The Humble Cappuccino

In describing what is far and away my favourite espresso-based milk drink, it would be easy to begin with recipes and numbers, and in beginning this post, is exactly what I did…

Five ounces — maybe six, of dense, textured silk on an espresso base.

I then went back and reviewed a few random notes I’d made upon thinking of writing about what I often find in my cup. Pragmatic and entirely logical they were not:

An angel in a cup guiding you to the bottom without ever letting go.

Unchanged from the first comforting sip to the last. A state of being momentarily removed from the world, or at least resolving any imbalance within it.

At its best, transcendent. An embrace of your very soul which leaves you buoyant, balanced, and with momentum to carry on.

Overstating things a little? Completely over the top? More than likely, however I’ve occasionally made reference to the simple philosophy that every day is simply a series of moments strung together. Life. The ultimate long-term project, with successful navigation reliant not upon completing each stage because they’ll fly by regardless — more so doing or being your best in each, and preparing as well as you can for the next.

In preparing for the next, sometimes a moment of escape and recharge is best found in a cup.

The cappuccino.

Humble? Yes. Standard issue — certainly no. I am talking here of the traditional cappuccino, what used to be the competition cap or indeed — as one favourite barista refers to it — the cappuccino Milano.

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A rich, heartwarming cappuccino Milano at Edward Specialty Coffee in the Brisbane CBD

This particular cappuccino you see, has a dusting of nothing other than perhaps something a little magical. No chocolate on top. Espresso. Milk. Perfectly combined. That’s it. The very fabric, character and soul of the traditional cappuccino are in its simplicity. Thicker and creamier than a flat white by all accounts, denser and more compact than a caffè latte.

An Origin Story

The origin of the cappuccino? Here is where things can get a little hazy. The similarity to the hoods of the capuchin monks is probably the most often heard. The most accurate? Well it depends on how far you go back with your origin story. James Hoffmann, writing on the cappuccino (also with a certain fondness), points to the work of Professor Jonathon Morris and his research project The Cappuccino Conquests.

It is here we find the most likely origin of the beverage, which was the Kapuziner — coffee with cream and sugar (and perhaps spices) which existed in Viennese coffee houses in the 1700’s. As far as the modern iteration is concerned, things are well summed up on History of Coffee:

Cappuccino, as is written today, appeared for the first time in northern Italy in the 1930s. At first it was made in “Viennese” style – with a whipped cream which is sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate. The steamed milk variant appeared later. The real espresso machines became widespread only during the 1950s and people started making cappuccino with espresso instead of standard coffee. In this form, cappuccino is known around the world from that moment on. “Kapuziner” still exists unchanged on the Austrian coffee menu.

So whether you take the view the original cappuccino was the first one made with an espresso base, or something much older (and perhaps closer in form to the chocolate dusted version of today) is up to you. Upon reading the post I’ve quoted above though, it does bring back childhood memories of Vienna coffee being on the menu of many a late 70’s and 80’s cafe I visited with my parents.

So why the love?

Firstly, it isn’t about the caffeine. This is simply my favourite drink to greet the day, of which I’ll consume one each weekday morning and the occasional cappuccino riot on a weekend may be a few more than that, because… well… it’s the weekend. Some of this will be tweaking grind settings or recipes, and/or simply because “that was so good I think I’ll have another”.

I must admit to occasionally utilising another power of the espresso based milk drink — certainly not unique to the cappuccino — which is for the late afternoon snack replacement. A strategy not designed as part of any fad diet (nor am I recommending a cappuccino fast). You know, the workday is nearly over, you’re a little tired, perhaps slightly peckish, and it’s just not worth going out and buying food — and besides I don’t know what I feel like eating anyway… At that particular moment, a good old cappuccino (or similar) will at worst significantly improve your situation, or at best definitively resolve it.

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A One & One with a traditional cappuccino at Strauss in the Brisbane CBD

So is it really any better — or much different you might ask — to a flat white or latte? If either of those drinks is your preference then no, however for me, there is something unique about both the expresso/milk ratio, and the texture offered in a well made cappuccino compared to the others. Mainly the texture. You will find any number of recipe guides and infographics online, however I’d agree with James Hoffmann, in that many of these are perhaps a little misleading and the specifics probably technically incorrect. On this point I’d encourage you to read the post, for only one of us is an expert on these things, and it certainly isn’t me.

Creating one

Ask any barista how they make their cappuccino, and you will likely get subtle variations based on preference, philosophy and the particular coffee being served as the base for the drink. Ask any amateur, and you may get a certain answer, with additional variation in technique consistency and perhaps equipment compromise.

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Any given morning at home

In any event, my personal brewing technique involves an espresso made to approximately a 1:1.8 ratio (18–20 gram dose; 34–36 gram yield), splitting the shot with one side into a demitasse espresso cup and the other into a 4.5 or 6 oz cappuccino cup. I’ll usually consume the espresso as well (yes, my favourite one and one combination), or at a minimum, taste it to assess how the extraction went.

Although I do love great espresso as much as the next coffee nerd, I guess my fondness for the cappuccino is all about what comes next (assuming of course we’ve done a decent job of that initial extraction), with the densest, creamiest, silkiest milk I can muster. This of course, is the key to the kingdom. The doorway that opens up milk beverage nirvana. This is not a flat white with a little more foam. This is a thicker, well mixed crescendo of espresso and milk, the density of which increases towards a good centimetre or so of dense capping with enough thickness and surface tension to provide the hint of a dome on top of the cup. Those hollow frothy mountains were indeed left behind some 15–20 years ago (mostly).

The exact recipe is not really important – what makes it up in its entirety is. I know I’ve been successful if the density and mouthfeel of that creamy espresso and milk mix is carried right through until the last sip.

The Finish

As I’ve mentioned, I love my espresso as much as the next guy at the bar, however I find there is nothing quite as comforting as the humble — yet well made — cappuccino.

Writing here, I share a few things I enjoy and perhaps poke fun at myself a little while doing it. Perhaps I’ve laid it on a bit thick in the early stages of this post, however when all is said and done, there really is something to be said for the simple things we love and why we love them.

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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.

What’s Brewing: Volcan Azul Natural – Costa Rica

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Image courtesy Wolff Coffee Roasters

One of the many benefits in having close and dear friends in the coffee industry is what follows shortly after the statement: “we’ve got something coming in you’ve gotta try”. Queue something a little special by Wolff Coffee Roasters having made its way to our friends at The Wired Owl Coffee Co in Sandgate.

On this occasion? A naturally processed coffee from Costa Rica, produced by Alejo Castro under the Volcan Azul name, which itself has a long history in the global coffee industry:

At the end of the 19th century, when coffee production was in its early beginnings in America, without knowing it, two pioneers and entrepreneurs, Alejo C. Jiménez in Costa Rica and Wilhelm Kahle in the south of Mexico, shared the same dream: “To produce the best coffee in the world” to satisfy the new demanding European gourmet market.

More than a century has passed and today the fourth and fifth generations of descendants of these visionary farmers still produce coffee within the same ideals of excellency and top quality that inspired their ancestors. They produce one of the best pure coffees of the world with its Brand “F.C.J. Volcan Azul” on the slopes of the Poás Volcano in Costa Rica.

Information courtesy Volcan Azul – Tradition

The coffee inside the brightly labelled Wolff Roasters bag certainly carries such an esteemed tradition with distinction.

This is a seriously tasty coffee, masterfully roasted by the folk at Wolff, and will also be used by competitors at this year’s 2017 QLD Aeropress Championships. I can’t help but think the judges are certainly in for a treat that day.

Upon grinding, there is a brown sugar aroma with a hint of orange and lemon zest. Consumed as espresso, there is a lovely caramelised sweetness, medium body, and a bright citrus zing. A sweet, fresh and delightful cup — think sweet lemon tart.

When prepared as a flat white, the added sweetness and viscosity of the milk really makes this coffee shine. This one is the full lemon meringue pie — that is the honest truth. I’m the first to admit not all of the flavours listed on coffee bags always find their way into my cup, (mostly likely a combination of brewing differences and simply my palate being responsible for that). This one, however, is exactly as it says on the tin:

The pleasantly sweet aftertaste reminds us of meringue with hints of vanilla. With milk, the Volcán Azul is creamy and biscuity, with hints of lemon curd.

I mean it — a lemon meringue pie in a six-ounce cup. Not only that, but a perfect way to sneak in dessert for breakfast. A winner all round I say. I was even tempted to over-aerate my milk just to get that meringue look on top, but hey, this isn’t the 90’s anymore…

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Breakfast is served

Of course I don’t expect you to take my word for it, and if you are on Brisbane’s Northside, pop in and grab a bag from The Wired Owl (227 Rainbow St, Sandgate), or Wolff Roasters (140 Gerler Rd, Hendra). The Wolff online store is also just a click away — wherever you are.

My Pick? Visit Aaron at The Wired Owl, and depending on what is featured as the single origin that day — he might even make you a cup.

Whatever your taste preferences, this is certainly a great one to try. Get some while you can!

The Coffee Podcast

I’ve been very much enjoying The Coffee Podcast recently, which has served up some very compelling topics and guests from the coffee industry in recent episodes — none more so than the current two-part series featuring James Hoffmann.

Add to that a discussion on the Swiss Water decaf process (Episode 87), another on the relevance and application of genetics in coffee (Episode 88), and the breadth and depth of show content really shines through.

I particularly enjoyed the episode on genetics, given it provided some great follow-up to a little reading I did on the topic a few years ago, which at the time was the stimulus for this post. This episode will provide you with a better understanding of the critical role genetics is playing — and will play — in the sustainability and very survival of speciality coffee as we know it today, along with the great work being done by the folk at World Coffee Research.

Speaking of which, Specialty Coffee Association Executive Director Ric Rhineheart provides his thoughts on what specialty coffee actually is in Episode 81. Then, as you can imagine, I could not go past Episode 85 with US Roasting Champion Mark Michaelson.

Thought provoking, very entertaining, yet educational at the same time, if you enjoy coffee and yearn for a little more insight, The Coffee Podcast is well worth a listen. As the show’s Who We Are page will tell you:

Our Focus is People, our Language is Coffee

Check out the webpage for more information on episodes and topics which may be of interest, hosts Weston Peterson and Jesse Hartman, and download links. Alternatively, search for “The Coffee Podcast” in your podcast client of choice (my preferred being Pocket Casts).

Happy listening (and learning).