What to do about water?

February 27th, 2013

We all agree that when brewing coffee, that the ingredient you choose is very important.  The consumer understands there is a choice, even if that choice has nothing to do with how the coffee tastes.  The most successful here have been the ones that have told the simplest story: this one is traded fairly, or this one won an award for its taste, or this one is from a single farm.

I think coffee has done a reasonable job of communicating the importance of grinding coffee freshly.  While grinders at home aren’t as common as we’d all like, the fact that “Fresh Ground” is still used as a heavy handed piece of advertising suggests that overall people understand that freshly ground = good.

We’ve all had fun with communicating brew methods and techniques, there have been some great videos – both entertaining and informative, and they’ve been seen by a reasonable number of people.  While I am not going to claim that people at home all have exceptional technique, I think those interested in brewing better can be pointed somewhere simple like Brew Methods.  It isn’t a difficult message to communicate, and most of the time they reinforce the first two issues.

Then we have water.  Water is complicated. Water makes me depressed.

Perhaps because I live in London, where the water is so bad for coffee, I am disproportionately frustrated.  The taste impact of London water on coffee brewing is utterly shocking to those experiencing it for the first time.  Coffee brewed with great water can be alive, sparkly, sweet and distinctive.  Coffee brewed with London water all just tastes…. brown.  Juicy lots from Nyeri, floral coffees from Yirgacheffe, jammy coffees from Huila – all of these and more end up tasting pretty much the same with London water.

I am interested in people having a great experience with coffee. I am interested in people understanding that spending more money on better coffee can produce incredible and pleasingly variable experiences.  Water is a huge hurdle and a problem.

So a simple message must be communicated:  You should use relatively soft water, free from negative tastes and odours.  It should have a little hardness, but not too much.  This is already a pretty complicated message (and I’ve already massively oversimplified it).  Even if it is understood we get a difficult question in return:  so how do I achieve this at home?

This is where everything goes wrong, and I am still stumped for a good answer.  The choices are the following:

- Use bottled water.  You can look at the mineral content on the side of the bottle – presented as “Dry residue at 180°C”.  You can pick up water from places like Tesco relatively cheaply.  However, you don’t really feel good about telling people to be buying bottled water (hardly the most sustainable idea in the world) just to brew their coffee with.  Those that do see a massive improvement and realise the value, but it doesn’t feel like a practical or scalable solution.

- Treat the water at home.  Most people working on improving their water will use something like a Brita filter.  These do remove unpleasant tastes and odours, but they do’t really soften the water very much, and you’ll still have a relatively high TDS.  Not recommended for optimal results. The other option for home treatment is to install a reverse osmosis (RO) unit.  In a commercial environment I now consider these to be absolutely essential, and you’re opening or operating a coffee bar in London without one then I strongly suggest getting one installed as soon as possible.  You can produce great water with it ,and stellar results.

At home you need to do some semi-serious plumbing to install one.  For many people renting this isn’t a viable option, and even if the unit is relatively cheap it is still  similar money to starter electric burr grinder – though this won’t have great production capacity.

RO is without doubt the best commercial solution, and I will put one in my next kitchen – but I don’t know if people want to get this involved with their plumbing just for a cup of coffee.

What’s left?  Not a lot really.  Cafes with RO units could sell or give away the water to people (with reusable containers) if they have sold whole bean coffee to them too.  I’d love to see cafes give some away, if only so people could taste what they could be brewing at home.

I pose this as a question about water to anyone and everyone reading, because I don’t have a good answer.  This should be a question troubling more people.  If you roast coffee in an environment where the water is hard, or has a high TDS, then it is likely that your customers are having very, very different experiences in their homes compared to what you’re enjoying on your cupping table.  We need a solution for this that is practical, sustainable and affordable.  I desperately hope we find one soon.  All ideas are welcome…

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