take this as far as you want. Or you can take it even just a little further than bitter burnt coffee that you have to cut with sugar and cream. I think you will be pleased.


3 Responses to “Coffee, One Year In.”

  1. […] what about 2014? As far as hobbies go, I started drinking coffee. That escalated quickly. My charcuterie project lost a ton of steam which was disappointing. I […]

  2. Nate says:

    If you find yourself with no other option than Starbucks, try a clover-brewed cup. The source material (beans) still aren’t fresh enough and tend to be over-roasted, but the end result is better than the percolated stuff.

  3. […] fun: I’m aware that my subheadings are getting ridiculous. Anyway, if you remember from my coffee post I made an exception for milk in espresso based drinks, and I intend to make my share of lattes, […]