Most coffee sucks

(There are terms used in this blog post and I know most of my readers aren’t coffee folks yet, please refer to the glossary for help and then ping me on Twitter and I’ll try and fix it)

I have been struggling with coffee this year.

Most coffee at most shops is not good, most coffee I’ve made at home has been also not good; I can say that I have maybe had two dozen coffees this year that I’ve truly enjoyed (most of these in the last month at my own house but more on this later).

I have been travelling a lot less (yay!) which means I’ve not had the chances I would have usually to pop into the “very best” that various cities/countries have to offer. That’s okay because it has meant I’ve had more time (and money) to spend at home trying to re-create some of those very best experiences in my own kitchen.

It has been a very frustrating experience as I got way ahead of myself and purchased beans from dozens of roasters across Europe and found that

  • Most of the recipes that people tend to talk about don’t work with my grinder/water
  • Most of the recipes that people tend to talk about don’t work with most beans
  • The beans themselves are all over the place in terms of roasting profiles and grind settings for both ‘spro’ and filter

It doesn’t help that when I’ve mentioned recipes that have actually worked with the more renowned roasters’ offerings the local baristas have often responded with scorn, bemusement, or even outright dismissal! (To be fair I’m bloody annoying at times in my attempts to eek out learning from anybody who might have something to offer me – sorry!)

Beans do come in a wide spectrum of roasts from “touching it with water makes it taste like burned toast” to “I can’t get anything out of this if I try replicating what baristas tell me in coffee shops”. Oh – and let’s not get into the number of times I’ve been sent beans that are baggy, papery or simply past their best, not helpful.

Trying to understand this without the tools to measure it has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Two major changes to my arsenal have alleviated this hugely:

  • A refractometer
  • re-mineralised water (thanks to Maxwell initiating the research and Spencer for experimenting with ways of achieving this).

The latter most of us can’t do – especially not in a commercial environment until gear inevitably shows up to fix that (although it has brought more sweetness and accentuated flavours to my cup it is very much the last 20% of a far bigger picture)

I have started achieving the results I wanted to re-create in the first place and started to understand why I’ve really stopped enjoying coffee in most shops and why I haven’t (and probably never will) enjoy most efforts from the current batch of third wave coffee shops across the UK.

Quality is not subjective

I get this a lot, “What you like isn’t what other people like”, and I fall firmly into Kaminksy’s camp at this point in stating that quality is not subjective. Some aspects of quality are definitely measurable and most people when it comes to coffee (or indeed food, alcohol or any other consumable) simply haven’t been privileged enough to have experienced the quality that others elsewhere in the world are creating. It is enough that there has been a step up from commodity and that’s where the journey seems to stop (Make no mistakes about it, I recognise I’ve been lucky in eating and drinking the way I have this past half decade and it has absolutely turned me into an insufferable bore – first world problems).

It has felt a little like I’m explaining the unexplainable at times when trying to get an idea across of what the coffee is that I *want* to experience or *have* experienced. Och – No more – this stuff is measurable and I’m going to talk a little about where I have ended up on this journey and what it is in terms of numbers that I deem to be drinkable coffee.

Extraction

It is measurable. If we’re not measuring it then we’re probably under-extracting because there is an illusion of safety (either by using coffee that’s been over-developed and presents hints of sweetness at low levels of extraction) or simply serving something that doesn’t taste awful because we’re stuck in a local maximum where it’s tolerably ‘fruity’ (read: sour but roasty enough to keep that at bay, note: this is not true sweetness).

An awful lot of the coffees that I have absolutely hated have presented huge amounts of bitterness and roastiness beyond 18% EY (or even lower), they have been optimised to present some levels of sweetness (with a complete lack of sublety) on average gear, sub-standard water, and more importantly easy-to-use-and-understand recipes on the shop floor. Good quality greens can still shine through this unfortunate set of circumstances but these are rare cases indeed.

These are *low quality* roasted coffee beans, it is a measurable fact by how easy it is to “over-extract” them and these are rarely worth the effort or time of day. (Over-extraction as a roast-defect – anyone?)

Often the shops serving this coffee will also guest high quality (and expensive) stuff from a big name roasters in Europe and then use very similar recipes for filter (and sometimes even for espresso 😥). Maybe some small changes will be made based on taste and but because the coffee has been designed for higher EY it is often harder to extract and we end up falling miles and miles short of anything resembling a good cup of coffee.

At best the baristas might acknowledge “it’s not as good as we’d have expected”, and at worst they’ll tell me it’s amazing but then it’ll turn out to be a major disappointment. This stems from a lack of experience with tasting well extracted coffee and isn’t meant as an insult or overly negative remark.

It might taste okay if we haven’t experienced what that coffee is supposed to taste like at higher extraction yields but more often enough it’ll be a local maximum where it tastes inoffensive and if we’re super unlucky it’ll make us pucker our mouths with the excessive dryness that sourness can cause (and be mistaken for the edge of high extraction because we’ve been told that over-extraction is drying). Local maximum!!
THIS IS ALL FIXABLE

Good quality coffee *demands* high extraction. High extraction yields on average gear and sub-optimal water requires more work and can require drastic changes to brew ratios and brewing times. Guided entirely by taste it might be possible to get to this point entirely by chance if we’re feeling like a bit of a maverick and adjusting our variables beyond what we might ordinarily do. (Similarly low extraction yields on amazing gear is not only possible but amazingly prevalant and sometimes far worse!).

We seem to have these numbers (or similar) fixed in our heads

  • 18g->30-35g
  • 60g/1000ml
  • 30seconds
  • 2m:30s

We are either roasting coffee to suit these numbers on the gear we have or abusing coffee that doesn’t fit our mental model of what our outputs should be and then complaining that it’s underdeveloped and hard to extract.

Kaminsky talks about this in his lectures (and they are years old and do show some signs of being dated but if you are a professional barista and haven’t watched them yet then you’re probably missing out) and yet things are not changing fast enough – how do we fix this?

Measure measure measure

If we are making coffee on a daily basis either for ourselves or for other people and we are not measuring extraction yield then we are failing ourselves and those other people.

The refractometer is not a toy for the rich geeks, it is not a tool to be kept in a drawer and used once a week by a single privileged person. The refractomer is a tool to be used almost (if not actually) daily with each coffee to understand what it is we are serving and how to get the most out of it. The refractomer should be out on the shop floor being employed by the baristas in order to fully understand what it is they are serving.

  • It is as essential (if not more) than weighing scales for in and out
  • It is more reliable than our taste buds and does not lie
  • It is an educational tool in the absence of any real taste experience in understanding what well extracted coffee actually tastes like

A brief example

I was working with a coffee from London recently that was tasting both dry and dirty in my mouth (using a traditional recipe for brew of 16g dry to 230g of output). I could have spent an age trying to push this by changing grind settings and times but instead I took out the refractomer, realised I was only getting 15% EY at best and no matter what I did at this brew ratio I was never going to get it above 18% EY at the solubility I was seeing.

The ratio I ended up with was 12g of coffee to 250g of water (allowing a reasonably fast time with a relatively tight grind). This might have only led to a TDS of 1.0 but tasted just as strong as a poorly extracted coffee at 1.3 (with the added bonus of sweetness and complex flavour).

Would I have ended up at this ratio without the refractometer? Possibly, in my total blissful ignorance and with a lack of “experienced” people repeating dogma at me I try a lot of crazy things, but I’d definitely have not ended up there as fast and wasted a lot more coffee.

The refractometer told me that this coffee was going to be difficult on the water and equipment combo I had at hand and I made a change based on the clear evidence to push to a higher EY (and then see if it would taste better).

If we’re not measuring our coffee, our coffee probably sucks

  • It probably sucks because it’s at low EY and roasted dark to be acceptable at low EY
  • It probably sucks because it’s at low EY and it’s designed to be acceptable at a high EY
  •  It may suck because it’s been roasted for low EY and it is being over-extracted (unlikely and unusual in specialty places!)

In that first case having the roaster close to the baristas serving it just encourages that horrible downward spiral of death and this direct feedback isn’t the positive one that it could be. Seriously go and watch that Kaminsky video already.

Here are some more truths

  • It’s no longer 2005, we shouldn’t be dealing with espresso brew ratios less than 1:2 (we’ll never hit acceptable EY at these lower ratios)
  •  It’s no longer 2005, we have the research available to make our coffee better
  •  It’s no longer 2005, we have the equipment available to make our coffee better
  •  It’s no longer 2005, we shouldn’t be roasting our coffee to cater for these low extractions
  • We know better, recipes should be changing (for both espresso *and* filter) from different roasters, often drastically.

This is not subjective conjecture, this is objective fact and it can be measured. If I am tasting coffee from a roaster and I’m encountering burned tastes beyond 19% EY then I am going to say so. If I am tasting coffee in a coffee shop and it tastes like under-extracted burned toast I am going to say so. If I am tasting coffee in a coffee shop and it tastes like dirty dishwater I am going to say so. These aspects of quality are not subjective – we need stop hiding behind this notion that everybody has different tastes so it’s okay to ruin good coffee with out-dated and shoddy practises.

Some strange retorts I have heard

Roasting lighter will put off our customers because they won’t like the acidity.

Nay – I become more and more convinced that this is trotted out because we’re confusing acidity and sourness – no customer is going to complain when they receive more coffee that is sweeter and moreish as a result of a higher brew ratio (And if they are, they’re also going to complain about the sour/roasty under-extracted crap too).

Our coffee isn’t roasty, you’re just over-extracting.

No, the coffee *is* roasty, if I am encountering burned toast above 18% EY I can empirically state that the coffee is roasty. If we’re aiming for low extraction yields because we’re afraid of changing our brew ratio then we’re going to get left behind as times change and customers find sweetness in the arms of another barista.

Your gear is very different, we’re not roasting for that

I call shenanigans – Five Elephant roast specifically for high extraction yields (even encouraging 22-23% EY) on EK43s, but stretching their filter roasts out in my Lido3 or even the crappy Krups grinder I keep under my sink It still tastes great at 20% and 18% respectively (although we certainly lose clarity). An adjustment of recipes for the gear I am using and the water I am using and we achieve more than reasonable results. Saying otherwise is just laziness – there is plenty of material out there to learn from and improve our recipes with (If I can manage it with a few months effort then somebody working fulltime in coffee should manage it too)

Your tastes are different, this is all subjective

I’ve already mentioned this above but let’s talk about it again. Subjectivity is a preference for natural coffee over washed coffee. Subjectivity is a preference for chocolate over pomegranate. Quality is the measurement of extraction and what extraction we can achieve before encountering undesirable artifacts in the cup. Other aspects of quality are the presence of sweetness and clarity in that cup but these are harder to measure because one has to have experienced those things before in order to produce a meaningful rating. (but if Q graders can rate the green bean based on cupping sessions objectively, we can do it at our end with the end product). The work that FlavorActiv is doing *right now* is all about turning these things into objectively measurable detail.

Summary

Most coffee sucks, it doesn’t have to. I don’t actually enjoy making it all that much and would sooner pay somebody else to do it.

The sooner the coffee industry gets its ass into gear and catches up with the modern times the sooner I can sell my EK43 and relax. Yes the customers don’t care about how we make it and they’re going to be bored to tears if we talk about extraction and recipes to them outside of a workshop scenario. The chef in a busy kitchen doesn’t tell you what temperature their grill is at but we will still complain if the steak is overdone.

Sort it out and I’ll stop being a miserable grump about it all the time.

Peace out.

[edit]

On a site note I’ve had funtimes with my stomach this year too, until I started pushing EY up and the problems mostly went away – coincidence?

Also ta to James Wallace of Back to Black for some proof-reading of my Whiskey induced ramblings..

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