Catching up on Cold Brew

Before I begin examing my coffee gear piece by piece, following the KonMari method mentioned last week, I need to share what’s been going on with cold brew in this house.

Long time readers know that we drink a LOT of cold brew in our family. For my mom, iced coffee is the only coffee she likes, and for the rest of us, it’s a welcome refreshment in a climate that’s often too hot and sticky for brewed coffee. Two years ago I bought a kegerator and setup a cold brew tap, making 10 gallons of coffee almost every month.

Since then, we’ve never stopped enjoying cold brew, though we’ve had some ups and downs with equipment and brew methods.

Our fridge proved unreliable, and the safety of our kegged coffee was uncertain. One day it became a freezer, covering the kegs with frost and freezing the coffee in the line. The temperature setting was never changed, so I tried using a thermometer to monitor the inside of the unit and adjust as needed.

There was so much fluctuation that I finally gave up. I didn’t feel safe drinking cold brew from a fridge that hovered above 40º F even when it was set for 33º, so for several months our kegerator and commercial Toddy have sat dormant.

With our cold brew fridge on the fritz, I switched back to the home Toddy brewer for awhile. Because we drink so much, I was making a full batch every weekend, filling up four 32oz growlers and hoping it lasted the week. Eventually, it became a chore to process a batch week after week, and there was still the question of health, not knowing if our brewing process was safe enough. Doubt took over when our last batch looked suspicious.

Fortunately, we have a variety of other cold brew gear, so I’ve been brewing very small batches a few times a week. On weekends it’s the Yama tower, weekdays I use the Hario Mizudashi brewer overnight in the fridge, and sometimes we run out and I make an iced pour-over with our V60 iced coffee brewer.

It’s put a lot of variety in my mom’s daily cold brew, since each method has its own unique process and creates a different extraction. Because there is more work involved, compared to the large batches that filled our kegerator, the rest of us opt for hot coffee so that each cold brew lasts at least a couple days.

Needless to say, we miss our cold brew tap.

Which is why I’m headed to Chicago in a couple weeks for Coffee Fest! It will be my first visit to a trade show in over two years, and my main focus is their Cold Brew U program, an in-depth look at everything related to cold brew.

I want to get back to brewing large batches, having cold brew on tap whenever we want it, but I want to learn more about preparation, sanitation, and hopefully get some ideas of what equipment will be more reliable to keep our kegs at a safe temperature.

We will get the cold brew flowing again soon enough, but I’m thankful that I had this excuse to try each of my other brewing devices. I don’t know which brewers will truly spark joy when I begin working through my collection, but at least they are no longer forgotten in the back of the cabinet.

Coffee Travels:
Foundation Coffee Co. – Tampa

During my periodic absences from the coffee scene, the growth of specialty coffee has been astounding. The list of shops I want to visit continues to grow, yet I have less and less time to go coffee-touring.

Well a few months ago, before my most recent blog-departure, my wife and I spent a weekend in Tampa, and I finally made it to Foundation Coffee Co.

I had been to Foundation’s original Riverview shop nearly two years ago for a throwdown, back when I was trying to build my latte art skills. They opened their second location in Tampa last year, and I’ve been drooling over their photos ever since.

Foundation’s Tampa Heights shop is a coffee nerd’s dream, from the retail shelf full of high-end coffee gear, to the beautiful black Linea PB, to the rack of Yama towers rigged on a pully that travels up and down the 2-story interior brick wall.

The menu is fantastic, of course, just what you’d expect from a third-wave shop fueled by passionate people. I enjoyed a generous pour-over (Colombia, brewed in a GINO dripper) along with a gluten-free chocolate donut that didn’t last long enough for a photo, and we took some cold brew back to our hotel to enjoy the next morning.

Although I had seen many Instagram shots of their interior (and exterior) design, spending some time in that space made me appreciate it even more. Natural elements such as plants, rocks, and water features encourage a feeling more akin to a Japanese garden than a big city coffee shop.

The best part of our visit, however, was time spent with our friend Marie, whom we hadn’t caught up with since she and Dawn sold The Library Coffeehouse a few months earlier. I enjoyed spending an hour or more just sitting and talking about life and coffee, and it left me wishing I could spend more time drinking coffee outside the house, sharing it with friends and experiencing more of the unique atmosphere that every good coffee shop creates.

I may give that some more thought soon, and hopefully I’ll get back to Tampa for another stop at Foundation.

Coffee Travels: New Year 2017 I-10 Road Trip

It’s a long way from central Florida to the far west side of Houston, Texas, even longer when you have a 5-month-old and a 2.5 year old along for the journey. So when it came time to plan our Lunar New Year trip to visit my wife’s family, I split the drive into as many stops as possible.

Or maybe it was just an excuse to visit coffee shops that weren’t right off the interstate…

New Orleans, Louisiana

On the way out, we spent two nights in New Orleans so that we could spend a full day exploring. Our hotel was just a few blocks down from Revelator, and Stumptown was also in walking distance. We didn’t get to any of the more unique New Orleans cafes, sadly, due to the logistical challenges of pushing a stroller around a busy city, but it was nice to visit a couple big names we don’t have back home.

Revelator Coffee Company was our first and easiest stop, thanks to a sleepy infant content in his stroller. The interior was sleek and industrial/modern, typical of other Revelator shops I’ve seen (Atlanta being the only other one I’ve visited in person), and I was able to take a few photos since the kids didn’t demand much attention.

A delicious hot chocolate kept our toddler happy while I sipped a pour-over, though at this point I’ve forgotten which coffee I had. This was our second visit to a Revelator cafe, and I always go in with really high expectations thanks to that one amazing coffee I picked up during my visit to Coffee Fest Atlanta a couple years ago.

Our other New Orleans stop was several blocks in a different direction, Stumptown Coffee Roasters. By that point in the day, the kids were tired, so I barely snapped a photo of the sign and didn’t take the camera out once inside. It was a bit late for hot coffee, but I got a free batch brew with the beans we purchased to take to family, and we indulged in a RTD (ready-to-drink) cold brew we hadn’t previously seen: coconut milk!

The interior was typical Stumptown, all warm and inviting, part of the ground floor of the Ace Hotel. Their pastry case had some delicious homemade granola bars and other savory goodies, and I wish I could have tried more of their cold brew options, as it is a cold brew focused cafe. One more reason to return to New Orleans for a proper coffee tour once the kids are a bit older.

Slidell, Louisiana

On our return trip, we skipped New Orleans and spent our first night in Slidell. Starbucks was our interstate coffee of choice (breakfast, too, most of the time) and I spotted this beauty in this otherwise unknown corner of Louisiana. I knew that Starbucks bought the Clover, but I had never seen one in a cafe. I had already ordered prior to noticing the single origin menu, but I learned to pay more attention in the future. (More on the Clover later, as I did get to try one in Tampa after this trip.)

Fortunately there was good coffee waiting for us at our next stop…

Tallahassee, Florida

Another brief stop on our way out of town, this was our second visit to Journeyman Coffee, but the first in which I took photos. Jason has a great setup, sharing space with the Miccosukee Root Cellar, and it’s worth a visit for good coffee and conversation. They were slammed when I popped in that Saturday, so I grabbed a Chemex to go and an iced mocha for Jamie.

I always enjoy seeing a tight bar setup, and the Journeyman crew brew some excellent Counter Culture coffee in an efficient space. One of my favorite things on their menu, is the friendly invitation to discuss your coffee wants and needs:

That wraps up our New Year road trip. It’s really just a small bit of coffee thrown in an otherwise crazy family travel schedule, but it was fun nonetheless. Despite my lackluster photography and total lack of notes (did I get the Nicaragua or the Colombia? Hm…) this exercise got me excited to go coffee touring again. There’s so much good coffee out there, we just have to find it.

Introducing Handground
Precision Coffee Grinder

As I mentioned last week in what I hope will be the final “re-launch” of this blog, one of the cool coffee things to happen during my absence was the arrival of my Handground Precision Coffee Grinder. This much-anticipated manual coffee grinder is the end result of a long development process involving coffee professionals and enthusiasts from all corners of the globe (read their full story here), and it is becoming my go-to grinder for rather unexpected reasons.

First things first… If you haven’t heard about Handground yet, here are the basic points:

• Ceramic burrs
• Side-mounted handle
• Full range of grind size with easy adjustment
• Large 100g capacity
• Tight burr tolerance for more consistent grind
• Elegant finish and iconic shape

I’m a big fan of the large capacity and 40mm burrs. In the past, I had traveled with a smaller grinder and it did ok for the occasional Aeropress, but this can handle enough for a full pot of coffee in our Bonavita. And I haven’t tried this yet, but traveling with the Handground could mean better coffee while still using a hotel coffee pot. (Need to carry filters, though, as most hospitality coffee is now filter-packed.)

Like any other hand coffee grinder, portability and travel are potential highlights for most users, and Handground has excellent features to make travel brewing more minimalist than ever. Hash marks on the side can be used for measuring coffee in place of a scale, with each mark representing around 10g on average. The included recipe magnet gives common weights for popular brew methods, showing how many hash marks get you in the ballpark. It might not be geeky enough for some, but it’s as I like to say, close enough for jazz.

The recipe guide is arranged in a circle, with the inner track representing grind size, from 1 to 8 with additional steps in-between for a full 15 settings. Cute icons highlight six of the most common brew methods, from espresso to french press, and right out of the box I’ve found their suggestions to be solid.

The best part about the adjustment ring is the ability to adjust without taking the grinder apart. My previous hand grinder required me to turn a small knob hidden on the bottom end of the burrs, and there was no indication of where I was in the range so it was nearly impossible to dial in. Handground solves that problem perfectly.

Now, one of their biggest claims is more consistent particle size. They even have testing data posted on their website, and the graphs show a pretty strong peak, with most of the coffee falling within a narrow range. I’d say that’s really good for a hand grinder, though my initial impression was skeptical when I saw the few large particles among the rest. It’s not really fair to compare with my primary grinder, of course, since it’s a commercial machine with legendary consistency, and the proof is in the pour.

While the larger particles are easy to spot, the fines are less fine than that of my big grinder, so a large 50-60g Chemex doesn’t get clogged so easily. The results are good, though I’m still learning to adjust, since I am more likely to under extract than to watch the timer continue to climb while coffee struggles to escape the bottom of the cone.

My only point of contention is the difficulty of grinding, which is the same as I’ve experienced with any other manual grinder. Sometimes you’re going to hit a bean that is harder, or at a certain angle in the burrs perhaps, and it’s just going to require more oomph to get through it. This requires holding the grinder still with your other hand, and in this case the grinder is so large that keeping it steady has proven more difficult than I anticipated. The rubber gripper on the bottom doesn’t really help on my butcher block coffee bar, so grinding is a bit of a workout.

But, this is one of the reasons I enjoy it, and one of the reasons it is becoming my everyday grinder.

Grinding by hand requires focus and patience. Trying to grind too quickly, or doing so without paying attention, makes it more of a struggle in the end. So for me, grinding my morning coffee has become a moment of mindfulness, something we desperately need in a world of distractions.

So despite the occasional challenge, I recommend the Handground Precision Coffee Grinder for anyone who wants more focus and mindful practice in their daily coffee routine. I have challenged myself to use it exclusively for all pour-overs at home this year. I’ll share more experience later, including a look at the cleaning process, which is supposed to be quite simple.

Readers: do you use a hand grinder? If so, is it only for travel, or do you also use it at home?

What I’m Drinking:
October Coffee Highlights

“If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.”

This pearl of wisdom was spoken by Joe Marrocco during the first cupping class my wife and I attended at Coffee Fest in New York, now almost three years ago. Back then I was just getting into specialty coffee, learning everything I possibly could, and although we weren’t taking notes during our introductory class, those words stuck with me.

Yet, here I am… no notes, no journals, nothing… just vague memories of a month filled with excellent coffee, which I can in no way hope to describe. That photo up top, the Kenya Mugaya from Kuma Coffee? That was over a month ago and I couldn’t tell you anything about it. I remember enjoying it, and that was around the time I started to move away from French Press and back to my favored pour-overs, but what did the coffee actually taste like? I don’t remember.

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The same goes for this Ethiopia Guji from Square One, my most recent delivery from Mistobox. One of many Ethiopian coffees we tried last month, it was used up after a handful of batch brews in the Bonavita, and anything truly special was lost on my continually declining palate. Nice design on the bag, though, and one of my favorite things about Mistobox: trying new roasters for the first time.

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My other full-bag monthly subscription, Crema.co, delivered this excellent selection from Onyx Coffee Lab. Probably the one coffee that stood out the most, this Ethiopia Hambela Buku was bright and fruity, brought memories of previous Onyx roasts that blew me away and left me wanting more.

But even a coffee that stuck in my head is now left to the most generic descriptors, and I know there was more going on in the cup. Remember when I used to taste coffee? Remember when I got out the cupping gear and slurped my way to more specific flavor notes? Family life grew too busy for such an extensive coffee hobby, but I need to find a better way to enjoy the beautiful beans that allows time for focus.

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I know, we really did drink almost nothing but Ethiopia last month… But this Yirgacheffe Banko Dhadhato from Vashon Coffee Company really shined in my October Bean Box, so I brought in a full bag to get a second (and third, etc.) taste. It was beautiful, what you might expect from any good Yirg, and it may have been my wife’s favorite among our morning batch brews.

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Last time I shared the very first Box Set from The Department of Brewology, and this was the second edition, featuring The Barn Coffee Roasters from Berlin. It may be the first time I’ve had coffee roasted outside the US, and I loved the information cards included with the bag, English on one side, German on the other.

The coffee was a special microlot from Guatemala, a washed Caturra produced by Misael Rodriguez. It was interesting, very clean and crisp, but complex such that I could not pick out any specific flavor notes. I found it highly enjoyable, but it was a perfect example of how badly I need to practice tasting coffee. After all, I’m competing once again in the Flight of Fancy contest from Populace Coffee, and that starts this week! (more on that later…)

So it’s time to start writing stuff down.

I need to get back to my daily coffee journal, and I need to taste more coffee with other people and calibrate. There is hardly any point in sharing these bags of coffee with you, dear reader, when I have almost nothing to say about them due to my own lack of care in preparation and taste. If I’m going to continue writing about coffee, which I do enjoy, I need to record my thoughts and impressions daily.

Perhaps by next year I will have a new system in place for taking notes, but for now I’m going to make it as simple as possible and just start. Readers: do any of you take notes about your coffee experiences? If so, I’d love to hear what details you choose to include and what you focus on the most.

Sudden Coffee:
Instant Specialty Coffee

Instant coffee… did you ever think you’d see those words on this blog? I didn’t, at least not until I listened to a recent episode of the I Brew My Own Coffee podcast where they interviewed two-time Finnish Barista Champion Kalle Freese about his breakthrough product: Sudden Coffee.

Suddenly (ha!) instant coffee became quite interesting. I had to try it out, so within a week I was greeted with a simple satchel holding eight tubes of instant specialty coffee.

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I won’t go into the full story behind Kalle’s coffee journey (listen to the podcast for more details) but I love his breakdown of instant coffee and why it is traditionally horrible. You take the absolute worst beans, the ones nobody else wants, roast them, then brew it for maximum extraction. It’s all about the numbers, creating a product with the lowest possible cost, and there’s no room for quality in the recipe.

Specialty coffee can’t compete at that price level (nor can farmers, pickers, anyone at origin make enough to improve their lives) and it’s easy to write it off as a market not suited to quality. Nobody buying a can of instant crystals from the store is going to accept or even understand the price of a great cup of coffee, but that’s not what Sudden is about.

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Sudden Coffee is about making specialty coffee accessible even in situations where it would otherwise be impossible to brew a quality beverage. For Kalle, it’s his grandmother’s house in the middle of the forest. For others it may be at the office, at a hotel, or even at home when the baby is finally sleeping and I don’t want to crank up the grinder, just in case.

Sometimes it’s a coffee emergency, as happened with one of our tubes last week. Our cold brew tap had just run out, and my mom needed her morning iced coffee. I poured a tube of Sudden Coffee into her cup, added 8oz. of cold water, some ice, and she was good to go. There were no grounds to clean up, and my mom was able to rush out the door without waiting several minutes for me to brew a quick iced pour-over. Best of all, the coffee was excellent!

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Our first shipment of Sudden Coffee featured my favorite coffee origin, Ethiopia, roasted by 49th Parallel in Vancouver. This Biftu Gudina was bright and floral, balanced, with a certain roundness that I can’t quite describe. I tried multiple hot brews at home, finally settling on the lowest temperature of 140º on our Bonavita Electric Kettle once I realized that I’m not extracting anything, just diluting and reheating the already brewed coffee.

The experience in the cup is somewhere between a full-immersion and a pour-over. It has the heavier body of a French Press, but without the lingering sediment, and I was consistently met with an unexpectedly clean finish. I had high expectations after listening to the podcast, and I’m happy those expectations were met.

Sudden Coffee definitely has a place in our lives, especially with the unpredictability of raising two kids, so I jumped on their subscription service so that we’ll always have some on hand when needed. This will be my go-to when traveling, and I look forward to having a quick solution anytime I get an unexpected coffee craving.

You know, when I want some coffee… all of a sudden! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

If you’re curious and want to see how instant specialty coffee can taste, any of the Sudden Coffee links in this post are referrals which offer you $10 off your first order! Check it out.

My Minimalist Coffee Setup

At least a month has passed since I began my French Press challenge, and there were some definite ups and downs along the way. Here’s what I learned while trying to master this brew method in the sloppiest and least scientific way possible…

1. I can brew a solid cup of coffee without a scale or timer – As I got further into my challenge, I quit using a timer or scale, not even to measure the beans before grinding. I treated every variable as “close enough” in order to see how consistent the results could be without that scientific precision favored by coffee geeks (like myself). As long as I didn’t sip the last, sediment-filled sludge at the bottom of my mug, the brew was comfortably good, and depending on the particular coffee, even delicious. That said…

2. I still don’t like metal filter brews – My biggest gripe with the French Press is the same I would have with any non-paper filter, whether it’s full immersion or otherwise. I just don’t like that sediment, and if I try to finish a mug brewed in a French Press, that last sip is going to make me gag and reach for something else to drink. I got around this, mostly, by always leaving a little coffee in the bottom of my cup, but I really do prefer a paper filter for every coffee I drink. This experiment caused me to drink more French Press coffee than I ever have, and thus confirm my personal preferences.

3. Good coffee can taste great regardless of the brew method, however… Paper filters can produce a cleaner and clearer cup, showing more of the delicate characteristics of specialty coffee. While I confirmed that technique alone can produce a good, even great cup of coffee, the flavors of this brew style was always muddled. Flavor was there, but without any brightness or clarity, and I missed my favored brew methods as the weeks dragged on.

I spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about minimalism, cutting down my stuff, trimming the unnecessary coffee gear and wondering what I would choose if I wanted to brew as simply as possible.

Honestly, there’s not much of a contest for brew method. I’ve been a V60 fan since day one. It was my first piece of coffee equipment, and after spending the last couple years brewing countless cups at home, I’ve formed a decided preference toward this type of cone. I can use it for both hot and iced coffee. I can brew a small or large mug, even push it to 40g in the filter when I want to share a single batch.

So that’s the brewing device, but what else makes up my minimalist coffee setup?

Scale, kettle, grinder of course, and I do prefer to brew into a glass server rather than directly into the mug. It helps me to see the flow of coffee and judge any necessary grind adjustment.

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With those few things, I could easily let the rest go. No more Chemex, no more Aeropress (travel doesn’t leave much time for brewing coffee anymore), no more French Press… ok, I will always have a batch brewer for making a pot for the family, so the Bonavita stays. But for most of my hot or flash-chilled iced coffee, the V60 does the job.

And what makes it minimalist isn’t the design or the number of items. It’s knowing that I have enough.

And from that place of contentment I can better focus on the coffee itself.

What I’m Drinking:
September Coffee Highlights

We drink a lot of coffee in our house, and I’ve always done a poor job of representing each bag that lands on our doorstep. My mind is more focused on everyday life at the moment, still adjusting to the new addition to our family, and trying to pare down my excessive collection of stuff. It’s not fair for me to attempt an honest coffee journal about any one brew.

So today I’m introducing a new monthly feature I like to call “What I’m Drinking”. It will take the place of my previous coffee journals, for the most part, and I won’t have a lot of details for some coffees but I want to share them anyway. Good coffee should always be shared, so let’s get started…

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Guatemala, Antigua, San Josué
Greenway Coffee Company, via MistoBox

The timing of this delivery was funny, as I had just sent my mother-in-law home to Houston with a couple bags of Patriot Coffee roasted here in Florida. A day after she left, MistoBox delivered this bag of beans from Greenway in Houston, as if we were in some sort of coffee exchange program.

This fully washed coffee had a rich aroma and plenty of subtlety in the cup. I didn’t make any brew notes (a common problem recently) but I remember enjoying it best in our Bonavita brewer. Since most of these coffees landed during my French Press challenge, a full batch in the Bonavita was often the only cup I tried with a paper filter. Thus, I didn’t necessarily find the level of clarity that might have been available, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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Guatemala, Luz de la Noche
Theodore’s Coffee Roasters, via Crema.co

Another Guatemala, this coffee was dramatically different from the San Josué from Greenway. This was my first coffee from Theodore’s and it really got my attention with a bouquet of fruit and florals the moment I opened the bag. I was surprised to learn this was a washed coffee as well, as the fragrance and aroma were so fruity I would have assumed it to be a natural.

I couldn’t resist trying this coffee outside of the French Press, so I put it through our Yama tower to see if that fruitiness would shine in a slow-drip cold brew. It had a bright acidity, and probably would show a more delicate side if brewed as a pour-over. One of my favorites from Crema.co, I hope it is still in season when my Brew List cycles back around.

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Ethiopia Kochere
Herkimer Coffee

and

Costa Rica Hacienda Sonora
Conduit Coffee Company

These were my two favorites from last month’s Bean Box and I had to order a full bag of each. The Ethiopia from Herkimer was everything I want in an Ethiopian coffee, beautifully fruity and delicate, the kind of cup I could just sit and smell for hours. It made me extra happy to enjoy coffee from one of the few shops I visited during our Seattle trip earlier this year.

Our other selection was the Costa Rica from Conduit. Aside from Ethiopia, I approach most origins with neutral expectations (even though I’ve had excellent and greatly varied coffees from all over the world), so I brewed up our original sample with no special experience in mind. This Costa Rica really hit me as one of the sweetest coffees I’ve tasted this year, juicy and delicious even in the French Press.

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Ethiopia Kilenso & Kochere blend
Slate Coffee Roasters

Saving the most unique experience for last, this may be the first blend I’ve had in a long time. When I saw the Slate Box Set partnership with The Department of Brewology, I had to jump on it. Not only did it come with all kinds of cool treats, the coffee promised to be outstanding, as beans from Slate usually are.

But unlike their single origins I’ve enjoyed in the past, this is a special blend of two different Ethiopian coffees, a washed Yirgacheffe and a natural Sidama. The pairing of two very unique coffees from one country brings an experience with the balance blends are designed to achieve, but without losing the bright character of each region. This was beautiful coffee, and I hope to see more experiments like this in the future. They succeeded in highlighting the best of both blends and single origins in one 12 oz bag.

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Those were the highlights on our coffee bar last month. I hope you enjoyed this abbreviated look at our monthly coffee addiction. Remember, if you’re thinking about a subscription and want to try one of the services mentioned here, the links to MistoBoxCrema.co, and Bean Box are referrals that offer some savings for first time customers!

Owning up to an
Excessive Hobby

As a follow up to last week’s post about the danger of being a gear-head, I have a confession…

I have WAY too much coffee stuff!

I talked about my habit of diving head first into my hobbies, focusing on collecting all the best gear even when I run out of time to enjoy it, but I don’t think I’ve been entirely honest with just how far I went. There is enough coffee gear in our house to open a tiny cafe.

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Dozens of coffee mugs, half a dozen cold brew devices and at least as many pour-over options. Three V60 cones, three! Why? Not to mention the “prosumer” espresso machine with multiple accessories including four different milk pitchers and a full range of latte mugs in multiple styles. Ancap, Cremaware, notNeutral, am I missing anyone?

I could serve coffee to a dozen customers at a time, as long as not too many ask for the same size drink at once.

But why do I have all this stuff? Because I was so into my coffee hobby that I forgot to stop and smell the beans. I have enough cupping gear to host a public tasting event, but I cannot say that I’ve honestly tasted any of the excellent coffees that came through our door over the past many months. I brew them, I drink them, I enjoy the taste of a good, specialty grade coffee, but I never just sit and taste.

I was too focused on becoming good at a craft, and that’s my biggest confession today. When I upgraded to a high end espresso machine, my focus was not on the espresso. My focus was on latte art. I wanted to get good at latte art, and I bought a machine that could steam milk while pulling the espresso shot so that I could replicate the cafe experience.

And then I had a lot of fun, until I got too busy to keep up with the rest of it. Cleaning became a hassle, and I quit turning the machine on because I would spend just as much time cleaning up as I would pouring drinks.

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That’s what finally hit me: this is not a cafe, and I’m never going to get that kind of experience at home.

I could work for just one week in a coffee shop and get more real experience than I would get from a year of home brewing. I know the basics of latte art and I can still pour (it’s a bit like riding a bike, you never forget, you just get sloppy) but I will never develop the muscle memory to pour a tight rosetta unless I’m pouring hundreds of drinks a day. Two drinks a day isn’t going to get me there.

So I’ve decided to pare down my collection, starting with the big one… I’m going to sell the espresso machine.

My family loves brewed coffee so much that we will never benefit from a home espresso setup. Now that I’m honest with myself about why I bought an espresso machine in the first place, it’s easy to let go. Without the big machine taking up space on the counter, I can declutter our coffee bar and make the experience of brewing more enjoyable.

I may let go of other gear as I focus more on the coffee and less on the cool brewing devices. This is just a promise, a public commitment to remove what’s unnecessary and free up more energy to experience what’s in the cup.

Because that’s what matters most, and I’ve been missing it.

Coffee Gear vs. Technique

It’s easy to be a gear-head, no matter what your hobby or profession may be.

I’ve been guilty of this for many years. When I was a musician, I had enough gear to host a rock band in my bedroom, and recording gear to capture the tunes. With photography, I had a backpack so full of lenses that I neglected to actually take photos because it was too troublesome. (My wife once yelled at me to either take her photo or stop lugging around a heavy backpack for no reason.)

Then a couple years ago, when I started learning to brew coffee at home, I fell into the same trap. I focused on what gear I would use, wanting to try every brew method available and often salivating over the hottest new espresso machine or pour-over cone. It’s a habit that’s been going strong until a couple months back, when I heard something interesting on the Cat and Cloud Coffee Podcast.

It was during their awesome interview with Tonx, when he brought up the obsession most of us have with gear, how the focus in most new cafes is picking out their espresso machine. Where would we be if our first thoughts were about the coffee program and training good technique, instead of what color our custom grinders are going to be?

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Ok, I’m paraphrasing a bit. It has been several weeks since I listened to that particular episode, but the feeling stuck with me, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to discuss. I felt guilty for the investment I’ve made in certain pieces of coffee gear when I lack the time to really enjoy them, and I started to wonder how I would train somebody else to make good coffee at home.

I thought back to some early posts on this blog, my brew guides to the V60 or Chemex, and the laundry list of equipment I put forth as necessary. Scale, kettle, pour-over stand, timer, grinder… ok, that one is pretty key, but I asked myself this question:

Can I brew a delicious cup of coffee without using scales, timers, or fancy pour-over spirals?

And if I wanted to teach a friend or family member how to brew their own coffee at home, how could I do it with a minimal amount of equipment and hopefully use things they already have?

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The French Press Challenge

Thus enters a piece of gear I haven’t used in years: our Bodum French Press. I’ve had this brewer for over 15 years, a souvenir brought home from my time in Norway. I wasn’t a coffee drinker back then, but tasted a few cups brewed in friends’ apartments, always with a French Press, so I got one for myself hoping to bring some of that experience home.

Over the years it saw many attempts, usually with pre-ground coffee or beans chopped up by a blade grinder, and while I had yet to experience a true cup of specialty coffee, I knew I didn’t like this brewer. There was always a lot of sediment in the cup, and not knowing any better, I’d pour a cup and leave the rest in the brew chamber, extracting whatever was left of the already spent grounds until it became undrinkable.

I always thought it was the device, and staunchly avoided French Press coffee once I became a coffee drinker.

So why is it on my coffee bar now?

My goal is to brew the best cup of coffee I can, using the French Press. It’s the one brew method non-coffee people are most likely to have in their home, its full-immersion style doesn’t require additional filters or special kettles, and its limited volume makes it possible to brew without a scale and still get the right extraction.

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If I’m going to teach a non-coffee geek how to brew good coffee at home, this is where I’ll start. I might recommend a burr grinder, but otherwise no additional investment beyond great coffee.

For this challenge, I’m brewing our morning coffee in our French Press. I started out by measuring the total amount of water our press would hold, used that to calculate the right amount of coffee for a good extraction, then brewed a few times using the scale to confirm the math.

The results were surprisingly delicious. It still had the silky mouthfeel of a metal filter, but the flavor profiles of each coffee came through, along with a strong body. Soon I abandoned the scale for the water, still weighing my coffee before grinding, but eventually I started to brew with no scale at all.

I’ve found that most coffee scoops, like the ones that came with my BeanSafe containers, give me something close to 10g each, so I can measure out 5 scoops and know it is in the range of 50-52g (close enough for jazz). If I want to brew less, I simply adjust the total water visually, using ~40g of coffee and filling the chamber only 80% to the top. It’s not exact, and every cup may be a little different, but this is home brew, not a cafe.

As long as it tastes good enough for my wife, and I can make delicious coffee with minimal equipment, I’m happy.

Readers: what minimal setup would you recommend for a non-coffee pro to brew at home?