The Flavor of Coffee

September 13, 2011

This is another Guest Post from Pierce Young, a Coffee Professional working primarily for Visions Espresso in Seattle, Washington.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a cupping at Seattle Coffee Works. To say the least, it was one of the most interesting cuppings I’ve ever attended. I feel like “coffee tasting” was the more accurate term, than cupping. There was nothing formal at all about this tasting. There was only one cup of each of the 18 coffees, as opposed to the usual 3 (and sometimes 5) cups that are laid out to taste each coffee. Amongst the decaf, the blends, the Roasted For Espresso, the natural processed and the washed coffees, everyone found something they liked.

People wove to and from the cupping table, and around each other in a maelstrom of activity. The talk of the table was the Ethiopia Worka, a naturally processed coffee which tasted strongly of berries and vanilla. And yet, on this table, not three cups away, lay what I considered to be a true gem. While everyone was talking about how flavorful and heavy the Ethiopian was, I was lavishing in the clarity of a balanced cup that had a wonderful complexity, sweetness and a fantastic finish. The cupping was blind, and so at the time we didn’t know where the coffees we were drinking were from, but I had clearly stumbled upon a great washed Central American coffee.

With so many coffees on the table, it was clear that no two tasted the same. The Sumatra was heavy with chocolate and nutmeg, the blends were balanced and smooth, the Central Americans were sweet with light acidity, and the Ethiopians were powerhouses of wild fruit flavor. Sometimes two coffees shared a similar attribute, while others were completely different. Yet if pressed, I’m not sure that I could identify a common element that all of the coffees on the table had. I assume that there must have been one, but I struggle to pin point what it was that made all of those coffee’s taste, invariably, like coffee.

I think that this lies at what the core of what coffee tasting is about. No two coffees will ever be the same (heck, it’s really hard enough to get one coffee to taste the same twice). What makes a coffee wonderful, is how it tastes in comparison to other coffees of the same species, region, or country. And, what differentiates coffees from a certain species, region, or country is how different they are from coffees from other species, regions, or countries. Understanding the permutations of these differences leads us away from appreciating how coffee-like a coffee is, and helps us to understand how unique and amazing every coffee can be. Everyone has an affinity for different flavors. And finding a flavor of coffee which is going to suit your taste, can be a difficult task. But, I think that the start of this adventure is finding a coffee which ultimately doesn’t taste like coffee.

Some very influential people have written some negative things about naturally processed coffees in the past. And, in the past, I was inclined to have their opinion weighing in my mind every time I enjoyed a naturally processed coffee. However, as I attend more and more cuppings with non-coffee professionals, I have begun to appreciate, the differences which allow people to accept coffee as a specialty beverage. It’s always an amazing thing to see someone at their first cupping and watch them experience coffee that doesn’t just taste like coffee. And, in my experience, %70 of the time it’s not a washed coffee which changes peoples opinion about what coffee can be.

Oh, and for the record, the coffee that I loved so much on the table, turned out to be the #1 Cup of Excellence from Columbia. But, who am I to say that on that day, in that blind cupping, that natural Ethiopian coffee wasn’t the winner? Because at the end of the day, it was the natural Ethiopian coffee which I saw change peoples minds about coffee, tasting like coffee. I just happened to notice that the Columbia, while it tasted like coffee, tasted like really really awesome coffee.

Wet Grinding

July 13, 2011

This presentation from David Walsh and the paper he mentions attatched is extrememly important to advancing the field of grinding. Fascinating stuff and I can’t wait to hear what everyone continues to play with as this video reaches a wider audience.

Download Paper with the link below.

Aroma Recovery from Roasted Coffee by Wet Grinding

I’ve been spending quite a bit of my time home-brewing with these little guys. Definitely check them out and think about picking some up from Wrecking Ball (and a bag of their Costa Rica Finca Genesis, an absolutely lovely coffee I’ve been enjoying this week). Shortly I’ll be blogging some thoughts on them for Prima Coffee and their Blog alongside John Letoto, or as some know him, Hermitudinous. Will definitely let you all know here once that material is posted!

Kone 2nd Generation

July 5, 2011

Earlier this year, I reviewed the First Generation Kone from Coava Coffee Roasters out in Portland. I am a big fan of the device for certain coffees, and it certainly brings a different sort of cup to the table than other devices, as it is both a pour-over device, yielding a crisp cup, while also being metal filtered which yields a heavier body with fine particulate in the cup. As well, I’ve been a big fan of Coava, as they are one of the only coffee companies I know of whom are actively working to create brewing devices specifically for speciality coffee, rather than adopting already existing devices and adapting them to their needs (most obvious example of this is the Aeropress).

When I heard that Coava was releasing a Generation Two Kone, I was rightfully excited and couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. They generously agreed to send me another one to review and received it just over a week ago. Immediately one can tell something is different about this filter, it looks more sleek, more pleasing to the eye.

It turns out Coava has been working hard to take in everyone’s criticisms about their first generation filter and turn it into an even better product. They switched up the stainless steel from the last Kone, now it is a high quality matte finished stainless that is far more pleasing to the eye, does not smudge like the previous metal, and is more flexible. Like a spring retains its shape, this stainless is springy and returns to it’s circle shape rather than being easily bent like the last generation Kone.

As well, Coava heard out the criticism of the resulting brew lacking cleanliness and having fine particles in the cup. It turns out the first Kone’s filter hole size and distribution was optimized for the Mazzer Robur-E’s that their coffee bar uses for pour-overs. Espresso Grinders like the Robur output a distribution of particle size at two peaks, one at a slightly larger particle size, one at a slightly smaller particle size, which effectively creates a wall of resistance for the high pressure water espresso machines output to pass through. However, traditional filter grinders try to grind along a single distribution peak, so that all the particles are as consistent in size as possible, allowing for even extraction of all the pieces, leading to less resistance in a filter like the Kone, and allowing fine particles to pass through the bed as there is no “wall” of resistance created by the coffee bed against the filter.

Whereas I had pretty consistent results off my Preciso with the last Kone, I found that the brewer was not forgiving to different grind sizes. I could dial in the filter rather well with the micro adjustments on the Preciso to the point where very little fines passed through, but as soon as the coffee changed I would have to dial in again. However, the new Kone’s smaller hole size and distribution has allowed for more forgiving results. I have been able to use quite a large range of particle sizes and have had very good results thus far, even having one of the best cups in recent memory of the Kone 2 with Heart Roaster’s Kenya Gichathaini using a Guatemala Lab Grinder on a 2.5 setting, just slightly finer than a normal filter grind setting of 3.

I have found, however, that the Kone works best at a dose of 35 grams or more. This dose allows for easily arriving at the proper brew time of 3-4 minutes and gives the least amount of fines, something to do with bed cake filtration I think, but I have no way to prove this theory other than my experiences. As well, the increased turbulence from the kettle pouring from a further distance could be culprit for more fines in the cup from smaller doses. Coava is working on this problem though with the soon to be released One-Cup through the new Able company, which will be the face of all their brewing gear in the future.

Overall, I am supremely impressed with Coava’s improvements to their already fantastic Kone filter, and am looking forward to further developments in their gear as their One-Cup is released this fall. If you haven’t picked a Kone up yet, now is the time. It’s better than ever and more forgiving to the home user and coffee bar using it with a traditional coffee grinder. However, if you normally brew coffee for one person, I would hold off and purchase the One-Cup later this summer when they release it, as I have no doubt it will address the need for a smaller brewing device one can brew coffee on for just one person.

The Brown Coffee Co

June 10, 2011

Aaron and his DIY roaster he built

I had the chance to go home to Houston for a little over a week in May, and during that time decided to road trip out to San Antonio and Austin with my brother to see friends, drink coffee and eat great food. First on the list was Aaron Blanco and his family at Brown Coffee Company. I had tried multiple times before to see his shop/roasting facility but plans had fallen through every time in the past.

Thankfully this time we made it there with no hiccups, and even squeezed in an awesome lunch at Luling City Meat Market on the trip out to SA. Pulled up to the cafe with a warm welcome from Aaron, his wife Jenee and all three of their kids who were happily playing and working on projects in the roasting space. The space includes just a couple of tables that really force those occupying the cafe to chat and get to know each other as they are literally rubbing elbows. And in fact as we came in, we were promptly introduced to both couples frequenting the cafe at the time.

Over the last couple months I’ve been fascinated in places like Brown which subvert the idea of what a coffee shop should be in some sense and wanted to use this blog as a way to recount a couple of the ways that Brown as a shop was fascinating to me. These are just a couple things that really stuck out to me over my visit to their space.

Brown is unique and different first of all in being in a rather out of the way location within a Roasting Facility. The space itself doesn’t look like a normal coffee shop and you probably wouldn’t stumble upon it without hearing about it word of mouth. The menu is rather subversive in only offering what Aaron is confident in serving and doesn’t list the normal dozen drink names that one would see on a coffee shop menu. This subversion keeps the customer from their normal preconceptions and gives the unique chance to offer something different than what the first time customer was expecting.

The intentionality of everything on the menu showcases itself clearly in seeing how little and specifically milk and sugar are offered. The largest milk drink is a traditional cappuccino, and neither milk nor sugar are immediately available at a condiment bar for customer use. While I didn’t have the chance to see how a request for these might be handled, I imagine that having the time to properly engage why they are not available would handle most complaints that would arise. As well, only Lactose Free Milk is offered, which was surprisingly tasty and very sweet naturally.

Alongside this however, is some of the most familiar and warmest service imaginable. This seems to be one of the keys of the success of the cafe, while they serve amazing coffee and keep people coming back who search for quality, they also have empathy and dedicate themselves to forming relationships with their customers. This is something i’ve found personally lacking in my own focus at points, and certainly a wider blind spot in the speciality community as well. It was great to witness the familiarity in which they interacted with their customers, it seems that normally you only get either quality or service and hardly both in the same space.

One of the most interesting menu items was the Cold Brew. They brew some of the most delicious toddy i’ve ever had, Tegu Mill from Kenya was on tap when I was there. They serve it either “Neat” (a concentrate around 3.5-4 TDS straight up in a Gibraltar glass) for here or serve it either “Rocks” (concentrate over Ice) or “Dirty” to go (concentrate over ice with a splash of milk and simple, one of the few appearances of milk and sugar on the menu). I stole the “Neat” idea for Caffe Streets and it’s been a huge hit, Aaron is only charging us minor royalty fees on each one we sell and we have legal obligations to call it “Brown’s Neat™ ColdBrew Goodness” ;).

As Brendan and I discussed some of ideas for what our ideal shop would look like, Aaron contributed some interesting thoughts about high volume versus high ticket. For a production environment to produce the quality of beverage and experience that most of us in the speciality community seek, the goal may not be to serve low priced, high volume drinks. Instead, creating an environment where the service, experience and beverages are of the highest caliber will (hopefully) allow for a perception of value allowing for higher tickets. I continue to be fascinated by this idea and how it’s played out, and will continue to seek places that exemplify this in small ways.

Finally, I respect Aaron’s sense of balance and moderation. In an industry full of early adopters and full on buying into ideology, his moderation is a breath of fresh air to the polemics. For instance, while Aaron has the tools necessary to diagnose and measure, he uses them quietly as training tools to calibrate himself, rather than crutches (something I am guilty of doing). As well, as a dialogue partner he allows himself to have a firm opinion while actually being able to discuss reasons and have a healthy debate, a skill lacking in the simplistic echo chamber of twitter.

As a student of theology, I’ve always loved this quote that perhaps represents Aaron’s thinking in being more nuanced in opinion from his fantastic interview with Colin Harmon (IBC Champion 2009 & 2010, purveyor of 3FE in Dublin):

“As a former theologian I find similarities between doing coffee well and doing theology well: Everyone has their ideas and reflexive thoughts surrounding it, but not all of their ideas are truthful, accurate or even seeking to be so. People often just want a quick, neat answer or turn of phrase. ‘Fair Trade.’ ‘Jesus saves.’ Bumper sticker thinking can really be so damaging to the cause! There is (or needs to be, in my opinion) a bit of a systematic/mystical tension to it that requires something deeper of us if we are to really become students of it and refine ourselves. In coffee I guess we would call that the tension between the art and the science of it: the beauty of honing your craft as you use your senses of sight, smell and hearing to create a beautiful coffee versus gluing your eyes to a timer and temp readout and following a graph on some computer screen.”

All of this to say, it was a fascinating little trip out San Antonio and i’m thankful for the Blanco’s wonderful hospitality and the conversations we had. If you ever make it to San Antonio it would be a huge mistake not to mosey on over to their cafe Wednesday through Saturday.

However, for those of us outside of the promised land of Texas, Aaron’s running an awesome special on Ethiopia Amaro Gayo Dernaye that I had the chance to cup pre-ship samples of. The cup is all lavender (even the greens smelled of lavender!) and florals while still being juicy sweet in the cup. The coffee starts shipping out over the next week or so, and it’s definitely worth a purchase!

Mypressi Review

March 28, 2011

As mentioned previously, recently I was generously sent a Mypressi Twist on loan for a couple weeks so that I could test out the ability of my new Baratza Virtuoso Preciso to work as a home espresso grinder. The test was certainly a challenge as I was often limited on extended time to try and dial in the shots properly due to Work, Class and other commitments. However, I got a few good sessions of testing in, enough to form an opinion about the set up and how it could be made more ideal.

I’ll start out with the great things about the Preciso and Mypressi. I love the Preciso’s micro-adjustments, at every test the ability to make small adjustments was what made its use as a home espresso grinder plausible. The porta-holder insert that comes with the Preciso worked surprisingly well to keep the counter clear from excess grounds in dosing as well as allowing for easy clean up whenever I was done making coffee.

A really simple, but great addition from the last Mypressi is the shot counter on the lid of the water reservoir. One of my complaints on the last version was that it was difficult to keep track of how many shots you had pulled, but this simple no nonsense upgrade allows the user to track how many shots have been pulled on the cartridge.

As much as I’m skeptical of home espresso, I will not hesitate to recommend this pairing to customers interested in purchasing a setup. Fantastic products and a relatively small investment will always be my main priority in researching products for customers, and both of these pass these requirements with room to spare.

Some brief recommendations and fussy things I had issues with. First the lack of a metal tamper included (available for purchase from the Mypressi store) had an impact on consistency shot to shot. The plastic tamper included is useful to make due, but I would recommend anyone looking into this setup to go ahead and upgrade to the metal base tamper. As well, as with any home setup, there is issue in general with consistency shot to shot. It is difficult to hit the same water temperature, dosage, yield of espresso and shot time one after another. Scales, thermometers and more scales are my recommendations for the home user so that there is a higher chance of consistency.

As I am used to brewing filter coffee with super easy cleanup (pop the filter in the trash, rinse out brewing device), it was a bit of a hassle to cleanup and get everything back to par. Partially this was because I was mostly cleaning up the grinder and Mypressi to store for a couple days, as there were very few times I had the time or ability to use it 2 or 3 mornings in a row. Home users should know that cleanup and pulling espresso well is time consuming and potentially frustrating to dial in the coffee well. Some people will love this hobby aspect, others just looking for a quick cup might want to rethink the espresso route.

Unfortunately, near the end of my testing time the grind settings on my Preciso slipped a number of settings, making it difficult to reach a true espresso grind. True to Baratza’s consistently amazing customer service they agreed to exchange grinders with me so that they could check on the problem. This is just one of many examples of what a stand out company Baratza is in handling customers and truly offering both superior products and service than any other consumer grinder company I’ve personally experienced.

All in all, based on my brief usage. I think the setup is both a great bargain and the best sub $500 home setups available. Right now Mypressi is actually running a Preciso + Mypressi bundle for $400 flat, saving you around $115, so jump on it if you have been looking or waiting for the right time!

New Things Brewing

January 27, 2011

As some of you are aware, I just moved back to Chicago and have been looking for work. I recently found a place for myself at a cafe opening tomorrow, January 28th at 1750 W Division in Wicker Park. It’s going to be an amazing shop, multi-roaster with Intelligentsia as the standard to start, the brand new Synesso (the one with digital shot timers, I forget which model it is), V60’s, Chemex and Cafe Solos for brewed coffee (Siphons coming later), a high quality tea program, plus awesome baked goods. It promises to be one of the forerunners of Chicago’s indie shops.

So come check it out and say hello. Hopefully this step will help rather than harm my decision to blog more in 2011 but we will see how it works out. Also, for those in Chicago, a grand opening party is happening on Saturday February 5th, 7-10pm for Industry and Friends.

Coffee Tasting Notes #1

January 25, 2011

Cupping on January 16, 2011:

Barismo Kenya Kianjogu
Roast Date: 1/14/2011
Harvest: 2010
Region: Nyeri
Varietal: SL28 and SL34
Processing: Fully washed and dried
Packaging: GrainPro™
Altitude: 1600-1800 meters
Barismo Tasting notes: “Fresh strawberry, guava, blackberry. Very floral aroma of rose hips and tropical fruit.”

My Notes:
Dry Aroma: sweet lime, almost lemon, currant or berry

Wet Aroma: Deepens from the dry aroma, currant more pronounced, slight rubber/medicinal and vegetal aroma on the break

15 minutes: Carrots, lime, acrid finish

20 minutes: lime, one dimensional

25 minutes: opened up completely, rich blackberry, pineapple, super sweet, lingering tart curd finish, very pleasant, slight vegetal taste underneath

I’ve really loved this coffee so far in the Woodneck, the cloth gives this coffee room to breath and allows for a big body and oily base to ground the huge lime and brightness that makes this coffee shine. I would buy this coffee again.

Stumptown Ethiopia Michelle
Roast Date: 1/12/2011
Michelle, Yirgacheffe
1700–1900 meters
Ethiopia Heirloom

Stumptown Tasting Notes: Perfumed with the fragrance of jasmine pearl tea and fruit blossom aromatics before debuting flavors of huckleberry and rose within a dense mouth feel.

My Notes:
Dry Aroma: Intense bitter cocoa, roasty lingering

Wet Aroma: Sweetens up, hint at honey blossom or molasses, floral and sweet, developed

15 minutes: Bitter cocoa and caramel, boring

20 minutes: Bitter, honey lingering

25 minutes: Big body, huge mouthfeel, sits heavy, sweet chocolate but dull

I think this coffee may have been damaged somehow in shipping, I purchased it from Bagel on Damen in Chicago and it’s possible something happened in transit. I wouldn’t buy this coffee again, it doesn’t deliver on the tasting notes and it’s fairly unpleasant brewed. Haven’t tried much Stumptown but from what I’ve heard, I expect much higher quality than this. The very last brew I made with this coffee was a 1 Liter chemex for a couple guys on the floor, while it did have the most berry in the cup that I’ve experienced, it still was very minimal and was dominated by grain and nuts.

January 25, 2011 Cupping:

Columbia Eduardo Lizacano, Finca Guatavita
Roast date: January 10, 2011
PRODUCER:Eduardo Lizcano
LAND SIZE:8 hectares
FARM SIZE:3 hectares
PRODUCTION:70 bags per year
PROCESSING:Wet milled, covered patio dried
COFFEE NOTES:This coffee has a complex savory aroma and predominant notes of chocolate on the palate. Milk Chocolate, Vanila and fruit with great sweetness.

My Notes:
Dry Aroma: Dry baking cocoa, a bit flat or dead from age

Wet Aroma: Sweetens up, vanilla and soft unidentified fruit

15 minutes: Big rich cocoa, mexican vanilla extract with richness and heavy full body

20 minutes: Vanilla completely, Blue Bell Homemade vanilla ice cream

25 minutes: Grain or Wheat taste, possibly from being old and light roast, Cantaloupe, Melon, or under-ripe strawberry fruit.

Very happy with this coffee thus far. Has retained a good amount of great characteristics even being 15 days past roast. I can only imagine this coffee would be much sweeter with bigger fruit right off roast. I’m going to run this through the Mypressi this afternoon and see how it works out.

As a dedicated barista that spends a large amount of time working on technique and keeping tabs on what’s happening in the industry at the moment, the concept of home espresso brewing has always seemed ridiculous. Sure, my friend who is a moderator on Home Barista has a GS3 and a Compak K10 in his house, but he’s as much of a geek as I am, a barista with a day job. Home Espresso for the normal consumer is what I’m concerned with; when the regular that comes into the shop a couple times a day for a cappuccino asks me what machine and grinder to buy so that he can save money on coffee trips, what do I recommend him? Usually I recommend a V60 or similar device and a basic burr grinder like the Capresso Infinity or Baratza Maestro, about a $125 investment that can get people into coffee at home at an infinite better start out point that the Mr Coffee Maker and a blade grinder.

Unfortunately, many people still like the idea of that “perfect” cappuccino or espresso at home that they get when they go out for coffee. In these cases I tend to gently discourage the idea, as there is quite a bit of time, money and experience required to make anything acceptable at home. Generally I’ll recommend a set up like the Rancilio Silvia paired with a Baratza Virtuoso ($200) or a Rancilio Rocky ($350). which adds up to about a $850-1000 startup investment, not to mention the cost of coffee wasted dialing in espresso every morning and waste in grinder burrs, whereas home drip has much less waste and learning curve.

Opposed to all these hangups I have is the new Mypressi TWIST that is far more accessible from a cost perspective than other home setups ($150 + Grinder Price), as well as being portable enough to store in a cabinet when not in use, whereas home espresso machines will normally take up a large amount of counter space. I had the chance to test one out last summer, but only used it with professional grade grinders that are used at the shop, which is not a realistic situation for the general consumer. I attempted using it with the Hario Skerton hand mill, but after trying 3 different grinds and it gushing, being clogged, then gushing again I gave up because of my weak biceps.

Also for the sake of these same weak biceps, I recently purchased a Virtuoso Preciso primarily for brewed coffee, but I have been curious of it’s performance as a home espresso grinder as well. It’s 40 macro settings plus 11 micro settings give a whopping 440 distinct settings all the way from ‘Too fine to be useful for anything’ to ‘Chunks that aren’t very useful either’.

I recently was able to borrow one of the new Mypressi TWIST, and will be pairing the two over the next few weeks, so watch here for a big post detailing my experiences.


January 24, 2011

I received a nice shipment of used cupping glasses from the SCAA store (for $1.50 a pop, it’s not a bad deal at all), a Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel poster as well as a couple 33 Coffee‘s notebooks that I received for Christmas.

Here’s the thing, I try to cup often when I’m at the shop working to keep educated on coffee so I can better serve my customers as well as for quality control. However, I don’t cup at home hardly ever. Not only does this keep me from really experiencing coffees for all they have to offer because of possible brewing experiments I’m doing at the time, it also leaves me a bit rusty in how I communicate flavors and simple in my tasting notes.

So here’s my resolution. Every time I get a new coffee, I’m going to try my darndest to cup it at least once against one or two other coffees (of other roasters if possible). Honestly, I think you should do the same. As a shop barista, I often have the opportunity to taste a 4-10 coffees every single day side by side with different brew preparations, whereas most consumers hardly ever have the chance. Especially being unemployed in Chicago at the moment, I am realizing that I have to work exponentially harder to continue my education, while at the shop I feel like I am learning through dealing with problems and issues every single day.

This semester I’m going to try to be better about blogging and experimenting, as well as making my 33 Coffee’s handbook public domain. Hopefully this will keep me focused and accountable in my tasting, and hopefully its of some sort of service to you in deciding coffees to buy and tasting the coffees the same I have.

Heres to 2011, eh?