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..

A Tasting – Coffee Flower Tea from Has Bean

So this is pretty exciting and novel and expensive and a bunch of other superlatives.

Has Bean have persuaded a farm in Bolivia to painstakingly pick the coffee flowers that grow just after a harvest and send some over for retail purposes. Apparently on the farm they smell amazing and a lot of this translates to tea when brewed up. (We say tea, but I know the tea people will be upset if I keep using that word so let’s say infusion from now on).

From the Has Bean site

The flowering process begins after a coffee harvest, when there’s normally a period of dry weather. During this time the coffee plant gets a little stressed because of the lack of water. Then the rainy season comes, which sparks the coffee plant into creating little blossom flowers. These flowers have one of the most amazing and powerful smells I have ever experienced (if you could make an aftershave of it then it’d be my smell of choice), and the appearance of these flowers marks the start of the process of the coffee plant creating its cherries for our lovely coffee beverages.

I’m not sure I’d like to smell like a tea on a big night out, but each to their own – it’s nice to try something different once in a while.

I bought the entirecupping-tea pack which contained flowers from five different varietals (Bourbon, Geisha, Cepac, Caturra, and Java) – I’ve never even heard of Cepac and Googling doesn’t seem to help me with that; it’s either a typo made numerous times or I’m missing something here.

I decided to cup them all side by side rather than drink them one by one on different days because I wanted to get a general feeling for what they’re like in comparison to each other. Obviously you can’t cup them like coffee but the process of smelling the raw ingredients, making a hot liquid and tasting it as it cools by noisily slurping it over your tongue works for most beverages it seems.

I recruited local coffee super star James Wallace of Back to Black and Laboratorio Espresso so as not to completely waste these on 30 minutes on just me (also when he visits I usually learn a ton about making coffee and get feedback on whatever I’m making in my kitchen so it’s always worth it!)

We made them in an inverted Aeropress (I don’t have a tea-pot and the aeropress tends to work quite well as a way of filtering normal tea leaves) with just off the boil water with a 2 minute brew time.

aeropress

The flowers themselves when you take them out of the wrappers smell surprisingly like traditional tea and I got quite excited about this. The infusion process is pretty similar too so it’s not entirely like we’re in unfamiliar territory.

Tasting and smells then!

Geisha

I found the initial smell of the wet flowers to be reminiscent of sea weed so we were definitely off to a rocky start. Drinking it hot yielded in tastes that reminded me of black tea with lemon in it – not entirely unappealing and definitely interesting.

As it cooled down it got a lot sweeter and it kept a lingering sticky mouth-feel all the way through.

Cepac

This smelt like Rhubarb from the get-go and it was clear we were dealing with something with a lot of interesting acidity. It was very light in the cup though and again lingering citrus notes dominated most of this experience. I feel if this had been made a bit stronger and a little honey added I’d have not been entirely disappointed to receive this in a shop.

Bourbon

This was probably my favourite – it was very floral from the initial aroma, and the immediate taste was surprisingly tart after the other teas. It kept savoury notes all the way through the tasting process and was a lot more in keeping with how I’d expect a tea to taste.

Caturra

The smell of this reminded me of when I was eighteen and used to stay up all night writing 3D games whilst downing copious amounts of ginseng tea. In the mouth it was overwhelmingly sweet and sticky but this gave way to a flavour I could only describe as wet dog. A wet dog that you liked though – not any old wet dog.

Java

This one really did smell like tea, perhaps green tea, except it smelled sweet before I even drank any of it; in the  mouth it was slightly spicy and reminded me a little of the few cups of Darjeeling I’ve had over the years.

Round-up

Every single of these was different to the last and I found that very illuminating  – James had his own thoughts about how they compared to cascara (the fruit around the bean) but I’ve not really had enough cascara to really identify this.

I found every one of them to be surprisingly rich – which is not a word I usually relate to infusions of plant matter and hot water. There were a lot of interesting floral notes in there too which is unsurprising given that they are flowery bits of plant matter.

After a while of cycling through the cups I started getting a bit tired of them, finding them to be slightly sickly due to that richness. (Says the person who will happily sit there and drink a dozen natural-process espressos).

The experience is interesting, and definitely something  I’m glad to have done; I’m not a huge tea drinker and the similarities means that this isn’t something I’d have stocked in my house as a common occurence (even if it wasn’t £20 for ten cups of tea!).

It’s probably worth getting these from the Has Bean website while stocks last, as I doubt it’s something that’s going to become a huge thing given the expense of actually collecting them and getting them to us lucky consumers!

Aceness.

Distributed blind cupping – The Glasgow Smackdown

Okay not a smackdown, just a distributed blind cupping of various Glasgow roasted coffees.

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The Backstory

I’ve been making coffee for a few months now, and I’ve noticed that there are a few roasters in the UK (and outside of it) which roast coffee that pretty much taste okay at a wide spread of extractions (although you still want to find a sweet spot to make it shine). By taste nice I mean I don’t get any weird flavours at brew ratios at or just over the 100% mark. (17g in, 38-45g out over 27-35 seconds depending on the coffee usually).

Quite a lot of the local stuff performs badly at these (now fairly popular) ratios and the EK43 doesn’t really allow you to do the more restrained (and in my mind “old skool”) recipes around the 18/30/30s mark. Cupping those coffees tends to yield (in my limited experience) undesirable “low note” flavours that I’ve always called “roastiness” but in retrospect it’s slightly more nuanced than this.

Some of the local stuff does perform at these levels, and I’ve noticed a correlation between my cupping notes and whether they do or not and this that has started making it easier for me to know whether I’m going to be able to do EKSpresso or not with a coffee.

It’s sometimes difficult to have a frank conversation directly with the producers about this, because they’ll either assume I’m “doing it wrong” (Always a valid suggestion), or take offence at the awkward language used as I’m stumbling around trying to describe the undesirable flavours I might be getting.

To calibrate my taste buds against what others also perceive I decided to send samples of various locally roasted coffees to a selection of coffee enthusiasts and professionals and collate the feedback to identify what we could agree on and what we could not agree on.

The experiment

I took five coffees from three local roasters, labelled them 1-5 in no particular order and sent them to six postal addresses (with some people sharing cupping duties to increase the number of people exposed). Nobody was told which roasters or beans were involved and I kept my own cupping notes back until I had received the feedback to avoid influencing anybody in their own perceptions.

The cupping notes I took were also done completely blind – although just from smelling the grinds before adding water I was able to identify which roaster had done which bean which probably influenced my own note slightly thanks to my preconceptions about past experiences. On tasting each coffee I was also then able to immediately narrow down on which bean it was within that roaster so my results are probably less meaningful than the blind tasters receiving coffee.

I’ve kept my notes therefore out of the tag clouds I’m generating for each coffee from the raw tasting notes of my distributed cuppers, as to not influence the results in this post towards my opinions.

The coffees

  • Papercup – Gelana Abaya (Ethiopian Natural)
  • Papercup – Githiga AB  (Washed Kenyan – SL28/34)
  • Avenue Coffee – Finca Santos (Natural Costa Rican – Caturra/Catuai)
  • Avenue Coffee – Skyscraper Espresso (Washed Colombian – Caturra)
  • Dear Green – Sumatra Wahana (Natural Sumatran (!!) – Rasuna/S795/Catimor/Typica)

Yes one of them is an espresso roast – more on that later.

It was fun watching the results come in as everybody completed the cupping.

garycupping

cuppingsmellnotes

What I’ve done is taken the raw cupping notes from each participant and thrown them into a tag cloud so the common words are more easily visible. Each participant (most of them anyway) rated the coffees out of 10 and I’ve averaged their rating and my own to get the final ranking. This isn’t objective and we aren’t trained coffee tasters so we’re not doing proper score sheets.

I’ve then written my own interpretation of what others have said against what I tasted initially to give an insight into where these results have come from.

The raw cupping notes took the form of “what it smelt like as a dry ground coffee, what it smelt like when water was added and all the tastes from hot to cold”, for brevity I’ve tried to aggregate the total experience rather than write an essay about how the coffee performed over time.

The results – ranked in order of preference (scored out of 10)

Papercup – Githiga AB – 8/10

Roaster’s notes:

Blackcurrants, Marmalade sweetness, bright acidity, crisp mouthfeel

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:20:51

Easily most people’s favourite (apart from one person who really didn’t like the savoury notes), only a couple of people decided to use the adjective “roasty” – which is something I initially ascribed to the coffee but after the fact decided I was probably mistaking it for something else.

The group was split between whether this tasted of blackcurrant or tomato (I was very firmly seated in the tomato camp), apparently these aromas are very similar so this is understandable. Whatever fruit we choose to use we could agree that this was by far the juiciest and easiest coffee to enjoy – plenty of cuppers went on to make this as a brew with the excess beans I sent them.

I’ve been told that savoury notes such as tomato in Kenyans can actually point to the coffee being under-developed which with Papercup I find hard to imagine, happy to take at face value that this is just an aspect of the weird acidity you get in some Kenyans and this is a “roast done right”. Oddly enough most of the Kenyans I’ve had this year with similar varietals have been sweeter and lacked this weirdness – I have no explanation for the difference – this Papercup coffee is closer to what I imagine a Kenyan to be.

Papercup – Gelana Abaya – 7/10

Roaster’s notes:

Blueberry tart and cocoa, jammy sweetness, bright acidity and good mouthfeel

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:18:13

I love this bean; from Square Mile it was one of my favourite espressos this year and I’m very excited to see it at a local roaster. The beans I sent out were from the very first roast Papercup did and this one definitely had a slight roasty element to it (It must be stressed that this was known by the roaster and I sent this out just to see whether it was something people would pick up on – the coffee available in store does not taste like this). This is a very good bean and it shows even through the very slight hint of toast.

The group immediately picked up on this being a natural Ethiopian, and expressed delight in the summer fruit flavours being exhibited. There was a fifty/fifty split once again over whether it was nutty or fruity – probably being thrown off by some of the deeper flavours in the coffee.

The roasty notes were picked out by most people in the form of either a slight dryness or the flavour itself, but all-in-all the reviews were still favourable – showing that a slight defect and strong greens can result in a positive experience.

Dear Green – Sumatra Wahana (6/10)

Roaster’s notes:

Lemon, Jasmine, Palma Violet

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:29:40

I laughed out loud at several people’s reaction to this coffee; nobody really knew what to make of it. It’s a natural and it’s from Sumatra – naturally some folk assumed it was an Ethiopian but I don’t think any of the other coffees came close to having such a varying opinion on what it tasted like or whether it was “good” or “bad”.

As a coffee to evaluate the Glasgow roasting scene it was probably a bad choice because it was so out there but it was worth it for the reactions so I have no regrets other than I should have thrown a sixth one in there and had two from Dear Green as well!

I personally found this coffee to be totally confusing – getting pine trees and green beans, there were some other people that mentioned a slight vegetable whiff from this but given the funk it’s hard to see the wood for the trees with this coffee.

Avenue Coffee – Costa Rica Finca Santos (4/10)

Roaster’s notes:

A medium bodied coffee with boozy notes of rum and chocolate. Raspberry sweetness with fruity fermented plum finish.

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:23:22

I’ve had this coffee in store and enjoyed it, although it was a bit “indistinct” I chalked this down to the gear, water and recipe and was excited to get it home and give it a go as a brew coffee at the very least and maybe as an EKspresso. Sadly it was underwhelming as an EKSpresso because some flavours crept in at any reasonable extraction that I couldn’t deal with once I’ve tasted that it was stuck with me even when I did it as a filter or through cupping.

I was very curious to see what folk thought of it – it’s a natural and it’s from Costa Rica – it should be absolutely up most people’s streets but in the cupping it didn’t really go down that way (quite a lot of similar but different notes of wood/ash/roast/smoke too). It may well just be the bean rather than the roast – there is no way of telling without finding the same bean in another roastery somewhere or whatever.

Anyway – most people agreed that it’s got potential but something is a bit iffy here. Interestingly enough, this is the first coffee where the tag cloud generated didn’t have that much in common with the roaster’s own notes.

Avenue Coffee – Skyscraper Espresso

Roaster’s notes

A balanced espresso with notes of peach, orange, spices and dark chocolate

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:26:29

It’s an espresso roast, which since I’ve started making coffee I’ve come to determine either means it’s a really great roaster making life easy for me by telling me a bean is going to be super great for espresso or just the roaster cooking a bean a bit more to kill the acidity and make it easier for the public to drink at standard shop extractions with traditional brew ratios. (Essentially: I don’t buy these any more – they’re a recipe for roasty toasty fun in the EK43).

I threw this in as a control rather than as something to actually evaluate – as a roast it does its job perfectly well on the shop floor and I’ve enjoyed many an espresso of it from the K30s in store (less so since cupping at home because once I taste something I don’t like in a coffee, it’s hard for me not to notice it from then on).

Understanding that the goal here is to provide a good base for milk drinks for customers who are perhaps new to the speciality coffee scene and perhaps don’t want the fruity modern stuff tells us immediately that this coffee’s goals aren’t aligned with our own.

So I’ve not left the rating on this, save to say that people picked out that it wasn’t something they enjoyed cupping – this tells us that we’re all on the same page and gives us a foundation for the other feedback on the other reviews.

What’s my take home from all of this?

I think it’s safe to say that Papercup is the people’s champion – which is funny because before I started making my own coffee and seeking out beans in Glasgow (after realising the Avenue stuff didn’t suit my needs) I hadn’t rated it highly because of a few visits I made when I first got to the city. This tells us something about the importance of re-evaluating based on new info (in this case a quick conversation with the roaster would have told me to pick different beans). I know that some Papercup beans will not work in my home set-up and I know some others will.

I wish I’d thrown in another Dear Green – my general experience with the Dear Green stuff is that it’s usually okay if a bit flat at times – but that’s my own experience and we don’t see that in this test at all with this choice of coffee! I don’t feel as though I really represented the roaster fairly in this pack by using the natural sumatran.

Avenue is at the bottom of the pile but given the competition this isn’t exactly harsh criticism; Dear Green and Papercup have both been doing their things a lot longer – Avenue only having been roasting for about a year. As I already discovered, it’s not really the kind of coffee where I can just stick it through the EK and make something as enjoyable as other similarly priced roasts that are available to me.

My major take home is that my taste buds are in line with most other’s (preferences aside) and I’m not tasting things too differently. The language I use when describing a coffee could definitely do with some work for both clarity and to avoid causing offence. Roasty is seen as a major offence, and there is a split between the professional in my cupping group saying a coffee “lacks character, is a bit thin, has some oddness” and the enthusiast just sticking that in the camp of “roasty” – it’s not a hold-all for “stuff I don’t like”.

Over the last few cuppings I’ve done I’ve been pleased with how these taste buds have performed – being able to pick the coffees out (and at other blind cuppings I’ve done this year pick out the defective roast, or spot the odd one out). The rest of it comes down the language and vocabulary which is something I need to carry on growing. For now, there is “coffee that works in my house” and “coffee that doesn’t work in my house”.

The intro post

While I wait for my breakfast to arrive I’ll do the obligatory intro post to this new blog of mine.

I have been drinking “speciality coffee” for several years now, and one thing I have learned as a consumer is that it’s hard to discern what you like and what you don’t like unless you’re buying into your own house and making a deliberate attempt to link the “What you likes to what you don’t likes” to the attributes of the bean/roast/grinder/machine/etc. (This is similar to wine or food, except you generally have more than two to choose from in your local restaurant).

A few months ago I therefore decided to buy the necessary gear for my kitchen to make coffee myself – and by coffee I mean both espresso and filter coffee and by necessary gear I mean the bare minimum to reach the quality that I’d expect in my favourite coffee shops across the UK (of which there are not many – Macintyre’s in London set a high standard to reach)

That’d be the EK43 for grinding my coffee then

And the Sage Dual Boiler (Breville if you’re not in the UK) for doing espresso (an ugly beast but one of the best espresso set-ups available)

While I don’t really drink milk with my coffee I also decided to learn how to do latte art while I was at this because that would mean that I’d got milk steaming/texturing about right and would be able to serve sweet milk drinks to my guests and potentially in the future do guest shifts for actual customers if that ever took my fancy.

10,000 hours

We all know this as the ballpark time needed to become proficient at something – obviously the number itself holds no special significance but I’m of the mind that if you’re going to learn something you have to invest your time in it properly. When I practise making coffee or practise milk that means spending hours making notes, greedily seeking feedback off anybody who is willing and bouncing ideas off anything that has ears.

There aren’t many people in Glasgow I can learn from; there are a few who both have the experience/knowledge required and the patience to deal with my endless questions, statements and such. Oddly enough people who work full-time in coffee don’t necessarily want to spend their downtime answering inane questions about it – and in my quest for further knowledge I’ve joined coffee forums, tweeted loudly at people, pissed a few people off and generally pushed the boundaries for trying to cram as much learning into a short space of time. The natural progression is to start blogging publically about the coffee I am using/making/rating and seek even more feedback (mostly theoretical given you can’t push taste over the internet yet).

Coffee is interesting

Often comparisons are drawn to wine (and certainly the tasting of the goods and the understanding of the raw materials there are a lot of similarities), but there seem to be a lot more places along the supply chain where the coffee can be messed up. Once wine leaves the winery it’s done – but once green beans make it to the country they’re aimed for they still have to be roasted and within a very short time (4 weeks tops normally) consumed and the equipment and people behind the coffee bar are then responsible for not making a mess of that.

There are a few career baristas out there in Glasgow where I live and make no bones about it, it is a career. Coffee shops with high turnover of staff (students mostly) where the baristas don’t have a history of working in speciality coffee will never be as good as those that maintain their staff and train them because making coffee (espresso especially) is bloody difficult and involves not only extensive experience tasting coffee and having opinions on what good/bad is but also a professionalism in being able to manage their coffee/equipment in a fast paced environment where a few degrees temperature change makes the difference between a good or bad cup of coffee. (Milk forgives all sins, except the sins it does not).

This challenge is one of the reasons it appeals to me so much – it is just coffee, but getting to the point where you can just relax and churn out a competition-worthy spro whenever I want to is a journey that I want to travel.

Beans beans beans

Turns out there is a lot of badly roasted coffee out there, and as a consumer you’d not notice it so much if you’re only drinking it in shops which have already worked around this or using consumer-grade equipment at home. The EK43 is unforgiving and while it brings out the very best in well roasted coffee it also seems to bring out the worst in badly roasted coffee.

I want to start reviewing the beans I use, from a cupping point of view, the various filter methods I use to drink it and of course espresso. When I get excited about a coffee I’ve found I want to share that. A comprehensive write-up of the recipes, total extraction yield (measured using a refractometer) is something I can do – I’ve missed writing about things that enthuse me and this is something that appeals.

Science

Water? Pressure? Temperature? Agitation? Time? Most of this has been researched by some real professionals but taking this research and applying it to home production of coffee is interesting, I want to throw that up here too.

Ramble

Anyway, this was just a ramble but hopefully you know where I’m coming from – this is my own collection of personal findings and feelings about my coffee journey and I’ll welcome future feedback from anybody who wants to get involved.

A surprising experience in Tel Aviv

Yeah yeah yeah, I’ll do an intro post for this blog later but I’m going to start with a quick review because the coffee forums I normally use are down and this seemed like an opportune time to kick this blog wide open.

As recommended by @garydyke1, I decided to break my self imposed embargo on coffee while I’m in Israel and track down “Xoho”, a reputable venue for “the best yer gonnae get in Israel“.

See the thing about Israel is that it has a great coffee culture, Tel Aviv especially is known for this but from all reports it seems though in the *speciality* scene there is only one real green importer and most of these beans aren’t roasted amazingly well and even the ones that are are subjected to fairly mundane practises for converting them into coffee. As one local said to me “Tel Aviv is about 10 years behind in the specialty coffee scene”

Fair enough – most cities are a good five years behind and most coffee shops are at least a year behind and sometimes you have to just enjoy what is there at face value (there are usually a couple of gems hidden away somewhere) and it seems that with this recommendation we might just have one here..

Xoho (5/10 for coffee, 9/10 for overall experience)

So, Xoho – down a fairly inconspicuous street about ten minutes from my hotel (talk about providence) I found a brightly coloured exterior which stood out amongst the mostly residential properties in the area. There was a tonne of outdoor seating which I’d have usually taken up except that I wanted to get a feel for for the “vibe” and that meant an inside stay. It was 7:30am and already well into the 30C temperature zone so a spot of AC was welcome anyway.

The outside of Xoho

Walking in I was struck by the cheerful and colourful decorations, a rainbow flag hanging in the window, murals along the wall, gaudy paper mache models hanging about the place and potted plants suspended from the ceiling amidts various light fittings. The tables and chairs fell into this general theme of heterogeneity – none of them seeming to match. Loud afrobeat playing in tbe backgound added to the pleasant assult to the senses and I decided that this was definitely my kinda place.

Boo.

Colours

I grabbed a tiny table in the centre of all of the action so I could see everything going on around me, taking a vantage point over the coffee station, the kitchen and the rest of the clientele – mostly young pretty women (makes a difference from the beardy weirdies in our coffee shops eh?).

I recognised the coffee as being from “Mae”, which as previous stated is “probably some of the best you’re going to get” and knew at least the beans were going to be good relative to the local (mostly Italian) standard.

I steeled myself for my first human interaction of the day, anxious to get an English menu for a change and knowing that I needed to say enough to let them know that’s what I wanted without starting a whole conversation before I was capable of much more than grunting. Thankfully I needn’t have worried as English seemed the default language in here and the menu arrived at the table as soon as I sat down along with a welcome carafe of water.

Before making a coffee order I scanned the bar for an equipment check, I spied a mazzer and a machine I couldn’t quite place, especially being decorated bright orange in a manner that @jeebsy would probably find quite pleasing. I went with a small cappa as flat white wasn’t on the list and there didn’t seem to be any filter options available (not uncommon in Israel). I don’t usually order espresso unless I see good gear and there is a really strong chance that I’ll get something I’ll enjoy. From watching this being made and not seeing anything being measured and noting the voluminous low TDS shot I decide I made a good call.

It comes out with half a rosetta on it (which is still 100% more rosetta than I can manage) and it’s far better than I expected, slightly gritty foam as if the milk had been re-heated (boo) but not otherwise offensive. It tastes like a good standard strong coffee – sweet milk and bold espresso usually works well so long as the milk is done to a reasonable standard and the coffee isn’t burned to a cinder by a mad italian fanboy – this certainly holds true here.

Half a rosetta

By this point I’ve seen a few spros go out and I’m glad I’ve not ordered one yet – they’re served with a side of fizzy tonic water which I’m totally into but milk is clearly the better option here. I’m enjoying the fairly classic cappa so I’ll not be a chin stroking joy thief about it – it’s a good effort and definitely above the general standard you’d expect.

I’ve also ordered a breakfast burrito which arrives shortly after the cappa – it looks very fine indeed and the foamy egg, beans, crispy lettuce and other various healthy things contrast pleasantly with the sour cream and salsa. This adds perspective to the experience as this is clearly a food oriented coffee shop and they’ve spent some time thinking about the presentation and what they’re wanting to serve people.

A burrito – yum!

This isn’t a specialty coffee place though, and while it sets itself apart with a great experience, the decor and not using burned italian beans (they even have a booze selection which if I wasn’t going to a wedding later I’d have availed myself of) I’m wondering why the hell Gary would recommend such a place for coffee…

It’s at this point I notice there is a blackboard behind where a recently departed customer was sat with

“Visit our brew shop, two doors up”

Written on it. Hello there? What’s this? A plot twist? This calls for further investigation..

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The Brew shop (10/10 everywhere)
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This shop sits in stark contrast to the main xoho outlet, clean lines and quiet outdoor seating and the interior is clean and uncluttered. There is a brew bar with a friendly looking lady stood behind it, a record player spinning in the corner and a small dog quietly observing what is otherwise an empty (but cosy) shop.

I see bags of The Barn on all sides, James Hoffman’s book of coffee and a ditting sat on the backbar, what I’m thinking just comes out of my mouth “Oh, this looks ths business”. I guessed that this barista was the “Gemma” of which Gary spoke so I asked if she was indeed Gemma and that got us chatting right away.

Seems she used to work at Notes in London (mostly on the brew bar having come from a tea background) and we shared some of the same thoughts on espresso – chiefly that it’s just too difficult and that well prepared filter coffee is usually a safer bet. We had a really good chat about the (lack of good) coffee in Israel and what her goals for the shop were. After a few years of working for Xoho this seemed to be “Show the locals that filter coffee doesn’t have to be watery tasteless crap” and “expose them to some fruity naturals”. Apparently there have been a few people walk out when they find out that there is no espresso on the menu but that’s very much to their loss! No milk, no sugar – just good coffee, there is something about a good brew bar that makes me smile sometimes.

There is a Has Bean order coming in shortly (It’ll be just like being at home!). Good timing on all counts, they only opened last week and the fruity naturals from Has Bean are probably not going to be common occurrence – apparently the shipping adds quite a hefty price per kilo to the price!

I could taste well extracted coffee as I tucked into both the Kaiguri AB and the Suke Quto. The flavour was slightly harsh which led me to ask about the water supply (I guessed hard water and wasn’t wrong) – she’s getting an assessment done in the next week so she can make some informed decisions about her recipes (Did I mention she knows her stuff?!)

I totally dug this place and were I not on a self imposed coffee embargo I’d be in here every day (I might still pop in for some mint tea and to get some work done). I hope she does really well and helps speciality coffee come to Tel Aviv proper style. I can’t wait to visit later in the week and hopefully get some Has Bean made for me in Israel for both novelty value and to compare against my own home efforts.

I left with a loyalty card although it’s unlikely I’ll fill it I’ll definitely keep it as a souvenir and should I return to Tel Aviv in the next few years (It is likely given how many people I seem to know over here) I’ll be taking it with me to a shop that will hopefully still be going strong.