The following is adapted from The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Any Skill, and Living the Good Life
I was drinking the best cup of coffee I'd ever brewed, without a doubt. Even as a palate idiot, I could tell: it was magnitudes better than anything I'd made before.
My teacher, standing with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face, was a crazy Irishman: Stephen Morrissey, who now works at Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago. In 2008, he was World Barista Champion, whittled down from a starting pool of nearly 3,000 competitors.
For 48 hours in Chicago, Stephen and I tested the entire gamut of coffee-brewing and filtering options, using every tool imaginable. Coffee is more labor-intensive than wine to produce and has three times the "complexity" -- the volume of taste compounds (called organoleptic compounds). In other words, there was a lot of education to cover.
As it turns out, you can make coffee better than almost anyone in your city by following a few rules. Before we look at details, let's revisit 80/20 look at the broad success principles.
Sure, you can go crazy, using special detergents to clean your equipment (Cafiza, JoeGlo), modifying your water for optimal hardness (4-5 grains per gallon), and so on, but there's a point of diminishing returns. According to Stephen, out of the dozens of variables you could tweak, there are three things to focus on first:
1. Buy good coffee beans, ideally freshly roasted.
As Stephen makes clear: "I'm supposed to be one of the best in the world at this shit, but if you give me bad beans, there's nothing I can do to make it taste good."
I got my first batch of beans from Intelligentsia, but there are other good roasters and distributors in the U.S., including:
• Ritual Roasters from SF
• Blue Bottle Coffee from Oakland/SF
• Stumptown Coffee from Portland, OR
• Counter Culture Coffee from Durham, NC
For a cost-practical guideline, aim to consume beans within a month of roast date. Buy in small quantities, as you might buy expensive vegetables or bread.
2. Grind beans in single portions.
Stephen insists that "stale-ish coffee off a good grinder is better than fresh beans (within two weeks of the roast date) off a shitty grinder."
Brewing coffee beans is like cooking garlic. If you use bigger chunks of garlic, the taste is mild; if you put garlic through a press or finely dice it, the taste can be overwhelmingly powerful, even bitter. This is why chefs harp about cutting into uniform size. Coffee's no different.
"Extraction" is the dissolving of bean solids into water. If the grind is inconsistent, the brew will exhibit both sour underextraction (from the large particles) and bitter overextraction (from the smaller particles) at the same time. The solution is using a burr grinder, not a blade grinder. Depending on your budget and time, you can:
A) Take your beans to a good coffee shop, which can use its commercial burr grinder to grind for you.
B) Use a $30-$70 hand-powered burr grinder, as we will later.
C) Use an electrical burr grinder, like the $200 Breville BCG800XL Smart Grinder that I use at home.
The biggest quantum leap for me, regardless of grinding method, was grinding a single-serve portion of beans just before making each cup. This ensures that the oils and flavors end up in your drink and not in the air (oxidized). Again, not unlike garlic, freshly chopped is best.
If you really want to obsess on grinding, I suggest reading "The Dark Age of Grinding."
3. Weigh your coffee and water in grams.
Measuring water by weight (grams) is more reliable than measuring by volume (ounces), since the density of water changes when heated.
Using the metric system fixes the problem: 1 L = 1,000 ml = 1,000 g. The rest of the world may, in fact, be on to something!
My default recommendation for damn good coffee is 2 g per 30 ml/g, commonly translated to 2 g of coffee for every 28 g (1 oz) of water.
Brewing methods for coffee can be categorized as filtered and unfiltered. Just as with sake, some people prefer the crispness of the former; others prefer the flavor depth of the latter. Filtering holds back more oils and fine particles.
Of all the brew methods, my favorites follow. I've omitted French press, my previous fave, because of its far superior close cousin. I've omitted the siphon because, while it looks amazing and it's fun to show off, the coffee produced isn't worth the hassle.
If you're impatient, skip to the last method for the grand winner. Otherwise, each one has a good use:
Hario V60: The "pour- over" was invented in 1908. The most widely used single-cup dripper is the Melitta, but I prefer the V60 dripper from Japanese manu- facturer Hario. Its large, open hole at the base maintains a constant flow, and the curved grooves facilitate an even extraction while preventing pooling. Several of the start-ups I work with opt for the Hario--it can be used cleanly in an office without a sink.
Chemex: The all- American Chemex is unique because of its thicker filters, which are 20-35 percent thicker than other paper filters.
This means they hold back more of the lipids and sediment that can result in bitter flavors, delivering an incredibly clean, sweet cup. Stephen typically uses the Chemex for brewing coffee for more than one person at home.
Technically, his wife, Jen, makes the coffee and he makes the eggs. If he violates this sanity- saving division: "I spend the entire brewing cycle dwelling (pun intended) on variables. I wonder how much coffee I should use to purge. I wonder: Did I store the coffee properly? Will two days off-roast have a big impact? Should I let the grounds sit a little before brewing, or should I brew with hotter water?
I wonder if I should boil the water in the kettle, and then decant into the Buono, or maybe bring all the water to a boil on the hob? Jen makes the coffee while checking Facebook on her phone. She doesn't fuss about it, and when I drink it, I don't think about it, and it's lovely."
Cafe Solo: The Cafe Solo, designed by Claus Jensen and Henrik Holbaek, was introduced by the Eva Solo company in 2003.
This, more than any other brew method, produces a flavor profile similar to what one tastes in a cupping, which is like a wine tasting for coffee. In the Cafe Solo, as in the cupping, there is next to no agitation, and there is no separation of water from the grounds. The grounds settle in a bottom corner during pouring, which keeps the coffee from overextracting.
I made my first truly amazing cup of coffee using the Cafe Solo. I intended to use it as my default method forever.
And then I met the AeroPress.
AeroPress: This is now, bar none, my favorite brewing method.
Remember the Aerobie, the amazing UFO-like disc that you could throw farther than a football field, 20 times farther than a standard Frisbee? Alan Adler, a mechanical engineer and Stanford University lecturer, created it. After conquering the 1980s toy market, he began to obsess over coffee.
The result was the AeroPress, which debuted in 2006. Quickly adopted by the specialty coffee com- munity, it offers a simple way to prepare a small amount of good coffee.
Armed with an AeroPress and a tiny manual hand grinder like the Hario MSS-1B Mini Mill, 28 you can make world-class coffee on an airplane meal tray! No mess and no fuss.
In Stephen's words: "The AeroPress has the thinnest paper filter I know of, and it's an awesome one-cup brewer. People [baris- tas] often use it on flights. They just held the World AeroPress Championship (WAC) in Portland, Oregon. [As cons], it isn't as sexy as the Cafe Solo and has a limited brew volume. Overall, though, the flexibility and mobility of the AeroPress makes it a win."
The paper filter removes many of the brew solids, decreasing perceived bitterness and yielding a clean, light mouthfeel. If you prefer the slightly heavier body and mouthfeel of a French press, no problem. Try the Able Brewing metal filter, which supposedly allows oils to flow through. I was introduced to this option by Brian W. Jones, a cofounder of Coffee Common who has also competed in the WAC.
This article was adapted from The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Any Skill, and Living the Good Life
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