When did a damn fine cup of coffee get so complicated?

by Jean Teng / 24 May, 2019
The Chemex coffee maker, invented in 1941, is considered such an iconic design it’s on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

The Chemex coffee maker, invented in 1941, is considered such an iconic design it’s on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

RelatedArticlesModule - coffee

When did a damn fine cup of coffee get so complicated? Long-time latte sipper Jean Teng embarks on a journey through the world of soft brews.

My visit to coffee roasters Kōkako starts with their weekly team “cupping” session: a finicky ritual that’s calming in its exactness. The first step is to stoop over dry grinds of coffee to assess their fragrance and aroma, sticking down your nose like a bird pecking at its lunch. What follows is a series of ceremonial-like motions to parse the coffee’s body, acidity, flavour notes, aftertaste and other criteria, scored on a busy form. The numbers are then added up to reveal the coffee’s cupping score.

It’s all very serious business. “If you want me to talk about coffee, you’re going to need a much narrower field,” Auckland-based coffee roaster David Huang from Society Coffee tells me, after I vaguely summarise my pitch: “Like, you know, coffee and the ways to brew it.”

Three days earlier, my typical cafe order was almost exclusively double-shot lattes. No surprise to Sam McTavish, head roaster at Kōkako. “We’re a really espresso-based culture in New Zealand,” he says, “and we don’t necessarily have the tradition of hand-brewing and taking that extra time.”

“Espresso” isn’t just a shot of black coffee, as people often mistakenly think; it’s what we call the coffee extracted from those hissing espresso machines. Other “soft brew” (filter) methods are often a more time-consuming process, producing a more expensive cup many Kiwis aren’t willing to pay for.

At the other end of the market, will we ever get past the concept that filter coffee is cheap and icky, and should only be served by uniformed waitresses in twee US dramas? Olivia Coote, who handles marketing at Kōkako, has a tip for that: “I just told my mum it’s a tea-like drink. If you get them to think of it as a different thing from your flat white, it makes it easier to accept.”

It is undoubtedly a different drink – lighter and bouncier than a long black or Americano. You know that feeling when you walk past a cafe and the smell of freshly ground coffee hits you, and somehow that smell alone is 10 times better than the flat white that winds up in your hand two minutes later? I always think of filter coffee as the purest form of that smell: when done right, it’s a revelation.

Every brewing method will produce a different cup of coffee from the same beans. Even using the same method, the results will vary depending on the water, brewing time and how much you agitate (stir). It’s all very confusing. Like wine, there are a million different quirks, and a million dissenting opinions floating around the industry.

Compared to wine, the history of coffee is short. People are bringing different ideas in now,” says Hannah Cho, barista trainer at Kōkako, where each new shipment of beans is trialled using all the different brewing methods to figure out which one staff will recommend to customers.

For all of the methods described on the following pages, Huang and McTavish have the same advice: use a set of scales for accuracy and well-roasted beans. McTavish says using beans three days to three weeks after they’ve been roasted delivers the best results; and Huang notes the importance of a good grinder – preferably a burr grinder, so you can adjust the coarseness of the grind.

“Find a local roaster and coffee shop; ask them questions,” he says. “That way, going to a cafe becomes more of a journey rather than just about getting your caffeine fix.” He likens it to going to a neighbourhood specialist wine bar and talking about the bottle of red you consumed with dinner the night before: coffee, like wine, has a narrative.

When I visit Huang at his cafe/roastery A-Block, we have a single-origin coffee, harvested by a Costa Rican farm, Hacienda Sonora, praised for its commitment to eco-practice. How do you get that backstory, if you’re rushing out the door with your takeaway?

Filter brewing methods

coffee

Fresh coffee from a syphon coffee maker.

Syphon

Syphon coffee makers are less common (and less convenient) than other methods, but they look undeniably impressive; it could make a fun ice breaker at your next awkward family gathering as you field exclamations about your new career as a scientist.

A vacuum method using  two chambers, it involves heating the water to boiling and then reducing the heat, adding a measure of coffee and waiting for the liquid to draw down into the bulb to serve. This method gives the greatest control over water temperature, and produces a clean cup clear of sediment. Fun to experiment with – if you can afford all the gadgets.

Plunging with a French press. Photo/Ken Downie.

Plunging with a French press. Photo/Ken Downie.

Plunger

A method that requires very little (if any) technique, this is also the one most people are familiar with; I use a plunger at work every day. There’s a misconception that it produces a sub-par cup (“Let’s go get some real coffee,” my co-worker declares, as we trot out for our Friday cafe espresso), but you really just need good beans. The general recipe is one-part coffee to 16-parts water, or 35g to 500ml. Adjust to taste. Coffee in, water in and leave to brew for about five minutes, then plunge. Alternatively, just take the plunger out and pour the coffee as is, after scooping off the sediment that’s risen to the top. Most of the coffee grinds will have settled at the bottom, and this way the grinds won’t be reintroduced to the coffee (as they are when they’re agitated during plunging). Pouring straight away, without plunging, stops the brewing process for a less bitter cup.

Pour-over.

Pour-over

Pour-over is a method involving a paper filter, some kind of funnel device (dripper), a mug or carafe, and a gooseneck kettle, so you can control the flow of the pour over the measured grounds. There’s a huge variety of drippers on the market, made from all types of materials (this affects the taste of the coffee, too). However, two brands have emerged victorious in the pour-over’s rise in popularity: the Hario V60 and Chemex.

V60 refers to the conical v-shape and 60º angle of its dripper. Mastering the use of one is a science. I watch Cho’s hand shake as she furrows her brow at the mug and V60 dripper sitting on top of a weighing scale (“I’m out of practice,” she later explains), trying to evenly wet the coffee grounds with the gooseneck kettle in slow spirals, filling the water to a certain weight on the scale and then waiting for it to drip down. You can choose whether to stir it in between, to make sure the coffee is evenly saturated, but it will give the final cup a different taste. Make sure to pre-wet the paper filter before you slot it into the V60 dripper. Then it’s a matter of trial and error – Google some methods to try out.

A V60 brew will generally have more body than the Chemex and allows greater control over the results with its pour, but the Chemex produces a cleaner, crisper character due to the thicker paper filter absorbing more oil. Cho tells me the origin of the beans plays a part, too: Chemex tends to work well for African coffee. Another important consideration is aesthetics: the Chemex – in all its hour-glass shaped glory – is on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). 

aeropress

The AeroPress. Photo/Ken Downie.

AeroPress

The AeroPress is currently the coffee world’s darling. It’s an immersion method, where the coffee is extracted under high pressure as it passes through a special paper filter.

Generally, there are two ways to brew: the normal way, with the grinds sitting at the bottom, or flipped (inverted), which produces a plunger-

style brew in less than half the time. Brewing takes just a minute, retaining the body of a plunger brew but with more brightness. It’s also portable, fitting neatly into a hiking bag for a mid-trek caffeine hit.

McTavish thinks the AeroPress is one of the best options for home brewing, based on value and convenience (currently selling for $72.50 from the Kōkako website).

batch brew coffee

Batch brewing with a Moccamaster. Photo/Ken Downie.

Batch brew

When Cho goes to a new cafe, “I try their batch brew first,” she says. "If their batch brew is bad, I don’t drink coffee there.”

If a cafe offers filter, it’s likely to be batch brew, made in an automatic machine with adjustable settings that can emulate the body and flavour of a manual brew, like a V60. It cancels out human error, especially in a cafe setting with plenty of distractions afoot. You may lose a little love with an automated machine, but for the cafe, it’s just basic maths.

There’s a batch-brew machine for every budget, so having one at home is totally do-able. But let’s be honest, letting a machine do all the work isn’t nearly as much fun.

cold brew

Making cold brew using a Hario pot. Photo/Ken Downie.

Cold Brew

Cho recommends cold brew as the easiest method to use if you like your coffee chilled. Cold extraction brings out sweeter, less acidic characteristics, and has a refreshing smoothness.

The standard recipe is one part coffee to 14 parts cold filtered water, refrigerated for 12 to 24 hours. If you don’t have a special cold-brew kit, just use a plunger – but don’t plunge until your brew has been in the fridge for at least 12 hours.                                

Odes to Caffeine

Decaffeinated coffee is like a hairless cat. It exists, but that doesn’t make it right. –Unknown

I don’t know what I’d do without coffee. I’m guessing 25 to life. – Unknown

If it wasn’t for coffee, I’d have no discernible personality at all. – David Letterman 

Coffee. Creative lighter fluid. – Floyd Maxwell

A morning without coffee is like sleep. – Unknown

Coffee! Is the planet shaking or is just me? – Unknown

I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon. – Ronald Reagan

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

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