Friday, December 07, 2012

Coffee Week: How to Choose the Right Coffee

In the third part of our Coffee Week blog series, Edward Grace offers us some tips on how to select the right coffee.

Choosing Coffee Beans

How should one go about choosing coffee beans? Well, tastes differ and this makes it a slightly tricky question to answer, however, as it is often the case, whatever the taste, there are always some basic principles to observe if you are on a quest to find the most delicious coffee.

Your Coffee Must Be Fresh

First and foremost, your coffee must be fresh. If stored properly (see my previous post), roasted coffee beans are at their best for about a month after roasting. Again, if stored properly, the life of roasted coffee can be extended somewhat, but fading of taste and aroma will be increasingly noticeable with every new day. Any respectful speciality roaster puts the roasting date on the bag, if the roasting date cannot be found on the bag - this is usually not a good sign and suggests the roaster prioritises operational efficiencies (afforded by long sell by dates) above the quality of your coffee.

Ground coffee loses its freshness incredibly fast. Coarsely ground coffee (say ground for cafetiere) will lose most of its freshness in about three days. Fine ground coffee (e.g. ground for espresso) will lose half of its freshness in about 15 minutes! Whatever brewing method you choose, we recommend grinding coffee immediately before brewing. Even using the cheapest of blade grinders is immensely better than using ground coffee, however, if you are serious about your coffee, we recommend getting a burr grinder (my earlier post, how to brew the perfect cup of coffee, includes some inexpensive burr grinder recommendations). Burr grinders are designed to grinds coffee into particles that are significantly more uniform in shape and size than those achieved with a blade grinder – this in turn allows uniform extraction of coffee preventing excessive bitterness and allowing consistent control of brewing times.

Coffee is an agricultural product and as such its freshness is not limited by how recent the roasting date is. The green coffee used by the roaster should be seasonally fresh. Once harvested and processed, depending on the quality of processing and the method of storage green coffee is at its best for a period of up to nine months. It is the responsibility of the roaster to ensure that the coffee they roast is fresh. Very unfortunately some roasters often use green coffees that are well past their seasonal glory, usually hiding the unpleasant signs of green coffee age behind the darkness of its roast. It is much harder to hide the age of coffee in a lighter roast, so, generally, if you like your coffee and it is roasted in the light to medium-dark range, the chances are it is seasonally fresh.

Pay Attention to Varietals, Origin and Processing

There are dozens of varietals of Arabica coffee and, complemented by environmental and climatic factors, they all have different taste. In addition to varietals and environmental factors, the processing of coffee has a major impact on its taste. Washed coffees tend to have very clean taste, whilst natural processed coffees are often more earthy, sometimes gamey, sometimes overtly fruity or slightly (and sometimes not so slightly) fermented. Nothing beats tasting when choosing a coffee, but once you have paid attention to the cultivars, origin, altitudes and processing, you will find it immensely easier to select coffees that you really like.

Coffee Strength

Finally, what about your coffee strength? To be honest, "coffee strength" is as misleading a term as a sell by date. Coffee strength refers to the degree of roast, i.e. "stronger" coffee is a darker coffee. However, the darkness of coffee has nothing to do with how strong (in terms of coffee flavours or caffeine extraction) your beverage is. It is simply a reference to body resultant from the progressively increasing (with a degree of roast) presence of roasty flavours. Generally, a darker roast hides the subtleties present in the lighter roasts and this is precisely why the majority of most delicate and exquisite coffees are roasted light. This is not to say that a dark roast is necessarily bad; some coffees take a darker roast well, preserving their acidity and taking on a very interesting character, but most coffees, unless they have too many defects or show signs of age that need to be hidden, do better as a lighter roast.

Darker coffee does not contain more caffeine. The process of roasting does not add or remove caffeine from the coffee beans. True, as coffee is being roasted darker, everything else being equal, it loses more of its moisture content and by weight darker coffee will have slightly more caffeine, but this effect is marginal and generally it is negated by a plethora of other variables such as varietals, elevation (higher grown coffees are denser and lose less weight through roasting than lower grown ones) and so on.

Extraction of coffee, expressed as percentage of the final brew, is probably the only way to measure correctly how strong your coffee is. However, coffee, unlike tea, has a very narrow sweet spot – it does not taste great if it is under or over-extracted. This is precisely why most of the speciality coffee associations, and there are quite a few of them on both sides of the Atlantic, including SCAA (Speciality Coffee Association of America based in the US) and SCAE (Speciality Coffee Association of Europe based in the UK), recommend almost identical extraction ratios for brewed coffee. It really does not matter how light or dark your coffee is, to get the best taste of your coffee you need to consistently extract about 20% of coffee to achieve about 1.35% concentration of coffee in your ready brew. Needless to say, this is easier said than done and this is why coffee brewing is often considered to be nearly as much of a science as coffee roasting.

Don't forget - Coffee Tasting with The Beanberry Coffee Company - at Tastes Delicatessen, 92 High Street, Eton - on Sunday 9th December - between 11am and 3pm.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Coffee Week - How to store coffee

In the second part of our Coffee Week blog series, Edward Grace tells us how to store freshly roasted coffee beans.

There appears to be a lot of confusion among coffee drinkers as to how roasted coffee should be stored. Almost everybody heard or read that coffee should be stored in a cool dry place, but what does it actually mean?

Well, roasted coffee loses freshness incredibly fast. Contact with air, high temperature, moisture and exposure to light are all contributing to the loss of flavour and aroma. Good storage is nothing else but limiting these factors as much as possible and this is where key storage principles come into play.

Storage principles:

1. The lower the temperature, the slower the loss of freshness.

2. Humidity is a huge problem. Coffee beans are meant to be dry.

3. If humidity issue is addressed, fridge or freezer is good, freezer is better.

Generally, we do not recommend using fridge or freezer to keep the bag of coffee which is constantly being pulled out, opened, closed and put back. Condensation will start building up immediately upon retrieval from the fridge/freezer and that is not good.

If you have just bought enough coffee to last for a week, it is just best to keep it in a tight container or a bag somewhere in the larder, away from sources of light and heat. However, if you have more coffee than you can enjoy in a matter of days, you have to start thinking about how to retain freshness of the coffee that you will be having later on.

If coffee is just put away for a long time, and particularly if it is still in the sealed coffee bag, we recommend putting that bag into a couple of zipped plastic bag (to further increase impermeability) and store it in the freezer. Once retrieved from the freezer, we would leave it on the counter in all its wrappings until the temperatures have equalised before opening the coffee bag. We do not recommend putting the coffee bag back.

With this in mind, if you do not consume your coffee fast or you have ended buying more coffee than you can have in a week, we would recommend splitting your coffee into 7-day portions and keeping them in the freezer (properly wrapped and sealed) until their turn comes up. Once out, store the beans in a sealed jar somewhere in the larder and enjoy them before they get stale.

Another good way of storing coffee, once the sealed coffee pouch was opened or the coffee has been removed from the freezer, is in an old clean and dry wine bottle – we would use a rubber cork and a degassing hand pump set (most supermarkets carry those sets for about £3.50 or so). Coffee goes in, cork is inserted and all the air is pumped out. The bottle should be stashed away (into the larder) to keep coffee away from the light - this is a great method to keep it fresh.

Don't forget - Coffee Tasting with The Beanberry Coffee Company - at Tastes Delicatessen, 92 High Street, Eton - on Sunday 9th December - between 11am and 3pm.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Coffee Week - How to brew the perfect cup of coffee

In the first part of our Coffee Week blog series, Edward Grace tells us how to brew great coffee.

To brew great coffee is not difficult, but it does require some basic principles to be observed:


Use good fresh coffee. It is best to grind your coffee right before brewing. Burr grinders are the best.

Coffee to Water Ratio

Use 6 g of coffee for every 100 ml of water - this is a good starting point. Using simple kitchen scales for this is the best. You may want to upsize the water quantity slightly (up to 10%, not more), to allow for retention of water in the grinds at the end of the brewing process.

Brewing Water Temperatures

Ideal water temperature for brewing coffee is 92-93 degrees C. In most of hand brewing methods, the water is boiled and then left to cool. Using a kitchen thermometer will help you find the right point to start brewing your coffee. Allow for the fact that as your brew your coffee the temperature of your water will be gradually falling. Starting brewing when the water temperature just dropped below 94 degrees C should give you a great brewing temperature range.

Brewing Time

The ideal brewing time is between 3 and 5 minutes. Extending brewing time beyond 5 minutes will make your coffee taste increasingly bitter. Shortening the brewing time will result in under-extraction and coffee tasting thin. 4 to 4.5 minutes brewing time is ideal.

Whole Beans or Ground Coffee?

Whole beans. Ground coffee loses its freshness incredibly fast. Grind your coffee right before brewing. A decent electric powered burr grinder can be bought for as little as £40. We like the Krups Expert Grinder (£39.99 in kitchen capers in Windsor) and the more expensive Cuisinart Auto Burr Grinder (£60 at kitchen capers in Windsor).

Little hand grinders such as the iconic Skerton Grinder by Hario or its twin brother by Tiamo (available for £29.99 at Tastes) are even less expensive and, if you are prepared to work a little harder (physically, that is) for your perfect grind, are capable of beating anything electric with a price tag below £100. Blade grinders are not ideal, as they make it very difficult to control the size and the consistency of the grind.

Water Quality

Considering that the strongest cup of coffee is more than 98% water, the quality of water used for brewing is very important. Use fresh chlorine-free soft to medium-hard water with total dissolved solids value (tds) of one hundred and fifty or less. Ideally, the water used in brewing should be pH neutral (about 7 value). Acidic or alkaline water will interfere with the balance and flavour of your coffee. If you have to brew coffee using more alkaline water, it is best to use light roasted coffee, conversely, with more acidic water, darker roasted coffees perform better than the light roasted ones. Generally, if the tap water is of unacceptable quality (which is probably the case for most of South East England), consider using bottled water, but pay attention to it TDS and pH balance. Out of well known bottled water brands that are readily available in the UK we find Volvic and Stretton Hills to be of acceptable quality.

Putting Principles to Good Use

One of the most simple and elegant solutions to making a great coffee at home is using a Melitta style brewing cone and paper filters. Manual drip or a pour over method, as it is commonly known, is one of the simplest brewing methods preferred by many a connoisseur. Tiny droplets of water flow over the coffee grounds extracting all the oils and flavours that make a perfect brew. As with any brewing method, the key parameters should be observed: your water should be 92-93 deg C, you should allow 6 g of coffee per every 100 ml of water (perhaps allowing a little extra - not more than 10%), and the brewing time should not exceed 5 minutes. Follow the simple steps below to make your perfect cup of coffee:

1. Boil the water.

2. Put the paper filter in the dripper cone and pour some hot water through the paper filter (this will prevent any hints of paper taste in your coffee).

3. Discard the water used to pre-wet the paper filter.

4. Place the required amount of ground coffee into the filter.

5. Making sure that your boiled water is the right temperature (93 deg C), slowly pour the water over the grounds in a circular motion. Do not pour more water than is required to cover the grounds - let the coffee bloom and the resultant foam to rise and fall.

6. Pour more water to cover the grounds, repeat this step several times until you have poured the required amount of water.

7. Once all the water has dripped through the grounds, remove and discard the filter.

8. Stir the brew to ensure the even consistency of taste and serve.

9. Enjoy!

Tip #1: Using kitchen scales is a great way to control the amount of water used in brewing. Right before you start pouring water through the coffee grounds, place your brewer (with coffee grounds in the filter) on the scales, set weight to zero and start pouring. Continue pouring water until the indicator on the scales shows the required target weight.

Tip #2: Time your extraction (e.g. brewing) time. If it is too fast, grind your coffee finer, if it is too slow, grind your coffee coarser. Target 4 to 4.5 minutes brewing time and once you are in it, remember the setting on your grinder and keep it. Be prepared for different coffees to brew slightly differently, but, generally, if you are using a drip method, frequent changes of setting on your grinder are not necessary.

Coffee Week

This week, at Tastes, it's ..... week.
Admittedly, not National Coffee Week or anything like that, just something I made up as an excuse to celebrate brilliant coffee. Throughout the week Edward Grace from The Beanberry Coffee Company (that's him in the photo) will be writing guest posts on our blog, and on Sunday Edward will be in the shop offering tasters of his amazing coffees, answering your questions and generally talking about coffee. I hope you enjoy Edward's lessons in coffee (I'm hoping some of his knowledge infuses into me) and can come and meet him at the end of the week.

Coffee Tasting with The Beanberry Coffee Company - at Tastes Delicatessen, 92 High Street, Eton - on Sunday 9th December - between 11am and 3pm.