We don't have a secret formula, guaranteed to deliver the ultimate coffee experience. We do know that there are a finite number of conditions which must be addressed to maximize flavor delivery. We'd like to describe some of the measures we employ to ensure the bean contains its full flavor content when it reaches your door, AND what techniques you might want to practice in storing, preparing and serving this high-line coffee product.
Keep in mind, our focus is to attend to every possible detail from "bean to cup"... to ensure you have the best possible coffee experience. This area needs to consider how the bean is handled from the moment it drops from our roast hopper into the cooling tray, until it is placed into your grinder. As mentioned above, the main cause of flavor loss is the evaporation and deterioration of oils and compounds held in the bean. This process of degradation is unavoidable, and the clock begins ticking the moment the roast finishes. However, it can be slowed greatly by keeping the beans sealed air tight (excluding oxygen) and keeping them cool. Primary considerations:
The concern over the potential effect of this "molecular change" must be weighed against the more dramatic, known loss of flavor over time when stored at room temperature. Coffee degrades or "goes stale" at an alarming rate at room temperature. In a sealed container (with minimal airspace), ground coffee will loose a noticeable amount of freshness in a few hours. Whole coffee beans will last considerably longer, perhaps in the 3 to 5 days range. Refrigeration will double this range and freezing can extend freshness to 3 or 4 weeks. Now, all these numbers are just one person's opinion, but they are based on many years of thoughtful experimentation. You may find they are close to the mark.
Our recommendation is: make sure the coffee is fresh roasted. Don't accept the "best if used by" date. If the roast date is not marked on the bag OR the roast date is more than 7 days ago, it is not fresh. Any coffee which will not be consumed within 3 days should be refrigerated or frozen. The container must be air tight and should have a deformable shape so as to allow for the evacuation of air prior to sealing. When dispensing coffee beans into the grinder, minimize air circulation and transfer in the container and reseal as quickly as possible. One pound bags are preferable over two pound bags for dispensing to the grinder. It is often suggested that you protect roasted beans from sunlight during storage. The clear bags we use are perfect for storage in the refrigerator or freezer. If you wish to store a small quantity on the counter top, you should use a small, opaque, air tight container for this purpose.
Fallacies which deserve to be debunked:
Our packaging practice:
We place the fresh roasted beans into their ziplock bag within 1 hour after the roast is finished. With vigorous off gassing still taking place, we can be sure there has been zero infiltration of oxygen. The beans can not absorb oxygen while the bean's interior is at greater than atmospheric pressure. At this time the bag's zipper is closed tight, just short of snapping the last 1/2" of seal. In this configuration, outside air is excluded. Only the pressurized gas inside is allowed to escape, effectively evacuating all oxygen from the bag. We snap the seal tight just before putting your coffee into the box for postal pickup. In some instances you will see the bag is still slightly puffy from gas pressure inside: this is not air and the beans are well protected from oxidation until the ziplock is opened.
If effective, why isn't this technique employed by more roasters? Because it is very labor intensive. We are a low volume custom roaster. The extra measures we take to enhance flavor delivery is very much appreciated by our customers. This practice requires monitoring bagged coffees in an "off gas" staging area. We know when the coffee is ready for final sealing and boxing when the pressure in the bag has visibly lessened. The period of time depends on many factors and is not predictable. If the bags are sealed too soon, the continued off gassing may cause the ziplock to open or the bag seam to rupture. This is just not a procedure which is compatible with most roaster's operations. Perhaps one day we will be so busy as to force a reexamination of options. Until then, it is the low tech, ultimate solution to fresh packaging.
Coffee blending is truly an artistic endeavor and is perhaps as old as the noble arabica plant itself. Scott Brothers Coffee has been slow to adopt the popular practice of blending, preferring to supply our customers with the finest pure origin coffees available in the world. We feel there is a strong argument to be made for building an understanding of, and appreciation for the diverse range of unique coffee characteristics. Specialty coffee roasters often organize our sensory evaluation into the following categories: aroma, acidity, body, flavor, and finish. In learning to evaluate a cup's quality, it is often helpful to compare and contrast different coffees using these terms. Single country origin coffees are the best starting point (and for many of us, the best ending point).
We encourage our customers to try many single origin coffees to learn to distinguish some of the strong regional traits before they jump into blends. If you have one or two or three single origin coffees on hand, you can experiment with different ratios of each to create your own blends. It is very probable you will arrive at a blend which is more rewarding than any "designer" blend available anywhere. Talk to Rich or Dave in the shop, we would be delighted to share our own experiences with blending and to help guide you with selections.
This is a subject that often gets less attention than it deserves. Unless your preferred method of brew is "cowboy style" the fineness and consistency of grind can have a very significant effect on the quality of the brew. Generally speaking, the fineness of the grind should be proportionate to the amount of time the grounds are to be in contact with the water. More specifically, to the extraction contact time. This distinction must be made because some brew methods, such as the french press leave the grounds in contact with the water after the extraction process has ended (more on this in the next section). Here is a basic guideline (the following has been copied from a web page at: aabreecoffee.com which, by the way, is an excellent place to purchase a good grinder. Very competitive prices, free shipping, and good service.) :
Coarse Grind: As the name implies, the resulting grinds are comparatively large, with each chunk of bean particle having the approximate size of a particle of common sand, or larger. This grind is suitable for percolators, French presses, pour through makers and drip coffee makers.
Medium Grind: Often known as the "general purpose grind" that is also used as the grinding level for most grocery store pre-ground coffee. The size of the granules resembles the consistency of table salt. A medium grind is very suitable for most auto and manual drip coffee makers and vacuum brewed coffee makers.
Fine Grind: The starting point for an espresso grind, where the granular particles are closer to the size of fine pepper than to salt. When coffee is ground this fine, several factors come into play. You've exposed more overall surface area per mg that the brewing water can contact - excellent for a nice full extraction in espresso. But by grinding this fine, you've increased the resistance the grind gives to the passage of water - this means that a fine grind may clog up a paper filter in an auto drip coffee maker, but the 9 BAR (or greater) pressure of an espresso machine has enough power (some 135 psi worth) to push through those grounds and deliver you a rich, full beverage.
Turkish Grind: This is the finest of all grinds, and resembles the granular consistency of icing sugar - a fine, yet textured powder. Turkish coffee is a very demanding brewing method, requiring a ritual of bringing a pot of water, coffee grounds and sugar to boil 3 or 4 times, and serving it up in special sized cups. A Turkish grind is the most demanding grind you can ask for from a grinder, and most consumer models are unable to produce it, but some can.
In addition, to these four common levels of grind fineness, you have cross over levels, such as Medium Fine (used for some drip machines, some vacuum brewers, and in stovetop espresso/coffee makers), or Fine Turkish, which is often the grind of choice for most commercial grade espresso machines.
I have once again relied on the the excellent reference material at "The Coffee Review" for this introduction to brewing methods. http://www.coffeereview.com/reference.cfm
No matter what we call them, all ways of brewing coffee are basically the same: The ground coffee is soaked in the water until the water tastes good. Nobody, to my knowledge, has figured out a different way to make coffee. The only equipment you really need to make great coffee is an open pot, a flame, and, possibly, a strainer.
It is a tribute to human imagination and lust for perfection, however, that the simple act of combining hot water and ground coffee has produced so many ingenious variations and occupied so many brilliant people for uncounted hours over the past three centuries. Thousands of coffee makers have been patented in the United States and Europe, but of this multitude only a handful have had any lasting impact or embodied any genuine innovation. The few ideas to achieve greatness can be divided according to three variables: how hot you make the water; how you get the water to the coffee, and how you separate the spent grounds from the brewed coffee.
Now for the inevitable list of brewing rules and precepts.
Some don'ts: Do not boil coffee; it cooks off all the delicate flavoring essence and leaves the bitter chemicals. Do not percolate or reheat coffee; it has the same effect as boiling, only less so. Do not hold coffee on heat for more than a few minutes for the same reason. Do not mix old coffee with new, which is like using rotten wood to prop up a new building.
Ninety-nine percent of a cup of coffee is water, and if you use bad, really bad water, you might just as well give up and buy a jar of instant. If the water is not pleasant to drink, do not make coffee with it. Use bottled water or a filter system. Hard, or alkaline, water does not directly harm flavor and aroma, but does mute some of the natural acids in coffee and produces a blander cup with less dry brightness. Water that has been treated with softeners makes even worse coffee, however, so if you do live in an area with hard water, you might compensate by buying more acidy coffees (African, Arabian, and the best Central American origins) or by brewing with bottled or filtered water. Some automatic drip coffee makers come equipped with built-in filters. Although these integral filters are effective, they seem fussy and over specialized to me. It might be better to buy a filtration system that can be used for all of your water needs, rather than one that is irrevocably stuck inside the coffee brewer.
About 70% of the coffee consumed in the United States is brewed with paper filters, a method that produces coffee in the classic American style: clear, light-bodied, with little sediment or oil. Any other brewing method (except cold water concentrate) produces a coffee richer in oils and sediments and heavier in flavor than the typical American cup of filter coffee. Those adventurers who experiment with other brewing methods should keep this difference in mind.
Convenience and a clear, transparent cup seem to have driven the success of the automatic filter drip brewer, which in the years since its introduction in the early 1970s has become America's favorite brewing device. The heart of the automatic filter drip system is the familiar paper filter, filter holder and decanter. The machine simply heats water to the optimum temperature for coffee brewing and automatically measures it over the ground coffee in the filter. The brewed coffee drips into the decanter, while an element under the decanter keeps the coffee hot once it is brewed. You measure cold water into the top of the maker, measure coffee into the filter, press a switch, and, in from 4 to 8 minutes, obtain 2 to 12 cups of coffee.
Furthermore, the manufacturers of these brewers have considerably improved their performance over the past 15 years. Most of the leading makers have resolved such problems as ground coffee floating or forming a doughnut around the edge of the filter basket, variations in water temperature, and excessively slow or fast filtering.
Some years ago, I was certain that I could make better filter coffee than any of these machines could simply by pouring the water over the coffee myself by hand. Now I am not so sure. Even the cheapest, mass-marketed machines have improved, with most of the egregious performers of yesteryear eliminated from the shelves. A rather rigorous 1999 test in which I took part turned up no bad performers whatsoever among the models tested. Furthermore, the low-end, mass-marketed brewers performed almost as well as a selection of more expensive, high-end models. It appears that the main criteria for choice in these brewers are appearance, the prestige of the manufacturer's name, and, above all, an impressive and often baffling array of special features.
Fewer and fewer people choose to pour the water over the coffee themselves when automatic filter drip brewers sell for as little as $15 or $20. Reasons to pour-over yourself: The basic plastic cone and glass decanter set is still the cheapest brewing device on the market, short of a tin-can and coat hanger; pour-over units do not require counter space; you can be absolutely sure all the ground coffee is saturated because you are doing the pouring yourself; and you can congratulate yourself on being a coffee purist.
Most importantly, however, you can stir the water and grounds in the cone as they steep. This last possibility is of great importance to some aficionados. I live in an area dominated by the cult of Peet's Coffee, and friends often ask me why, when they get their pound of Major Dickason's Blend home, they cannot get it to taste like the extraordinarily deep-bodied but clear-tasting drip coffee they drink at Peet's stores. For two reasons, I tell them. First, they need to brew extremely strong (about 3 tablespoons of ground coffee to every 5-6 ounce cup), and second, they need to stir the grounds as they steep, an impossible gesture with automatic filter drip brewers. So if you do prefer a coffee almost as full-bodied as French press but without the French press grit, you may need to experiment with a manual pour-over brewer. After you saturate the grounds, stand over the brewer and stir with a long-handled spoon until most of the coffee has exited the filter.
The disadvantages to manual pour-over filter drip brewers? In addition to the obvious inconvenience of heating and pouring the water yourself, it is also very difficult to keep the coffee hot. You need to either pre-heat the decanter and drink the coffee immediately, keep the decanter atop an electric warmer or other heating device, or brew directly into a pre-heated insulated decanter, probably the best approach.
At the most democratic end of the price-design spectrum for manual pour-over brewers are simple plastic filter holders, sold either with matching decanter or without. More costly and more idiosyncratic are various models of the nostalgic, defiantly impractical Chemex, the ancestor of all American filter drip brewers. The Chemex was developed from, and still resembles, a well-made piece of laboratory equipment. Many find its austere design (honored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York) and authentic materials (glass and wood in the traditional models) attractive, but the single-piece hourglass shape makes cleaning difficult. Another classic option is a matching porcelain cone and decanter from Melitta with classic, rounded lines reminiscent of traditional French drip pots.
French press is essentially open-pot coffee with a sophisticated method for separating the grounds from the brew. The pot is a narrow glass cylinder. A fine-mesh screen plunger fits tightly inside the cylinder. You put coarse-to-medium ground coffee in the cylinder, pour water just short of boiling over it, and insert the plunger in the top of the cylinder without pushing it down. After about 4 minutes, when the coffee is thoroughly steeped, you push the plunger through the coffee, clarifying it and forcing the grounds to the bottom of the pot.
The plunger pot was apparently developed in Italy during the 1930s, but found its true home in France after World War II, when it surged to prominence as a favored home-brewing method.
The growing popularity of this method in the United States has unleashed a flood of French-press brewers, most of them manufactured everywhere except France. A consumer's first decision in purchasing such a brewer is whether to spend a little money on a version that supports the glass brewing receptacle in a plastic frame ($15 to $30), or to spend considerably more on a brewer with a metal frame ($40 to the totally unreasonable). A third alternative, and a good one, are designs that insulate the brewing receptacle to keep the coffee hot after brewing.
The coffee the plunger brewer produces is heavy and densely flavored. The subtle, aromatic notes present in fresh, well-made filter coffee are overwhelmed by a deep, gritty punch. Many coffee drinkers prefer such coffee; others may find it muddy and flat-tasting. Those who take their coffee with milk or cream may prefer it; those who drink their coffee black may not. Some may like it after dinner but not before. It is neither better nor worse than coffee made with filter paper, just different. Its heavyish flavor and dense body are owing to the presence of sediment, oils, and minute gelatinous material that chemists call colloids, all of which largely are eliminated by paper filters.
Style of coffee aside, the advantages of the plunger brewer are its drama, its portability and its elegance, all of which make it an ideal after-dinner brewer. It is more difficult to clean than most drip or filter pots, and, unless you buy a design with an insulated decanter, the coffee must be drunk immediately, which is just as well, since coffee ought to be drunk immediately.
Many connoisseurs argue that the quintessential expression of coffee is espresso: that diminutive heavy china cup half-filled with a dark, opaque brew topped by a velvety thick, reddish brown froth called crema. Composed of tiny gas bubbles encased in thin films, the surprisingly persistent crema locks in the coffee's distinctive flavors and aromas and much of its heat as well. Espresso—the word refers to a serving made on request expressly for the occasion—is brewed by rapidly percolating a small quantity of pressurized, heated water through a compressed cake of finely ground roasted coffee. The resulting concentrated liquor contains not only soluble solids but also a diverse array of aromatic substances in a dispersed emulsion of tiny oil droplets, which together give espresso its uniquely rich taste, smell and “mouthfeel.”
Espresso is several things at once. It is a unique method of brewing in which hot water is forced under pressure through tightly packed coffee, one or two servings at a time. It is a roast of coffee, darker brown than the traditional American roast but not extremely dark. In a larger sense, it is an entire approach to coffee cuisine, involving not only roast and brewing method, but grind and grinder, a technique of heating and frothing milk, and a traditional menu of drinks. In the largest sense of all, it is an atmosphere or mystique: The espresso brewing machine is the spiritual heart and esthetic centerpiece of the great coffee palaces, the cafés and coffee houses of the world.
The espresso system was developed in and for cafés. Despite advances in inexpensive home espresso systems, it is still difficult to duplicate the finest caffe espresso or cappuccino in your kitchen or dining room without spending several hundred dollars on equipment. Even those on a budget can come close, however. For now, I want to discuss the big, shiny caffe machines.
Fundamentally, they make coffee as any other brewer does: by steeping ground coffee in hot water. The difference is the pressure applied to the hot water. In normal drip brewing processes, the water seeps by gravity down through ground coffee, loosely spooned into a filter. In the espresso process, the water is forced under pressure through very finely ground coffee packed tightly over the filter.
A definition of espresso along technical lines is perhaps least ambiguous: Espresso is coffee brewed from beans roasted medium to dark brown, with the brewing accomplished by hot water forced through a bed of finely-ground, densely-compacted coffee at a pressure of approximately nine atmospheres. The resulting heavy-bodied, aromatic, bittersweet beverage is often combined with milk that has been heated and aerated by having steam run through it until the milk is hot and covered by a head of froth.
To extend the technical definition somewhat, we might say that espresso is an entire system of coffee production, a system that includes specific approaches to blending the coffee, to roasting it, and to grinding it, and that emphasizes freshness through grinding and brewing coffee a cup at a time on demand, rather than brewing a pot or urn at a time from pre-ground coffee and letting the result sit until it is served.
Defining espresso culturally and historically is more problematic. The taste for a dark, heavy, intense coffee, sweetened and drunk out of little cups, is obviously much older than the espresso machine itself, and may stretch back as far as the first coffeehouses in Cairo, Egypt, established during the early fifteenth century. On the other hand, technology (and the imagery of technology) is also obviously an important element of espresso culture. Although all coffee-making lends itself to technological tinkering, no other coffee culture has applied technology to coffee-making with quite the passion as the Italians have to espresso. The word espresso itself suggests custom-brewing, as in brewed expressly for you, as well as direct, rapid, non-stop, as in express train. Not only has technology been applied enthusiastically to the actual process of brewing espresso, but the imagery of technology, the idea of modernity and speed, also turns up as a major element in espresso's cultural symbolism.
So culturally and historically we have a paradox. On the one hand, espresso as a general taste in coffee-drinking goes back to the very beginnings of coffee as a public beverage. On the other, Italian espresso culture has refined that taste through a technology that flaunts its modernity.
When we turn our attention to the United States, an historical and cultural definition of espresso might emphasize still another set of connotations. Rather than being associated with modernity and a dynamic urbanism, espresso in America has become identified with various alternate cultures, from Europeanized sophisticate nostalgically evoking tradition, to intellectual rebel attacking it.
There are dozens of other methods for brewing coffee, including the following:
Open Pot Brewing. The simplest brewing method is as good as any. You place the ground coffee in a pot of hot (just short of boiling) water, stir to break up lumps and saturate the coffee, strain or otherwise separate the grounds from the brewed coffee, and serve.
Middle Eastern or Turkish Brewing. Middle Eastern coffee is most often called Turkish coffee in this country, but this is a misnomer. For one thing, it is drunk all over the Middle East, the Balkans and Hungary, not only in Turkey. Second, according to all accounts, the method was invented in Cairo and later spread from there to Turkey. Middle Eastern coffee is unique, first, because some of the coffee grounds are deliberately drunk along with the coffee, and second, because the coffee is usually brewed with sugar, rather than sweetened after brewing. Much of the coffee settles to the bottom of the cup, but some tiny grains of coffee are suspended in the sweetened liquid, imparting a heavy, almost syrupy weight to the beverage.
Middle Easterners like to add spices to their coffee. The preferred spice, and the one I suggest you try, is cardamom. Grind the cardamom seeds as finely as you grind the coffee, and add them to the water with the coffee and sugar. There are usually three seeds in a cardamom pod; start by using the equivalent of one seed (not pod) per demitasse of water, or a pinch if the cardamom is pre-ground.
The only absolutely practical contribution that serving paraphernalia can make to coffee-drinking pleasure is keeping the coffee hot. This contribution is an extremely important one, however. It involves a delicate balance between too much heat, which bakes the coffee, and too little, which leaves the coffee lukewarm and our senses ungratified.
One way to keep coffee warm is to brew it in, or into, a preheated, insulated carafe. The other way is to apply some heat under the coffee as it is brewed.
An insulated carafe is by far the best approach technically. Any external heat, no matter how gentle, drives off delicate flavor oils, cooking the coffee and hardening its flavor.
Fortunately, there is no lack of brewing devices that protect coffee heat in insulated receptacles during and after brewing. Automatic filter drip machines that brew directly into insulated carafes are available in a variety of styles and prices, and several designs of French-press brewer replace the usual glass brewing decanter with an insulated metal or plastic decanter. Designs incorporating insulated carafes typically cost a bit more than those that brew in or into conventional glass decanters, but for anyone who cares about coffee quality it is money well spent.
As for the less-desirable expedient of keeping coffee hot by putting some heat under it, solutions range from the familiar hot plates on automatic drip machines to gentler approaches like candle warmers and insulated cloth wraps for French-press pots. Filter-drip-brewing purists who pour the water over the coffee by hand have the option of keeping their coffee hot by immersing their brewing decanters in a bath of warm water. Simply gently heat some water in any kitchen pan or pot large enough to accommodate both water and brewing decanter, and leave the combination over a very low flame as you enjoy the coffee. Of all of the heat-applying approaches to keeping coffee hot, this one is probably the least destructive to flavor.