by Stuart Daw
(copyright 2004 by Stuart Daw)
The current fad in coffee brewing seems to be pods. Whenever such a fad comes along, it is always a good idea to remind ourselves of the universal principles covering proper coffee brewing, whether using pods or any other device. As Aristotle noted, a thing must always act according to its nature. Coffee has a certain nature, and as Sir Francis Bacon said, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” So let’s take a look at coffee’s nature to see if we can “command” it to be perfect every time.
In the early 1980’s I was asked to train the “Coffee Ambassadors” of the Coffee Development Group, precursor of the present Specialty Coffee Association of America. They were bright young people, one from each of
The trick was to find a simple way to automatize in their minds the nine key variables leading to “a perfect cup of coffee every time.” I decided to call the process, starting with great green beans and winding up with the perfect cup, “The Continuum to Contentment.” We hope that you can use the Continuum to establish yourself as an authority on coffee preparation, a coffee diagnostician.
While these things have been discussed briefly in my previous articles, they have not been elaborated upon in great detail. So here we go with the nine main variables subsumed under the general principle, “A Perfect Cup of Coffee Every Time,” and which apply to all methods of coffee preparation:
GETTING READY TO BREW
NOW LET’S BREW
We will only discuss the first of these in this issue. The rest will be covered in subsequent editions, but all we will include here are little verses covering all nine variables. You might find them useful in remembering and in passing on to others in your staff. It is wise to end each couplet with the words, “All other things being equal,” for you can’t consider just one issue when one or more of the other variables may be out of kilter as well.
Here we go:
The better the bean, the better the brew.
The poorer the bean, the poorer the brew.
The darker the roast, the darker the liquor,
The lighter the roast, the lighter the liquor.
The finer the grind, the stronger the brew,
The coarser the grind, the weaker the brew.
The better the bag, the fresher the brew,
The poorer the bag, the staler the brew.
The heavier the weight, the stronger the brew,
The lighter the weight, the weaker the brew.
The hotter the water, the stronger the brew,
The colder the water, the weaker the brew.
The longer the time, the stronger the brew,
The shorter the time, the weaker the brew.
The better the water, the better the brew,
The poorer the water, the poorer the brew.
The cleaner the pot, the cleaner the brew,
The dirtier the pot, how awful for you.
Given this simple knowledge, if a customer calls and says, “You’ve changed the coffee. It’s no good this morning. Come and replace the inventory.” You might ask, “What seems to be the problem?” “The coffee is weak, has no color, and tastes stale,” comes the reply.
Do you accept his premise and run out to bring him new inventory, or does your mind go to work? Do you ask yourself: “Is the coffee roasted too light, is the water temperature high enough, is the ground coffee really stale, is it ground too coarse, causing the weakness, or too fine, causing the water to channel through the dry grounds and leaving them under-extracted? And what about the “stale” comment? Does he mean the kind of stale rancidity that comes from airports that have not been kept spotlessly clean, clean meaning especially on the inside? This is why it helps to know the variables. Let’s now take a look at the first, on which all the others depend.
While we are in a poetic mood, let’s look at the four basic possibilities for beans, the simple truths regarding the outcome of our perfect cup.
You can make good coffee with good beans.
You can make bad coffee with good beans.
You can make bad coffee with bad beans.
But you can’t make good coffee with bad beans.
It is the roaster’s responsibility to sift through the myriad offerings available from around the world in evaluating and selecting the required green coffee. Once a blend structure is established at a given quality level, that level must be maintained. Contrary to popular belief, the green buyer must not become hung up on names of continents, countries, or regions within a country.
For example, new crop is better than past crop, and past crop is better than old crop, but new crop is better when not too new, and poorer when it gets past new. Some coffees can stand being a little older than others, and washed processed is usually better than unwashed or semi-washed, except where unwashed works better in some applications (this gets worse).
The name “Naturals” for unwashed coffees must drive the environmentalists crazy, for it denotes generally lower cup quality, not higher, and has nothing to do with birds, pesticides, or fertilizer. These beans simply have not gone through the superior washed process. On the other hand Brazilians, producers of most of the world’s unwashed arabicas, don’t like their coffee sounding as if it belongs to the unwashed masses, so they prefer to call them “other milds,” or “other arabicas.”
Why is washed coffee not always better than unwashed? It depends on the origins involved, the varieties, the altitudes, the bean size, the number of imperfections, and the age of the beans, to name but a few considerations. And there is no necessary correlation between bean size and cup quality, though in fairness the larger, uniform sized beans can make a better presentation, tending to have less imperfections, more easily detectable, thus more likely to be removed during processing.
The criterion of altitude should be considered in relation to a country’s proximity to the equator. To the extent that growing temperature is an important criterion in coffee quality development, a nation straddling the equator needs to grow coffee at a higher altitude to reach a given cooler temperature than one situated nearer to temperate zones e.g.
Promotion of a name or location can drive a coffee well beyond its intrinsic value. Good examples of this would be Blue Mountain Jamaican and Hawaiian Kona. What makes this possible of course is their extremely low levels of production set against a demand driven by good promotion. Unfortunately, one consequence can be the phenomenon of more coffee being sold under that name than is grown, something a little tricky to do.
This was embarrassing for even the largest “specialty” chains that didn’t seem to know they were buying Panamanian or Costa Rican coffee while thinking it was Hawaiian. Further examples of coffee seeming to come from one place but really coming from another can be seen in the case of contiguous areas where it is easy for “tourist” coffees to be misidentified. Examples would be coffee seeming to come from
At the other end of the production scale,
The green coffee buyer has to contend with the problem of how far in time he or she provides for inventory replacement. The trading months on the Exchange are March, May, July, September and December. The prices for each succeeding month are higher than the one before, roughly reflecting the cost of storage and interest. This can be significant when a company in a market with low margins wants to cover itself long-term.
For example, as of this writing, the near month of May 2004 is 12 cents below July of 2005. This translates into around 14.2 cents per pound after 16% shrinkage, a big competitive disadvantage to any company that went a long way out as insurance to protect itself against a Brazilian frost. For if there is no change in world prices over that time span, a large company paying a 14.2-cent premium on 500-million pounds just lost around 71-million dollars. Imagine the poor guy who recommended the long position, assuming he is just the green coffee buyer having to face senior management (or shareholders) in defense of it.
All of this is but a taste of the trauma that a green coffee buyer must experience while not only making the right economic choices, but by doing so having the degree of sense (taste) perception necessary to deliver quality and consistency. And after green beans, of course we still have a long road to travel before getting to the cup.