__—— The Coffee Page: 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. There are good reasons to be fussy! 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 completely stale and tasteless – bad news at home where only small quantities get used per day.
There are also strong economic reasons for making fresh coffee at home. Some coffee-lovers always buy cups of coffee from a café at about $3–4 each, so they spend about $10 per day on average. Too rich for me! Others swear by using a coffee POD machine at home, so they spend less than $1 per cup, but that’s still at least a few bucks per day. I can do better than that! I don’t have an expensive high-end domestic or commercial-level espresso machine – I have a low-end domestic machine, but I do enjoy café-quality coffee at home, and at a reasonable price.
Below are coffee-related items, including my solution to that Yeccch! – Stale coffee! problem.
__—— The 1, 2, 3 of making great coffee at home:
Not a perfect solution, but good enough to satisfy a fussy bugger like me, so it’s not half bad. There are three main issues and they are:
Main Issue #1. ALWAYS buy good quality beans.
- I buy only high altitude-grown beans. Colombian beans are grown really high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, north of the Equator ( close to 2000m altitude ), but any high altitude growing area close to the Equator would be acceptable. This is why 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’ too bitter. They have Robusta beans mixed with the Arabica.
Main Issue #2. ALWAYS store beans in a completely airless environment.
Purpose-made coffee-cans or foil-coated coffee bags are both hermetically sealed – they have one-way valves to allow gases ( mostly carbon dioxide ) from the roasting process out but no air in. They are completely useless if there is ANY air inside them. Air oxidizes the beans, and they quickly go stale despite being inside a sealed container. Unlike a café I can’t use beans fast enough after opening a bag at home to prevent the beans going stale. A 1kg bag is enough to last me 6 weeks, so this is the major source of the staleness problem for home users.
- I buy sealed 1kg bags of beans (online, so my order is roasted and delivered within a few days of ordering).
- ...once I crack the seal on a 1kg bag I immediately decant the beans into smaller containers. Half-cans are no good, so I completely fill two hermetically-sealing coffee-cans ( each about 400g ). Being completely full, with no air inside, those cans will stay fairly fresh...
- ...and the 200g left over goes into a plastic zip-lock sandwich bag. 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. I use the newer ‘slider’ type of zip-lock bag, because sealing the zip is more certain ( and MUCH easier! ) than the older finger-pinch type of zip-lock. This can-&-bag technique is simple, but it works!!
Main Issue #3. ALWAYS freshly-grind beans immediately before making coffee.
- When exposed to air, ground beans go stale far more quickly than whole beans – roasted beans take a few days to go stale, but it takes only a few hours for ground. The coffee purists claim that coffee has to be made within a minute of grinding. So, taking that with a large grain of... well, coffee, I never bulk-grind beans. Immediately before making coffee, I grind only enough for what I need, trying to get the quantity exact. Any small residue of grounds gets thrown out – it will be stale before I need to make my next coffee in a few hours time.
__—— Update May 2020 – Time, weight or fluid volume? The four main aspects of making nice coffee are • dosing (grinding enough beans to make a perfect amount in the filter basket); • grind fineness (too coarse or too fine = under- or over-extraction); • tamping pressure and even puck spread; and • brew-pour. For dosing, I prefer to use a simple plastic scoop that holds exactly enough beans for a single shot – and NOT fill the grinder’s bean-hopper. For domestic use a hopper-full of beans might last a week, so I keep it empty – no beans sitting in it going stale from exposure to air! Grind particle size has to be small enough for full extraction, but no more – over-fine makes bitter coffee and is messy, too! I found the right setting for my grinder and just leave it there (it's a time-based grinder but I don’t use the timer for measurement. I just let the grinder work until it stops grinding). Tamping and spreading the grounds for even pressure is a knack that, once mastered, can be easily repeated.
For the espresso machine, most use a timed pour – for mine, between five and six seconds (after the pre-infusion cycle ends) is about right for a single-shot, about twelve seconds for a double, because the bigger double-shot filter pours slightly more slowly. Some machines use a fluid volume measurement system with a one-shot or two-shot selection choice... the amount of flavor extraction for these machines depends entirely on perfectly consistent tamping pressure, so I prefer the more forgiving time-based system. Even I can count to twelve or SEE how much has been poured!
__—— Update March 2020 – Ground Zero: Every coffee enthusiast knows that freshly-ground beans make the best coffee. Beans are never bulk-ground and used for several cups over time. I had noticed that, if I bumped my grinder after making a cuppa, it dumped a small pile of grounds on the benchtop. Not a lot, less than half a teaspoonful. On examination, I found the reason. The output chute from the conical grinder-head to the catcher container (a plastic box) is at a steep angle and relies entirely on gravity... so the tail-end of each scoop of beans doesn’t fall into the output box after the grinder stops. It just clings to the walls of the chute – GOING STALE!
With every scoop I was getting some stale grounds from the previous scoop – Quelle Désastre! I have since discovered that there are Zero Retention coffee grinders – designed to avoid this problem – but, no surprise, they are all VERY expensive! So now my coffee-making ritual includes one extra step: after grinding, I tap the whole grinder onto the benchtop a few times to make sure that ALL the grounds go into the collector, and there are no grounds hanging in the chute 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 fresher...
__—— Update January 2020 – Twirly-whirly: On online coffee forums, self-declared ‘experts’ are wrong as often as they are right, but I think that they are actually correct about getting ground coffee FLAT in the filter-basket before tamping – it’s 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 center and a less-compressed ring around the outside. Water, under pressure, just flows into 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. Yes, you can buy small leveling tools for that purpose, but a very light twirly-whirly with the tamper does the same job. So that’s what I now do.
__—— Update November 2019 – Downsizing: I never eat breakfast – I have a morning coffee and, during the past few months, have been making a Ristretto instead of my normal single-shot long black, because the taste is a bit richer and stronger, better for waking me up, I reasoned. But my morning routine is pretty invariable and that coffee is started while sitting at the computer dealing with emails and other distractions... so it often isn’t finished! Quelle tragédie! I usually get about half-way through it before it goes cold and, sorry Panasonic, a microwaved coffee just doesn’t taste the same as a fresh one. The half-cup goes down the drain.
A Ristretto uses twice as many beans as a single-shot, so the cost of having one stronger coffee per day was costing me an extra 36¢/day. But if I drink only half of it? Hmmm... by saving 36¢/day, it would take 114 days to pay for another kilo of Colombian beans. OK – I might just downsize to a short black in a Demitasse cup, instead. A short black is richer than a long black (no extra water in it), and a Demitasse (sometimes called a Piccolo, but that’s the volume, not the cup) is about half the size of my usual Alto cup – small enough to easily finish, even if it is like ‘drinking from a thimble’, and my fingers don’t fit through the tiny handle.
__—— Update December 2018 – Source rationalization: In South America, there are two ‘bean belts’ where the growing conditions for Arabica coffee are perfect. Above the equator, a belt runs through Colombia, where there are high-altitude rain forest slopes. Below the equator, another belt runs through Peru and Brazil, where there are similar conditions. I don’t think it matters much whether a local coffee importer buys its raw beans from Pedro Gonzales on one hillside in Colombia or from Pablo de Silva on the other side of the same mountain – the beans will be very similar. 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-roasted, freshly-roasted Colombian beans ( I don’t much enjoy light- or medium-roasted beans of any sort ) so I haven’t bothered to explore different sources. I’ll just stick to what I know to be bloody good.
__—— Update August 2018 – Coffee-speak: Recently, I had to find a substitute for the brand of Colombian coffee beans I normally buy, which had been discontinued. Ah, well – shit happens. I rode the bike down to the coast to visit ‘The Colombian Coffee Co’, thinking, well, you can’t get more genuine than that! Their beans were expensive, but I found one strain that was Fair-Trade, single-source, 1750m-altitude... and was described in glowing terms if you can cut through all the pretentious wank used today to describe coffee – almost as pretentious as the language used to describe wine. I don’t believe for a second that my cup of coffee has ‘peach and avocado flavors with citrus overtones, infused with walnut and almond traces.’ I might agree that it has a very slight nutty smell, but that’s about all. When I got the bag home, though, I discovered that it had practically no aroma at all! When I asked about that, I was told that it was lightly roasted for a delicate and subtle character. I asked whether they had a medium-roasted Colombian bean with a stronger smell, and I was sneered at. We don’t use a medium or dark roast on any of our beans! Medium or dark roasts, I was informed, are no longer in vogue among coffee afficionados because some people ( read: most retail suppliers ) had been using dark roasts for years to disguise cheap, poor-quality beans. If I wanted dark-roasted beans I would have to go elsewhere – but only those unable to appreciate the subtlety of light-roasted perfecto beans would want to do that!
Okay, I will look around for an alternative.
__—— Update November 2016 – New Espresso machine!
My espresso machine developed a small leak and Alister jumped in and bought me a new machine! Unlike my previous espresso machine, this one turns itself off after 15 minutes of inactivity, so I am ALWAYS making coffee on a cold machine – that means cold water-pipes, group-handle, filter-basket and cups. For a commercial machine, an auto-off function would be bloody annoying, but for a domestic machine it makes sense – there are electrickery savings to be made! Here’s the solution: microwave a soup-bowl of water for 1 minute before making coffee – that’s enough time to grind the beans and get ready. Plunge the brew-head into the hot water, get it hot, then the cup(s), so that everything is up to temperature when you actually make the coffee, and using the soup-bowl doesn’t use any water from the machine’s water-tank. OK, the routine is slightly more complex, but the machine does come up to pressure and temperature in about one minute, so I can tolerate that.
__—— Update May 2013 – Coffee Filters ( a new direction )
The main function of an espresso machine is to pump hot water through a compressed ‘puck’ of roasted, ground coffee beans, to extract all the caffien and flavour. That’s a ‘shot’ of espresso. To do this, domestic espresso machines are supplied with double-walled filter-baskets – the actual little cup in the business end of the ‘Group Handle’ where you put the coffee grinds. They make nice coffee because there is a 1mm gap between the inner wall ( lots of little holes ) and the outer wall ( just one little hole ) and this causes a lot of back-pressure, so that the espresso machine’s water-pump has to push hard to force hot water through the filter... that regulates the flow, causes the water to completely fill the filter, and allows the goodness to be extracted from all the grounds. If, like me, you use your espresso machine extensively, that double-wall gap gradually silts up and the filter eventually blocks. They are nearly impossible to un-block, so you have to buy replacement filters.
Commercial machines use single-wall filter-baskets to avoid that problem. So I bought a set ( one single-shot; one double-shot ) and learned how to use them – basically they need 2-stage tamping to compress the base layer of grounds more than the top layer, so that the water-pump still has to push hard, still fills the entire filter for uniform extraction, still takes the same amount of time to deliver a ‘shot’. But I can now make coffee with a single-wall filter that tastes the same as one made with a double-wall filter. Whoopee! At least I shoudn’t need to buy new filters regularly now.
__—— 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 water-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 5-second pour to make a single-shot coffee. For a double-shot, it’s two scoops of beans in a bigger filter and a 10-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 170 fresh-tasting, café-quality ‘shots’ out of a 1kg bag over 6 weeks. My per-cup cost is around 14¢ – only about 50¢ per day, or 3 or 4 cups a day for a whole week for about the same cost as ONE CUP from a café! The miser in me can feel quite pleased about that.
So if you visit me, you’ll have to accept my Prima Donna, penny-pinching coffee-making rituals. I notice, however, that few visitors criticize my coffee quality, so I’m sure that you’ll manage to put up with my caffien-fueled eccentricity.
* 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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