An open letter to my coffee roaster(s)

Dear Coffee Roaster(s)

I’ve been drinking a lot of La Cabra lately.

I’ve had to change my recipes and goals entirely from my usual beans, rather than brewing at the extreme end of 96C with brew ratios of 55g/L, I’m down to 93C at 62g/L and aiming for something lower in EY% and more subtle and yet somehow a little more beautiful.

The colour of these coffee beans is surprisingly light and yet they’re remarkably soluble, it is a very strange thing to witness. I’m used to my coffee being described as “lightly roasted” and there isn’t really much in the way of words left to talk about what La Cabra are shipping here. Brighter is Better they say and Bright is indeed Better I think I agree with now too, if it means extracting a little less from a little more and pulling out just the raw essence of each bean and it results in the cups of coffee I’ve been drinking these past two months then I can’t argue; this is my personal preference and it has been met.

What I want to talk about though is some of the confusion around this. It seems as though the goals I’ve sometimes had with some of my coffee (higher extraction) are better off not being even considered with these beans.  It’s not that higher extractions taste bitter or over-extracted – they just start to get a bit dry or grassy (Yeah, from going too far – not an under-extraction thing) and the wonderful experience I might have at a lower extraction had is lost. According to the refractometer I might have been sitting at 20% EY which didn’t seem high and I might have pushed further and yet the sweetness and brilliance would have been sitting a little lower than that the whole time.

Brighter is Better indeed.

So my typical brew recipe and goals have been changed substantially by a coffee roaster and if I used that with my usual beans it’d taste awful and that got me a-thinking…

The variability of the coffee roast

If you talk to your local coffee roaster about their coffee, they’ll probably tell you the recipes they’re using to brew it and they should probably be listened to because their coffee will taste as they best intended at their preferred temperatures, times, and brew ratios.

If you speak to your local coffee roaster about other roaster’s coffee they will probably use some of these following words: “over-developed, under-developed, unevenly-developed, burned, baked, stalled, too slow, too fast”.

Is it possible that every roaster apart from your local roaster is wrong? Probably not – enough people are drinking enough coffee and enjoying enough coffee that clearly things are being produced by most roasters that are drinkable by the consumers that have gotten used to using their specific recipes to make that coffee taste good.

The real problem comes in buying in coffee from a guest roaster that we are unfamiliar with and applying our standard recipes to that coffee and hoping for similar results; even within a small geographic distance this is rarely the case.

A wide spectrum

Most of the coffee I buy tends to be fairly lightly roasted and require quite an aggressive operation to bring out the sweetness (or be risk being subjected to a 16% EY brew).

If I was used to buying slightly darker coffees (say from North America for example) and I came across one of these European coffees and applied my usual recipes to them I’d be calling them out for being too light, sour, grassy and difficult to drink.

Similarly as I am used to my usual European coffee, when I buy something from North America or Australia than in all likelihood I’d be over-extracting by default and calling  them out for being too dark, roasty or bitter.

Sitting on various internet forums and social media it’s clear to see that there are huge divides over roasted coffee and the recipes then used to turn this coffee into a drink; seeing Aeropress recipes that mentioned temperatures of 85C used to curdle my stomach until I had some coffee that had been roasted with this sort of recipe in mind and I realised what sort of flavour they had been going for.

Different markets are roasting for different consumers within speciality and the recipes being used across those markets tend to differ wildly across the targets that those roasters are aiming for (whether it be sweetness, brightness or simply “ease of use for commercial customers”).

By the way this is why most online training resources are invalid for “the other 50% of people”, they’re usually regionally accurate but globally unhelpful. Palettes vary across continents

It’s not as simple as “Light vs Dark” or “Less-developed vs More-developed” because there are a ton of variables within the roasting process that seem  to affect the end result with respect to sweetness, acidity, solubility and they don’t sit on a simple 2D axis. (I could be wrong here, I don’t roast – but the results I’m getting from my constant buy-in of multiple roasters lead me to this conclusion)

I recently had a really enjoyable (not speciality) coffee from Cafe L’Ambre in Tokyo, the brew ratio was probably 80g/200g (with a total of 50g out) and it was roasted super dark from 30 year old aged beans; stick that on your light/dark scale if you will.

Brewing it “right”

Taste is subjective (there I said it, so don’t bother posting this in the comments), yet once a coffee roaster has their paws on a coffee bean and subjects it to irreversible change via the application of heat over time they have (hopefully) made some decisions about how they want that coffee to taste. (That is, in as much as it is in there power to do so)

They’ll know what that coffee is going to taste like as espresso (if that’s what they’re intending it for), or as a filter coffee (similarly) and they’ll have a profile in mind to bring out aspects of the coffee that they personally find pleasing.

For the best chance of success, assuming you and the coffee roaster aren’t massively misaligned on what you actually want from a coffee then you’re best off brewing it with similar goals in mind.

In the case where our goals are not aligned it would be useful to somehow know this, I’m pretty bored of buying beans from a new roaster and finding out after a long dialling in session that I’m never going to get the kind of results I want because the roaster had a very different idea of what they wanted to get out of the coffee.

 

Giving feedback

Is often nigh on bloody impossible – especially without a common language.

I’ve had roasters refuse to talk to me forever after I described their coffee as being a tad on the roasty side, I’ve also had roasters listen to everything I have to say but it was like we were talking a whole other language to each other because we lacked the common vocabulary to describe the results we were getting.

Metrics like extraction yield are useless without the greater context and a lot of that context comes from understanding both the roasting process and brewing process – the former of which is something I don’t have (and am unlikely to have for quite some time yet).

That lack of context however can often be seen as a reason to dismiss the opinions of the end-consumer of roasted coffee and it seems as though a lot of roasters exist within their own little bubble where everything they do is great and everything everybody else does is awful for one reason or another.

As a long time user of a particular roaster, it is possible to build up a relationship by which you can then have a common language and sufficient trust that you can say “Hey, you screwed the pooch with that one” and come up with a fix, but with newer roasters or with new suppliers it’s very difficult to describe why you didn’t like a coffee because it’ll either be seen as ignorant whining or preachy bullshit.

It also doesn’t help that when you’re doing something a little less conventional (high extraction EKspresso anybody? that if the baristas don’t know much about it it’s unlikely the roasters do either.

This is costing roasters money and customers

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been in a coffee shop and I’ve asked the question “How did you enjoy X from Y?” to be answered with “I didn’t like it because it was…”

When pressed further , typically these coffee “professionals” have  simply used their usual guides and gotten unsatisfactory results. To their credit at least they’ve recognised them as unsatisfactory and not passed them onto their customers.

I’ve been to other coffee shops and borne the pain of of those unsatisfactory results because the people making the coffee didn’t know any better and were happy serving sour guff in a cup.

A lot of this has to do with education and tooling as I’ve said before; a refractometer goes a long way to understanding  the results we get from our ground up coffee beans and water, and most people aren’t using them because they’re seen as expensive or unnecessary because of the “we’re all craftsmen around here” attitude.

Even in the case… or especially in the case where one of these tools isn’t present, those guide recipes become even more vital so this goes double for those of us at home who don’t have the benefit of tooling to measure our results.

As an end consumer, going through half a bag of some coffee beans and getting crap results will most likely result in them not buying from that roaster again, despite it being entirely possible for them to get the results they’d like (or even prefer!) from that roaster.

Raw numbers help

So why don’t most roasters publish preferred recipes and results in more detail on their websites?

A lot of coffee roasters will have some half-arsed brew-guides on their sites which describe loosely the following: grind profile (coarse sand, fine sand, caster sugar), amount of coffee and amount of water. Usually this is repeated for a few brew methods and they stop there.

This is typically useless because these recipes are so ultra-generic, two people could follow these instructions with even the same gear and variables be so different that extraction could be anywhere between 14% and 24% and the experience range from catastrophic to heavenly miraculous.

Similarly just posting an EY and TDS target wouldn’t be good enough either as it doesn’t tell you how you got there (a 21% brew at 5min is very different to one at 2min)

It’s no doubt expected that people that know what they’re doing will do it right and know they’ve done it right and that people who don’t know what they’re doing will make a mess of it but still be happy with whatever they’ve produced.

By and large perhaps this is true, but surely we can do better? Given that the coffee roasters themselves are (presumably) making coffee for both themselves and each other behind the scenes surely it’s not beyond the realms of imagination that they could be posting information such as:

  • Brew temperatures
  • Brew times
  • Extraction yields (Even telling us which grinder you used is helpful)
  • Solubility scores (somehow??)
  • Etc

The argument that taste is subjective and everybody’s recipes will be different is a lazy one; The decision about taste has largely been made by the roasting decisions and the resulting decisions over some of the most important brewing variables have therefore been made too. This goes hand in hand with what James from Back to Black has been saying about  when roasters include notes about texture with their tasting notes. 

I can think of dozens of occasions where I’d have saved a lot of coffee and time by knowing simply what temperature to set my boiler at and roughly what I should be aiming for in terms of extraction yield.

I believe that some roasters provide more info to their commercial customers than to their retail market and this is something I don’t understand given that we’re paying more for our beans.

Help me to help you

Before giving feedback I need to have a little certainty and confidence that I’m not just doing it wrong; if I have the brew parameters and results preferred by the person roasting the beans then this step would be far easier.

On top of that – raw numbers are all we have and raw numbers are what I choose to share with a roaster when giving feedback (read: bitching) about their coffee. Saying “at 7 days after roast, using the EK43 I brewed 15g/250g in a v60 at 93C in 2m10 and it came out at 24% EY and it tasted flat and dull and I’m having a hard time keeping EY down” tends to at least tell the roaster something about their coffee (and most other people too).

Saying “at 10 days using the EK43 I brewed 14g/250g on the V60 at 96C in 2:30 and it still only came out at 18% and tasted a bit roasty and inspid” tells a whole other story and both of these stories tell you a lot about the coffees that ended up in my hands.

Normally coupling these numbers with the numbers from another coffee I did enjoy helps because it gives the roaster a rough idea of what I was looking for in the first place.

If these numbers can be used to provide context back to the roaster then there is no reason why these expected numbers (and more) can’t appear on the roaster’s websites and give some indication as to what the coffee should be looking like when being turned into a drink – it’s not much to ask and it would make further communication much easier in the long run.

The more info we are given, the more info we are likely to give back. (Perhaps, maybe, I don’t know).

Addendum

This blog post started off as a rant about how crap communication from roasters to end-users is and then vice versa and has turned into more of a ramble because as I went through the process of writing the post I realised why the communication was crap and cut a lot of my points; we all have drastically different ideas of what we want from our coffee and it’s very difficult from a brief sentence of complaint on Twitter to determine whether somebody’s goals are massively misaligned from our own or whether there is truly something that can be fixed about a coffee.

I’m of the opinion that more open data and information would go some way to fix this – but I’m open to other opinions on the matter. Ideas…?