It seems logical to conclude that, if someone is interested in coffee, then they must be interested in how it is made. Over the last few weeks, SGC’s Matt Hogan has showed us how coffee gets to your cup as well as why certain regions display different flavors as compared to others. This sort of information has proven to be essential as a foundation for furthering our coffee education. Of course, all of this is useless if we still do not know how to brew the stuff. How might one go about using a French Press or a Clever Drip, and do these devices make a difference in flavor? These questions will be addressed over the next four editions of “What do you Taste?”. Also, once we master the art of brewing, Matt and I will dive in to the world of flavor profiles, which provide a framework under which experts can work and compare coffee uniformly.
Brewing coffee does not sound very difficult at first, but without digging too deep it is evident that there are plenty of methods out there that accomplish the same goal, which is of course a good cup of coffee. Some brew methods yield large pots that can service large groups, some only make one cup. Some processes take a full 24 hours while others take only a few seconds, and each method produces its own flavor and qualities. The optimum brew method is a matter of preference, but there are some guidelines one should follow.
The first step in understanding the world of brewing is to understand the main three categories, namely auto-drip, manual pour over, and press brewing. Auto-drip coffee refers to the coffee maker that is likely in your kitchen, or at many restaurants. Even very high end cafés will employ some form of auto-drip for the mere convenience. Auto-drip machines typically have some sort of reservoir of water that is heated and then dripped over a basket of coffee grounds. The water then trickles out of the bottom of the basket in to a pot which holds the final product over a hot plate until you are ready to consume it. Auto-drip technology has improved over the years, but when shopping for one of these devices it is important to take in to account a few important factors. The first and most important factor is that there is very little direct control over brew temperature and the way in which the coffee comes into contact with the water. Some, more expensive machines will allow the user to set brew temperature and adjust it over time, but the vast majority of machines are engineered to produce one temperature. For an ideal cup of coffee, the water should be between 91 and 96 degrees Celsius (195-205° F). When the temperature of the water falls out of this range then your cup will not reach its maximum flavor potential. Many cheaper coffee makers will not achieve temperatures close to 91° C.
The second point of interest on an auto-drip machine is the way in which the water interacts with the grounds. To figure this out, simply look at where the water comes out of the reservoir. Does the water come out of one hole in a straight line, or is there a shower head style spigot that spreads the water about the entire basket of grounds. On older style coffee makers, the single-hole drip was quite common and over-extraction was the norm. Grounds placed in the middle of the basket would receive too much interaction with water and grounds around the outside of the basket would never even get wet. This seems like a small factor, but if you are going to spend the money to buy a nice coffee maker, this is an important feature that dramatically affects taste.
The final aspect of an auto-drip machine to look for is a hot plate. Avoid hot plates at all costs! Hot plates do keep coffee warm, but they also cook the contents of the pot. High end auto-drip machines are often equipped with timers and auto-start features that give you no excuse for drinking stale coffee.
For more information refer to previous editions of “What do You Taste?” or wait until next week which will highlight pour-over brewing methods.
Stockton Graham & Co.