My Ultra Black Montblanc M Ballpoint

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A little time spent searching online doesn’t return much in the way of Montblanc M Ballpoint reviews, a notable exception being this recent post by Mike Dudek. I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised. Perhaps I should be embarrassed about spending this type of money on a ballpoint pen. Money which should be spent on taking me deeper into the unique designs, materials, or custom nib grinds of a fountain pen.

Whether or not the lack of reviews in existence say anything about the hobby itself perhaps missing a beat is a question not really requiring an answer. I think we’d all concede the inexorable draw of the fountain pen is pretty tough to resist, however perhaps comes at the expense of missed opportunity elsewhere? The number of times whether, perhaps, and maybe pop up in these types of posts all point to one thing of course: personal preference. Some might agree with what I have to say below, others wouldn’t be caught dead with a ballpoint. The burgeoning popularity of indie designer and Kickstarter pens is perhaps (there it is again) a sign of interest in broader horizons.

In any event, following on below you’ll only find discussion about a ballpoint pen — one finished in black at that — and certainly no embarrassment. You may recall embarrassment was covered in the initial post about this pen, though squarely in relation to trying to buy the pen, not about buying such a pen.

That said, market analysis or philosophy this post is not. What it is though, is a slightly more detailed look at my Montblanc M Ultra Black Ballpoint. So on with the show.

Look and Feel

Appearance

Yes, it is indeed black, though as I touched on in my previous post, I have a certain fondness for matte and brushed type finishes — think the Baron Fig Squire, Lamy aion, or the Makralon of the Lamy 2000. With the majority of Montblanc pens out there on the glossy side of the ledger, the Ultra Black finish which now exists through some of the range was always going to well and truly tick this box, and I certainly would not have added the M to the fold without it.

One thing to note here though — and plan for it if you are considering a purchase — after some use, your hand will polish a “sheenier” look to the area it comes in contact with (i.e. the middle of the barrel). I’ve gone with this description because while I wouldn’t call it shiny, let’s say it will become less matte – particularly evident when the now slightly contrasting cap is placed back on. And that, friends, is where this pen earns a whole new level of affection from this owner at least.

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A little less matte on the barrel after a few months use

I love it. It’s the polished wood grain on a well-worn tamper handle; the softened, worn leather spine on your notebook cover, or even the small callus on my finger from hours of a resting a pen. It is a sign of earning its keep — a tale of words gone by and thoughts recorded.

Should that process take a little longer than a few months? Maybe, though I’ll take it either way. Is it likely to bother you? Perhaps, however that is something only you can answer. Certainly worth noting though if that sort of thing might be a problem. Particularly so, given the vendor from whom this pen was purchased confirmed seeing this on other Ultra Black finished pens. I’ll assume it is a standard occurrence unless there are a majority of Ultra Black users out there who have not seen such a thing happen with theirs.

Most of you reading would already be aware the M design is a collaboration between Montblanc and designer Marc Newson, with more information available about this through the next link.

The overall design gives an outward impression of solid build, and the aesthetic is one of… yes I’ll say it: simplicity. The appeal of the M design for me has always been the balanced end to end uniformity, offset with that emblem plateau. For those more in tune with design – from Montblanc on Marc Newson’s work:

When his trademark biomorphic style meets the iconic design cues of Montblanc, the result is both unique and timeless.

…the writing instruments’ fluid lines flow gently into one another. Moving from the Montblanc emblem on the cap, along the platinum-plated clip, which magnetically aligns with a white precious resin Montblanc emblem on the perfectly flat “plateau” of the barrel, consummate forms express visionary design.

As I’ve alluded to already, I like it a lot, however I do tend to enjoy what I’d consider “clean, modern design” for want of a better term. While I understand the appeal of colourful swirls and the like, here (whether gloss or matte), I can only ever see this design in uniform colour. I don’t make the decisions of course, and I’m certainly glad Montblanc gave the green light to the Ultra Black version.

Combined with the accents of a gently knurled, gunmetal grip section and a platinum-coated clip, the overall colour palette befits the design and a Montblanc modern aesthetic. The little flair of orange where the section meets the barrel almost has the appearance of an o ring seal, however is simply a deliberate decision to extend the plastic lining from inside the barrel and section for a little flash of colour. I doubt my appreciation wanes without it, however again, I love that it’s there.

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Magnetic cap alignment – almost…

The M is a decent size without being an overly large pen, and I suppose you’d call it a cigar shape, though the ends are a little more blunted than say a Sailor 1911 by comparison. For reference, with the exception of the end taper, the dimensions are quite similar to the Lamy 2000. The snap-on cap and clip are solid, without being overtly flashy. The hero feature of the cap, of course, being the magnetic alignment of the clip with the plateau emblem, which prevents the cap being secured in anything but “perfect” alignment. This feature works almost perfectly, with my clip aligning about 10–15 degrees to the left of the emblem plateau — something which should bother me, however after noticing it in the initial few days after purchase, I’ve not thought about it since, except to raise it in this post.

I’ll touch on my main reasons for picking up the ballpoint version below, however I don’t find any single thing to be the killer feature for the M line of pens. To use that old adage, it is a champion team, which will — they say — always beat a team of champions. It is a pen best taken whole. Probably not the clearest description of things, though sums up my thoughts well enough.

With the Montblanc M range (ballpoint or otherwise) I think it is definitely a case of what you see is what you get. Even from online images, I think you can be fairly confident in your initial impressions of either being fond of the design or not. As always, being able to pick up and hold a pen is certainly an advantage with any consideration around purchasing.

In the hand

So outwardly it is a solid looking pen — what about in the hand? I’d say pretty much the same really.

This is definitely one of those “solid, yet light” pens — even when posted, which apparently was not possible in the initial release, however the M pens now sport a “plateau magnet” to enable posting. In a purely subjective preference, I’m not a poster of any pen (save for those requiring it such as a Kaweco Sport), and here it just doesn’t feel right. I’d say at least 90% of the time the cap is on my desk anyway (another reason the magnetic alignment doesn’t bother me). Other times it will be beside my notebook in a meeting or failing that – in my pocket. If I’m stepping into a meeting within the office, I’ll often carry the pen sans cap anyway.

I’m aware the area around the grip section tends to be another opinion divider with the M line of pens. Heading towards the tip, there is a staged series of steps from the barrel to the section, another down to the convergence nearing the tip, before the refill makes its appearance. The latter two are of no real significance, however the barrel to section transition may be, depending on your grip and preference.

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To some, that flash of orange I mentioned may be a “warning — do not proceed,” however I’ve never really found pens with a step down at the grip to be a problem (though again, it goes without saying that will depend on your grip). In fact, I’ve found this one even less so, for the ballpoint refill gives you a 360-degree option in positioning and practically unlimited angle positions. Essentially every spot is the sweet spot. Choking down on the grip a little results in all my fingers residing on the knurled section, or moving further up the barrel, my index finger controls the section, thumb and middle finger above it. I tend to fluctuate between the two, and as you can imagine, use the step as a reference point.

For the type of money we are talking about, I’d say everything certainly does need to be just about perfect — so if you have any reservations at all about this feature in the design, I’d recommend an in-person inspection and test prior to purchase. Bear in mind I refer to “perfect” as perfectly suited to your preference and grip style, rather than some sort of “absolute” perfection.

If these aspects don’t align with your expectations or requirements, then that is simply that. I think we need to get past any suggestion the manufacturer has “blown it” or made some “serious error in judgement” for their design choices at least — regardless of the company. The fact this pen suits me perfectly makes it no more designed for me than not designed for you. The finished product is simply how Montblanc – or for that matter, Marc Newson – designed it.

Unposted, I find the M very well balanced, regardless of a grip above or below the step, and it is a pen which will handle longer writing sessions should they be required, doing so with a high level of comfort for the user.

More on this when we get to writing below.

Specifications

  • Model: Montblanc M Ballpoint
  • Finish: Ultra Black; Platinum trim
  • Barrel: Black precious sandblasted resin; inlaid emblem on plateau
  • Cap: Black precious sandblasted resin; inlaid emblem
  • Closure: Magnetic snap on
  • Weight capped: 27 grams
  • Weight uncapped: 19 grams
  • Length capped: 140 mm
  • Length uncapped: 123 mm
  • Diameter: 13 mm
  • Refills: Montblanc Ballpoint or compatible
  • Price: AUD$610.00 (Montblanc International 2 Year Warranty)

Note the measurements above are my own, so assume they are approximate, yet will be pretty close if not exact — difficult to find any documented specs anywhere.

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The pen was purchased from Pen & Paper in Brisbane, Australia, in December 2017.

Writing Performance

The refill

I for one will say these Montblanc ballpoint refills write like a dream — well yes… a dream ballpoint. This not being a debate on the merits of ballpoint/gel/rollerball/nib – I purchased a ballpoint for a reason, and everything I need it to do, it does in spades.

I’ve rotated through three different types so far: the standard Pacific Blue in medium and the Mystery Black in broad. Although only available in medium, I could not go past The Beatles psychedelic purple — love the colour, love the refill box. Incidentally, the availability of many of the special edition colours is another factor weighing heavily in favour of the ballpoint version of the M compared to the rollerball. If that is of any importance to you it is certainly worth considering.

 

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Refill colour options are numerous compared to the rollerball version of the M

 

The medium is definitely my preferred width. While I enjoy the richness of the broad’s line (the medium holds up well here in any event), with all of that ink being laid down I find things get a little slippery, and the pen skates away from me a little on the page.

Irrespective of width, when talking refills, there are a couple of deal-breakers for me when it comes to writing with ballpoints. Firstly, ink build up on the tip. I used to regularly find this with Parker refills, or cheaper no-name brands. I have not used either of these recently so perhaps things have improved.

I also very much dislike it if the refill rattles around, moves or makes an audible click when the pen contacts or leaves the surface of the page. That thing has to be well-held, and held in perfect or at least near-perfect alignment — not too proud of the housing nor stuck too deep, for either will annoy me during use. It does, of course, help that the M is capped, removing the need for any click or twist knock mechanism which may contribute to play in the refill fit.

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My fondness for this pen would suggest Montblanc have these areas well covered, and I can confirm they certainly have. The spring tension and refill tip alignment are perfect, and the Montblanc refills I’ve been using these past six months or so have all been flawless in their writing. Smooth, rich and vibrant lines in their respective colours, with no skips, hard starts or clumping in any way, shape or form.

Finally, there is something very satisfying about simply unscrewing the section from the barrel, swapping in another refill and away you go — all in about 20 seconds. Call me a heathen if you like, however I’ve always enjoyed the convenience of ink cartridges in my fountain pens as well, notwithstanding a required flush when changing colours.

Comfort and use

As with any writing instrument, your intended use will really determine whether the M — and the M in ballpoint for that matter — will indeed suit that purpose.

 

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Whether many words or a few… the M Ballpoint has it all covered

 

Personally, I’ve used this thing for meeting notes, letters, and report mark up, however 90% of the time it is on my desk ready to jot down a phone number, take a few notes to organise my thoughts or sign a document. If I consider the uses I put this pen to at the office (often with less than ideal writing conditions), the ballpoint format I consider just about perfect. Conversely, if I were after something to use at home, on my paper of choice for page after page after page, a nice fountain pen may be a better fit. The right tool for the job.

Does this imply some form of compromise in what I am using at the office? Far from it. I have quite a few fountain pens, and as you are probably aware, enjoy using them immensely. While generally fluid and effortless writers, they do less well in some of the situations I put them in at work (think dry time on a document passed around a table for multiple signatures, or sub-par office copy paper). At home, I’m more inclined to pick up one of the more balanced fountain pens in my collection (Sailor 1911 Large, Pilot Custom Heritage 823 or Pelikan 805) if I plan to churn through several hundred to a thousand words or more in a sitting.

One thing I can say is I’ve found the M ballpoint to be considerably more comfortable over an extended writing session than I had originally expected. It is extremely well balanced, has an always-in sweet spot, and provides an effortless experience between writer and page. From both a practicality and usability perspective, it is really everything I could ask for.

Signing off

Well, that folks, is my Montblanc M Ballpoint in Ultra Black.

Sure, it might roll away if placed down uncapped, the finish wear to a slight sheen, and the cap not quite align with the emblem plateau. You might (quite validly) argue that for the price, no such comments should appear in this post, let alone be flippantly dismissed. I wouldn’t disagree, however as you can gather, none of these aspects bother me, and I quite like the subtle change in finish. Once, they probably — no definitely — would have bothered me, however over recent years I’ve come to learn what really matters to me.

Of course, appearance and design are what draw me to a pen in the first place, however in my deal-breaker categories of balance, grip and refill performance, in my experience, the M sits squarely in my sweet spot for all. There is no compromise in seeking and finding a ballpoint — of all things — to be the right tool for the job.

Not only that, the Montblanc M ballpoint is a joy to use, and let’s be honest — if you are writing without joy? That right there is the real compromise.

 

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Of November, laziness, and hereabouts

It seems to be around November when it usually strikes.

A busy time of year with a looming, yet still too distant end in sight. It’s not me – it’s you, I say, looking my office job squarely in the eye. As for the blog though, pens (and/or keyboard) down seems to be the result. “Just for a short while” I tell myself, though in recent years, it seems to have taken longer and longer to pick them up again.

Of course, I have a very long list pending under the blog post tag, mostly on or around similar topics to those I’ve written about before. Looking at it? Well, that raises the internal question: ”Am I not writing because I couldn’t be bothered, or because I’m not really sure this will contribute anything valuable to the conversation”. I can think of merit to each argument, though a definitive conclusion seems harder to reach.

Having started this blog five years ago, one of the more frustrating aspects is I find it no easier to write here than I did at the beginning – at times it seems more difficult. The biggest challenge? Not writing the same thing over and over again, which I assume is a common foe for many. Deadlines? Well, only the ones I self-impose – which is rare – and they are flexible enough to be bent backwards and turned inside out.

In the latter part of last year, as November arrived, I inadvertently took a slightly different path. As well as not writing, I stopped reading, researching and following. Repeatedly marking all my RSS feeds as read, podcast queue as listened, and rarely opened most of my social media feeds. It wasn’t really an approach as such, I simply realised around Christmas I’d rarely engaged in any of the usual “stuff” at all, in the absence of any real intent to do so. As a result, I began unsubscribing and unfollowing with a certain vigour.

While I’m not really one to think too deeply about all of this, I did begin to wonder just a little about what might be going on. Was I tired of this writing, reading, and following caper – or maybe just tired? Was it time to leave the blog behind and move on? If so, to what? Or was I, if I’m entirely honest, just being a little lazy? In hindsight, I’d say a little bit tired, a little bit lazy and perhaps slightly reordering some priorities.

In any event, as we now roll into May (only six months later!), I can confirm I have indeed missed much of that “stuff”. Therefore, I’ve re-followed (apologies if I’ve missed some of your accounts – I’ll get there eventually), begun listening, and actually read, consider, and capture as necessary what comes through my RSS feed again. Social media? Well, I’m there, however I still find it the equivalent of that person you constantly give the benefit of the doubt, only to be slapped in the face and disappointed over and over again. Let’s say I’ll try and retain my optimism.

Of course throughout this entire time I’ve been poking around here somewhere. A couple of posts have gone up, the pens are used daily, the coffee is still being grown, roasted and brewed, and I keep telling myself I don’t need the newest tech or gadgets. So really, not a lot has changed – perhaps simply my level of immersion.

So November, I see you, I know exactly where you are, and maybe this year I’ll even plan for you. Come to think of it, Summer sabbatical has a certain ring to it. Either way, I know I’ll be around here somewhere.

While these little interests and hobbies mightn’t be significant in the big picture, they certainly are in the landscape of mine.

Perhaps M is for Madness

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Montblanc M ballpoint in Ultra Black

The Montblanc M series of pens.

Are there reasons so compelling we’d happily open our wallet and forgo several hundred dollars for the privilege of owning one? Perhaps some of us may waver a little in answering that question, others definite one way or the other.

Now substitute another make, model and type of pen in the AUD$500 plus price bracket and ask the same question. Heck, substitute another product instead – leather goods, watch, anything you care to think of. Same answer? Maybe, maybe not.

I recently bought one and I love the damn thing. I guess the kicker being I bought the ballpoint.

An obscene amount of money to spend when you won’t even find a nib on the end? Sure is, though if that’s the language we’re using, I’d suggest it’s probably no less obscene regardless of what hits the page at the end of the barrel. Once in the world of pens, we’re really into respecting choices rather than providing judgement aren’t we?

Now is the time to nod if that isn’t what you’re seeing in the reflection of your screen at the moment.

Outlining the rationale of such a purchase to a longstanding office cupboard company-supplied plastic throwaway user? Perhaps a little more challenging. That same challenge probably becomes insurmountable when having the words “oh I just really like using fountain pens” not available to you in said conversation.

Mind you, I have not actually had such a conversation, and were I to find myself in it, probably see it ending fairly quickly as I wandered off with a trailing “ha… yeah, oh well I like my pens, so you get that I suppose…”

I guess that’s why we write about them instead. Looking around, there are many interests, passions, or even vices to indulge us and lighten our wallets a little – or a lot. The online community then provides most of the conversation. So while I do not seek approval for adding a ballpoint pen to the stable, I find it interesting to think about how I ended up here, and what better way than to put you kind people through a blog post.

So what the heck happened?

In the latter part of last year my pen buying plans were non-existent, as they often are at any given time. Being lucky enough to own some outstanding fountain pens, contentment remains the first word that comes to mind when I think about them or what to use next. I have no pending “grail pen” as many do (which more often than not seem to be of the fountain variety, and fair enough), many recent acquisitions have been rollerballs (with the exception of a kindly gifted Lamy aion fountain pen), and as I’ve alluded to, my pen thoughts usually run to next use rather than next buy.

Having said that, there remained a gap to be filled. Not in my collection per se – more so a tool for a specific job. So I regret to advise the remaining applicants, for now at least – the role has been filled.

Working in Brisbane’s CBD, I am lucky enough to have two pen stores, the Montblanc boutique, and Dymocks, all within a couple of blocks from the office. Add to that some outstanding specialty coffee establishments, and the hobbies/interests/passions category of my existence is well and truly catered for within the radius of a 5 minute walk.

I happened to find myself perusing the wall of leather goods in the Montblanc boutique (you know…as you do on any given day), and upon turning to leave, those astute Montblanc marketing people had placed the M Ultra Black series display firmly in my eye-line.

Now, in the original (and high gloss) precious resin upon its initial release, the M design definitely appealed to me, however I have a bit of a thing for matte black and/or brushed type finishes. If you then add accents of silver rather than a gold, I’ll find it extremely hard to resist simply walking past your display.

Seed firmly planted, or if I am entirely honest – it had sprouted.

Do I really need a why?

Here, it would be easy to say no (particularly if I refer to some of my comments above), though in reality, spending not insignificant money on something as self-indulgent as an expensive pen (or alternatively say, an espresso machine) requires at least a few ink smudges in the yes column.

When I bought my first fountain pen (the Montblanc Meisterstück Classique I’ve written about before), I’d always planned to buy a ballpoint “in a few years time” to use as an everyday work writer. Well, a few years turned into twenty, and for the money, it was never going to be a priority any sooner than that. I guess nothing in the category had ever really caught my eye either.

Any list of this is why it isn’t a fountain pen I provide here can easily be refuted, however know that I’ve already considered any options and already done just that myself. In any event, I’m not here for the hard sell – you will no doubt have very good reasons for making your own choices, even if they are a 180 degrees from mine. Put simply, a half-dozen signatures on a document sent around a meeting room table; a number or note scrawled on a Post-It; annotating a folded document or taking meeting notes with a book perched on my knee; a brief comment on a 20 page document quickly closed.

The list of course is not exhaustive, and as I mentioned – yes, all of those and more could easily be the domain of a fountain pen. Personally, for the sake of smudge-free, simple and efficient, I’m simply more comfortable in my office environment for it not to be.

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B is for ballpoint… not boring

So did I necessarily set out to hunt down and buy a high-end ballpoint (if that in itself is not a contradiction in terms)? No I didn’t, however with my fondness for the M design (with that Ultra Black finish!), those specific (non-fountain pen) requirements, and a sale to boot – the Montblanc stars (well snow-covered peaks at least) were aligned to make this a compelling purchase.

It’s all Monty Python from here

Now as much as I enjoy wandering around the Montblanc boutique, my next port of call a few days later was to discuss my options with Mal and Melissa at Pen and Paper – my absolute favourite establishment in the CBD. For the warmest embrace into the stationery and pen family, a visit is a must if you are ever in Brisbane.

I’m not going into details here (this post is long enough), but let’s just say my decision tree wasn’t functioning in all its efficiency the day I went to actually buy the pen. Or maybe it was, and simply took every ounce of my willpower to stay on track for what I needed. Without the understanding of the two fine people I’ve mentioned above, I would have left the store, not looked back, and never returned. I’m almost not joking either.

You see, I had a torrid time deciding between the rollerball and the ballpoint. Maybe that’s laughable, I mean it’s not as though we are talking about fine tuning a custom nib grind are we. Anyway, it was an excruciating 20 minutes or so for all three of us I’m sure. Open this, can I see that again, how about the medium, no sorry – I mean the broad, actually can I try the rollerball again? Wow… I don’t know – what do you guys think? (Blank stares). No, no its okay… err, ummm…

And so on, and on… and on.

As someone who likes to think they are at least a little knowledgeable (though I’ve now learned perhaps not always rational) about pens, it was an absolute shambles I tell you. “That’s because you weren’t buying a fountain pen – it was a sign!” I hear you screaming. In many instances, I’d agree with you – but that wasn’t it, and I keep coming back to (as I held myself to on that day also) the right tool for a specific job.

I do thank Mal and Melissa from the bottom of my heart. It wasn’t a transaction that day – it was emotional support. Speaking of support – that’s Pen and Paper in Brisbane’s CBD (or online at the link above) – you know what to do.

Signing off

So what about the pen?

I’ll get to that more specifically in an upcoming post. I’ve kept you long enough this time. For now, I’ll just be content with ticking off quite a few boxes associated with filling that specific need, acquiring something I’d planned many, many years ago, and having something on my desk at the office with a design I very much enjoy taking the occasional moment to pause and stare at.

Just to be clear though – I love it. Yes, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, however as a hardworking writer both in and outside the office – it is an outstanding pen. Sure, there was an emotional draw and I love the design, and if design didn’t matter we’d all simply be using nondescript nib holders instead of fountain pens.

To sum up this whole surprise, joy, turmoil, and utter contentment experience, I’m very pleased I managed to be objective enough about what I needed, to come away with what is now in use every day at work.

If, after reading all of this, you looked at me and said “Pete… really? It’s a pen mate?!” I wouldn’t disagree with you – yet at the same time that’s precisely the point isn’t it.

 

Optimising coffee brewing water and the Peak Water Kickstarter campaign

In a haphazard though never-ending quest for consistently better coffee quality at home, recently I have found myself tinkering with some brewing water recipes.

Why think about the water you brew with?

Whether espresso or filter brewing, if you think about what is actually occurring – water breaking down ground coffee particles, thereby extracting flavour compounds and solids from the coffee into the water you are about to drink – it makes sense that tweaking the water not only to provide an optimal extraction and also taste better makes a whole lot of sense.

The more you read and research, it is clear a more scientific approach is being taken to many aspects of brewing, and thankfully resources exist which help the consumer at home apply at least some of them to improve the standard of our coffee. One such resource being Barista Hustle, where you can find instructions and recipes for optimising brew water at very little cost.

Why would you want to do that? Well, for very little money (ultrapure or distilled water, sodium bicarbonate and epsom salts), you can test for yourself whether you notice any difference in your coffee from the water you are currently using. Let’s face it, delving further into the science around optimal coffee brewing can at times lead to the choice between either an expensive purchase or a dead-end for the home tragic who doesn’t carry an unlimited budget for such tweaks.

My advice? give the recipes a try, and experience for yourself the astonishing difference in flavour and cup quality that using tailored brewing water provides. Again, think about what is occurring during coffee extraction and the proportion of water in the final beverage in your cup. Believe me, it is definitely worth it – particularly when you go back to basic filtered water after running out of the supply you prepared earlier!

A timely Kickstarter campaign

Maintaining my water supply is precisely why I find the Peak Water Kickstarter project so compelling, and now eagerly await the day the jug arrives on my doorstep. As I mentioned above, using a recipe and making the water yourself isn’t overly complicated – keeping enough distilled or ultrapure water on hand sometimes can be. Water can be bulky to store and buy – filter discs not so, and I’m excited at the possibility of even more easily optimising the water I use for brewing at home.

 

Images courtesy Peak Water Kickstarter page

From the project page:

At the heart of Peak Water is our innovative disc filter, combining precisely calculated flow dynamics with our new ‘filter maze’ system — ensuring that your water is completely treated, every time. The filter utilises highly specific ion-exchange resins to control and manipulate bicarbonate — the variable with the greatest impact on a coffee’s cup quality — while balancing the water’s ph level and retaining crucial minerals required for great brewing.

Check out the Kickstarter page for yourself, and as with any campaign, check the FAQ’s and comments as well, however I’m pretty confident in the product given the team behind it, and their history in looking at this aspect of coffee brewing.

I guess this post is part encouragement to experiment with the water you use to brew coffee with, and part suggestion to perhaps do so in the next few weeks before the Peak Water Kickstarter ends – just in case.

 

My first coffee crop – a diary

The maiden crop from my backyard coffee tree provided as many challenges as it did joys – yet I suppose I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Our most satisfying accomplishments generally make us work a little harder for them. The rewards? Well, just that little bit sweeter.

In toying with prospective titles for this post, one which immediately came to mind contained the words ”a producers diary”. Although (perhaps) technically correct, what is involved at scale in producing coffee, and the nature in which it supports growers, their families, and even entire communities, is a far cry from my little hobby. Such a title, even though tongue in cheek, would be a little disrespectful to those who derive their livelihood from such an endeavour.

Documented in a previous post was a chronicle of my initial foray into the art of coffee processing. On that occasion, it was a small lot picked from some of my parent’s trees which I processed, roasted, brewed, and thoroughly enjoyed. Never having processed coffee straight from a tree prior to that, it was certainly an experience which involved considerable learning by doing, albeit after a fair bit of prior reading. Of course, the most productive and effective means of knowledge acquisition was listening to my mother (something I’m sure she would confirm I was always very, very good at) – who has been processing her own coffee for many years now.

Apart from ending up with some pretty decent coffee to drink, one of the main reasons for such an undertaking back then was the coffee tree slowly growing in my own backyard. Eventually, it would also bear fruit, and with it the requirement to process the resulting crop, in the hope of ending up with something much the same in my own cup.

The Long Haul

True to the theory books – and my mother’s expectations – three years into its life the little-tree-that-could flowered and subsequently bore fruit. The next phase had finally begun, and with it, my own little vertical monopoly through the supply chain from seed to cup. Maybe not enough to retire on, but enough to at least retire to the lounge on, with a satisfying home-grown filter brew in my hand.

Growing – for the longest time

Year 1

While not a photo-a-day type record, I have intermittently documented in Day One the tree’s progression from that initial planting in March 2014, and looking back it has indeed been a journey. After one year the tree was a little over 40cm tall; two years along it was 95cm; three years after planting it measured about 140cm.     

Now approaching its fourth anniversary, the tree is heaving with a second crop, and is healthy and robust, standing just over two metres tall. This season’s micro-lot will be a little less micro, though I doubt I’ll need a team of pickers.

Year 2

Although unable to pinpoint the exact varietal of the tree itself, it can be traced back to a small coffee farm in northern New South Wales, with a plantation of Arabica trees largely comprising the SL 34 designation. While this information no longer seems available online, we’ll proceed on that assumption, though of course it is not critical to the outcome of what follows below.

Back to the initial crop, and although I didn’t expect much, could not have been happier once the tree flowered in November of 2016. Sure enough, after a brief period sporting beautiful white flowers, in the subsequent months the buds turned into green fruit, followed by further development and ripening. “They’ll be ready in about eight months,” said my mother. In the middle of 2017 (precisely eight months later), many of the cherries had turned a beautiful deep red, and in July picking began in earnest.

With the cherries reaching peak ripeness at slightly different rates, picking occurred over four successive weekends into the beginning of August, and processing followed in a similar way. The entire useable crop in whole cherry form weighed in at approximately 700g. Interestingly, this provided just under 100g of green beans (or 14% of the cherry weight) once processing and drying had been completed.

Although expected, this dramatic reduction certainly gave me pause. Thinking about the sheer volume of coffee consumed around the globe and the amount which must be grown to service this demand boggles the mind a little.

At this juncture, I must admit to never having been the most attentive gardener, and the timely watering, fertilising and general care was more regularly applied by my understanding wife than by yours truly. As I find with most things, to say I could not have done it without her is as much an expression of gratitude as a statement of fact.

Credit where credit is due

Success! That little tree grew, flowered and produced a decent crop of fruit.

Processing

Given the small (tiny!) yield I would be working with, the decision was made early on in the piece to process the crop using the washed method. Having successfully utilised this method in the past, I was fairly confident of doing so again. Washed processing also leaves less to chance (at least to this amateur) with variables such as optimal drying time and weather conditions compared to dry processing techniques.

While it is tempting to use other methods or even compare a washed process sample with a naturally processed one, perhaps that is for another year when the yield is much higher. Having detailed the washed processing method more extensively in a previous post, I will not restate things in detail, however should this be of interest – that link again:

Crop to Cup: the complete series

Further, having also mentioned natural processing, the first in a series of three posts detailing my initial experience using such a method can be found here:

Coffee: A Natural Processing Experiment Part 1 – Processing methods

Soon to be roasted

Over a number of weeks, I fastidiously worked my way through pulp removal, rinsing, and soaking/fermenting the beans in water to remove the sticky exterior mucilage before laying them out to dry. Once dry, the remaining husk or parchment was removed, followed by a couple of weeks additional drying time to reduce the moisture content, and we were then ready to roast.

Roasting

With each processing step resulting in ever diminishing returns as far as the overall crop weight was concerned, a further 10–15% was about to vanish into thin air with the usual moisture loss of roasting.

Now roasting a batch of green stock weighing a drum-busting 98 grams was always going to be a delicate proposition, and to be honest I’m equal parts pleased and relieved with how things turned out.

A little forward thinking about how I would be brewing, dictated the planned level of roast. If we think about it, 98 grams of green equals 80-something roasted. A grinder purge, then dialling in an espresso say, at 20g – even nailing it on the second round – and I’m through roughly 50 grams already. Once more and I’m pretty much done. Filter brewing with a V60 at my usual 16 or 22 gram dose, I am looking at four or five brews with minimal loss at the front end dialling in.

So with a filter roast profile in mind, a bright spring day saw the Behmor 1600 Plus set up, warmed up, and loaded with green coffee, not five metres from where it was grown. Very satisfying to think about as I sit here and write these words.

As I alluded to above, things went pretty well with the roast, yet as I come to the point of describing it for you in a little more detail, now realise I’ve thrown out my notes. Correct. For all the nerdy note taking and piles of notebooks and paper around here, I’ve called my own organisational bluff and thrown them out when tidying things up, inadvertently not scanning them first as I usually do.

I do recall the roast was quite short (as you’d expect with such a starting weight), somewhere in the order of about seven and a half minutes, or maybe 7:45, with first crack at about 6:30. The overall development time ratio would be around 16% or so. I do remember thinking at the time I’d have preferred a slightly longer overall roast time and additional development subsequent to first crack, however as you can imagine, was a little paranoid about taking them too far and losing the lot.

A delicate balance between enough for adequate development, without scorching the exterior of those oh-so-valuable green beans. The final yield? A no-bag-too-small 88 grams of freshly roasted goodness, ready to rest for a week or so before brewing.

Finally done – the image suggests the roast was a little darker than it actually was.

With a sigh of relief at having navigated perhaps one of the shortest, yet most stressful part of the journey, I was safe in the knowledge brewing would be a somewhat more relaxing process.

Brewing

They say the proof is in the cup, and I must admit to receiving a pleasant surprise here. Sure, I didn’t set the coffee flavour wheel spinning, however filter brewing with a V60 provided a sweet, delicate cup. Not knowing what to expect, my first sip drew an audible laugh and a wow – that’s actually not too bad.

I can be well satisfied in saying I’ve managed to produce a light to medium bodied coffee, which is quite well-balanced, sweet, and carrying flavours of chocolate, with a hint of spice. For all the effort which came before it – I’d say it was just about perfect.

There are only so many ways to stretch out 88 grams of roasted coffee, however what I did manage to consume over the subsequent fortnight was both enjoyable and highly rewarding nonetheless.

 

 The Finish

Three years ago I planted two small coffee seedlings in our garden near the back fence. Although one didn’t make it, the other flourished.

At the other end of that same garden is a lemon tree, which is also bearing a nice crop of fruit. It is there any similarity ends. The lemons will grow, ripen, and once picked, be ready to use – job done.

The coffee? Once ripe and picked from the tree, things are only just beginning. From that point on, there are all manner of ways to ruin it. Even if we do eventually make it through the processing, drying, roasting, storage, and brewing without robbing it of too much quality at each step – have we presented in the cup the best version of what that coffee is, or what it has the potential to be?

On this occasion, I’m hopeful I did somewhat of a reasonable job, although if the answer was a flat-out yes, then the motivation to improve on the next go around perhaps drops off a little. As I look out the window now and see a thriving tree filled with green fruit, I’m determined this next crop will not only be bigger – it will be a whole lot better as well.

Satisfying? Yes – just a little.