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.

 

Advertisements

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

img_1787
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…

img_8022
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).

A Coffee Appreciation Course – Extraction Artisan Coffee

Crossing the threshold to greater coffee knowledge…

If I am entirely honest, a good few of my Saturday afternoons are spent reading or napping on the couch. Sure, there may be lawn mowing or other activities involved, however external educational opportunities are not the norm. Let’s face it, my favourite segment of the weekend – with all of it’s promise – often finds me in a comfortable chair, utilising the I’ve got all day tomorrow to (insert procrastinated activity here) principle.

That being said, last weekend provided an opportunity too good to pass up, and the chair received a wave goodbye as I headed out the door on my way to Extraction Artisan Coffee’s inaugural Coffee Appreciation Course. It was obviously not too difficult a decision to go and learn from a very passionate and knowledgeable professional in Danny Andrade, whose acquaintance I made several years ago when he worked as a barista in the Brisbane CBD.

Social media and the occasional Bean Brewding Coffee Tour have provided a means with which to follow along as Danny’s coffee career has progressed, and I was over the moon to see the initial teasers a little over a year ago as Extraction Artisan Coffee began to take shape. It looked like my kind of place — and even better — is on my side of town.

Always on the lookout for opportunities to learn more about coffee and refine my home roasting and brewing skills, I enthusiastically ventured to Extraction in the knowledge I’d be leaving far better off in these areas than when I arrived. Really — is there a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon?

The Course

Theory

The afternoon began in an upstairs meeting room, with Danny taking us through some slides explaining and illustrating many things, including but not limited to: the taxonomy of coffee; how it is grown and produced; processing methods; and world coffee production, farming, and trade relationships (including Extraction’s philosophy and future plans in this area).

Passed around the room were various green bean samples from different countries, growing elevations and processing methods, along with some examples of green bean defects which need to be removed prior to roasting.

A recurring and very important theme throughout this part of the course was the immense amount of resources required, and the inherent difficulty in producing specialty grade coffee. Those working hard to improve the industry — whether back at the farm or at your favourite café — are certainly worthy of our respect and support.

Roasting

Roasting theory

Next it was downstairs to the roasting room adjacent to the café itself, where we observed a washed Colombian coffee go through the sample roaster. Here we learned some more specifics about the phases of roasting, and Danny’s particular approach at Extraction, which aims to preserve and highlight as many of the flavours in the coffee as possible.

After tracking the time, temperature and key points within the roast, we had a look at the resulting curve produced, and compared that with a recently completed roast profile of the 10kg production roaster Danny uses to keep the Extraction grinder hoppers full of either single origin coffee or the signature Gratitude Blend. A quick colour analysis on the sample roast confirmed it was to the required medium-light level, and we then moved onto the sensory stage of the course.

Sensory training and cupping

A few of those aroma samples

With a lot of thought and no shortage of competitive spirit after splitting into two groups, it was time for some aroma analysis and identification using the Le Nez du Café aroma kit. With our olfactory systems doing their best to identify the various samples, we eventually reached a little sensory fatigue on the last few aromas.

Overall I think we did pretty well, and whether I was in the “runner up” group or just the one which had the “harder” of the two series of samples I’ll leave for you to decide. I’ll be sure to make note of that cooked beef aroma next time I’m in the kitchen!

Next up, the familiar slurp of a cupping room, as we compared a washed process Colombian coffee with an Ethiopian natural, assessing and noting the contrast (origin differences aside) and effect different processing methods impart on the resulting cup. Along the way we also learned more about the methods and importance of cupping, and how it relates to what is ultimately served in the café.

Brewing

Espresso theory

Once our taste buds had been awakened, we were keen to move onto espresso and manual brewing, the result of which was always going to be plenty of drinking and tasting. We worked through some espresso brewing and extraction theory, with Danny providing tasting samples from across the extraction (certainly not the usual Extraction) spectrum.

Comparing under, ideal, and over extracted espresso, I must say it is the first time (and what will no doubt be the only one) in about 8 years that I have ever received sub-par espresso passed from Danny across the bar. Jokes aside, the intended lesson was heeded, with a group of twisted faces savouring not one moment of the sour, under extracted cup, with the bitter, over-extracted version not fairing much better.

Check out what I – umm… I mean Danny created

With the knowledge of what we were not aiming to produce, we were then let loose (with close supervision) on the Mythos One grinder and VA388 Black Eagle gravimetric espresso machine (yes — I did notice a couple of differences compared to my Baratza/Sunbeam combo at home). We all managed to produce espresso within Danny’s requisite brew parameters, and with a little further assistance, managed to top them off with some textured milk. I wouldn’t call what was on top any sort of art as such, however they were certainly enjoyable to drink, and it was nice to put a few key principles together and enjoy a successful result in the cup.

Finally, and with Danny giving up a lot more of his valuable time than originally planned, we moved on to manual brewing, looking at the V60, Trinity One, immersion cold brewing and cold drip. Once some preceding theory and brew parameters were discussed, much tasting ensued, with a controlled fermentation processed coffee a very fruity highlight.

The finish

While scouring the internet and reading books are valuable learning methods in their own right — there is nothing quite like having a passionate, knowledgeable, and very successful industry expert graciously passing on some of that knowledge to those enthusiastically seeking a better understanding of the subject at hand. The Coffee Appreciation Course at Extraction was a perfect example of that.

The key concepts, principles and theory are important, as are their practical application, however an opportunity like this goes far beyond a simple learning exercise. It’s about hearing a philosophy. The reasons behind a certain approach — and thinking about those reasons a little more fully. It’s about understanding the meaning of it all in the grand scheme of things, and the people, processes and effects behind the entire chain of a particular coffee.

To me, that is what those few hours were all about. The intangible benefit of hearing about an entire philosophy, and its influence on everything up to, and including making a high quality cup of coffee. Something not able to be conveyed in its entirety on a screen or in print. It is here the value of a course like this really lies.

Extraction’s ‘Class of June 17’ (image courtesy Extraction Artisan Coffee)

Overall, it was a whole lot of fun. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative way to spend an afternoon, and certainly comes highly recommended from me if something like this sounds like it may interest you. My recommendation? Keep a sharp eye on the Extraction Artisan Coffee events page (the next Appreciation Course is being run on Saturday 29 July) and social media (Facebook, Instagram) for what is coming next. The team have plans…