Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A first look at the 18g VST Basket

There's been a lot of talk about VST baskets, a lot of people buying them, but I haven't seen a lot by way of review or 'first look'.  So when I recently discovered that Square Mile are selling 18g VST baskets online I decided to go for one.

It arrived today nicely boxed up, and inside were two pieces of paper which seem to be the results of quality assurance tests. They include a chart showing the normal distribution of hole sizes, presumably to make sure they conform with manufacturing tolerances.  That's a really nice touch, and although I'm a little confused by the fact that there are two different results sheets (and hence I wonder if the sheets actually relate to my basket or whether they're just thrown in from a pile in the despatch room) but it certainly makes me feel better about spending £22 on the basket!

Here are a few pictures, alongside my bog-standard gaggia classic basket from Happy Donkey.

18g VST Basket
Left: VST.  Right: Standard Double.

Significantly Larger Bottom
(I like big bottoms and I cannot lie!)
Straighter walls leading to the
larger base

Standard Double Basket

It clearly has a larger base with more holes than the standard basket.  I'd like to go into the dynamics of how this should, in theory, affect extraction, fines migration etc... but to be honest I don't fully know at this point in time. Something to add to my learning goals.

It is actually not too dissimilar in appearance to the triple basket I received with my bottomless portafilter, although as the side view shows the triple has a larger basket volume.

Let's make some shots.
I thought that first I'd use my Gaggia Classic standard double basket, to provide a basis for comparison.

** I must point out here that the beans I'm using were roasted about 6-7 weeks ago and are therefore quite lacking in crema, so both shots on the videos below actually look a bit flat.  I'm not particularly happy with the appearance and extraction of either shot.  But the beans still taste great, and I'm mainly using them because I want to give the Square Mile Summer Espresso (that arrived with the VST basket) a few days to degass. At that point I'll post another blog specifically concerning taste.  In this post I'll focus on visible differences in making a shot of espresso ***

I've taken photos at various points... measure, dose, distribute, tamp... to see if there is a visible difference between the two baskets during these stages.

Just over 18g of beans.  I'm aiming for around 27 seconds for approx 2oz and an espresso weight of about 30g, which is a 60% brew ratio (or 1.67 if you prefer using a multiplier to refer to brew ratios).  This is approximately what I always aim for and obtain, once all factors are dialed in correctly.
18.18g of beans
Grinds pre-distribution

Modified WDT
After Stockfleth Move

After tamping with Espro tamper

Video of extraction:

Same parameters as above, same targets.

Same measure of beans
After grinding,
no visual difference

WDT again. I don't
notice a difference in
the basket.
There's a very minor
difference. VST slightly
larger than standard.

The main difference with the tamp
is that the basket is slightly larger
so the 58mm Espro tamper
is not such a perfect fit.

 Videos of extraction:
The first shot ran a little too quickly, so I tightened up the grind two notches.  But that was too tight, as the second shot was a little slow.  Here are both, for the sake of completeness.

VST Video 1, starring Biggins our birman cat.

VST Video 2.

Here is a photo of two spent pucks. 
VST on left, standard double basket on right.
With the pucks knocked out of the portafilter and bottom-side up, it's easy to see that a significantly larger surface area at the base of the puck is used for extraction.  As the VST puck is more cylindrical than the slightly conical standard double basket, the grinds seem to be spread over a wider area and hence the puck seems softer.

CONCLUSIONS (visual inspection, not taste):
I can find no material differences in the volume of the VST basket compared to the standard gaggia classic double basket, so making the transition to VST seems an easy switch from that viewpoint.

Dosing and distribution seem to work very well using the Weiss Distribution Technique combined with the Stockfleth Move to ensure an even distribution in the basket.  As I always use those anyway, once again the transition doesn't seem to require any adjustment on my part.

There is no notable difference in the height of the tamped grinds in the basket, so no fear of the grinds being any closer to/further from the shower screen than previously.

With my first extraction using the VST I thought perhaps that it produced a higher TDS due to the increased weight in the glass compared to the standard double basket shot (42g versus 30g), but then surmised that the weight increase must partly be due to the additional volume in the glass in that VST extraction, so the weight could not be used to conclude anything.  Indeed, in the second VST shot the weight went down to 25.5g... coupled with the volume falling to an estimated 1.75oz, due to the grind being too fine that time. Again, it is therefore difficult to conclude anything.

In advance of tasting the espresso, which I shall leave for another post, the main visual difference is that the espresso flow did not blonde at all during extraction, whereas with the standard basket blonding did begin to occur around 22-25 seconds. I'd expect this to lead to a sweeter shot, which would marry up with many user's comments. 

As a prelude to a taste test, I gave my wife the first VST shot in a latte without any indication that it was different from what I usually give her.  I asked for her opinion and she said it was "Great".
"Compared to yesterday's?"
"Yes... better."
"Why?" I asked.
"It has no hint of bitterness at all.  It's very smooth"

I can't wait to try it with fresh beans!

Monday, 22 August 2011

How To Taste Coffee

A few months back I started experimenting with brewing ratios, partially to help me find out how I preferred espresso to taste.  As part of that experiment I found that I needed to improve my ability to recognise and articulate what is going on when tasting espresso, but the same applies to brewed coffee.  I came across the Coffee Flavour Wheel, which is an excellent tool to help pick out flavours/aromas. I also found several "Coffee Terminology" webpages (easily googled), which helped.  However, it all feels a little disparate... disconnected.  I've been feeling that I need to link things together in a process.  Tools work best when they are put into their correct place in a process.

So I found myself drawing on a whiteboard, trying to put some of these pieces of information relating to tasting coffee into some sort of order.  I ended up with a kind of flowchart (harking back to my days working in business consulting) which I've been actively using daily to help me make more of a connection between my brain and what I'm tasting.  It comes back to a rather crass line I wrote once... "Don't Just Drink It... Think It!" (That still makes me wince!!)

I've knocked the following simple diagram up to share my thoughts on one possibe way for people such as myself, relatively new to tasting coffee, to improve their tasting abilities and make that tongue-to-brain connection.  I could have made it more complex, more professional etc, but I think simple is good.
Please note - this isn't based upon any recognised methods for cupping coffee etc. and I suspect that many experienced coffee cuppers would find it laughable, but it's purpose is merely to provide a foot in the door.  A method for learners where no method previously existed (or at least no method readily presented itself).  It's a work in progress, so feel free to comment.

The idea is to start on the left and work your way right, sipping, swilling, gulping etc, at all times thinking about the coffee in your mouth.  Actually, one think that is missing is smelling it! I'll have to add that. But from an oral perspective, consider Body, Taste, Flavour and Aroma in turn, and for each one try to pick out characteristics.  For example, is the Body heavy? If so, does the mouthfeel remind you of perhaps a rich, heavy wine such as a zinfandel? If it's light, perhaps it could be described as a Beaujolais... or it may even be light enough to become a Rose wine.
If wine isn't your thing then use something else.... maybe cheese. If it was a cheese would it be a light swiss cheese like an Edam? Or perhaps more of a Mature Cheddar that feels like a lump in your mouth?  This is a great way to find your own method of articulating the coffee.

Move onto Taste, refer to the diagram, and continue.  Umami is the 5th taste, and as yet I haven't been able to find a good definition, but if what you're getting doesn't seem to fit into the four other Tastes then perhaps it's savoury Umami.

Flavour... at first you may not be able to pick out individual aromas and only be able to pick out 'coffee'! That's fine. In that case, everything will taste Balanced. Very soon you will pick aromas out, and realise that some coffees are Complex rather than Balanced.

Aromas... I won't recreate the Coffee Flavour Wheel (it's all over google), but HERE is a similar thing produced by Kaladi Coffee of Denver USA.
Also here's a list of Desirable and Undesirable aromas, taken from http://www.2basnob.com/coffee-tasting.html

Bright or dry – highly acidic leaving a dry aftertaste
Caramelly – caramel like or syrupy
Chocolaty – aftertaste similar to unsweetened chocolate or vanilla
Earthy – a soily-like quality (sometimes unfavorable)
Fragrant – an aroma ranging from floral to nutty to spicy, etc.
Fruity – having a citrus or berry scent
Mellow – a smooth taste lacking acidity but not flat
Nutty – similar to roasted nuts
Spicy – an exotic aroma of various spices
Sweet – a lack of harshness
Wild – a gamey flavor rarely, but sometimes considered favorable
Winy – aftertaste resembling a mature wine

Bitter – aftertaste perceived on the back of the tongue
Bland – neutral in flavor
Carbony – burnt charcoal flavors
Earthy – a musty, soily-like quality
Flat – lacking aroma, acidity, and aftertaste
Grassy – aroma and taste of grass
Harsh – a caustic, raspy quality
Muddy – thick and flat
Musty – slightly stuffy smell (sometimes desirable in aged coffees)
Rubbery – a smell of burnt rubber
Sour – a tart flavor such as unripe fruit
Turpeny – a flavor resembling turpentine
Watery – a lack of body
Wild – a gamey flavor

The coffee will be cooling, and as it cools the taste and characteristics change.  Often the Taste may move from Sweet towards Sour, perhaps being more tangy towards the end. What else do you notice?

Rightly or wrongly, this has certainly helped me and I hope that someone else finds it useful.

Processing methods & blends (Conclusion)

Quick one today.  Before trying to blend the beans from three different processing methods I thought I'd try an espresso with the Natural processes beans, which have the most body.  When I previously tried the Washed beans as espresso they were highly acidic, almost lemony, so I want to see if the Natural would balance this up.  But they too were quite fizzy as an espresso (for me).  So it's clear to me that my initial idea a few posts back, to blend different processing methods rather than different regions, isn't going to work in this experiment. At least not to suit my own taste in espresso... although many people may like a fizzy single origin espresso.

It's possible that it would work if the beans were roasted differently, but I'm not sure that's a good thing to suggest.  What I'm getting at is that these beans, all three bags, seem to be roasted lighter in comparison with an espresso blend I've been using for my wife's cappuccinos (judging from the spent pucks, anyway).
The two on the left are Finca Argentina,
the one on the right is an espresso blend (from a different roaster).
I've heard a few conflicting things regarding roasts. Some have said espresso benefits from a longer roast, whilst Steven Leighton of Has Bean made a blog post saying (if I understand/remember correctly) that beans need to be roasted to a degree that suits/optimises the beans themselves, not to suit a particular brew method. 

I'm now thinking I perhaps need to know more about roasting before I can successfully blend beans.  That should be obvious really, but it's still rewarding to reach that conclusion through my own experiments rather than just from reading books/blogs.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Processing methods & blends (Part 3)

El Salvador Finca Argentina – Three Processing Methods
Following on from the last blog post, here's how they tasted to me in comparison with each other.  

There's also a bag of Cascara from the same beans.
More on this another time!
Washed – French Press
Whilst waiting for the French Press to brew I decided to knock out a quick shot of espresso with the Washed beans.  The result? It’s quite simply like no other shot I have ever tasted!  (I usually only drink blends rather than single origin espresso, so there’s one reason right there.)  The predominant flavour is definitely some sort of fruit.  The tasting notes on the bag mention sweet “oranges and pomegranate”... dunno... could be those. Damn my brain – it doesn’t seem to be on speaking terms with my taste receptors! But the colour in my head is a soft yellow, maybe pink, so maybe it’s apricot.  There’s almost a fizz in my mouth and on my lips too... like that popping candy/space dust.  A complete absence of bitterness, ‘creamy’ as the bag says, and actually my mouth feels somehow clean, but not in an astringent way... more like after you’ve eaten a granny smiths apple, but less acidic than that.  Good God, I won’t be getting any invitations to judge the Cup Of Excellence any time soon, will I?!

OK, now for the French Press.  Again not bitter but not what I’d call sweet.  Immediately I think I need to work on the extraction a little more next time. Very bright – tea-like.  It’s cooling now and I think that fruitiness is starting to come out, along with the same ‘zing’ as the espresso, but more subdued.  Now the colour in the old noggin is green, like limes, which might be because of the combination of fruit and nice acidity. Not tart. Looking at the Tasting Wheel I’d pick out the word Nippy.  Souring a bit as it cools though, and maybe nuttiness towards the end.  Yep - fruity, clean and nippy, like an octopus salad or thai crabcakes with sweet chilli sauce!!

Natural – French Press
It’s about 10 days later now and it’s maybe it’s just me but I think it’s becoming more difficult to pick out the differences between the different bags/processes. But the natural beans definitely have more body, less acidity and less clarity than the washed. Mental colours are dark, which matches the “liquorice and black grapes” mentioned on HasBean’s tasting notes.  There is some astringency in the mouthfeel, but it’s not unpleasant.  Sweet grapefruit.  “Chewy” – yes, that’s true too.  Shoelaces! (In a good way.)  Erm... banana skins, if that makes sense.
I’m currently drinking both the natural and the washed, for comparison. As they cool it is becoming clear that the washed beans have lost some of their brightness since roasting but the natural bag has not. Maybe I’ve had the bag of washed beans open to the air more.  Anyway, the natural now has more body AND more brightness/acidity than the washed currently does.  It’s a good balance.

Pulped – French Press
A few days later now and I’m having the pulped alongside the natural.  A few sips of each to season my mouth first, and then I went from the pulped... a light mouthfeel... to the natural... and felt like a half-kilo weight had landed on my tongue.  Slight exaggeration, but the difference between the two is huge.  The pulped is quite stunning.  I’m struggling to type because I just want my hand free to drink!  If this was a meal, the natural would be a lovely beef Sunday dinner with gravy, and the pulped would be a warm pidgeon rocket salad with small lardons, walnuts.  I do get the “sweet, chololate, smooth and creamy” tasting notes. Also, all three bags share a common fruity aroma that isn’t quite tart enough to be called citrus but is in that area. Maybe apple.  No sugar necessary, whatsoever.  It’s like having the walls of your mouth massaged by a small Thai lady!  As it cools it becomes even tastier, as is usual, but the good thing is it doesn’t seem to go sour at all.  Amazing.  I feel uplifted by it, like some sort of fresh juice or tonic.  My favourite of the three.

Next up, blending them.  With the rich depth of the natural and the brightness of the washed and pulped, this might just work!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Processing methods & blends (Part 2)

This comes from a short thread on coffeeforums.co.uk that I wanted to follow up on.  I've pasted in some elements of the forum posts in italics.  Please note, this is all exploratory.  Any time I express a view it's in the hope that someone else will shed more light. I don't mind my proposals being proven to be complete rubbish.

I've been reading how dry processing typically results in beans full of body, whereas wet processing diminishes body and gives a desirable acidity. Now I'd thought that when blending beans, particular regions were chosen for adding body, brightness etc due to differing agricultural and environmental conditions in each region. But now theres an implication that you could take the same cherries and, say, dry process 60% to give a base and wet process 40% to offer some bright, cleanness to the blend. Hence, regions would not matter... just varietal and processing method.

If there were some truth in this, and large-scale bean importers began sourcing beans differently, it might help overcome bean price rises, since the governments of some countries (eg Brazil) are currently deliberately keeping prices high by not incentivising increased production. If buyers like Mercanta switched region, but could still get the same bean characteristics, this sort of behaviour would, hypothetically, stop.

This led to some great responses from forum members, including Paul from Hands On Coffee (roasters) who mentioned what he termed the 'hybrid' processing method, somewhere between wet and dry.

This led to Fran (someone who I find to be a very clued up contributor) pointing me to Has Bean's Finca Argentina tasting pack which includes the same bean processed three ways, dry (natural), wet (washed), and pulped... the 'hybrid' method Paul referred to. I eagerly ordered some.

There's a visible difference between the three bags of beans.
- The Natural looks really smooth... almost moisturised. It looks kinda 'young'.
- The Pulped has clearly had more done to it during processing. It is more mottled, slightly cracked, and there are areas of darkness appearing on the beans. On the other hand, the crease line is consistently lighter.
- The Washed looks like it's been through the ringer! The beans look older (I know they are not! This is not a criticism of the beans or the roast!!). Much more wrinkled with dark mottling - all of which I assume is due to the more complex process that washed beans undergoe.

You can really see how Pulped is somewhere in-between.

This is all interesting to me because looking at them I'd expect to like the Naturals more, but the Washed method is considered to produce a better bean (according to what I've read). Can't wait to taste them in a French Press.... and then hopefully try blending them in different proportions for espresso.

(The cup profiles below are copied from the HasBean bags)

 How did they taste/compare?  Can they be blended to create a good espresso blend that doesn't have too much acidity and tasted like a blend from different regions? I'll let you know soon!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Kalita "Kantan" Drip Brewer

If you haven't seen them, here's a pic.  They come from Korea (the packaging and brew instructions are in Korean).
First attempt I ground to about the same as I would with the Hario V60, since they're both drip methods. The result was a very slow extraction and quite a strong coffee - not quite bitter but certainly not to my taste.  I used around 20g and 300ml of water, which turned out to be too much grinds for the size of the kantan's filter basket so I couldn't fit it all in, and that also made the pour difficult as it was spilling over.  Eventually it clogged too.  The paper filter is quite dense, it seems, so I need a coarser grind.

Second attempt I went for 15g and 250ml. I also changed the grind to coarser... 15 on the Gaggia MDF...a little finer than French Press. Result = Better. 30 second bloom, 2.5 minutes extraction time.  Tasted ok, definitely acceptable - yet not brilliant.  I was using El Salvador Finca Argentina (Washed), which I've been having in a French Press and getting really zingy citrus notes, yet the kantan seems to have chopped the peaks off and made it somewhat unremarkable.  But for now I'll hold up my hands and say that it's quite possible just that I need to tweak my kantan brew technique... I could do more things with the dose, grind, pour technique (the rectangular basket suggests to me that the usual circular pour isn't the best way to get an even extraction), temperature.  I'll get around to reading of Scott Rao's 'other' book one of these days! It'd be good to have a clue what direction to go in with my tweaks.

On reflection, I like the kantan but it has made me start questioning where the line is between a good drip filter and a tea-bag/pod for coffee.  I suspect that a lot of research and development has gone into the kantan filter paper regarding particle size filtration etc, and I wonder if there's any info out there - or comparison with other filter papers such as the V60 or Chemex.