A little coffee and a lot of learning

In thinking a little about independent learning recently, it seemed a good time to put down some thoughts, having myself attended a class on manual coffee brewing at Strauss Cafè & Bar in Brisbane’s CBD a couple of weeks ago. What follows is a brief rundown of the class, along with a few of those thoughts learning.

On Learning

Brew_Class_3Exactly why have I been thinking specifically about learning? Part of my day job involves training new staff in certain areas of the business, and in reviewing and updating these materials, I’ve been considering further improvements to make them more effective. Thinking back, I have also sat in enough university lecture halls, experiencing a wide cross-section of teaching to understand the delivery of information is equally as important as the content itself.

I’m referring to those memorable courses or seminars you attend, regardless of the topic. Where, after attending, you leave with a solid foundation of the topic at hand, yet also a framework for independent experimentation and growth. In cases where you already have a solid foundation, some of the tenets of that foundation are challenged, with alternatives provided that encourage you to seek further information, experiment, or at the very least reassess those facets of the foundation your knowledge is based on.

The great presenters? Those that clearly have knowledge so deep it would be nothing for them to talk all day, entirely unscripted, though remaining somewhat focused on the topic at hand. The best “stuff”? Well, that can often be found in the anecdotes and stories they have to tell, illustrating a point so precisely, it becomes one you won’t forget.

Although occurring in the context of drawing out information from a subject rather than the teachings of a presenter, a similar point made in a recent blog post by author Steven Pressfield, about doing research for his latest book The Lion’s Gate:

They brought out the insights and memories that they had kept in the vault because they deemed them marginal or “not important enough.” It was these stories that turned out to be the most fascinating and revealing.

Time for the coffee, however my point above is simply this, while the brewing ratio’s, numbers and guidelines are important[1], I believe we learn more from the experience (both successes and otherwise) of those more knowledgable than ourselves, who have spent countless hours themselves learning, considering, tweaking and experimenting, so our starting point begins further along the learning curve than it otherwise might. What follows is evidence enough of that.

The Brewing Class

Myself and nine other keen participants were in attendance for the class, run by national level competition barista Adam Metelmann (Twitter, Instagram), of Strauss Cafè & Bar. The contents of the class itself covered the key aspects of brewing (items below in brackets were the focus for the particular topic or the key numbers used on the night), which those interested in coffee would be familiar with:

  • water quality (characteristics, with an emphasis on filtration)
  • brew temperature (standard of 93 degrees)
  • measuring and dosing (28g coffee, 400g water)
  • pouring technique (differences for various brewing methods)
  • coffee (type and roast level; coarse grind/deep coffee bed principle)
  • phases of brewing (Wetting or bloom, Extraction, Hydrolysis)
  • different types of brewing equipment and grinders
  • key components of a home set up (brewer, grinder, temperature probe, scales, timer)
Kalita Wave

Kalita Wave (image courtesy Cup Coffee on-line store)

After gaining some understanding of the level of brewing experience within the group, Adam covered those aspects listed above, and proceeded on to some brewing. To demonstrate the differences in some of the above variables, we sampled coffee brewed using the Kalita Wave filter (which can be purchased from Strauss or through Cup Coffee here in Brisbane). The first round, two brews made from different water sources (both from the Brisbane area); the second, two brews made with water a couple of degrees apart in temperature (93 vs 91 degrees celsius).

The results? Like night and day on both occasions – actually fairly astonishing when tasted side by side. The key here? Knowing. Being aware of the factors that will alter the resulting brew, and being able to measure them, control some and change others, before again assessing the results in the cup.

Other more technical topics came up, including total dissolved solids (TDS), refractometry, agtron levels and the like, however these are for my own further reading and interest, or perhaps a 2nd level brewing class (cc Strauss suggestion box). Great to know about, however the class remained focused on the key fundamentals of brewing as noted above, utilising the tools I have readily available at home or could easily obtain and use should I choose.

Where to Next?

Brew_ClassSimple. For myself, more tweaking, experimentation, a greater willingness to waste a little of the coffee I roast (or buy) in the pursuit of something better in the cup. In addition to more reading, searching, YouTube-ing and pursuit of further background knowledge in these topics.

Since attending the evening a couple of weeks ago, I have monitored my brewing temperatures a little more closely (new temperature probe on the shopping list); ground a little courser and increased my dose a little; brewed sooner after roasting, assessing the changing flavour profiles as the days pass; improved my pour technique; and now tare my scales after the initial bloom pour. Little changes – big difference. My brews (and understanding of them) have improved immensely and I believe this will continue.

The best part of the evening? Over an hour and a half spent with someone who clearly has a passion for all things coffee, has experimented and experienced all aspects of the brewing continuum to present us with a more focused point at which to work from. Sure, what I am looking for might take a little work, however at least I know to head north rather than have to find out east, south and west aren’t where the answer lies.

Finally, I am lucky enough to have my daily filter brew made by that same barista with clinical precision and overarching passion each and every day, for which I am eternally grateful.

Go forth and brew!

(And sign up early for the next class – if you’re not quick I might take your spot).

~ PD.


  1. Were we simply after a recipe, a Google search will provide thousands of these.  ↩

Pucker Up Espresso Lovers

When creating the overall tone in an article, a few key points are generally worth repeating. Put together, these can either weave a fabric of opinion or a shroud of negativity. On occasion I am not really sure which it is – for example this recent piece in The Observer, titled Hot Shot: the story behind the great global coffee revolution, by Jay Rayner, which begins:

Coffee shops have taken over our high streets, supported by a never ending supply of connoisseur addicts. Jay Rayner meets some of the major players taking the revered bean to even greater heights, and asks whether they are ruining his favourite espresso

Early in the piece Rayner describes a beautiful looking espresso, which tastes a little, let’s say, less than perfect:

The taste, however, is wrong. Very wrong. It’s fiercely acidic, a sour hit that makes my lips pucker up like a cat’s bum

That initial impression was London in 2012, with the article published in June this year. It would appear many sour espresso’s have been consumed by the author between then and what is sitting squarely in front of him now. Further, we hear how the burgeoning speciality coffee industry with it’s lighter roasting profiles is (perhaps forever) changing the way our beloved beverages taste across the board.

I don’t believe this is unique to London, given the changes I have seen across Brisbane’s cafés in the past 12–18 months. Although, within a two block radius of my CBD office, there are 3 such cafés, whereas 5–6 times as many (at least) serving “traditionally” roasted espresso. Those serving more traditional style espresso are not going away as far as I can tell (and good for them), and you only need look at the ongoing patronage of the bigger name chains to see that. You may wish to avoid the throngs queueing at these newer cafés, walk right up to the counter at one of the others and order (though possibly a little harsh, message intended in that sentence).

I’m a little curious as to why the author paints a picture of ‘espresso ruined’ across virtually an entire city. I would have thought a city the size of London perhaps may have a few cafés to choose from, many of which would serve espresso with a more “traditional taste”. Perhaps I am wrong on this point.

As far as this ‘new taste’ is concerned? Personally, I enjoy it, along with the variety of espresso now offered not only between different establishments, but also within the same café – often weekly. The more ‘typical’ darker roasted espresso? I enjoy that too – mostly. If espresso can be too acidic, there is just as much (if not more) being served that is more bitter than I care to describe. The continuum works both ways. I can however, see the author’s point of view, as there have been times where I have found the amount of acidity present in some espresso to be perhaps be a little high for my taste. Ironically, the most striking example of this came from one of my own roast batches, which you can read about in my most recent What’s Brewing post.

When it comes down to personal taste, as with anything – food, drink, art, comedy… all a matter of opinion is it not? Why does all scotch not taste the same? I assume it’s because there are those who enjoy flavours of smoke and peat, others sweetness and honey. Or am I missing the point? Are sweetness and honey flavours ruining my favourite scotch? Oh, that’s right, I just buy the one I like. Great to have choices.

Although Rayner makes a valid observation, I question whether the overwhelming negativity and gloom ensure it comes across as too much of a whine to really be of value.

~ PD.

Coffee Cupping – a new experience

As someone with a keen interest in coffee not working in the industry, it can be difficult at times to know exactly what information to seek out and where to find it, when looking to further develop my knowledge and understanding of methods and techniques to obtain the best results from my home roasting and brewing. Passionate baristas and café owners are always willing to chat, however understandably only have limited time when working in busy establishments.

Coffee Cupping at Strauss

Oliver Strauss (L) and Josh Russell

Oliver Strauss (L) and Josh Russell

Although learning the coffee “cupping” process has been on my to-do list for some time, to date it hadn’t been ticked off. So when my ‘local’ cafe/bar, Strauss launched their consumer nights recently, I jumped at the chance to put my name down for the coffee cupping. Not experienced in the intricate nature of such techniques, I was hoping for a little assistance in this regard.

There was certainly no need for concern, with the evening expertly run by Josh Russell, of local Brisbane speciality roaster Cup Coffee, who supply the Strauss House Blend along with an ongoing rotation of featured single origin coffees served through the espresso machine or by filter, with roast profiles to match.

Tools and techniques

We were given an introduction into cupping techniques and tools (cupping bowls for the coffee; spoons for the slurp; take away cups for the spit). Firstly, the dry aroma, then breaking the crust and taking in the wet aroma, and finally onto the tasting. On offer were five different single origin coffees from South America, Central America and Africa, showcasing a diverse range of flavour profiles, which no doubt assisted our amateur palates in detecting some of the differences between each. Three of the five were familiar to me, having been served at Strauss in the recent past, however of particular interest was the difference between the flavour profiles when cupped, compared with brewing through filter or espresso based techniques. Some being similar, another very, very different. A final couple of runs along the cupping table to sample the changing flavour profiles as the brews cooled rounded off a very enjoyable evening.

What did I learn?

With an educational component to the evening, and participants recording tasting notes and encouraged to discuss our (somewhat limited) findings, this initial foray into the cupping process proved a valuable one. It has given me a better understanding of flavours, profiles (well-balanced vs higher acidity; different finishes), and how various descriptors apply to what I am tasting. The techniques? Well that will take further practice, however let us just say for this first event, I was pleased all the slurping and spitting didn’t simply coat me in what I was trying to taste, which going into this was a very real possibility.

The most important things I took away? Probably the confirmation (which was expected) that despite continuing to learn more and more about this coffee caper, there is still far more I do not know, which only makes the process that much more enjoyable. Secondly, events like this, while a little daunting at first, when run well by those passionate about their craft, pique my interest even more, pretty much guaranteeing my attendance at similar events in the future – this was one such occasion.

Information and links

A highly informative and enjoyable evening, and if you get the chance to attend one of these events, I highly recommend it. For information on any upcoming events, keep an eye out on the Strauss Twitter and Instagram feeds.

Finally, as coffee cupping is a standardised process, the links below explain the specifics in more detail (a quick Google search will provide many more):

Cafes, Bloggers and Reviews

Whether or not you agree with ratings and crowd sourced or blogger reviews, there is no denying their influence. Enough to make or break a business? Maybe, maybe not, though in an increasingly connected world, where we are all constantly encouraged to “rate” our purchases or experiences, a large amount of data is available for those who wish to look.

Reviews, Ratings and Blogs

Often being on the lookout for quality coffee, one site and app I often consult is Beanhunter, which was created to fulfill this exact need.

James Crawford, Co-founder of Beanhunter in Beanscene magazine:

Beanhunter is about engaging coffee enthusiasts with great coffee shops. It’s a platform for people to know where great coffee is located and expose coffee shops, that’s why it started.

Which then brings us to blogs. Yes, point taken – look at the blogger judging the bloggers! From the same article:

If Catherine has a “mediocre experience”, she says she won’t hesitate to share it with her followers. “Why should I not write about it just because it’s negative? I think of it as a warning to others to keep in mind what they can expect to happen, whether it be bad food or bad service,” she says. “I guess [reviews] do have the potential to hurt a business, but if there are so many negative reviews about a particular venue, then they must be doing something wrong.

Fair enough, however why should I “expect” a negative experience to happen? Or will I simply not go at all, relying on someone else’s opinion (who I know nothing about) that a particular place of business is not worthy of even a second look or the benefit of the doubt. That perhaps they were visited on a day when the senior barista was away at a competition, the boss was off with the flu, and the remaining staff were doing everything in their power just to keep the doors open.

So, much-needed guidance or more confusion? That is for readers to decide, however many a blog with a strong following and sound reader engagement will wield a good deal of influence on consumer behaviour. The downside? In all of the writer and reader interaction, the one left out in the cold is often the proprietor of the establishment being critiqued. The scenario mentioned above? Perhaps enough to warrant a low star review and scathing few words, when a simple word to staff or management may have resolved any particular issue with product or service on the day.

Sometimes it’s a little too easy to judge, and judge in front of a large audience at that.

On a blog or well patronised crowd sourced review site, the particular review in question may sit at the top of the posts for a little or a long time, allowing a great many potential customers to view it. Will they necessarily realise this is an aberration in the generally stellar performance of a particular establishment. Maybe, maybe not. Such a scenario may be where the numbers and the average review rating saves the day.

Of course let’s not forget there are those cases with consistently poor service of an inferior product, which is another matter entirely, and neither numbers nor words will save you here.

Penny Wolff, of Brisbane’s Dandelion and Driftwood on reviews:

“This form of communication can be detrimental because business owners can’t control people’s opinions. In most cases, they don’t have the opportunity to rectify the issue or respond to the review and that’s just frustrating for the business owner.”

Even if the business owner reaches out to the person who was supposedly wronged with an explanation and attempted clarification of a situation (as was the case on Twitter recently by a very well-respected establishment on the Brisbane coffee scene), it can be met with a meaningless response “ok thanks, I’ll be sure to mention that to your competition down the road”.

One expert or a hundred reviewers

At the end of the day, isn’t it all about personal opinion anyway? And if so, should we trust one expert reviewer (however that may be defined) or listen to the collective voice of hundreds of our peers? In many ways this is indeed a double-edged sword, and perhaps the answer lies in whether consumers really understand what they are going to get for their hard-earned cash.

Beyond the fact that the collective voice of our peers can be tainted by personal prejudice which sometimes descends into unruly nonsense, we also must acknowledge we have different levels of experience, tastes and preferences.

Perhaps this is where a specialised review site such as Beanhunter has an advantage over more generalised sites, in being a little more limited to those specifically seeking out a positive coffee experience rather than stretching across the entire restaurant, cafe and bar scene. On the other side of the coin, does this then skew ratings towards the specialist end of the cafe scene? I don’t necessarily think so, as even within a defined review ecosystem such as Beanhunter, tastes and experience do cross a reasonably sized spectrum.

The point here? There will always be differences in knowledge, experience, and preferences of groups at either end of the expert-novice spectrum, as this article on beer tasting from Business Insider demonstrates.

It’s your opinion not mine

The final word? Make up your own mind, because at the end of the day, surely the benefit of the doubt should go to those who have just done their best to serve you, with the resources they have, on the particular day you visit.

My 2013 in a flash

Oh yes, another [Insert best / worst or other appropriate adjective] of 2013 list for your reading pleasure.

If the first line of this post mocks a list of this nature then why create another of my own? A valid question, however my irreverent tone is only due to the sheer number of these lists currently circulating my Twitter timeline (many of which I have duly re-tweeted), RSS Feed and everything in between – the concept is one I have never really had an issue with. If anything, I find these types of lists to provide a reasonable summary of the year gone by, and often serve as a reminder to go back and check out those [again, insert appropriate item here] that were lost in everything else that occurred throughout the year.

The original draft of this post was in fact a very structured list format. In the end things became a little too regimented and lengthy. Hence, the end result is a much briefer, and hopefully less boring version of few things I enjoyed throughout the year. There is also a high likelihood I have left a few things out, though as I sit here and write, below are a few things that spring to mind from the past 12 months. All were not necessarily new in 2013 but are simply what I personally may have discovered in the past year, or used a lot more of over the same period.

A year of upgrades

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

A fairly major upgrade for the family in the latter half of the year was the purchase of a Mac Mini (Late 2012 Model; 2.5GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB RAM; 500 GB Hard Drive) as our home computer. I have particularly enjoyed the level of integration achievable with my iOS devices since firing up the Mac.

When Apple released the Retina display equipped iPad mini a little earlier than expected in November with somewhat limited supply, I managed to pick up my desired model (WiFi; 32GB; Space Gray) through the Apple on-line store.

Speaking of upgrades, I was quite impressed with the iOS 7 upgrade in September. OS X Mavericks was also released in October, though in itself had minimal impact for me personally, given I was learning OS X for the first time anyway.

What would a tech roundup be without a couple of accessories for the little space gray pocket rocket…

Hit the link and check out the fantastic piece of design and function that is the Twelve South Hi-Rise for iPad mini / iPhone 5s, which looks great and performs perfectly on my desk.

A surprising addition here comes courtesy of Aldi, with what is probably best described as a shameless rip-off of the Jawbone design, this Bauhn rechargeable bluetooth speaker (sorry, couldn’t find a link) is right on the money. For the princely sum of $29.99, this speaker is exactly what I have been searching for, without having to pay in excess of $80.00 plus for the established “brand” models. It pairs like a champion and sounds great.

I have also enjoyed writing much of this post with my new Logitech Ultrathin keyboard mini. Although some touch typists may find the keyboard a little cramped, I find my decidedly unrefined four finger typing well suited to this device.

Apps

Well, where to start. There are numerous best of and must have lists of apps floating around. Many of which I have saved in my Pocket queue for later reading.

Firstly, for what it aims to do and ultimately does, 1Password is without peer on both iOS and OS X. If you do not use this app to create and store robust passwords, go and buy it now.

The integration of Fantastical and Siri on iOS continues to amaze me. The fact that I can simply tell Siri “I have a meeting with X at 9:30 on Friday at the Y” and have the exact entry appear in my calendar is brilliant. As I have previously mentioned , I continue to write 90% of my posts in Editorial for iPad, simply because I find the workflows immensely useful and the added features make this an outstanding app, worthy of its inclusion in the App Store’s Best of 2013.

Many of my favourite apps such as Omnifocus 2 for iPhone and Tweetbot 3 for iPhone received ground up re-designs for iOS 7, and I cannot praise the developers highly enough for what they have achieved here.

Many apps have also become integral to various workflows I have now set up, which are by no means complicated, but certainly work well for what I need. I have begun to utilise Drafts to create lists which I then send to an Inbox list in the native Reminders app, which are then automatically pulled into Omnifocus (with a task automatically created from each line in the original Drafts list). Again, the use of URL Scheme automation in iOS for examples such as this is pretty amazing.

I have also used Pinboard as a bookmark repository on an ever-increasing basis. Articles I save in Pocket to read later are, upon archiving, automatically sent to Pinboard with tags preserved by an IFTTT recipe.

Finally, I have really enjoyed using beautiful interface of Flipboard to read articles of interest. It is also a great way to scroll through Instagram or Twitter, and of course I have created a couple of my own magazines with articles I intend to refer back to as well.

Out and About

Another great year for coffee in Brisbane.

Strauss

Strauss – Elizabeth St Brisbane CBD

The opening of Strauss in Elizabeth Street brought a new class of establishment serving great food and specialty coffee in this fine city. I highly recommend a visit in 2014 if you have not done so already. Another venue just over the bridge at South Brisbane is also worth your time and taste buds – Merriweather Cafe.

The common denominator of the above cafés being the coffee served originates from Cup Coffee Roasters, which began in West End and has expanded to a larger roastery at Woolloongabba. It was here I recently attended a Brew Class, on filter based brewing methods which was a fantastic experience and highlighted how much I don’t know about such things.

For great Italian espresso, Bar Linea continues to be my mid morning saviour for a quick 10 minutes of solitude and a brain recharge.

My home coffee roasting (as regular readers will note) continues unabated, and I have been pleased with my overall set-up, which provides a fairly efficient way to go from green to roasted bean. I am certainly beginning to refine my tastes and roast profiles and look forward to seeing what comes through Ministry Grounds in the new year.

Next Year

Although there will be no resolutions listed here, I do have some ideas about what I would like to make some progress on next year.

I plan on improving my home roasting skills and continuing to provide family and friends with some of the results – possibly recovering some costs along the way. I’d also like to visit a lot more of Brisbane’s great coffee hotspots, particularly those in the outer suburbs. I do not plan on reviewing these establishments, however will happily recommend visiting those that are of a high standard.

In the technology realm, I will continue to learn as much as I can to improve my iOS and Mac workflows, and in particular am keen to improve the organisation of my photo library. Probably the biggest achievement of 2013 was commencing this blog in May, and that is another area I plan to work further on. My initial aim was to sign up to WordPress, pick a theme and few widgets and focus on content, with the look of the site to be attended to later. Apart from registering a domain name, that is pretty much how things went, so it is probably time to put in a little more effort on the design front.

Most importantly, in 2014 I get to spend another year with my amazing wife and kids, of whom I am immensely proud of each and every day, and whatever I have (or think I have) achieved would not be possible without them.