Lessons learned over Christmas

I didn’t do very much this Christmas. (It was wonderful.) I did, however, do something that I almost never do:  make coffee at home.

I don’t make much coffee at home for a lot of reasons – I work a lot, I have lots of lovely coffee and equipment at the roastery a mere half mile away, and sometimes its nice to be at home and not do anything related to work.  Christmas was different, I made coffee at least once a day with some basic kit:  a hario skerton hand grinder, a v60, a standard electric kettle.  What did I learn?

I am lost without scales.

I had to go to work to grab some when my set at home died.  It isn’t that the coffee suddenly tasted awful – more that it just made me very frustrated to not know what was happening.

It is good to work through a single bag of coffee.

I have a lot of different coffee available at the roastery – not just ours, but coffees from great roasteries around the world.  Rarely do I drink the same thing twice in a row – and to be honest I hope to keep it that way.  However, there was something to be said for working through a bag from start to finish, enjoying what it had to offer through different brews and as it matured.

The French Press is your friend

I know I said I used a V60, and I made some coffee with it that I really enjoyed.  However, it was hard work without a pouring kettle.  I wish I had just taken a press home, as the coffee would have been great and required little effort and work.  I can’t emphasize enough how much I love this way of brewing!

London Water

Should not be allowed near coffee without being filtered first.  Seriously.  At the least buy a Brita filter, the difference it makes is astounding.

Lots of lovely equipment = disconnection from consumers

Most embarrassing of all: the realisation that the way I make coffee at work isn’t easily replicated in the home.  However, it is absolutely fundamental that people get the most out of their coffee at home so they feel like they got value for money.  We need to share more with the consumer, but also make sure we offer techniques and advice that are practical and approachable.  For example – I am all for pushing weighing scales as part of the brewing process, I have less interest in promoting syphon stirring techniques.  I don’t want to compromise, but I don’t want to intimidate, bore or frustrate.  I don’t think I’ve done enough of the education stuff this last year – I’ll try and change that this year.

I’d be interested to hear from any non-industry readers about whether the information and brewing guides online are genuinely useful?  What is being overlooked?  What isn’t clear, or properly explained?  Does most of the online discussion/materials feel geared to the industry or the consumer?

32 Comments

  1. I have recently started to love coffee like never before. I always had coffee more for its caffeine than for its taste. I would drench my coffee with milk and sugar so the dark roasts of charbucks tasted better. Once I understood the actual taste of coffee recently, I always drink my coffee at the coffee shops around town (Bend, Oregon). The reason I dont make my coffee anymore even though I have a french press, a stove top espresso maker, a hario v60 is why would I want to spend a great deal of money or time on a cup of coffee, when I could get a great cup of coffee at the local coffee shop! We have more 6 local roasters here in town..I guess we are a little spoiled in that sense. Also I regard the coffee shop a third place away from work & home, where you are there only to enjoy the coffee. I guess since you cant get the same variety at home, I prefer drinking it elsewhere. IMHO, drinking coffee is a community affair & the people make it taste even better.

  2. This is why I think it is so important as a professional to brew coffee at home. When I first set out to really get familiar with slow brew coffee, I refused to use a lab or coffee bar. I wanted to be where my customers are. That way you experience it all… from the amount of time it takes to grind coffee on a hand grinder to where you dump the grounds when it’s all over… We easily disconnect ourselves from this when we leave coffee in our labs and cafes.

    I had a plan awhile ago where I wanted all our baristas to train this way… My goal was to send a grinder home with a trainee. Then we’d have one of every brew method we sell available for their use. Each week, they’d select a new coffee and a new brew method to work on. The goal would be to journal the experience, so that when customers would come in with questions about the method, they could speak from experience and better understand what the consumer would be dealing with.

  3. I second Ryan’s comments, and I’ll add two things. 1) Brewing coffee at home with basic equipment can also yield a better understanding of coffee brewing in general. Certain flavors in the cup relate to certain errors related to brewing, and experiencing the results of a brew every day in an environment where one can relax and observe is valuable. Also, mistakes have to be drunk. 2) The more experience I get with coffee the more I value implicit knowledge. I usually brew with a scale and a thermocouple, but I often find myself wishing I could brew equally well without them, or “do it by eye/ear/feel”. I don’t mean to mystify coffee brewing here as some sort of masterly skill; I’d just like to show customers that all one really needs is a grinder, good coffee, and good water to make exceptional brewed coffee.

  4. Where can I buy that lovely ceramic thing on top? Would love to offer that in shop. -b

  5. Most of my coffee is drunk during the week from the likes of Milk Bar or Monmouth. Weekends are me brewing time and I am acutely aware of the differences – largely because my equipment is significantly inferior (milk wand broken for example on my underpowered Gaggia).

    Much of what is written online tends to be for the (semi) pro and graphs and the like often fly over my head. But details such as weighing make sense and have improved coffee drinking, as did your video series last year.

    It’s a long way of saying that much of what is written isn’t relevant to the home brewer, but there is a lot that is. It would be good to hear though more from you and other pros on how to improve coffee drinking at home.

  6. I really like that idea Ryan – taking equipment home for a week as part of training. I may steal it!

  7. We drink brewed coffee at home if we want a bigger but still delicious amout of coffee – mostly for breakfast, guests and on holidays (additional restriction on equipment).I don’t use drip brewers because of the paper/aroma problems, the importance of an accurate grinder setting (needs some trials) and a time consuming pouring process (even extraction).FrenchPress is much simpler because the grinder setting does not affect the brew time that much and the filter does not affect the taste. But you have to pre-heat the FP (e.g. another 1 liter of hot water) and you cannot keep the coffee in there for a second cup (e.g. during breakfast) without decanting.What I am trying to do pretty soon is brewing directly in a saucepan (below simmering for about 4 minutes) and pass it quickly through a sieve (swiss gold filter) into a thermos jug. The approach is a “back to the roots”, a simple procedure with mostly standard kitchenware (exept the gold filter) based on the fact that the bad reputation of brewed coffee has come mainly from bad beans than from bad technic. I always think brewing coffee should as simple as brewing tea – just delicous coffee, hot water and a sieve (the FP comes close to that).

  8. I make drip coffee at home with one of those ceramic cup filters you’ve got in the picture, absolutely my favourite way but it never occurred to me to use filtered water, I’ve always used London tap water. Thanks for the idea, I’m off to buy myself a Brita filter, look forward to testing the difference it makes.

  9. I brew coffee at home almost every day with filtered water, a decent grinder, an aeropress, and a scale. I also use a french press and a chemex sporadically. Getting a scale was absolutely worth it, as was learning to use the aeropress inverted. I love the cup it produces– I have a hard time enjoying the more dilute filter cups I can buy at great coffee shops more than the coffee I brew myself.

    I learned the inverted method from Tim Wendelboe’s blog post on the methods used in the Aeropress competition– before this post I wasn’t able to figure out how the press was supposed to work upside-down.

    I had some difficulty understanding the skimming technique for french press. Having never cupped coffee, I didn’t understand the language of skimming, breaking the crust, etc. that I had seen described in text. Your french press video definitely helped with that.

    As for what information should be clarified, I think grind size could be better explained for home brewers. How coarse a coarse grind for french press? How fine is medium-fine? How can this be communicated when the numbers on a grinder’s dial are arbitrary?

  10. James,

    Thanks for starting me on scale brewing. Its been very enlightening to say the least. I fully agree about loving press as well, its a simple, elegant and versatile way to explore a coffee. A press paired with a hot water dispenser and a scale can be a great introduction to fine coffees indeed. Keep up the great work!

  11. I think the main problem with drip/FP is that there are so little proper drip/FP grinders out there. I’m actually one of the lucky people who is allowed (oh yes I love my g/f to bits for letting me keep all the coffee stuff) both a proper espresso kit (commercial one group + Mazzer Major) and a Mahlkonig Guatemala in the kitchen, so i can’t complain, but most people struggle with drip/FP as they use espresso grinders for such methods. Those of course usually produce too much fines and tend to shift the taste experience into the bitter area.

    Another thing would be too little information about drip/Chemex methods as there’s less interest in those than with espresso (less hip/cool, more like granny coffee?). We kind of understand what goes on during an espresso extraction (or tend to guess a lot), but when it comes to drip there are various methods and loads of unknowns. On the other hand when you show people how to brew coffee, with scales, TDS meters and the whole shebang they tend to think you’re a bit mental and usually end it with ‘oh come on it’s just coffee’ even if it tastes amazing afterwards. So perhaps that’s the reason there’s so little info out there, due to low demand?

    Regards,
    dsc.

  12. I wish I could find the sweet point with French Press – it always seem a bit too flat compared to my aeropress (I have a standard Bodum, not sure if that is the problem). Over Christmas I tried some lovely Square Mile Kiawamururu done both in the french press and aeropress and got a lot more fruit tones and variety in taste with the aeropress.

    James, could you do some equipment recommendations for french press brewing, and I’d love to see a videocast on your way to approach an aeropress (even though I think you prefer french press and pour overs?). I really appreciate the videocasts you and a few others do – it makes home brewing much less academic than traditional written guides (though as a Scientist I love charts and analyses too!)

    I also wonder if anyone could approach bottled mineral water vs. filtered tap water, some of Jame’s fancy analytic doodads could give some nice detail on this.

    I also wish someone in the UK started selling home brewing bits like the Hario Skerton, V60 (though perhaps that is happening soon), that lovely hario kettle etc. I bought my Hario grinder from the lovely people at Barismo (really good customer service!), but paying international shipping for essential coffee kit isn’t ideal.

  13. I’d love to find a better way to communicate grind size – though I still can’t work out how it would be done. Because grinders produce a range of particle sizes it is very tricky to compare the grind quality of one grinder to another.

    That said – it is something that the industry really ought to work a little harder on.

  14. One of the biggest issues with a lot of presses is the heat loss. I use preheated, dual walled stainless steel or if I am using glass I get it as hot as I can before I start brewing. What grinder are you using Ian?

    As for an aeropress videocast – I haven’t quite worked out how to approach this. Because you can brew a range of styles of coffee through it – from very strong, to much weaker, I don’t know if I could do a one-size-fits-all video about it. I do still think about it though.

  15. I can think of a number of pros who give scant regard to home brewing, and I can easily understand why when one is surrounded by coffee for 50 hours a week. However, as you say this is not the way the market behaves and it’s important to give concise practical advise to the end user. I would like to hear more about spoonfuls of coffee than grams, how long to leave your kettle after boiling rather than a brew temperature, and a target total brew time to give a grinder calibration.

    For me home brewing is playtime and a pleasant way to ease myself into a Saturday morning. A business with a relatively large staff needs a strict brewing regimen but as mentioned above encouraging them to go off and explore at their own leisure builds understanding, enthusiasm and a direct link to the customer.

  16. I’m using a Hario Skerton hand grinder, I’ve tried coarse grind, but again not being a coffee pro don’t really know what “coarse” means in absolute terms.

    Here is an idea about communicating grind size: photograph the coffee grinds spread on a white paper next to something of standardised size (Arborio rice and a ruler for example). The problem with most images of ground coffee is not being able to really judge scale and so the rice grains and ruler would give the necessary context.

    After seeing your french press videocast, I bought a double walled 3 cup french press. My previous old Bodum was a 6-cup glass. So then a question: does French Press size make a difference – i.e. with moka pots, large pots always make worse coffee IMO (more chance to burn the coffee or something).

  17. If you want to communicate grind sizes sift it through a choosen size sieve and see how much goes through. For starters and drip brewing a #20 screen is recommended and around 75% passing through it.

    Regards,
    dsc.

  18. Compare it to what people know, eg, sugar, salt, pepper. People know the size and can see it. It usually doesn’t vary that much so its a good pointer. One thing I thought was never clear was how fine you need coffee for a stove top. They said fine and I though espresso fine when its much closer to press pot. Its more like a finer press pot grind. Ok well here goes my “easy” guide to grind size,

    Press pot is the biggest and should look like the size of dirt.

    Stove top is only slightly finer than press pot, it should look smaller but still feel quicker gritty. this is probably about the size of pepper.

    Filter coffee should still feel gritty like stove top, but should look abit smaller.

    And the last I know espresso which should look and feel fluffy. If your making espresso you should have a stepless grinder and the actual setting varries alot as the coffee ages and what temperature, etc. you know the rest.

  19. This still sounds pretty abstract to me, standardised sieves are probably not common equipment for many people.

    Photographic comparisons with standard foodstuffs like granulated salt or rice still feels more approachable for us general members of the public.

    Buying coffee beans is still quite new to many people, and grinding makes a significant difference to the coffee preparation. To maximise the numbers of people able to enjoy fantastic coffee at home, more advice on which grinders to buy and how to grind for different methods of preparation would be really beneficial. Most information is currently buried in geeky forums, which most end users will never try to read through…

  20. Funny, I was thinking this morning how much I enjoyed being able to enjoy brewing coffee at home over christmas whilst making a chemex for breakfast. Very rare during a normal working week I get to enjoy coffee at home except for a sunday morning, so having four full days, a house full of guests and some great coffee’s to play with was a lovely change.

    I agree with you about the scales, I have two sets of them at home and both batteries in them failed at the same time (odd as purchased them 3 months apart?) but I was stuck and resorted to measuring out my water in a measuring jug first!

  21. As someone who doesn’t work in the industry I think there are a number of drawbacks to brewing at home as compared to going to a cafe, but I think it’s worth noting the benefit of being able to iterate on the preparation yourself to get the results you want when you’re at home. Even top cafes don’t have everything dialed in perfectly all the time and, while it wouldn’t be right to ask a barista to re-make a drink if something is slightly off , you can re-make it yourself and adjust what you think went wrong if you’re at home.

    As for the drawbacks of brewing at home, there are 3 main ones that I can think of:

    (1) Inferior equipment

    Most people don’t have top-of-the-line espresso equipment in their homes, but I would argue that there is affordable espresso equipment out there that you can get very good results with once you’ve figured out how to get the most out of it (i.e. keeping it clean, using the right water, temperature surfing if need be, etc.). Equipment for manual brew methods like v60, Chemex, siphon, and French Press is also pretty affordable. Some good roasters (Intelligentsia comes to mind) are starting to offer well-edited selections of equipment which is helpful in narrowing down the universe of equipment to the best-in-class. It sounds like James is hoping to offer some Hario products in the future, which would be awesome for people in the UK.

    (2) Lack of technique

    I’ve found pretty helpful guides on the web for most brewing methods, but they can be hard to find in certain cases and they’re not all in one place. It would be great to have a single site where you could look up the brewing method you wanted to learn about and find various tips/demos from different roasters/cafes.

    A major disadvantage for non-professionals with respect to technique is that most of us probably make no more than 30 drinks per week, so even if you have the right idea your learning curve is a lot flatter and it takes a lot longer to get up to speed (e.g. I started working with v60 a couple of weeks ago and since then I’ve only made 10 cups, whereas I would most likely have made several hundred if I was working in a cafe).

    It can also be a disadvantage to not have someone else right there with you to bounce ideas off of in real-time if things aren’t going quite right. It would be pretty cool if local roasters held ‘office hours’ for a couple hours per week and, in exchange for buying a bag of coffee, you could chat with them about the different problems you’re having with your brewing and see what suggestions they have.

    (3) Not working with a coffee enough to get it dialed in

    I would guess that most non-professionals only consume ~1lb of coffee per week. This means that unless you’re buying the same coffee week after week (which gets boring), you typically don’t have enough opportunities to get the coffee dialed in. Many roasters (Barismo, Barefoot, Ritual, and Square Mile come to mind) are starting to suggest specific brewing parameters (e.g. brewing method, dose, volume, temperature) which is quite helpful. I’d like to see roasters take it a step further by offering their tasting notes so consumers can see how they arrived at what they’re suggesting. This would help us understand more about the coffees we buy (what happens if I use a bigger dose? lower temperature? etc.) before we start brewing them and make the suggestions seem less arbitrary. I realize this would only appeal to a niche of the market, but it could be one way to push things forward.

  22. Great post! Love the idea of office hours and more details on the tasting notes. I like the way http://hasbean.co.uk has lots of details of their tasting notes, including videocasts of a tasting session for several of the single origin beans.

  23. I’m a non-industry enthusiast. Former industry to be accurate. I, too, am a little lost without scales. They have definitely been a boon to cup consistency. I don’t necessarily make better coffee with the scale but I make more consistent coffee. As I run my own coffee blog where I produce, what I like to call, Tasting Notes, on various coffees that I brew, consistency is key. Especially between and among the two different brew styles I utilize: press-pot and Chemex.

    I find that people who are not “in to” coffee look at me and my scales with a fair amount of bemusement. They are far more accustomed to the “scoop method” and look at the using of scales as a bit extravagant and possibly a tad eccentric.

    As far as how these insights relate to the customer’s coffee buying and brewing experience, well, that depends on the customer. As I said, those people who are not “in to” coffee are those that look at the use of scales as an extravagance. These same people are quite possibly people who are not going to be customers of yours. I feel – and one can call me a cynic – that there is a finite – large, yes, but finite – market for specialty coffee roasters to tap into. I don’t think the market is anywhere near tapped out yet but there are always going to be a large group of people that will always look at coffee as, simply, a vehicle for caffeine and who will never wish to appreciate coffee for its finer flavors and so never go out of their way to look for coffee that can fulfill that inclination. That’s OK. There’s room for everyone. But those aren’t your customers.

    Your customers, on the other hand, I think either already understand the value in a bag of specialty beans or at the very least should need little prodding to understand it. These people are probably going to be receptive to suggested methods of eeking out every last ounce of flavor (i.e. value) from a bag of fine beans. These are the people that are going to appreciate the illustration – weather through print, web page or video – of relatively simple but effective methods to empower them to get the most out of their bag of beans. I think that your online brewing guides are very well produced and clear. I wonder, though (and excuse me if I am exhibiting my ignorance as I have had no chance whatsoever, being a Californian, to check out your marketing materials) if printed guides that could be given to your wholesale customers for distribution to their retail customers might be a nifty way to get across the basics of various brew styles. Postcard size, maybe? Something to attach to the fridge or place within easy reach of the customer’s brewing station at home. If their production values are any match for your videos’ I think they might be quite effective and attractive.

    Value, then. I think, quite possibly, that this is an overlooked point. One that is ripe, especially in this economic climate, for effective illustration. Even us snooty connoisseur types like to be reminded, on occasion, that the way in which we consume our coffee has budgetary advantages as well as culinary and aesthetic ones. “How many cups of coffee can I get out of a bag of beans?” “How much per cup if I buy beans instead of stopping by the café?” These were frequent questions during my café days. It’s good to have an answer at the ready. Maybe these questions, too, could be answered on the little “how-to” postcards.

    Anyway, my two cents (pence?). Wonderful blog. Someday I hope to be able to experience your coffee in it’s home city. Until then …

  24. I do not fully agree with you Daniel.

    Look at the success of Nespresso in Switzerland. People has to go to special Nespresso stores and has to buy a proprietary machine and overpriced coffee! But the result in the cup is much better than most of the stuff people have had before and it is an absolut easy, nifty and clean solution to make coffee at home. And important: One can’t go wrong with this.

    But in my opinion there is room for speciality coffee to fill some gaps. Nespresso e.g. is not that easy for bigger amounts, there is still the waste proplem (capsules) and Nespresso (Nestle) is not that fancied by all. And last but not least there is much room in relation to taste.

    But if we want to enforce speciality coffee we have to leave the coffeegeek path (for a moment!). The way to brew coffee has not just to make a tasteful drink, it has also to be simple and sexy. And if we discuss about communicating the right grind size why do we not look at the common grinders available in warehouses. At the moment I am already happy if someone owns one of these conical Solis/Dualit/Whatever grinders and there is just a scale with about 20 steps. Quite easy to tell them the right grind size.

    What I would like to see is something like an “inverted French Press”. A pretty thermo walled jug/mug with a cylindrical (gold filter) basket in there. You will brew like a FP (just hot water and a proper amout of a coarser grind) and after 4 Minutes (and some stir) you don’t push the grounds to the bottom, you just put the basket out. Pretty simple, the grind size will not affect the brew time and the coffee will not get bitter if you leave it in the jug for a moment.

  25. As a professional trying to reach non-enthusiast, non-professionals:

    I agree that there is a finite market for specialty coffee that will be receptive to blogs and brewing guides, but the majority of the people who come into a cafe because they enjoy a better cup of coffee do not seek out those guides. They rely on friends or the barista or experimentation to help them. The challenge then, is identifying those customers who appreciate higher quality and helping them to brew a better cup without bombarding them with information and equipment requirements. When the brewing method is simple and the results are good, there is a sense of accomplishment and those people will spread the message. The market is not only the people reading the blogs, its also the people who just want a better cup of coffee but don’t know how to get it at home. We have to reach those customers if we want to grow the specialty market. I realize what I’m about to say may go against the underlying pursuit of higher quality, but maybe we should be focusing on developing a brewing guide that is extremely simple, a guide that may not produce the best cup but rather one that is “good enough”. If the message is simple, its easily understood and easily spread. Once we know customers are listening, we can expand on the message.

  26. I reckon that your brewing guides have been a great help and inspiration for me. I hope you keep doing them as well as other educational videos.

  27. Jim, I really appreciate it your time and your honest thought related to
    the “Good Coffee” to keep up on your blog.
    I’m just a coffee drinker, but I want to enjoy -process to make “good coffee”, and enjoy a cup of coffee later. I prefer the filter (not plastic, but porcelain made) drip coffee, and I also select from my collection of coffee cups (about 20 different kind one, cups from all over the world).
    I used a cup which used for a traditional tea ceremony
    in Japan for special day.
    Seems taste is different everyday…. I enjoy it too.

  28. Hi James. I just want to thank you for the idea of using scales in brewing. I now seem to be lost too without them. I use them with v60, french press, and aeropress. I intend to buy a Skerton. What are your overall thoughts about it (for french press, aeropress, v60, etc.)?
    Again, thanks a million.

Submit a comment