There is a lot that goes into your morning cup. 70 years ago you just went down to the corner grocery and picked up a can of whatever pre-ground that you preferred. The coffee was then brewed with some magical formula, a measurement, most likely determined by the matriarch of the kitchen, thrown into a percolator basket then put on the stove to do its business. Soon you would have a hot cup in your hands. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s this is how I was introduced to coffee. It wasn’t until I embarked on my restaurant career that I was introduced to the auto-drip coffee brewer.
With today’s plethora of brewing systems, all designed to provide the “best” cup of coffee, grinders, and coffees to choose from how do you decide what is best?
Ultimately, the coffee you enjoy is the coffee you should drink. Make it the way you like it and enjoy it.
Let’s take a few minutes to determine how to decide what is best for you.
I think a great starting point is to get you brewing needs in order. Select your brew system; you may have already done that, so be certain to know that system and its function well. Know how your grinder works and the best way to ensure consistency in the grind. Know the best way to properly dose the coffee as well as the best way to store your coffee.
1) Make sure you are using fresh coffee. If the coffee is old and stale you cannot get the optimum flavor that you are looking for. Coffee, once roasted, has an effective shelf life of about 3 weeks. The staling effects of oxygen will cause whole bean coffee to lose as much as 80-90% of its volatile flavor profile in that time. Ground coffee will be impacted in the same fashion in just a few days.
2) Be sure to grind properly, a good general guide to grinding is:
a. Turkish, equal in size to powdered sugar. Very Fine
b. Espresso, should be ground for your specific espresso machine. Follow the instructions.
c. Pour over / cone filter, the same size as table salt
d. Flat bottom filter, same size as kosher salt
e. French Press, medium course; a bit more course than for the flat bottom filter
f. All others should be coarsely ground and of consistent size.
3) Dosing your coffee. In the shop we use a standard formula, 15/1 ratio of water to ground coffee. Or, you can start with an approximate measure of 2 TBSP ground coffee for every 6 ounces of water. (That is approximately 15/1) Then adjust to your personal taste. Remember, coffee is all about your enjoyment.
I told you there was a lot that goes into your morning cup, but once you have a system in place it is easy to duplicate on a daily basis.
4) Water temperature is CRITICAL to your coffee brewing. There is a 10 degree window for water temperature for proper brewing. That window is 195°F-205°F. If the water is too cool the flavor oils will not properly dissolve leaving flavor in the grounds. Too hot, and the oils can scorch leaving a burnt flavor in the cup.
Most home brewers won’t do an adequate job on water temperature so be certain that the one you are buying does reach the proper brewing temp.
Now that you have everything in place and understand its function you can start trying different coffees with confidence. You can stop in the shop and discuss your coffee preferences (really you can do that right away so we can work together through the whole process if you like.) But in deciding on your coffee there are a couple of questions to ponder.
1) What is the general depth of roast you prefer? We have a broad selection of coffees and varying roast degrees to meet with every palate.
2) Do you like bright and lively coffees? Creamy, round and smooth? Or, dark and bold?
3) Are you willing to experiment?
4) Do you prefer single origin coffees or blends?
5) What are your preferences on acidity and caffeine?
One of my favorite things is to talk coffee! It is my desire to help you get the same enjoyment out of your cup as I get out of mine. Please, if you have the time come to one of our tasting events or schedule one of your own. We can dedicate some time to taste and discuss all things coffee.
And, remember, coffee should be both fun and flavorful.
There’s a special mix of old and new in Reno. It’s one of my favorite things about this place. When I started roasting coffee, they were still driving cattle through town for the rodeo. If you look at the explosion of growth in the Midtown area, you’ll see a huge number of old buildings brought beautifully into the 21st century. We’re seeing tech giants like Tesla and Apple coming to our fair city to complement the gaming we were built on. This blend of old and new is reflected in all aspects of Reno’s culture, and roasting coffee over a wood fire perfectly exemplifies it.
Until the mid nineteenth century, most coffee was sold green and needed to be roasted by consumers before they could brew it. The green beans are better for shipping and storing because they keep longer and take up less space than roasted beans. With significantly slower and more costly shipping than we enjoy now, not to mention inferior storage methods, spoilage and maximizing capacity were both big concerns. There was also the concern of early commercial roasters cutting their roasted and pre-ground coffee with cereal substitutes, which helped keep hearth roasting coffee over wood fires the standard into the twentieth century, particularly outside of major cities.
Since the sixteenth century, in Italy it was common to see your neighbors out roasting coffee on their patios. The tradition crossed borders, the oceans, and time. Even today many people roast their own coffee at home still; although roasting over a wood fire is rare. Below are some examples of home hearth roasters I have hanging around the roastery.
This old-world appeal is part of why I enjoy wood-fire roasting today and why I thought it would be a natural fit in the Biggest Little City. Of course, I use a wood-fire roaster that handles quite a bit more coffee, about 35 pounds per batch to be precise. The roaster does a much better job of heating the beans evenly than the old, hand-cranked models above, utilizing convection and conduction for a better roast, but it still maintains that old-world flair I love.
To me, the difference between gas-powered roasters and wood-fire roasters is a bit like the difference between digital and analog. There’s an artistry and nuance in the latter that the former does not allow. I like the temperature dynamic of wood-fire roasting. The beans get directly exposed to the smoke, too, which softens the flavor. This effect is more pronounced in darker roasts and assists in coaxing flavors out of the bean.
A smaller roaster allows me to tend to each batch individually, making adjustments for each kind of bean and what state it’s starting in. Using a wood fire that demands my attention during the roasting process also keeps me in close touch with beans as they roast. This is where the art of it comes in. By design, this isn’t a mass-produced, conveyor-belt kind of operation.
Roasting over a wood fire may make me a black sheep in the world of coffee, but that fits my style just fine, and I think it fits Reno’s style even better.
Imagine a combination safe that opens to reveal a different treasure for each combination. Some combinations unlock marvels; others leave you staring at an empty metal box—and there are a myriad different treasures in between. This is the metaphor I like to use for roasting coffee. The fresh, green bean is the magical lockbox, and the skill of the roaster is the combination.
Too often, roasting is reduced to the exterior color of the bean, which, in the case of our locked safe, is a lot like trying to judge the treasure inside by what color it’s painted. The interior of a coffee bean holds flavor complexities that need to be coaxed out. When coffee is roasted to the color of the outside of the bean rather than allowing the interior to reach a similar roast profile, many undesirable taste characteristics come out. These can include corn, grass, stem, wheat, and any other savory bitterness you can imagine might come from biting directly into the plant itself. This greenness is referred to underdevelopment, and it’s become a trend known euphemistically as “minimal impact roasting” that affects the solubility of the coffee—and, of course, the taste.
Roasting simply to minimize roast impact does one thing very well: it allows the roaster to exemplify the regional character of the coffee. By holding firm to this approach, the roaster avoids many opportunities of full, round, and flavorful coffees. I have left many coffee houses that serve these minimal-roast-impact coffees only to have a decidedly unpleasant, long aftertaste disturb my ride to my next destination.
I strive to avoid these green flavors coming through in the cup in favor of rich, sweet chocolate, caramel, and nut flavors. These work to enhance a fruit-dominant character, while lengthening the finish to a full, round, and pleasantly lingering flavor bomb. These roast-driven characteristics are the boon of a well-developed coffee.
Underdeveloped coffee beans can be tricky to spot. While one might intuit that a quick glance would reveal an under-roasted bean, you simply can’t see how well developed a bean is from the outside. Very basically, it’s only the end temperature of a roast that determines its color. Think of it like searing an ahi steak, but instead of locking the good flavors in, you’re sealing in unpleasantness that will lie in wait until it is ground and brewed. You’re also completely locking in many aromatics and even some of the caffeine because of the insolubility of an underdeveloped roast.
So how do you tell if a bean is underdeveloped? Are you grinding one coffee more finely than another of similar color? Struggling to slow down espresso shots? You’re most likely dealing with an underdeveloped coffee. Can’t easily crack open a bean with your fingers? Likely underdeveloped. Can you see a color difference between the exterior and interior of the bean after you do finally crack it open? Most definitely underdeveloped.
Wood-fire roasted to perfection
Roasting to a darker color doesn’t necessarily make the coffee developed, and a light roast doesn’t automatically preclude it from being so. While roasting darker can certainly help with an underdeveloped roast, it often leads to an overdeveloped exterior. Sure, this means that what’s left is nice and soluble, but everything tasty has been cooked off and lost to the roasting process.
My techniques allow the center of the bean to catch up to the exterior a couple of times during the roast, not late in the process when this window has closed. The precise methodology I use has evolved over the years as I’ve grown as a roaster. As the beans roast, sight, smell, and sound help me get a good idea where the beans are in the roasting process. Color only begins to play a larger role as the center of the beans catch up.
I began to recognize the real impact of temperature as my skills developed. Finding points at which it’s best to apply more heat and learning when to ease off are nuanced techniques to say the least, particularly when trying to predict how these early changes will ultimately manifest in the cup. Through modifying my roasts minimally, I’ve developed techniques for maximizing the development of the whole bean, not just the exterior color.
Roast characters are often a great addition to the flavor of a coffee. Imagine having a very fruit-driven coffee with bright, lively acidity. With small modifications to the roast development it is possible to, with a small impact to these desirable traits, add a hint of chocolate tone and reduce the overall acidity for a creamier mouthfeel. By doing this you totally change the depth and feel of the coffee in your cup. This is how I roast.
I understand the desire to allow what’s essentially the terroir of the coffee bean come through in the cup. In the end, the best cup of coffee is the one that you like to drink (supplanted sometimes by the one in closest proximity on a Monday morning). Minimal impact roasting certainly has its place, but I have found that with some coffees the true wonders come through at just slightly more roast impact.
On July 1, 2001, I opened Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee. The first decade flew by quickly enough; it’s hard to believe we’re an additional four years past that. When I started out roasting coffee beans, it was just over my kitchen stove. I’ve obviously learned quite a bit since then and refined my technique considerably, but it was there in my kitchen in the early days that I discovered I could craft a coffee that I really liked—and I already knew that I liked great coffee.
In the beginning… there was a lot of smoke
My first “roaster” was a three-quart sauce pan held over an electric range. I spent hours and hours adjusting that process and really getting to know the beans. I learned a lot about the way coffee behaves during the roasting process. I also learned the importance of meeting certain “marks” in while batch roasting. This was when I began to recognize how to use all of my senses to gauge how the coffee was coming along. If you listen just right, you can hear the beans relay precisely when they’re ready.
It wasn’t too long before I was hooked on roasting. The electric range worked, just not particularly well, and the six or eight ounces I could roast didn’t go very far. I needed something bigger and less hokey, so I set to the task of having my own roaster built. It was a simple, charcoal-heated drum. I could roast about two full pounds at a time, which was certainly an improvement, but this low-tech unit definitely came with some drawbacks.
My home-built roaster had a hand crank on the side, and the process involved an awful lot of smoke in the face, if you were doing it right. Getting the thing to breathe properly was a creative journey unto itself. It was with this roaster, though, that I began to acquire my first commercial accounts, small as they were, and realize that I might have a future in producing fresh, whole bean coffee. I roasted for nearly a year and half on this roaster, learning more every smoke-in-the-face-filled day about the need to employ rigid consistency measures between batches.
I toiled day after day with my hand-cranked roaster and earned enough to start getting serious. I started shopping around and ended up purchasing the roaster I use to this day: a 15-kilo Balestra wood-fired drum roaster. I set up my first real shop during this time, too.
This is when the fun really began. Sure, I got to leave some of the face-smoke behind, but now I had to learn a new method of roasting and strive to overcome the inherent obstacles that come along with wood roasting. All the while, I was teaching myself how to build a real business, which comes with its own challenges. I should note that both have become incredibly rewarding experiences. I would, however, recommend doing them separately if at all possible.
Stoking the fires
As I honed my craft and came into my own as one of less than a dozen wood roasters in the country, my knowledge and standards grew. Today we source only Specialty Grade, 100 percent Arabica coffees. We roast to order as much as possible to minimize waste and, more importantly, maximize freshness. It’s rare that we have more than ten or fifteen pounds of coffee roasted and languishing on a shelf—and we only keep that amount around in the event that someone stops in unexpectedly to buy a few pounds.
When beans are roasted over a wood fire, the sharp edges of the coffee are softened. Acidity is muted on the palate. The beans retain their regional character, and, in fact, it sings in them. Complex flavors arise, flavors I’ve learned to draw out or temper in the roasting process, depending on how I’d like a given roast to turn out.
Generally being a traditionalist, I felt that employing an age-old and time-tested method for roasting was in order for my business. I struck by the process, wooed. I wanted to come as close as I could to imitating the old world style that was employed for centuries, roasting coffee over the cooking hearth. It’s a very hands-on, artistic way to craft roasted beans, much more so than computer-generated roasting profiles and degrees. Both methods have their place, but it was clear early on which way I wanted to take my craft and my business.
One of the more fun aspects of coffee roasting is the constant growth. I so enjoy keeping up with trends not only in roasting style but in boutique coffees. In 2011, we here at Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee had a phenomenal experience that can only be attributed to this constant learning. Ken Davids and Justin Johnson of CoffeeReview.com gave our Kenya Nyeri Gichatha-ini AB Signature Series a 97 out of 100 in a blind tasting. It’s the highest rating they’d ever given, and we had the honor of having the ninth coffee to achieve it in their fifteen years of reviewing.
Our life blood is regular and devoted customers, of course. There is something special, though, about one’s craft being recognized on such a large scale. Our Signature Series roasts are sourced from carefully selected small lots grown with care. It’s finding the true gems from amidst a world of coffee growers and coaxing the subtle characters and nuanced flavors out of the non-descript green coffee seed that is my passion, and bringing that to friends, my joy.
Roasting in the moment
We’re fortunate to have a community of followers and dedicated clients who appreciate our work. Today, Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee is appreciated in more ways than I could have anticipated. We’ve been a part of award-winning barbecued ribs. We’re a part of FiftyFifty Brewing Company’s Eclipse Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, a beer that’s so popular they actually sell futures.
However people choose to enjoy my efforts, I like to stress the importance of being with the experience in the moment. In other posts, I’ve talked about developing a coffee ritual to get the most out of every cup. I take pains to make sure my roasts stay flavorful through the final sip of every cup, and when you take time to enjoy that, it can be a truly wonderful experience. Take the time to find your perfect cup of coffee—the perfect grind, the exact proportions, the precise brew method, it all works together to help you get everything out of our roasts.
Our success has been such that we’ve been able to give back to the community that supports us. Since 2010, we’ve donated over $10,000 to local nonprofits. We’ve also helped numerous children’s fundraising efforts over the years, offering our coffee to them at a big, so they can resell it to raise money.
Self-Evaluation is ongoing, particularly around this July 1st anniversary date. I think about our business dealings, product decisions, personal interactions, and client development, and I try to figure out exactly what Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee is all about. After much dwelling and deliberation, the answer I always come back to is this: we are about the coffee. Fourteen years later, I stand by it. I live it. And I drink copious amounts of it.
From roots to roast, crop to cup: A brief look at coffee’s infinite variability
It might not be something you want to think about while brewing your pick-me-up at sunrise, but coffee is staggeringly complex. It’s more convoluted than simply asking for Mokka-Java or Colombian and being done with it. The factors that influence and nuance that morning cup are nearly infinite, and they interact with one another. Change one thing, and you change them all.
As a roaster, I’m always intrigued to find out what people call their favorite coffee. I try to match those preferences with my coffees, but it can be quite a challenge. I have to work off of my perceptions of those stated flavor preferences, which isn’t the most straightforward process. It would be great if everyone’s taste buds, olfactory nerves, and brains worked together in the same way, but that’s clearly not the case. I roast coffees to get what I interpret to be the best flavor from the beans. To a degree, every roaster does this, but some aim just for a flavor profile they think will sell, others try to exemplify the character of the bean, and still others simply go through the motions of what they believe to be the “correct” process and apply it across the board.
From the very ground in which the seedling is planted to how you end up grinding the beans and brewing them—even how you sip, slurp, or gulp it down—everything affects the taste of coffee, some things more than others. Here are ten of the biggest variables influencing your cup of joe:
1. Origin. Coffee is grown in the equatorial band around the globe between the Tropic of Cancer to the north and the Tropic of Capricorn to the south, known generally as the tropics. Dozens of countries produce coffee inside this strip of the globe, and each one has different circumstances that affect the green coffee seed from the very start.
2. Subspecie. There are dozens of subspecies of coffee, known as varietals. Every varietal has its own story. Some come from selective breeding and adaptation to new regions after being transferred by horticulturalists. Some were created with various grafting techniques. Some were cooked up in laboratories in attempts to minimize susceptibility to disease, infestation and drought. Many trace their lineage through several or all of these, and every single one has a slightly different flavor profile.
3. Soil. Differing soil conditions also play a role in fruit development. Just like terroir has an effect on wine, it also affects coffee. High iron content in the soil can add a metallic taste. Phosphorus can increase acidity in the cup. While they haven’t all been isolated, you can be sure that for every compound found in the earth in which the coffee is grown, there’s a difference in the taste.
4. Microclimate. Differing microclimates contribute a surprising amount to the final cup. Sometimes a certain section of a hillside will get different breezes, moisture, sunlight, or rainfall, each of which in turn affects the plant and therefore the fruit.
5. Macroclimate. Of course, if a small change can alter the taste, a large one undoubtedly does, too. Coffee grown in a sheltered area away from prevailing weather patterns will have a substantially different outcome than coffees grown elsewhere in a given region, and coffee grown in an entirely different part of the world more prone to fog or sea breeze, high heat or wind, humidity or harsh weather will do the same.
6. Altitude. The higher one climbs, the thinner the air. I know it. You know it. And coffee definitely knows it, too—as do the various pests that attack it. Coffea Arabica, for example, is very susceptible to disease and infestation and therefore requires higher elevations to thrive. There are other advantages to this as well. Higher elevations place more stress on the plant causing it to put more effort into reproduction (the seed), in turn giving Coffea Arabica deeper and more complex flavor profiles than its Coffea Robusta counterpart.
7. Processing. Yes, even the act of removing the fruit from the seed can change the taste of a coffee. In fact, it can be the single largest contributor to a bean’s flavor profile. The difference between an identically grown varietal processed two different ways (e.g., being washed and dry-processed versus being wet-processed) can actually be greater than the difference between two coffees processed the same way from opposite sides of the globe. It’s that big of a deal.
8. Roasting. The coffee seed is transformed into a palatable product and made ready to brew through roasting, and it can make or break a bean. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,400 roasters in the U.S. alone. Roasters range from mass-producing, industrial corporations to micro-roasters like us at Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee. As a micro-roaster, I have the opportunity to spend time with bean, to get to know it and really bring out the best in it. I roast to achieve total cup balance. This can mean maximizing characteristics like acidity and terroir, or downplaying them in a roast. The goal is a cup that sings from start to finish and stays true to its ideal flavor.
9. Grind and portion. This is where you (or your barista) come in. These are very important steps in the pursuit of a perfect final cup. Believe me, you can have the best coffee roasted to draw out everything wonderful about the bean, and if you don’t grind the coffee right or use the proper amount, you will always come up shy of greatness. My standard is 1 gram of coffee to 15 grams of water. Start there, and adjust to your taste.
10. Brewing. The penultimate step, right before you bring that cup to your lips, is brewing. You’ve selected your coffee. It’s fresh. It’s from your preferred roaster, and you have put in the effort to ensure that the portion and grind are just right for your brew system. I always recommend the French Press for brewing, as it gives the most control over all aspects of the brewing process. A couple of great alternatives: The Chemex brew system or the Clever Dripper. I never under any circumstance recommend an auto drip coffee maker or percolator. Please ask why next time you are in the shop.
Neither of us, nor the growers, have control over every aspect we’ve covered, which is why trust and experimentation are sort of meta-factors in flavor. You need to trust that your roaster can pick the right crop and roast it to the height of its potential consistently. Once you’ve got it, experimenting to really zero in on what you like best is key to finding your cupful of Nirvana. The next time you wrap your hands around a piping hot mug of coffee, spend a moment thinking about all of these factors and the myriad others that had to line up to get you—and the coffee—to that perfect place.
The brewing of coffee, that nectar of the gods, is steeped in tradition. The best and brightest of many a culture have been powered by this elixir, and many of them have devoted serious time to getting the perfect cup out of every brew. Of course, in the case of coffee, perfection is a relative term, or at least a subjective one. Even dip your toe into the vast pool of information available online about coffee brewing methods and you’ll find evangelists espousing their preferred method of brewing and spouting vitriol about others.
The big secret is that the best method for brewing coffee is the one that you like best. There are benefits to be considered for each method, and they range from ease to economy, health to heat, caffeine to convenience, and everything in between. As invariably as Earth’s axis tips our hemisphere towards the sun this time of year, warm weather always starts the conversation about cold coffee. Numerous options exist for making your daily cup cooler as temperatures climb, but one method that’s been steadily growing in popularity is cold brewing—and some take it hot. Its roots run deep, with devotees in the American South tracing their love for the stuff back generations. It’s not for everyone, but it might just be for you.
The Skinny on Cold Brew Coffee
In contrast to the relative speed with which a hot cup of coffee can be brewed, cold brewing coffee takes a time commitment of around twenty hours. As opposed to the aromatic, acidic coffee with a bite that hot brewing produces, cold brewing rewards your patience with smooth, sweet coffee concentrate. To understand why, it helps to understand some of the chemistry behind it.
Coffee beans are chock full of oils, acids, and aromatic compounds that are collectively referred to as coffee solubles. Every method of brewing involves releasing these coffee solubles into water, and variations in time, temperature, grind, and water-to-grounds ratio all contribute to different flavors coming out of the process. Each of these compounds has different degrees of solubility and volatility, which are basically the ability for the compound to dissolve into the water or be evaporated into the air, respectively.
Generally speaking, the ideal temperature range for extracting most coffee solubles is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why hot brewed coffee is often referred to as being more full-bodied than its colder counterpart. Solubility and volatility both increase with temperature, and it’s the latter that is responsible for the incredible aroma of a fresh brew. Also increased at higher temperatures are oxidization and degradation. Oxidized oils taste sour, and acids taste increasingly bitter as they degrade.
The decreased extraction rate of cold brewing is why the amount of grounds used is about double compared to a hot brew and the time it takes is hours longer. Oxidization and degradation are also slowed way down with the cold brewing process, and some compounds attributed with unfavorable tastes and many acids only dissolve at higher temperatures. As a result, cold brewed coffee is almost completely lacking in sourness and bitterness. With cold brew, chocolates, fruits, flowers, and nuts come through in the flavor profile, and there’s a certain sweetness in spite of the beans’ residual sugars not being fully extracted. Cold brew also only has about one-third of the acid, which makes it a lot easier on the teeth and stomachs of drinkers.
At this point, the question on everyone’s mind is, of course, “but what about the drugs?” Caffeine is extracted early in the brewing process, and brew time does not determine its concentration. By using twice the grounds, you’re effectively doubling the caffeine in the concentrate you make by cold brewing, but again, it’s meant to be a concentrate. You’re meant to be cutting it with water, milk, or whatever’s your pleasure, not drinking it straight. At the diluted level, you’re still getting your regular fix.
You Can Do It: How to Cold Brew It
For what seems to be a fairly straightforward and simple brew process, there are a staggering number of even more staggeringly expensive machines out there for making cold brew coffee. Of the devices specifically designed for the job, my favorite is the Toddy, which was developed by a chemist largely responsible for the popularity of cold brew outside of the South, where the traditional apparatus is a simple lidded Mason jar.
After many years of cold brewing, I’ve refined my own technique to suit my taste, but it’ll be good place for you to start and several of these techniques can be translated to other cold brewers, like the aforementioned Mason jar.
1. In a 38-ounce French press, add six ounces of cold, preferably filtered, water to the empty reservoir.
2. On top of this, weigh out 7.5 ounces of coarsely ground coffee (a little more coarse than a standard French Press Grind) and add that to your six ounces of cold water.
3. Add another 16 ounces of cold water, pouring it slowly over the grounds to moisten all of the coffee.
4. Wait five minutes for the coffee to bloom and soak up the water.
5. Add the final eight ounces of cold water slowly and steadily, taking care not agitate the grounds too much.
6. Cover loosely with a plastic bag, and let your concoction sit for 20 to 24 hours.
7. Just plunging the French press won’t get out all of the grounds, so have a secondary filter ready.
This produces the concentrated coffee mentioned above. You’ll want to mix this between 1:1 and 2:1 with water or milk to your personal taste (note: cold brew is known for going wonderfully with dairy—try pouring your concentrate over chocolate or vanilla ice cream; it’s fantastic). For hot coffee, mix concentrate with boiling water (don’t boil the concentrate itself!). Take some time to vary all of the elements at play here. Brew time, grind, even grounds-to-water ratio—all can be tweaked to net a cup of cold brew that is perfectly suited to your tastes.
In this grab-and-go world, stopping to smell the roses, or should I say taste the coffee, quite often gets passed up. As you may have read in the last blog post, I recommend having a coffee ritual centered around the quality, brewing, and flavor of coffee. I also recommend setting aside 45 minutes to an hour at least once per week for this ritual. Why? The idea is to develop awareness of your morning cup and make enjoyment more accessible when things are hectic.
Happiness studies show that mindfulness, being in the moment, increases enjoyment—no matter what we’re being mindful of—and that when our minds wander, even while we’re doing something we love, it diminishes the experience. When it comes to coffee, we tend to rush things, throwing it down our throats to get that precious caffeine pumping through our veins as quickly as possible. Like with any kind of meditation, practice makes truly losing yourself to the experience easier. For example, the more practiced your taste buds are, the easier it is to:
• Identify flavor components
• Feel viscosity
• Be aware of lingering and changing characteristics
As you become more familiar with the way to thoroughly taste your coffee, you can find a greater depth of enjoyment in every sip of every great coffee you drink. You’ll find it easier to identify the less-than-stellar coffees, too, in addition to really getting in touch with the elements you love.
Training Yourself to Taste
There is a lot that goes into the tasting process. It’s not just about sitting and sipping in silence. It all starts with a better understanding of your sense of taste. Like all of our senses, taste has its roots in basic survival. Back in the times before artificial flavors, our sense of taste helped us pick out foods high in nutrition and identify others that might have spoiled or been poisonous.
Taste is the chemical recognition of molecules on our tongues. The tongue has five types of taste receptors that work together to create the full sensation of a taste. These receptors register sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness, and savoriness (sometimes called ‘umami’ or meaty taste). Each has its own specific job to do when something hits our tongue. We register sugar content on the sweetness receptors, sodium chloride on the saltiness receptors, acids on the sourness receptors, and so on. With these five signals, the brain (somewhat mysteriously) builds us hugely complex and widely varying taste profiles for everything that touches a taste bud, intentionally or otherwise.
Of course, taste is not solely the product of our tongues but includes all of the amazing things our olfactory systems can bring to the sensory table, as well as the textures and temperatures felt by our senses of touch. Eating and drinking engage all five of our senses, but the taste, smell, and touch trifecta really does the heavy lifting.
When I say ‘tasting process’, it’s this trifecta that I’m referring to, and when it comes to coffee, it’s broken down into aroma, taste, and mouthfeel. For your mindful tasting experience, be present with each of these aspects individually and with all of them together. In other words, shift your focus to the small details of the experience, then let those enhance your awareness of the whole, and then shift back.
There are two ways to perceive coffee aroma. You can sense it nasally, smelling the coffee through the nose, or retronasally, backwards to the nasal passage from the mouth or after swallowing. The aroma is said to be the most important attribute of specialty coffee. Today, more than 800 aromatic compounds have been identified in coffee, with more discovered every year. While all coffee has at least a small amount of a reasonable number of these compounds, there are many factors, from growing and roasting to grinding and brewing, that affect their concentration and expression.
Each compound adds to the complexity of the aroma, making it smell fruity or honey-like, roasty, earthy, buttery, spicy, floral, nutty, and even caramel-, chocolate- or vanilla-like. Of course not all of these compounds produce the best smells, and minimizing those while accentuating others is part of the art (and science) of making great coffee.
Take the time to experience the aroma of your coffee from every angle. Breathe it in on those first curls of steam as it brews. Sniff it before your first sip, then inhale and let it waft up retronasally. Be present with aroma. How does it change for you after it hits your tongue? What flavors come out as the coffee cools? Take it all in.
We’ve already talked a bit about taste generally. When it comes to coffee, things are a little different. The savoriness or umami element of taste plays little role in coffee tasting because coffee lacks the glutamate these receptors require. In spite of this only leaving four types of taste receptors, we still discuss five elements present in the taste of coffee: acidity, bitterness, sourness, saltiness, and sweetness.
While acidity should technically fall under sourness because of the receptors being triggered to produce the sensation, it’s broken out because it’s considered a favorable attribute, as opposed to sourness. If you taste a strong, unpleasant vinegar or acetic acid flavor, that’s sourness. If the coffee has a pleasant sharpness to it, that’s acidity.
Use every part of your tongue to taste the coffee. Swish it. Let it coat your mouth, then rinse with water and experiment with individual parts of your tongue. How does it taste up front? In the back? On the sides? The myth of specific regions of the tongue being solely responsible for certain tastes has been debunked, but you do have concentrations of different receptors in different areas, so play around with the different tastes, and remember to breathe to engage your olfactory system.
If you’ve been swishing coffee around in your mouth, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the mouthfeel. There are two main components to mouthfeel in coffee, and neither involves whether you burnt yourself because you didn’t wait for it to cool. Mouthfeel is all about body and astringency.
When you consider the body of a coffee, think about how full it feels. You want robust, whole-mouth sensations, not thin, watery, quick-to-fade flavors. Astringency is an undesirable attribute that leaves your mouth feeling dry. It can be nice to switch between coffee and a nice cool glass of water, but it shouldn’t be necessary to do it for fear of having your tongue shrivel up. Coffees with low astringency can feel refreshingly crisp or decadently creamy.
As you explore the aroma and taste of your coffee, pay attention to how it feels in your mouth. How does the mouthfeel affect the flavor? How do different roasts feel? Different brewing methods?
As you take yourself through aroma, taste, and mouthfeel, pay attention to how they change over time. A coffee’s finish is just as important as its first impression. How does the coffee change as you drink it? Does retain its character or fall apart as it cools?
All of these things will help you elevate your tasting experience, and over time, you’ll find it’s easier to be fully present with your coffee. Every step of the process, from opening the bag of beans to letting that last drop hit your tongue, is worth the attention. Mindfulness can change your entire outlook on life. Why not start with a cup of good coffee?
A BIG thank you to Karl Fendelander of Biggest Little Group for compiling my thoughts into this wonderfully written and expressive Post.
Whenever I begin to talk with someone about coffee I always ask, “What do you look for in your coffee?” My aim is to find people’s preference in terms of flavor and roast profile, so I can better guide them to their ideal cup, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Often, the response I’ll get sounds something like, “I want my coffee to wake me up.” Fair enough, but let’s make something abundantly clear right off the bat: coffee has caffeine, and in the vast majority of situations, caffeine, when ingested, will wake you up. If I asked you what you look for in a car, odds are low that you’d stop talking after “I want it to take me places.” You’d probably have a thought or two about storage capacity. Fuel efficiency and reliability would probably make appearances, too, but when it really comes down to it, a true connoisseur can pontificate for hours about an ideal driving experience. In coffee, just as with cars, there’s no need to settle for a gas-means-go mentality.
The ritualized coffee experience
Now that we’ve gotten the strictly utilitarian aspect of coffee out of the way, let’s make this conversation about the aroma, feel, and flavor of the coffee you are drinking. Let’s talk about creating your own ritual and savoring every sip.
By definition, a ritual is a solemn ceremony that consists of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. We could all use a few more moments of solemnity in our lives, and what better way than to fit them in while enjoying your favorite cup of stimulants? Here are a couple examples of classic coffee rituals from which to draw some inspiration:
Ethiopian coffee ceremony. It begins with roasting the coffee so the aroma of the roasting coffee permeates the room. The freshly roasted beans are crushed with a mortar and pestle then spooned into a jebena, an Ethiopian and typically clay coffee pot. Water is added, and the jebena is place on a fire to heat to near boiling.
- The coffee is served in a social setting where the guests and host drink the brew and visit with one another. The coffee is served with a healthy dose of sugar.
- After drinking the initial cup of coffee, more water is added to the jebena, not more ground coffee. The second serving is drunk, and water is again added without adding more coffee. This third cup is said to bestow a blessing.
- This ceremony is a social event and lasts two or three hours.
Arabian or Turkish coffee ceremony. A social ceremony intended to honor a special guest, in this ceremony pulverized coffee, often with ground cinnamon or cardamom, is added to sweetened water in an ibrik or cezve, which is a small, traditionally copper or brass coffee pot. The mixture is heated to near boil in a specific fashion three times.
- The sweetness of the coffee served in this ceremony is determined by the guest. The more joyful the events, the sweeter the brew.
- While it is not considered an insult if a second cup is refused, it is definitely good for the guest to accept more.
Developing your own coffee ritual
The thing to notice in both of the preceding ceremonies is they are coffee rituals centered around social events. As a coffee enthusiast, I like my coffee rituals to focus on the coffee itself. The ritual I describe below can certainly be used to enhance a social event, but it can also be a great way to lend some solemnity to hectic mornings and calm you before your daily commute.
The first thing to do is brew the coffee well. Make things even more special by using a brew method that is different from your everyday brew method; you can even select a special coffee. I designate 45 minutes to an hour just for my coffee ritual, which I enjoy at least once a week. Think of it as meditation, but you also get to enjoy a good cup of coffee with your enlightened state of mind. My ritual:
- I prepare the items that I will need for brewing and drinking, and begin heating the water.
- I measure and grind the coffee. Grinding is done by hand, with an antique Zassenhaus Mokka grinder. I use this because it is very tactile; I can feel the beans crunching and crumbling, allowing me to become more in touch with the coffee-making process.
- I prepare the brewer, a Clever Dripper immersion brewer. Pouring boiling water through it preheats the brewer and washes away impurities.
- I then add the ground coffee and begin the brew cycle.
- Once the brewing is complete, I always let the fresh coffee rest for a moment. When you do this, you can contemplate the curling steam as it rises or stare into the dark ambrosia you’ve brewed.
- The initial taste—a quick slurp that sprays coffee all across the palate, creating an aerosol distribution of the aromas—allows me to take note of the smells, tastes, and general mouth feel of the coffee. Repeat this a couple of times. Are there any specific flavors that come to mind?
- After some reflection, I relax and enjoy the cup in its entirety, while remaining mindful of the changes in the brew as it goes through its life cycle, as it cools.
In a group environment, we’d discuss all of these processes, from grinding to how the coffee changes over the time it takes to drink. The experience is highly sensual whether or not it’s shared.
Coffee is about the flavor experience, not just the burst of energy you get from being caffeinated. Whether you’re trying to add a little more calm to your morning commute or truly enjoy a special roast you picked up, a coffee ritual that makes you more mindful of each part of the experience can only heighten the taste of the brew. I want everyone to have the best coffee experience possible, but a well roasted bean can only take you so far. Build your own ritual, and drink up.
We are having a coffee roasting demonstration and tasting to benefit Foster Grandparents/Senior Companion programs of Reno and Sparks. This event will be from 10 am until around noon on February, 21st, 2015. To register for this limited attendance event please visit our EventBrite registation page.
what we will be doing at this event is roasting a couple of batches of coffee talking about the process, affects of time and temperature on the bean as well as how different techniques affect the final taste in your cup.
For more information on the Foster Grand Parent/Senior Companion Programs please visit.
Cupping is a very specific method of tasting coffee and a great way to discover the, often times, hidden characters of coffee. In the shop we use this method for sampling new coffees to determine optimum roast degree and technique. Specialty Coffee Association of America Cupping Standards . (follow the link, then click on coffee standards then on cupping standards) These are the guidelines we use in the shop with some modifications to meet my personal roasting style and facility limitations.
We also, monitor the roasting through various means, mostly we taste the coffees brewed in the French Press or Chemex brewer, however, to keep a tight watch on quality and consistency we “cup” the coffees regularly.
To cup at home I recommend the following procedures (because a professional cupping room is generally out of the question.)
Set aside an area where you can heat water and grind coffee with enough room for two to three cups for each coffee you are going to sample. The cups should be 6 to 8 ounce capacity. Have plenty of soup spoons in a hot water bath as well.
Preheat the cups
Put 8.25 grams of medium ground coffee in each cup. (it is best to have two to three cups for each individual coffee)
Add 5 ounces of off boiled water about 202-203 degrees F.
let steep for 2 minutes then break the crust while breathing in the aroma deeply. Break the crust in a circular motion down in the front, up in the back. when the spoon breaks up through the crust on the upward motion gently move it forward towards your nose. This helps to direct the aroma into your olfactory system.
Let the coffee steep for another two minutes for 4 minutes total.
Gently skim any floating grounds off of the top of the cup.
Time to Taste:
Fill your soup spoon about half full then slurp the coffee into your mouth coating the entire inside of your mouth.
Make notes of the feel, flavor, aroma, finish, and body. Every coffee has varying degrees of pluses and minuses.
Taste the coffee regularly as it goes through he cooling process and note the changes as you do this.
The SCAA Cupping Standard (linked to above) is a guideline for noting the positive and negative attributes of any individual coffee. The roasting standards noted are not necessarily the best method or degree of roasting for any single coffee. A coffee may cup well with these roasting standards however each coffee has its own best roast profile.
Cupping can be fun and very informative.