Brewed coffee and the UK

This is something of a summary of the short talk I gave at the Allegra Strategies UK Coffee Leader Summit a week or so ago.  Please also bear in mind that this talk was directed at the UK market specifically so won’t necessarily hold true for other national coffee cultures.

For me this talk was a moment of crystalisation about how I feel about coffee right now, and what I want to focus a lot of my energy on.  I had initially planned to talk about how quality focused businesses were doing well right now, but in the process of writing the talk that seemed to shift.  I should add a final caveat to this by saying that I do love making and drinking espresso.

My talk was titled “How the coffee industry lost the public’s trust, and how good coffee can win it back again.”

Continue reading “Brewed coffee and the UK”

Trust

This is the first in a series of posts on quite a broad topic within coffee, that covers not only elements of brewing but sales, consumption, successes and failures and the challenges that lie ahead for anyone in the industry.

I am going to start with trust.  This might seem an abstract word, but I hope at the end of this it will earn its place as a fitting title.  What I really want to talk about is the state of relations between the average consumer and the average cafe.  In my eyes we have, by and large, lost the trust of the consumer.

To start with I want to use the example of restaurants:  Let’s put you in the situation of being stranded in a strange town, full of independent restaurants and you are very hungry.  You scan the menus outside of three or four places and from this you will make some judgments on those businesses.  Two key factors here will influence your judgement – what dishes they serve and their price.

The first is really quite obvious – from the dishes you’ll know whether to expect home cooking or whether to expect Michelin level cuisine.  However this won’t really give you a very strong indicator of the quality compared to the prices.

Now let’s skip to the end of the meal.  You chose the place with the fancy cooking, and you’ve racked up quite a bill.  What’s more the food wasn’t very good.  In fact it was terrible.  How do you feel?  Angry?  Taken advantage of?  Disappointed?  Betrayed?

When restaurants do this they completely lose our trust – we’ll likely never spend any money with them again, and probably go out of our way to make sure family and friends don’t fall into that trap.

Hopefully you can see where I am going with this – think about the coffee you’ve bought in the past, and the prices you’ve paid.  How often has the price been correctly tied to the quality?  How often have you had your trust abused?  I am sure I am not alone in being extremely distrustful of most places selling coffee (globally I might add).

If you own a cafe then ask yourself if your customers trust you.  I mean really trust you.  If a regular came in and you had an unusual (but excellent) coffee in your grinder, or to drink as a french press brew, would they buy it on your recommendation?  If you found a coffee you thought was worth £5 a cup, could you sell it to them?

The advantages of trust are obvious – increased loyalty, increased customer spend, easier ethical/helpful upselling and a win/win for you and your customer.

I’ll aim to continue this next week…..

A Clover quandry

Currently sitting on the bench at Square Mile HQ is a Clover. It was lent to us for the barista party and had stayed there for a while longer for us to play with.

SQM Clover

Clover at Square Mile HQ

The internet has been all a flutter with the news that Starbucks have acquired Coffee Equipment Company who make the Clover. It is so ubiquitous that I am not even going to link to any sort of articles about. Tempting as it is to post smugly about one of my five predictions sort of coming true something else is on my mind.

It seems that Starbucks has intentions of withdrawing the machine from the market and retaining complete control. Clover currently pledge on their website that all machines currently deployed will be supported.

I had come back from the States intent on spending some quality time with the machine and trying to get a better understanding of it before I had to give it back or buy it. I like the fact that you have control and repeatability in one cup brewing in a way that is currently unrivaled (be interesting to see how Starbucks use their ownership of the Clover patents to keep other manufacturers out of the market). However I’ve had quite a lot of coffee from it, and I wasn’t sure if I didn’t like the cups I didn’t like because of the brewer or the way it was being used. Hence wanting to get to grips with it in a bigger way.

Still – I need to think more on whether I want it. I don’t think the fact that Starbucks own it now devalues it for me. The people who have them now (approx 300 machines I think) are the only people outside of Starbucks with access to this technology. I was always against selling the brewer above the coffee, but if the brewer can do what people feel it can then it is an undoubtedly a great tool.

However the worries about support (machinery is machinery after all) are still pressing, and seeing a big company devalue a device and lower expectations and pricing of by the cup brewing is also a concern. That said – I think I would be very surprised if Clover rolled out with the 1s model as is. With that whole team/company on board I expect to see a machine based on the 1s designed much more specifically for Starbucks. (do you smell another prediction?)

I suppose that I will I could just ignore all the news/media/hype/hate and decide if it brews coffee like I’d like to present coffee. Though I suspect that the ongoing disconnection from Clover/CoEqCo will remain the largest obstacle.

Introduction to the chemistry of the wet process (part 1)

This article is a simplified version of what was researched and written for the attempted coffeed study group. Sadly that project didn’t take off – however I am grateful to people like Andy Schecter and Jim Schulman for publishing the papers they wrote regardless. The article doesn’t focus much on cup quality and the specific effects of the process – more on the process itself.

The Wet Process

The primary goal of the wet process is to remove the sticky layer of mucilage that surrounds the beans and parchment before the coffee is dried. The practise stems from a simple goal of improved consistency and reduced defects in a lot. When this layer is removed there is a lowered chance of problems and flaws in the coffee. However it should be made clear that this does not mean that it will be of a higher quality as that is both subjective and also needs to be balanced by what characteristics are desired from the coffee. As the process uses up a lot of water it is only the higher grades of cherries that go through this process – in terms of ripeness or varietal.

There isn’t much on the history of the wet process available. The earliest printed source I have is Ukers, and the process of loosening the bean from its “closely adhering saccharine coat” is documented in reasonable detail. 1 I’ve heard various different things about its origin, and Costa Rica is the most commonly quoted country to me (though I currently have nothing solid to back this up).

Coffee bean covered in mucilageA coffee bean after pulping, still coated in the mucilage

The mucilage layer is primarily carbohydrates – a variety of simple and complex, long chain sugars 2 , and is between 0.5mm to 2mm thick 3. The washing process, broadly speaking, is considered complete once the layer easily comes free from the parchment. The simplest test is to take some of the beans and rub them – if they retain a slimy texture then they are not ready, though if the mucilage easily comes free in the hand then they are ready to be removed, rinsed and dried.

The carbohydrates that we want to break down are celluloses keeping the cell walls together, the most common of these in coffee is also found in many other fruits: Pectins.

Pectins

The structure of pectinThe Structure of Pectin

The key to successful fermentation of coffee is balance of the methods of breaking the pectin down: bacteria and yeasts.

Bacteria can produce enzymes like pectinase and pectase that are specific biological scissors that break the pectin down. However some research done claims that the most commonly found bacteria in the process do not produce the right kind of enzymes to effectively break down the mucilage. 4

Yeasts break down the pectins too, but the byproducts of those reactions are typically ethanol and lactic acid. In the right conditions the balance is right and the mucilage is broken down quickly with no negative characteristics being developed.

The source of the enzymes is even more of a mixture than that – there are plenty already within the cells of the fruit. These enzymes are gradually softening the fruit as it ripens. Once the bean is pulped they become much more active, due to the oxygen and the presence of other bacteria.

Of the three sources of enzymes it is important to note that yeasts prefer oxygen free conditions, whilst the bacteria are more effective with oxygen around. For this reason it is important not to let water tanks stagnate, as then the yeasts take over causing negative flavours. Different types of fermentation – open, water covered or a mixture – will have a different balance of reactions for this reason, creating a very different cup profile.

Once pectin breaks up, in an environment with sufficient calcium it can start to gel – this is useful if you are making jam for example. This also explains a rather amusing test of fermentation done in some parts of Costa Rica – a stick is put upright into the tank and if it stays upright (held by the gelatinous water) then the fermentation is done.

There are various factors that affect the balance and speed of fermentation:

Temperature

This is the key variable in fermentation, and is the key variable dictating the time it takes. Enzymatic reactions are directly linked to temperature so at higher altitudes the process takes longer as the ambient temperature is usually lower. To increase the speed of fermentation it is possible to preheat the water in various ways before the cherries arrive at the station to be pulped, but I am not sure how common this is.

Acidity and pH

Again sources here seem to disagree about whether pH should be close to neutral or quite acidic 5”. It can often get down to a pH of 4.5 towards the end of fermentation – it is worth noting here again the pH is a logarithmic scale so a pH of 5 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 6, and 100 times more acidic than a pH of 7. At lower pH the yeasts do better than the bacteria, though I’ve read that low pH can stall a fermentation.
Work was done in Nicaragua on monitoring pH to see if it was an accurate predictor/indicator of the state of fermentation 6 The sharp drop to around ph 4.5 near the end of the fermentation was also matched by an increase in lactic acid and ethanol implying that the yeasts had taken over the bulk of the breakdown of the carbohydrates at this point, though it seems unlikely that they were the cause. More likely the products created by the bacterial and natural enzymes caused a drop in pH and also slowed down their own reactions.

pH during fermentationpH during fermentation in Nicaragua

There aren’t many other studies widely published using pH as a tracker, though I’d be interested to see more.

Part 2 will cover more about specific cup qualities linked to the wet process, including the generation of off flavours like vinegar and onion. Any questions, corrections or things that don’t make sense then please leave a comment (I lost a few of my original papers since I started the original paper).

  1. Ukers, “All about Coffee”, The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935  ↩︎
  2. Redgwell & Fischer,”Coffee Carbohydrates“  ↩︎
  3. Illy & Viani, “Espresso Coffee, The Science of Quality”, Elsevier, 2005  ↩︎
  4. Sylvie Avallone, Jean M Brillouet, Bernard Guyot, Eugenia Olguin, Joseph P Guiraud (2002),”Involvement of pectolytic micro-organisms in coffee fermentation”, International Journal of Food Science & Technology 37  ↩︎
  5. Ken Calvert, “The Microbiology of Coffee Processing  ↩︎
  6. Susan C. Jackels, Charles F. Jackels (2005), “Characterization of the Coffee Mucilage Fermentation Process Using Chemical Indicators: A Field Study in Nicaragua”, Journal of Food Science 70 (5), C321–C325  ↩︎