All About Coffee!
Am I obsessive about coffee?
No, I don’t think so. Fussy, yes... but I’m not the first person to be fussy about making coffee at home! Drinking fresh coffee is a real joy, but drinking stale coffee ain’t and, once exposed to air, coffee goes stale incredibly quickly. Beans typically last only a few days before they are stale and tasteless – bad news at home where only small quantities get used per day.
I make coffee about 3 or 4 times every day – more if I have visitors – so the procedure has become a ritual with a few more steps than most people take to keep the cost low and the quality high. I don’t have an expensive high-end domestic or commercial-level espresso machine – I have a low-end domestic machine (Click photo, right – [X] to close) – but I do enjoy café-quality coffee at home, and at a reasonable price.
Even with excellent espresso equipment, it is quite possible to make awful coffee! Here are some tips I have picked up over the past decade or so:
The 1, 2, 3 of making great coffee at home: Not a perfect solution, but good enough to satisfy a fuss-pot like me. Here are the 3 main issues:
Main Issue #1. ALWAYS buy good quality beans.
- I buy only high altitude-grown Colombian beans, grown close to 2000m altitude in the Sierra Nevada mountains, but any high altitude growing area close to the Equator would be acceptable. High altitude Arabica beans, especially single-source beans, not a blend, are more expensive – growing slowly, crop yields are low, but they have less bitter aftertaste. I find ‘Italian-Blends’, which have Robusta beans mixed with the Arabica, too bitter.
Main Issue #2. ALWAYS store beans in a completely airless environment. Purpose-made coffee-cans or bags are hermetically sealed with one-way valves to allow gases (mostly carbon dioxide) from the roasting process out but no air in. If there is ANY air inside them, the beans oxidize, and quickly go stale despite being inside a sealed container. The major cause of staleness for home users is that beans can’t be used fast enough after opening a bag.
- I buy sealed 1kg bags of beans online, so my order is roasted and delivered within a few days of ordering... much fresher than store-bought beans.
- ...once I crack the seal on a 1kg bag I immediately completely fill two hermetically-sealing coffee-cans (each about 400g). Being brim-full, with no air inside, those cans will stay fairly fresh...
- ...and the 200g left over goes into a plastic zip-lock sandwich bag – the ‘slider’ type of bag, not the finger-pinch type. To make coffee, I scoop beans from the sandwich bag, then roll up the bag to squeeze air out before resealing it. When I open a can, that fills two zip-lock bags. This can-&-bag technique is simple, but it works!!
Main Issue #3. ALWAYS freshly-grind beans immediately before making coffee.
- Never bulk-grind beans. When exposed to air, ground beans go stale in only a few hours. Immediately before making coffee, I grind only enough for what I need. Any small residue is discarded – it will be stale before I need to make my next coffee.
- Get the grind granule size right! The recommended grind for an espresso machine is ‘visible granules as fine as table-salt’. But this probably won’t be at the ‘Espresso’ setting on the grinder’s adjustment scale! Once you get the grind right, leave the grinder on that setting. Extracting flavor from these small granules using hot water under pressure is why Espresso coffee tastes stronger than other types – it’s a very efficient method.
June ’23 Milky Mistake! My own coffee is a short black, with no milk at all. Consequently, I’ve never paid much attention to getting milk foam perfect, because that’s just for OTHER people! To use the steam wand correctly, I should be getting it steaming before putting it into the milk (I wasn’t doing that) and I should be leaving the wand tip at the milk surface to create a swirling current (I wasn’t doing that, either). I was plunging it deeper, which heats the milk to make bubbles with great “Ooh-Ah, Ooh-Ah” noises, but no micro-foam. After making coffee with an espresso machine (mostly just for my own short blacks) for about 50 years, I just needed to fix my milky mistakes. So that’s funny!
October ’22 Self-sufficiency: Could Australia ever grow all its own coffee? Not if we want to use Arabica beans – we just don’t have the high altitude equatorial rain-forest climate to grow the trees. We could grow Robusta trees but they’re no good for making Espresso-style coffee. The Espresso system uses high-pressure hot water forced through finely-ground roasted Arabica beans to QUICKLY brew mild-tasting coffee. To replicate that process, but using much cheaper, easier-to-grow Robusta beans – more than twice as strong in flavor, caffeine and bitterness – we would need different machines. Different filter shape and size might be needed, and maybe a different granule size or a different roasting method. But certainly less than half the number of vey strong Robusta beans per cup would be used, so that would make it easier to meet our market demand. Foaming milk would remain the same as on existing Espresso machines. Robusta beans produce a better crema than Arabica, but the taste, although much stronger, is very similar. It just needs to be brewed in a weaker form. That sounds like a worthwhile research project – an Ozpresso machine!
September ’22 Royal Flush: Espresso machine drip-trays are several times bigger than needed just to catch drips. During a machine’s warm-up cycle, all the cold water in the pipes between the water-heater and the brew-head is tapped away into the drip-tray, so that only hot water reaches the brew-head when needed. That same amount of cold water is flushed away every time the machine is turned on. Most of the time, I use my machine to make only one cup for myself, so the drip-tray fills up annoyingly quickly. Even more annoying, it seems to need emptying every time I have a visitor and offer to make them a coffee!
July 2020 Tidy Grinding: I have purchased a new coffee grinder. I don’t grind directly into a portafilter because that’s a messy technique. I grind into a little stainless steel dosing cup, now that these are available in the 54mm diameter needed for my brand of espresso machine’s portafilter-basket (...better than the plastic jar I previously used – the right size but an awkward shape). I no longer spill a single granule. Whoopee! – neat, tidy coffee, at last.
May 2020 Bean-counting: I DO NOT fill the grinder’s hopper with beans – that would be enough to last a week, with all the beans going steadily stale. I use a simple plastic scoop that holds exactly enough beans for a single shot. I just scoop enough beans into the empty hopper for what I immediately need, then let the grinder work until it stops grinding. That way, I never end up with more grounds than I need.
March 2020 Ground Zero: I noticed that, if I bumped my grinder after making a cuppa, it dumped a small pile of grounds on the bench-top. Not a lot, little more than a ‘pinch’. The output chute from the conical grinder-head relies entirely on gravity... and ground coffee granules are very light. They also pick up a slight static charge from the grind process. Some grounds don’t fall out the bottom after the grinder stops or just cling to the walls of the output chute.
This is known as ‘Grind Retention’ With every scoop I was getting some stale grounds from the previous scoop! So now my coffee-making ritual includes two extra steps: after grinding, I firmly pat the hopper lid to dislodge grounds still hanging in the conical grinder burrs, then tap the whole grinder onto the bench-top a few times to make sure that ALL the grounds fall out, and there are none hanging in the machine to pollute my next cup of liquid gold. Yes, that’s being fussy, but it’s a simple step taking an extra two seconds. So I reckon my coffee now tastes a tiny bit fresher...
January 2020 Flattery gets you EVERYWHERE: Getting ground coffee FLAT in the filter-basket before tamping is called ‘distributing’ and is more important than getting the tamping pressure accurate. Most people start with a ‘mound’ of grounds in the basket before tamping, so they end up with a highly-compressed wad in the middle and a less-compressed ring around the outside. Water, under pressure, always flows through the lower-pressure zone so that not much flavor gets extracted from the high-pressure zone – which is where most of the grounds are! It’s necessary to get the grounds flat, but using no pressure, BEFORE tamping, so that there is an even spread of pressure after tamping. You can buy small leveling tools for that purpose, but a few gentle strokes with a finger does the same job. Another 2-second brew habit that adds slightly to makling a better cuppa.
December 2018 Source rationalization: Arabica beans came from Africa, not Arabia – they were originally grown in the mountains of Ethiopia but traded by Arabs in Yemen, so were named Arabica to indicate that. Brazilian growers established huge plantations but lost nearly all of their crops to a disease known as ‘Rust’ in the early 20th Century, so created a Rust-resistant cultivar suitable for South American conditions. In South America, there are two ‘bean belts’ with high-altitude rain forest slopes, where the growing conditions for Arabica coffee are perfect. Above the equator, a belt runs through Colombia. Below the equator, another belt runs through Peru and Brazil. I don’t think it matters much which grower a local coffee importer buys its raw beans from – what matters locally is how they are roasted, packaged and distributed – how fresh they are when YOU buy them. I’m sure that Peruvian or Brazilian beans are very good, but I have discovered a source for dark-roast, freshly-roasted Colombian beans (I don’t much enjoy light- or medium-roasted beans of any sort, so much milder and more fruity African beans don’t appeal) so I haven’t bothered to explore different sources. I’ll just stick to what I know to be bloody good.
Other Contributing Factors:
- Officially, a single-shot of coffee is 30ml – the size of a ‘shot glass’, although most domestic espresso machines deliver a slightly larger shot of about 35-40ml. When it first emerges from the filter it is rich, creamy, honey-colored and sweet. Beautiful stuff. By the time a ‘shot’ has been poured, though, the goodness of the grounds has then been extracted, and you can then see the output stream change color again... it quickly turns into grey, toxic swamp-water from the Black Lagoon, so it’s essential to stop pouring well before it reaches that stage. Some espresso machines use a fluid-volume measurement method to determine the strength of a single- or a double-shot espresso. My machine uses a timing method. A single scoop of beans, ground, fills a single-shot filter, and I give that a 10-12-second pour to make a single-shot coffee. For a double-shot, it’s two scoops of beans in a bigger filter and a 20-second pour.
- It helps that, living in semi-rural Maleny, I use filtered rain-water to make my coffee – my tap-water doesn’t taste like the local community swimming pool.
- Lastly, cup size is important.
- For a short black, a 2½oz ( 75ml ) “Demitasse” cup – sometimes called a Piccolo, although this is the volume, not the cup;
- For a long black, ‘Americano’*, or ‘Portuguese macchiato’**, a 3½-4oz ( 100-120ml ) “Alto” cup;
- For a cappuccino, latté, ‘Italian macchiato’ or mocha, a 6oz ( 175ml ) “Grande” cup***. I don’t use those pretentious latté glasses, mostly because Americans prefer weaker coffee, and that means that the available latté glasses are just too bloody big – it’s hard to find a 6oz. size... and the latté tastes the same in a cup anyway.
• While on that subject, many Australians say that they prefer a cappuccino, but they like lots of milk, so what they actually prefer is a latté. That’s the main difference – a cappuccino has ¼-cup milk foamed to about 3 times that volume, while a latté has a third-cup, but foamed to only about twice that volume. A ‘Cappullatté’, perhaps?
- For a Mug of coffee of any type, but which still retains a genuine espresso strength, an 8oz ( 250ml ) mug using the double-shot filter is about as large as I can go. If you like your coffee in a bucket, go to a café – you could ask them to serve your food in a trough, too.
Summary: So those are the steps I take to keep my coffee quality up to café standards, and most of the day-to-day effort is in using the can-&-bag storage method to preserve freshness. Sure, that’s a little more trouble than most people bother to take, but much better than drinking stale crap most of the time, and enjoying nice fresh coffee only when I open a new bag of beans! No, thanks – I will just continue to be fussy... and smug, too, because I get somewhere around 140 fresh-tasting, café-quality ‘shots’ out of a 1kg bag over 5 weeks. Colombian coffee is now up to $47/kilo, but my per-cup cost is around 34¢ – only about $1.30 per day! The miser in me can feel quite pleased about that.
* As far as I can figure, the only difference between a European Long Black and an ‘Americano’ is that Europeans pour the water first, then add the coffee shot, to ‘preserve the crema’ – Americans pour the coffee shot first, then top up with water. I prefer to use the Americano method, because the hot water effectively stirs the coffee, but I still add only enough to fill an Alto cup – not a bucket like Americans prefer, and the crema is still quite good.
** The Italian word ‘macchiato’ means ‘smear’ or ‘stain’, and was originally used throughout Europe to denote a long black coffee with a small smear of milk. When the first machines for foaming milk appeared during the 1980s, though – but only in Italy – it changed to mean the complete opposite: a cup of foamed milk with a shot of coffee poured into it to make a black smear in the white foam. Italians now use the term ‘Portuguese Macchiato’ for a ‘black with a smear of white’. In the USA they adopted the Italian ‘white with a smear of black’ version of macchiato... but super-sized ( of course! ) into a large latté glass.
*** In Europe the Alto and Grande standard coffee cups are slightly smaller than the sizes I use. I hear them criticized as ‘drinking from thimbles’ but you won’t get a true espresso taste from a larger cup because the actual shot of coffee is only ±30ml, or ±60ml for a double-shot. Many people – certainly a majority in the USA/Canada, and now a growing minority in Australia, too – prefer huge mugs ( 10-16oz – 310-500ml ) even though they just get piddly-weak coffee-tinted milk or water. But that’s what they seem to prefer... Yeccch!
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