disseminating coffee research(ing)

The SCAE Gold Cup Research programme, which I have discussed previously, is a timely piece of work, but also a massive pain in the arse. I applaud the SCAE for undertaking this endeavour, as it is an ungainly, painful operation to run. It has been conducted 4 or 5 times at various locations around Europe now, I’ve been involved with 2 of those, and it’s no easy task. You have limited time to dial in, sometimes with unfamiliar equipment. Not to mention the difficulty in deciding on one coffee which should represent all coffee.

The scope of the research is to determine taste preference across 5 different levels of extraction, with strength being constant. That in itself would be good to know. However, it isn’t designed to cover the entire landscape of coffee brewing. It would be utterly impractical to do so, given the limitations of resources and time afforded to the study.

What if there was an easier way?

This kind of study needs several things, first off data, lots of it. The more data acquired the more powerful the results. It needs sensory evaluation of coffee made to a known recipe and of a known strength (extraction can thus be inferred).

There are thousands of users of VST refractometers around the world. Most probably brew coffee everyday. If each of these users submitted only one measurement to this study we would have a significant, useable sample size. If some of these users submitted multiple measurements over the course of a few months, we could have a huge, powerful sample size.

So, here’s what I am proposing. Anybody with a refractometer can (and should) submit data to this study.

Using a simple form, submit the recipe, the TDS/strength, and a score (your evaluation of the brew).

This approach has its pros and cons.

  • It gets around the need to pick one coffee. Now it is every coffee or any coffee.
  • It potentially allows for a much wider coverage of the brewing chart.
  • It could allow for a large number of samples to be acquired in a short amount of time, with minimal effort.
  • There will be inherent variability between users, in how they brew, and how they measure, and how they score. There will inevitably be some bad data. However, given a large enough sample size you would hope this would even out.

I would envisage this running for about 6 months, at which time the data would be published and freely available for anyone to use/analyse.

The following is the suggested protocol (I thank Vince Fedele for his help on this).

  • Measure (by weight) and record your ground coffee and your brew water.
  • Transfer a small sample (4-5g) from the brewed (& filtered) coffee to a cool glass/cup.
  • Draw sample into pipette/syringe, expelling as much air as possible, leaving the tip submerged in remaining sample. Do not measure at this time.
  • Evaluate coffee over your normal range of drinking temperatures, choose score based on scale below.
  • Remove pipette, discard a few drops, then transfer to sample well and measure as normal.

If anyone has thoughts on improving this experimental design please leave a comment below. The basic intention of the steps here is to allow the participant to taste the coffee without being influenced by the measurement. Therefore it is key to try to prevent erroneous readings due to evaporation over time.

The form can be found here (on this blog) – or here standalone.

I suggest iPhone users follow this guide to add a shotcut to their homescreen for frequent use.

The scale used for evaluation is a 9 point hedonic scale similar to this:


the worst of coffee in 2011

Lists are great. There should be more lists. Here’s one with a negative tone:

1. The silent dishonesty of working in coffee. It is hard (and not very smart) to be publicly critical of friends,  clients, business partners etc. There is certainly a void in the world of progressive coffee for criticism. It is all over the wine world for example. Bad vintages happen all the time. Bad coffee crops, or below expectation coffee crops are never publicly acknowledged (not to mention poor roasts or brews). It is not an infrequent occurrence for a coffee to arrive at a roastery past its best, or for it to quickly diminish and remain in circulation for some time. It would be of benefit to the coffee industry for a one or (preferably) more independent, authoritative, honest critics to emerge. That way, great coffee which is still in the minority is recognised and is not lost in the sea of “everything is great, hooray for coffee” which seems to prevail. The same goes for the equipment end of the industry (although that seems to be more readily criticised).

2. Sumatra – I did not have any interesting coffee from Asia in 2011. I have low expectations for 2012. If I was a roaster I wouldn’t bother (hint: you don’t need to have a Sumatran on your books).

3. Manual brewing. To order, single cup brewing is a good thing in a retail setting. I fully accept that. The way it is commonly done is not (if you value a consistently near-optimal brew).

4. Filtration. Paper filters are still the best, despite still requiring a bucket of rinse water and still only delivering an acceptable but sub-optimal cup. My kingdom for a cloth filter that didn’t get stinky! (related: props to Coava for their efforts on this front – certainly in the direction of where we need to be in the future).

5. Grinders. Shit on a stick for a multitude of reasons, too many to enumerate. They will probably not have improved in a year’s time. The best innovation I saw in grinders this year was Mahlkonig’s RFID tag credit system, but purely for commercial reasons.

6. SCAE. It’s going to be a long haul if it is to turn around. It offers next to nothing to members. If it didn’t have rights of access to the WBC it would die. I will wait to see if the new education curriculum redresses some of the shortcomings. Here’s hoping for a new SCAE in 2012.

7. Quality vs Quantity of extraction. Both are important, it’s not one or the other. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath-water. Get a mojo, read Scott Rao’s book, use your own brain etc.

Is 7 enough?

Happy New Year.


burrs again

Grinding coffee for non-espresso brewing at home is a pain in the tits. Short of finding space and the budget for a shop grinder your choices are limited and there a lots of concessions. When the Mahlkonig Vario arrived it was lauded as a grinder which could deliver a quality filter grind, and an espresso grind and sing and dance and do everything in between. Its performance grinding for brewed coffee left an awful lot to be desired.

For the past few months, however, on a daily basis I have been brewing filter coffee with a Mahlkonig Vario. The results have been excellent. The difference, notably is that the stock ceramic burrs have been replaced by a set of steel burrs designed specifically to produce a coarse grind.

What are the effects of swapping these burrs:

  • The grinder is rendered useless for espresso (one step from touching will produce a gusher).
  • The grind rate is greatly decreased (to about 1g/s at a filter setting – the old burrs do faster than that at an espresso setting).
  • The grinder is louder.
  • The noise coupled with the extended grinding time is a minor annoyance in a domestic setting, and perhaps a major annoyance in a light commercial setting.
  • The uniformity of the grind produced is comparable to some shop grinders.

This result suggests a few theories and questions.

Burr size is not necessarily the major determinant of grind uniformity. Perhaps small burrs are typically not good at filter grinding, because small burrs are typically not designed for filter grinding.

Why can some grinders not grind fine enough for espresso?

Is the speed reduction a factor in the output quality or a symptom? Does it suggest that the burr has to strike the coffee more times to achieve sufficient size reduction. Does this mean that the comminution is less explosive? … more controlled? Is there a relationship between burr size, grind rate and uniformity?

Even though the burrs are dramatically different looking, it is hard to elucidate the aspects of the burr desing responsible for these changes. The breaking teeth are shallower and there are many more of them. The cutting teeth are deeper and present a less angled face (they are closer to being on the radial axis). All edges are noticeably sharper to touch.

In any case, these burrs are not yet widely promoted, but they should be. Those in the business of selling Chemexes, Harios and the like to end users should want to offer these. The Vario is a solid grinder, and can with these make a very competent filter grinder. Even better perhaps would be a grinder using these burrs with fewer of the Vario’s bells and whistles, similar or better build quality and a somewhat lower price.

It would be nice if domestic grinder manufacturers defocused on espresso. Hopefully a critical mass of end users will emerge who understand the requirement for a better quality grind, to whom dusts and shards is unnaceptable. It requires enough users who don’t give a damn about espresso grind to create the market to drive these products.


confounding variables

Observation 1. Batch brewing is often associated with bad tasting coffee.

Observation 2. Manual brewing is often associated with good tasting coffee.

In other words batch brewing correlates with bad tasting coffee, manual brewing correlates with good tasting coffee.

What is the conclusion?

Is it that batch brewing is the cause of bad tasting coffee, or that manual brewing is the cause of good tasting coffee? Both?
If batch brewing is the cause of bad tasting coffee, then all batch brewed coffee should taste bad. If there is even one exception, that suggests the hypothesis is false.
There are of course confounding variables (such as):

People who manually brew are more likely to care about the taste of the end product. [that isn’t to say that everyone who manually brews cares about the taste, or that everyone who batch brews doesn’t,  just that on average one group is more likely to care than the other]

They are more likely to (among other things):

  • use nicer coffee
  • use appropriate brew ratios
  • use appropriate grind settings
  • grind fresh
  • clean their equipment

It is these considerations, not the choice of manual brewing, that results in the odds of me getting a tasty cup of coffee from a manual brew being higher than from batch.

In a similar way to my initial mistaken conclusion above, I could correlate skinny jeans to good tasting coffee. I might observe that if a barista or team of baristas seem to have a preference for skinny jeans I have a higher chance of getting better tasting coffee. This might correlate quite well, but should we conclude that this clothing has an effect on the taste of the beverage?

Less absurd perhaps is the presence of latte art on a cappuccino. I might observe that cappuccinos that I have received that have latte art on them tend to taste better on average than those that do not. Does latte art cause the cappuccinos to taste better? Or is it more likely that there is a confounding variable?



speciality or chiefly  ( US and Canadian ) specialty
— n , pl -ties
1.a special interest or skill
2.a. a service or product specialized in, as at a restaurant: roastbeef was a speciality of the house
b. ( as modifier ): a speciality dish
3.a special or distinguishing feature or characteristic

When I want to describe the niche sliver, the subset of the coffee industry with which I am interested the term I use is most often “speciality coffee”. This is the term used by several associations who purport to represent this culture. The term is of course used rather broadly, and seems to apply as much to Jamaican Blue Mountain, Kopi Luwak, and frou-frou-coffee drinks as it does in-season, impeccably processed, single varietal, lightly roasted coffees (for example).
Another, less subjective definition of specialty (or speciality depending on your fondness for the letter “i”) is a coffee that scores a minimum of 80 points on the  100 point scale. The lower end of this scale would allow for some pretty average tasting coffees. It also defines speciality at green, taking little account of its subsequent treatment. Two roasters may buy a 90 point coffee, one might make a shit of it. Both can justifiably self-identify as speciality.
Taken as a whole, the term speciality, in its literal meaning and in its usage, for me fails to define this subset of the coffee industry. Another term perhaps better describes it.

pro·gres·sive [pruh-gres-iv]
1.favoring or advocating progress,  change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters: a progressive mayor.
2.making progress  toward better conditions; employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, new or experimental methods, etc.: a progressive community.
3.characterized by such progress,  or by continuous improvement.

Progressive coffee for me, as a concept, acknowledges that coffee is only a partially solved puzzle. While coffee is currently better, and we are more enlightened to the production of quality than in times gone by, in the future we, or others will no doubt look back at the present as lacking in many ways. Quality isn’t static or absolute. Satisfaction with the present should only be relative. There are few aspects, if any in the production of a cup of coffee which cannot be improved. Taken as a whole, this multifactorial array of improvement, which will be made, envisage a future coffee perhaps recognisable from what we now regard as the pinnacle.

Until then, progress.


batch brewing

Disclaimer: Though this pertains to a product category manufactured by my employer, Marco, I am not writing it on their behalf. The opinions here are my own.

I am just back from Copenhagen after 4 interesting days spent at the Nordic Barista Cup. It was in fact my first Nordic Barista Cup, having only watched previous iterations from afar, sort of enviously. I applaud a well organised and run event that succeeded in being truly worthwhile (and thought provoking).

There were a few interesting trends among some of the speakers, particularly those from a pure coffee background (as opposed to some of the academics or people from other industries presenting). From my vantage point at least there was a certain sense of dissatisfaction at various aspects of where the industry currently finds itself. From James Hoffmann’s critique of espresso technology (and its scattered, tangled road to the current state of espresso) to Tim Wendelboe’s damning assessment of Nordic coffee culture, and Kyle Glanville’s experiences from Intelligentsia’s own evolution, there was a biting tone to much of the commentary.

…especially on the retail side coffee is so broken… [Kyle Glanville]

The dissatisfaction extends across various aspects of our current landscape, notably including technical beverage preparation and efforts in changing customer expectations. The latter of course translates into presenting the coffee in such a way to accentuate to the customer that it is not a normal, average coffee. To paraphrase Kyle, it is not dressing an amazing coffee in the same clothes as the run of the mill commercial stuff down the street.  Part of this has to do with the environment, how your retail space is laid out, how you present or don’t present information, but it extends all the way to how you brew the coffee. If you want to highlight how different you are from Starbucks, you want to create an expectation in your customer that, whoa this is different, then you hardly want to brew your coffee using the same technology they’ve been brewing for the last few decades – ie batch brew.

Hence, single cup, to order methods for the production of delicious handmade coffees. This, however, is where the two sources of dissatisfaction are pulling away from each other. On the technical side of the dissatisfaction argument we want to make brewing easier, consistent (this was the major point of James’ presentation – though in relation to espresso – I think the same principles should apply in brewed coffee).

There was much acknowledgement that we who view ourselves as “good at making coffee” value this as a character trait, and that making it easier would in some ways be a threat to our various egos. This is probably true. To paraphrase another coffee thinker, Colin Harmon – it’s not (or shouldn’t be) about the barista. So we want to make things easier so we can all make good coffee all of the time, potentially at the push of a button. There was much nodding in agreement from all quarters following James’ argument.

This to my ear potentially sounds like a bean to cup machine that actually delivers. It loses points on romance, but I would argue after every disappointing cup of coffee I’ve had somewhere any romance gained from the process of brewing was quickly lost. So perhaps we could all learn to love this new push button machine.

In batch brewing we have a method that can produce consistent, excellent coffee that some sort of mid-tier mammal could be trained to operate. Whether it is Bunn, Fetco, Marco or others they all can offer machines that will deliver water at a defined temperature, over a defined time, to a basket that often has a more even geometry than a single cup, time and time again.

I some what stumbled and mumbled through a defence of the technology,(in the Q&A)  after Kyle said that everybody should be moving to exclusively brewing by the cup, because (a) it does not resonate with people, and (b) does not taste as good (as a very well made by the cup coffee).

My experience differed so dramatically from his conclusion (at least on the latter), that I made a hamfisted attempt at explaining my reasoning.

Here’s the hopefully less hamfisted version.

I don’t drink batch brewed coffee on a daily basis, not because the quality is lesser, but because brewing 3 to 6L of coffee at a time is rarely needed. So I brew by the cup. Then there are times when we spend a lot of time using the batch brewers. I don’t want to fundamentally come out and say that one approach is always better than the other, but I’ve had coffees that have absolutely sung from both sides. However, I know that if I dial in a coffee on a batch brewer I can in one sentence communicate those to a colleague and expect with 95%+ confidence that the next brew will be identical to the last.

The same (being kind) is not always true of single cup brewing. It is not impossible to do a pretty good job of it, and I certainly think equipment manufacturers could work to make it easier to do so, but as of now it can be challenging.

I feel in dismissing batch brew we are too hastily giving up on readily available consistency and quality.

Expressed in the simplest terms all we are doing is mixing water and ground coffee. The water that comes out of a batch brewer is no different from that coming out of a Hario Buono Kettle… or an Uber Boiler. They (the coffee and water) spend some time in contact with each other in the basket before passing through the filter into some kind of receiving vessel.

The process is the same.

I believe both can be used to achieve an excellent brew. If they taste different it is most likely the result of a variable that is generally in the control of the user. Arguably the batch brewer is blessed with a bed geometry and ability to more evenly distribute the brew water that promotes more even extraction.

I would like to believe it is the quality of the beverage in the cup that is ultimately what the customer will value. This may well be extremely naïve on my part. Kyle is a pretty smart guy, so I can accept that for Intelligentsia at the least this approach has shown great value. Here in Ireland I would be pretty sure if I go into 3FE tomorrow and get a Chemex it is going to be pretty good. Is it right for everyone though? Should everyone be moving to brewing exclusively by the cup?

Starbucks is also made up of a lot of pretty smart guys. We often treat them with contempt, deride their model. Certainly their coffee in no way resembles “our coffee”. Does that mean that we need to reject every aspect of their model? Throw the baby out with the bath-water? Their coffee doesn’t taste bad because they use Bunn batch brewers. Their coffee tastes bad primarily because they roast the bejesus out of it. It reminds me of this:

Until there is a solution that enables more easily achievable by the cup single cup brewing, telling everyone that they should rip out their batch brewers and fill the bar with V60s will do more damage to speciality coffee than good. An inconsistent, poorly made coffee will very quickly diminish any expectations you may have engendered in your customers, and serve only to reinforce the notion that coffee is coffee. Nothing to see here.