Are you a coffee snob? Would you know it if you were? I live in the northwest corner of Washington State, an area rife with perceived snobbery; fact is, few really are and here’s why. They don’t roast, store, grind, or brew coffee properly. Today, we’re going to wade through all that, so grab a hot cuppa, and have a sit. First off, let’s get something straight. For the record, Starbucks sucks; they’re the WalMart of coffee. They have always over-roasted their dark stuff, (burned, actually), their light roasts are anemic, and as the company responsible for single handedly turning coffee into a carton of generic neapolitan ice milk, they’ve Disney-fied a beautiful thing and put a boatload of local coffee houses out of business. I lived across the street from their first store, back when Seattle had billboards up imploring the last person out of town to turn off the lights. That place had 90% tea and one little corner of coffee. The tea was fabulous, with several grades of truly amazing jasmine. Frankly, they should have stuck to that. I can’t think of anything else to say about them just now, so let’s move on…
In our home town, there are four roasters that I know of, supplying locals and many restaurants with great, fresh beans. That’s good, and a First Degree Coffee Snob is buying those local beans on a regular basis, which is as it should be. I would too if I didn’t love roasting my own, for that is the hallmark of a Second Degree Coffee Snob; one who knows from first hand experience that ‘fresh’ coffee means coffee roasted within the last 3 or 4 days, tops. If you’re going to be a snob, be all you can be. Back before WWII, almost everybody roasted their own coffee at home. The drive to keep GIs in coffee needed something to do after the war ended, so the industry turned its jaded eye on the American public. A couple decades later, very few folks knew how to roast at home, and that’s a sad thing. It’s high time to reverse that trend.
First, a bit of back story. Coffee derives from the roasted or baked seeds of an evergreen shrub found within the genus coffea, the most prominent variants being coffeas arabica and robusta. The plant is native to parts of Africa and the Middle East, where documented cultivation stretches back to the Sixteenth Century. Nowadays, it’s cultivated in some seventy countries worldwide, and is arguably the world’s most popular beverage. Of those two most common variants, Arabica is generally recognized as producing better coffee, that is, coffee with unique aroma, taste, and mouth feel. Robusta is used, frankly, because it’s somewhat more disease resistant and produces higher yields. That said, just as jug wine is not often the best option on the shelf, neither is robusta coffee.
The plant yields reddish berries that contain hard seeds within a thin fleshy layer. The berries, (AKA cherries), are edible; they taste like watermelon, or maybe rose water, but there’s precious little to taste. Traditionally, coffee was a shade grown crop, planted among other species that provided a canopy, helped fix nitrogen in the soil, and made for fine habit for forest creatures. The drive for more bucks per crop has lead to full-sun monoculture cultivation, which in turn has lead to greater use of pesticides and herbicides, as well as significantly more water waste and contamination. Thankfully, there are still a few growers that practice traditional shade growing, and they deserve your consideration.
Throughout most of its cultivated history, coffee berries were picked at the peak of ripeness, by hand. For many high-end coffee producers today, hand picking is still the rule, but the majority of modern growers employ strip picking, wherein humans or machines literally strip every berry off the plant at one time, regardless of the degree of ripeness. It goes without saying that coffees made from such methods leave much to be desired. The sad fact is that the vast majority of coffee drinkers don’t notice a lack of quality, and as such, that’s exactly how it’s done. If you truly like coffee with unique, notable tastes, aromas and mouth feel, it’s safe to say that you’re not drinking strip picked, monoculture robusta each morning.
After picking, green coffee is processed to remove the berry and other plant materials from the beans, (seeds). This is done either by various styles of air and sun drying, or via a ‘wet method’, wherein fermentation is employed, which some believe to yield a milder coffee. While arguably the preferred process for certain kinds of beans, wet fermentation also happens to be the cheapest, most profitable process. As high-end coffee has gained traction, more producers are employing dry processing, resulting in less wasted water; this is a good thing, FYI. Shade grown, hand picked, dry processed coffees can be found via reputable sellers, and you should seek them out. The end result of drying coffee beans is the reduction of moisture content to a level viable for storage and transport; from roughly 50% when picked to somewhere around 10% fully dried.
Roasting isn’t hard, but there is certainly some trial and error for rookies. Success requires one to use multiple senses; smell, sound and sight all come in to play in a process that takes somewhere around 20-30 minutes.
Roasting fundamentally changes both the physical and chemical nature of a bean. Physically, they lose weight as moisture is driven out, grow somewhat in volume, and decrease in density, not unlike popping kernels of corn. The structural changes are significant enough that beans make notable noises during critical points in the roast; they ‘crack’ in two distinct manners and times. Keeping in mind that those coffee berries were sweet, so it follows that the dried beans contain significant sugars, oils and acids within. Roasting will affect all those constituents. Sugars will caramelize and the rigid structure of the bean itself will carbonize to some degree. Like ponderosa pine cones that require fire to germinate, certain oils in a coffee bean require roasting to come to fruition; for instance, caffeol, created when the internal temperature of a bean reaches roughly 390° F, is largely responsible for what we recognize as the flavor and aroma of a great cup o’ joe.
Here, in a nutshell, is what happens when coffee roasts.
Roasting at home occurs when the chosen roasting vessel is heated over a medium flame to between 350° F and 400° F, (It helps to have a thermometer integrated into whatever set up you use). Green beans exposed to roasting temperatures first begin to turn yellow, which occurs over the first several minutes of the process and is accompanied by a delightful, grainy scent
Now, somewhere around 7-10 minutes into the process, beans are turning light brown as their sugars begin to caramelize. You’ll now see and smell a bit of smoke mixed with the steam, and the scent becomes more complex, with some hot cereal and baking bread notes. I’m not being a snob here, one really does smell these things…
At this point, 10-13 minutes into the roast, you’ll hear what is known as the First Crack. It sounds somewhat like popcorn popping. This is where the real roasting begins. Bean structure is changing as moisture is driven out and oils begin to move to the surface.
First crack typically lasts several minutes. When it is done, (and if you’re a light roast lover), your roasting is done. This is what is known as a City Roast.
Continuing for another three to five minutes or so results in darker beans as sugars continue to caramelize. The beans expand and their density drops. Now notably darker than a City Roast, this is a Full City roast.
These lighter roasts are considered more esoteric and flavorful than their darker cousins, as oils are present here that may be driven out or overshadowed by further roasting.
With the advent of Second Crack, we enter the realm of the dark roasts, (which sounds rather Hobbitish), where sugar content is highly caramelized and the presence and flavor of essential oils becomes more pronounced. Full City Plus, Vienna, Italian, and French roasts are all characterized thus. The differences are subtle, and vary for each type and batch of beans. Some varieties just don’t do well above a Full City roast, so care must be taken with your choices.
Second Crack is more violent and faster than First Crack. The sound is more like the snap of burning twigs than the pop of corn popping, and that adage is not misplaced. Caramelization, carbonization, oil migration and the last moisture turning to steam can literally blow beans apart. Steam is overtaken by smoke. Bean structure itself becomes relatively brittle. A few snaps of Second Crack yields a Full City Plus roast. Thirty seconds or so more leads to Vienna, another 30 seconds, Italian. Working right up to the end of second crack yields the glistening, unctuous glory of a perfect french Roast, the stuff that M and I dearly love.
Go too far past second crack and you’ll end up with charred, tasteless beans, so close attention to sound, smell and appearance is critical when working a roast this dark.
Cooling is as critical a step as the roast itself. Like roasted meats or fowl, coffee beans will continue to roast after removed from heat. You can clearly hear the continuation of first or second crack while your beans are cooling in an aluminum colander or baking sheet, (Aluminum is preferred over steel, as it dissipates heat quickly, while steel tends to store it.) Tossing your beans in a colander allows you to have a good look at your roast. Stop a bit shy of your goal, go to the colander, and you have pinpoint control to allow or curtail roasting right in front of your eyes, nose and ears.
All roasts generate chaff from the skin left on the beans after processing. Chaff will not impart flavor to a brew, and it is easily blown off during cooling.
Store your beans in a cool, dark place.
How does one achieve the elusive Forth Degree Snob rating? This has to do with grinding, brewing, and drinking, so whether you get your black belt in coffee or not may have as much to do with the dojo you’re in as it does your routine, (My Tiger Crane Kung Fu is superior to your Wing Chung Karate…). While all schools agree that coffee beans must be ground, brewed, and drunk, that’s about the extent of the friendly consensus. Choices of grinder, brewer, and drinking style vary widely and are fiercely defended. Here is a very basic overview.
Regardless of method, there are some basic brewing tenets that must be adhered to.
The ratio of coffee to water matters. Like all things professional in cooking, professionals weigh their coffee and even their water at least once to determine proper baseline, so that proper ratio can be duplicated. For most of us, 20% soluble solids extracted from the ground coffee is what we’re after. Play with your go-to method and see where you stand.
Grind matters, somewhat. If you use a drip system, there’s a fairly wide margin of error for the best grind, so it is worth experimenting with your rig to determine the sweet spot. While it stands to reason that a finer grind exposes more bean to water, that’s not always what we’re after, so again, some experimentation is called for. Most coffee drinkers know by trial and error about using the right amount of ground coffee; too little yields a notable insipid result, and too much does not mean better. In all variations on the theme, a uniform grind is desirable. Finally, if you use an electric grinder, do not simply stuff beans in there and let ‘er rip. Several sources agreed that a high speed, whirling blade left on for the time required to achieve a viable grind can heat things up and impact flavor, (Remember, be all you can be…). For best results, pulse steadily until you get where you need to be.
Water temperature absolutely matters; 195° F to 205° F is the prime range because, chemically speaking, water is most efficient as a solvent therein.
Contact time matters. Got a Mr. Coffee that flushes that water through your ground in under a minute? If so, you’re getting ripped off. 2:30 is the ideal hot water to grounds contact time for almost all drip variants, while French presses want right around 5 minutes. Try this, and see if you don’t get a better brew. And you paper filter users, pre-wet your filter in clean, hot water before your next brew; you’ll lose less coffee to the filter by doing so.
Agitation counts. That said, if you have a drip system with an enclosed filter basket, pouring hot water over grounds effectively counts as stirring. Stirring does increase the rate of extraction of soluble solids, so if you use an open filter, pour-through rig, try a little stirring and see what it does for you.
Heat under your brewed coffee is an absolute no no. Frankly, anything with a hot plate is not the best thing for your brew. If you brew pots rather than cups, transferring freshly brewed to a thermal carafe is the trick. Coffee over heat is degrading in flavor and quality by the minute, so…
In addition to these basics, obviously the quality of your water, coffee, filters, and the condition of your brewing rig also matters. Use good quality, including your water, and keep everything faultlessly clean. Coffee isn’t cheap, so it makes sense to do it right.
Last but not least, there’s drinking. Frankly, if you’re really a snob, a Fifth Degree Snob, you don’t put anything in your coffee; nada, ever. A quad caramel macchiato isn’t coffee, it’s a dessert-like abomination with coffee in it. Pouring cream or sugar into a cup of carefully roasted, ground, and brewed single-origin coffee is akin to mixing Mountain Dew with a 42 year old single malt scotch; it’s just not done. If you need that stuff, one of two things is going on; either you don’t really like coffee, or you’re drinking shitty coffee.
Drink your good, carefully prepared coffee neat, right after it’s brewed.
Make small batches and enjoy them.
You don’t need to genuflect before the offering, slurp loudly, spit into a bucket, or use terms such as ‘brightly floral’ or ‘evanescent’.
Just brew a great cup and enjoy it.
Then, later on, we’ll cook with it…