Saturday, 10 December 2011

Keeping a manual brewing log

A few days ago Cyclone Friedhelm (or Hurricane Bawbag as the Scots have named it) left around 2000 folks in our area with no electricity, floods, ice, snow, and in one case a burnt down house!  So in true Scottish fashion we headed over to the home of some friends, got drunk and stayed up late talking bollocks.  The electricity came back on at our place today so I'm lying on the sofa with a hangover and just thought I'd write a nice easy post that doesn't require brainwork or standing up.

I've been meaning to write this post for ages.  For a few months now I've been logging some of my manual brews. The purpose was originally to provide data to answer a question that came to me a few months back... whether it is possible to match the predicted characteristics of beans to particular brew methods. Beans have many characteristics but I chose to focus on boldness and acidity on the assumption that coffees are either bold or acidic but rarely both. (Actually the experiment soon proved to me that this was a flawed assumption.)

So for example, is a bold, earthy sumatran best suited to a French Press to retain as much of the body as possible? Or conversely, would it be best suited to a pourover, to bring out some of the beans' intrinsic acidity and therefore use the brew method to counterbalance the bold, earthy qualities.  Each brew would theoretically fall into one of the following four boxes, and if a particular box gets more 'hits' then that would indicate a brew method fitting well a bean's characterstics.

Once I thought about it, I realised that it was pointless to use coffees that were not brewed correctly as that would skew the results. I needed as way to control the brew, so I could accept or reject each brew.  Fortunately the Brewing Control Chart created by Ted Lingle of the SCAA exists precisely for that purpose. I bought a TDS meter to allow me to establish TDS and Extraction Yield (although I've already blogged about the device having limitations).

So, a few months ago I began logging the details of each brew ... the beans, the brew method, the temperature, TDS, Extraction Yield, my tasting notes etc. It didn't take long for me to start learning many things, including:

1. It is not as easy as I had previously thought to brew a coffee that falls into the 'Ideal' range on the brewing control chart. What I had thought was correct was wrong.  This is one of the pitfalls of over-reliance on websites like to learn correct manual brewing. Those videos don't help you learn to adjust your technique to the current condition of the beans.

2. The current condition of the beans is constantly changing. I knew that, but I didn't fully appreciate just how much it can affect extraction during manual brewing.  For example, the bloom of very fresh coffee would increase extraction, so I would need to agitate the brew slurry less or more depending on freshness and bean gas.

3. Matching brew method to beans based upon boldness/acidity doesn't work. Every day the beans work best in a different brew method, because they are constantly changing.  You simply can't say "this bean should always be brewed in a French Press".  I had been told that it would probably be the case... but as always I prefer to learn through my own experiments rather than simply being told. There is a lot of opinion (rather than fact) out there and who are we to believe?

Anyway, this post is getting long and I'm getting more hungover so I'll bring it to a close.  The main point I want to make is how valuable my brewing log has been in learning how to perform manual brewing. I soon ditched the original purpose of the log, and just used it to record the details of each brew to help me move forward. I added new brew methods.  I inserted new columns, deleted others, tweaked the format of my comments so I could refer back to them in future brews, etc etc. It takes moments to fill in, which I do whilst waiting for the TDS meter to take the reading and drinking the coffee.

Here's a jpeg of part of my log.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Coffee Cupping and Wine Tasting

I was directed (through twitter) to an interesting blog post today.
Click here to read it.

The wine connection is something I have spoken about in the past, so I started writing a reply in the comments. I got a bit carried away though, so decided to post it here and link to it instead. Here it is!

I do think coffee is following in the footsteps of wine, for sure. Twenty years ago the average wine consumer might have known little more about their preference than "Red or White", but now they are able to not only express a preference for, say, Sauvignon Blanc, and not also a particular region such as Marlborough, but even identify specific Marlborough estates such as Stoneleigh or Brancott... even across the other side of the world in the UK.

Coffee-wise, we're moving to the average punter (rather than coffeegeeks) being able to go beyond saying they like either black or milky, Americano or Latte, and now saying they like Rwandan or El Salvador. In time a larger part of the population will extend that to saying things like "Musasa Cooperative is my favourite", or "Do you have Finca la Fany?"

But I think there's a big challenge with going a step further and getting the general public to try and pick out aromas, to make a mental connection between their mouth and mind and be able to express what they are tasting. It hasn't happened with wine. Wine tasting events remains the domain of the 'buff'. Why? I think maybe because 'nornal' people just want to drink it.  It's 'just wine'. Analysing it can seem like spoiling the fun, and also has negative connotations such as Jilly Goolden's flamboyant, wildly descriptive and very posh assessments of various wines, which joe public can't associate with.

So how can we avoid a similar fate for coffee... avoid cupping becoming something to be derided by the very people we want to attract? This is a critical time in coffee's evolution, certainly here in the UK anyway, and if we get this bit wrong then coffee will remain 'just coffee' for most people. The simple answer, in my view, is to ditch the words snob, geek, connoiseur, and anything that suggests that you need to be elite to take part. One of the most common responses I've had from the public is "oh, I don't think my taste buds would be able to appreciate it". What a huge shame that we have conditioned them to think they aren't good enough. It's a lose-lose situation.

Let's turn it on its head. Let's make it accessible and fun. Make it a win-win. Hell, let's dumb it down if that's what it takes... give it the X Factor treatment. Coffee and cupping need to be fun. If they are fun then there's a greater chance that some of those taking part will see beyond the cupping 'party' and take a real interest in speciality coffee.  The challenge is to find creative ways to make it fun.

So is coffee cupping currently more fun than wine tasting? For coffee snobs, geeks and connoiseurs such as ourselves I'd say yes... but let's not forget who pays our bills. It would be good to take the focus off ourselves, stop showing off our own skills, and instead shine a light on the public and what they want, because at the moment I think most of them would say No, coffee cupping is not more fun. It's just coffee.