Friday, 28 September 2012

Coffee Water Quality - Post 2.

Back in January I wrote my first post on this topic. Water was to me, as it is to most baristas initially, a very grey area. It is now eight months later, during which time I've tried (with a modicum of success) to gain some clarity, primarily through reading (many times!) the SCAA Water Quality Handbook. It was a complex subject for a chemistry-phobe like me to grasp, for several reasons, including:
- Words. Carbonate System, ions, buffer, hydrogen bonding, idealised icosahedral clusters(!!)
- Symbols. 

- Abbreviations.  NaHCO3.    Na+.    CaCI2.    MgSO.  WTF?

In addition, whilst many coffee topics have been discussed in great detail over the years in forums, blogs and articles, there seem to be very few predecessors who have written about water. Jim Schulman's Insanely Long Water FAQ is quite a seminal post, with fantastic info, but I found that again the words/symbols/abbreviations made it difficult to understand.

Now that I've gained a basic understanding, I realise that there is a need for a beginner's guide to water quality, written in a way that helps simplify some of the chemistry. A caveat here though. It is impossible to properly understand coffee water quality without learning some basic chemistry, so what I'm about to write is certainly not everything you need to know, and the simplification process requires some key information to be omitted. My aim is just to share enough info to help others make the first step, so they can then continue to learn more on their own.  Also, my own understanding is still incomplete & probably inaccurate, so if anyone would like to correct anything please do so. To understand this topic more fully, please buy and read the handbook from the SCAA website.
OK, here goes.

What is water?
You've heard of H2O. The abbreviation refers to the two components of completely pure water, hydrogen and oxygen. Nothing else. So immediately many will think "hang on, hydrogen and oxygen are gases". Correct. Actually, we need to think smaller. They are atoms, or rather bunches of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. And when those bunches meet, they stop being a gas and become a liquid. Water.
But you've probably never come across pure water. It is probably the most recycled substance on the planet.  The water we drink has picked up lots of other things along the way. What things? Good question. The simple answer is, things that change the flavour of your coffee. Some good things, some bad things. And those things appear in different quantities depending upon where the water came from and what has happened to it.  Some water is quite pure, with very few things, other water is full of the things. And the things appear in different proportions too. So no two waters (from two different sources) are the same. Hence no two coffees will taste the same if you use different water.

Let's call these things 'solids'. 

Some over-simplified definitions.
So what are these solids??  OK, a little basic chemistry. Atoms and molecules. Stay with me, now! An atom is the basic building block of EVERYTHING. Put a few atoms together and you have a molecule. So everything is made up of atoms and molecules, bunching together like magnets. That's an important concept. There are different combinations of atoms and molecules, and each different combination makes something different. For example, hydrogen and oxygen make water. Table salt is a combination of sodium and chloride. Whoah, whoah!! what are those things? It doesn't matter for now. Just think of everything in the world being make up of different structures of molecules. So salt tastes like salt because of its molecules. Chocolate tastes like chocolate because it has other molecules. etc etc.  And very small changes in the molecules can have a big impact upon what something tastes of.
Great! Now we understand why things taste differently too. But let's get back to water.

Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)
So water consists of hydrogen, oxygen, and other solids. This is probably sounding familiar. Coffee people have heard of measuring water TDS, which is a basic way of expressing how pure, or unpure the water is. How many 'things' are in there.  And recently in the UK some baristas have begun measuring their water TDS, and trying to use water with a particular quantity of solids... around 150ppm (parts per million) is the target, coming from the SCAA guidelines.  The theory is that if you have too many solids (eg 300ppm) or two few (eg 30ppm) then the coffee will not brew correctly and will taste bad... or not taste as good as it could, anyway. (More on why this would be the case later.)

Quality-focused baristas seek to improve the water they have available to them, through different types of water treatment. But in truth few of us currently understand what kind of treatment we need. If TDS is high, we seek ways to reduce it. If TDS is low, we generally just accept it. Reverse Osmosis systems have been developed, which purify water very effectively.  I have not found anyone who has published details of their RO setup... what exactly it does to the water, which solids it removes, which solids are left behind, which additional pieces of the puzzle they have incorporated etc. It remains a bit of a secret at this stage, which is a little unhelpful to the barista community, who are still trying to get their heads around TDS.

So this is about as far as baristas seem to have got in the UK.

A closer look at Total Dissolved Solids
TDS is actually a very blunt way of describing these things in our water. It is a catch-all. I wouldn't say it is meaningless... that would be going too far, as it is a helpful statistic... but two waters could have the same TDS and still be completely different. One would make an exceptional coffee, and the other would make a cup of brown swill. This is due to the different ratios of all the different solids in there.

So we need to break this down further, if we really want our water to be perfect for brewing. And the SCAA have already done that part for us.

(NB some units of measure can be used interchangeably. One mg/L - milligram per litre - is exactly the same as one ppm - part per million.)

The above chart isn't perfect but it gives us some key info.  So there's the 150ppm right in the middle. I'm going to ignore odor and colour because the majority of drinking water in the UK comes via a regulated mains water supplier, and they ensure that there are no smells or colour taints. The 150ppm is broken down into:
(a) Calcium Hardness: 68ppm
(b) Alkilinity: 40ppm
(c) Sodium: 10ppm
(d) Other: 32ppm
Total = 150ppm

Item (d) is the reason the chart isn't perfect, in my view. 32ppm is quite a big unexplained number and if anyone could enlighted me as to why the SCAA have not commented on it then please feel free to comment below. I would imagine that 32ppm of other solids would affect the brewing process somehow.

What about pH?
It's all about balance. Think of a see-saw in a playground. On one side is Acidity. On the other side is Alkalinity. They are opposing forces. This is pH, and it is measured on a scale of 0-14.
- When they are evenly balanced then the water is neither predominantly acidic nor predominantly alkaline. Neutral pH is at the centre point of the scale, and measures 7.0
- If Acidity is greater (than alkalinity) then the see-saw tips in its favour. pH drops below 7.0, and the lower the pH the more acidic the water is.
- If Alkalinity is greater, pH is higher than 7.0 and the closer it is to 14 the more alkaline the water is.
So the SCAA Guideline is 7.0, right in the centre. 

Acid? Alkaline? This is water, isn't it?
Don't think of it that way. As I said above, no two waters are the same. Some waters are acidic, some are alkaline. The coffee will taste different for each.

So what makes it acidic or alkaline?
It comes back to the balance of items a, b, c and d shown above.
- Calcium Hardness contributes to acidity. Infact it is not just Calcium contributing to acidity. Magnesium is another factor, and others. But Calcium plays a bit part in drinking water. (Calcium is a metal mineral that we can ingest in small quantities, like iron.)

- Alkalinity is self-evident. Several things contribute to alkalinity, including hydroxide and bicarbonate.
- Sodium also increases alkalinity.

Do the math(s)
So on one side of our see-saw we have 68ppm of acidity.
On the other side we have 50ppm of alkalinity (40+10).
But we know that the SCAA Target water has a neutral pH of 7.0, so there may be another 12ppm of alkalinity within the 'other' things in there, coming from something else. (But see note 1 below.)

How we can use this information
If you own a TDS meter, great. But how do you know what your Calcium levels are? Perhaps your Calcium is 90ppm, which is too high. You certainly don't want to add MORE calcium to your water.  So we need to be able to measure the acidic Calcium Hardness part of our TDS total. We also need to know the amount of alkaline solids.

Thankfully there are ways to measure these. A simple (if not the most accurate) solution is to use test strips like the ones used by aquarium and swimming pool owners, readily available at low costs on ebay. Search for Calcium Hardness Test Strips, and also KH Test Strips... KH is an abbreviation for Carbonate Hardness, which is just another way of referring to those solids mentioned above that contribute to alkalinity.

Then we look for water treatment that fits the bill. For example, I have in the past used water with a TDS of around 90ppm, and a pH of around 6.8 i.e. slightly acidic. A Calcium Hardness test strip revealed around 60ppm of Calcium, which is close to the SCAA Guideline of 68ppm, which is good. So if I wanted to increase my TDS to 150ppm, I would NOT want to add more calcium, as that would make the water more acidic, when actually I wanted to make it LESS acidic... i.e. get closer to a pH of 7.0 by adding alkalinity. So I would need some sort of water treatment cartridge that increases hydroxide or bicarbonate by around 30-40 ppm.  That's the theory. I hope that makes sense and that I haven't lost you in the words and abbreviations.

Why do these ratios of water 'things' affect coffee brewing?
Many of us think that brewing coffee is just using hot water to wash off coffee particles from the beans, but that isn't the whole picture. Remember those molecules bunching together like magnets? Well the hot water causes chemical reactions to occur. Molecules in the coffee and the water become 'lively' because of the heat, and they begin to jump from place to place, magnetising themselves to other molecules of water/coffee. This creates a variety of different structures of molecules, and as mentioned earlier in this post, different groupings of molecules create different flavours.
So the 'ingredients' i.e. the solids that are in the water, affect this process.Having too much alkaline bicarbonate, for example, makes the coffee taste flat. (See the handbook for more details on this.)

End of part 2!
As always, still much more to learn. But I hope this has helped in some small way and if I can answer questions then I will. There is a lot more info beneath this that it wasn't possible to include in this post. Maybe if there was one thing I might suggest to anyone looking for advice, it would be to find out more about the different types of water treatment on the market, and what they do to the water. Some use technology that the water handbook says is detrimental to coffee brewing! What does yours do, and what do you want it to do? This information is difficult to find out from websites, but I've found the guys at companies like 3M to be very open to discussing such things.

1. I have over-simplified the way acidic and alkaline solids balance out to achieve a pH of 7.0.  There is an effect called Buffering which means that 10mg of acidity and 10mg of alkalinity do not necessarily balance out. Hence in the example above, I think (although I may be wrong!) that the 68mg/L of acidity and the 40-50mg/L of alkalinity may actually balance out to produce the displayed pH of 7.0

Monday, 24 September 2012

Stage Fright

Disclaimer: If you work in a coffee business that predominantly targets customers who are experiential, niche or already speciality coffee fans, rather than the general public, that's great but this post isn't for you. It is written with consideration for those who want to see good quality, speciality coffee reach its full market potential and be the norm with the general public and in coffeeshops across the UK.

Around 18 months ago I wrote a short blog post entitled Can We Make It Easier For Customers?  At the time I was a still relative newcomer to speciality coffee, and wanted to learn more. But it struck me that people within this niche industry were prone to using coffee descriptors that alienated customers like me.  I found it tough to relate to the use of ornate language, and was frustrated.  I also found it intimidating to order at some coffeeshops because (a) I wasn't sure what or how to order these types of coffee, and (b) the guy/girl behind the counter gave off seriously intense vibes that he/she wasn't interested in helping out people who didn't understand. Their expressions actually frightened me off.

But hey... what did I know?  I was a newbie, right?

As the months passed I became, as we all do, a coffee obsessive. As part of my learning process I worked on improving sensory skills. Early on I wrote How To Taste Coffee, which rather than being a tutorial (I was not qualified to write such a thing), was my (slightly embarrassing) attempt to work my coffee tasting and descriptive abilities into some semblence of a process that I could consistently repeat. I discovered the Wine Aroma Wheel and with it sought to expand my coffee vocabulary further. I took part in a competition, requiring me to (amongst other things) furnish the judges with a clear description of my drinks, using typical barista vernacular. I eventually learned the true nature of Ted Lingle's Coffee Flavour Wheel when I read the SCAA Cuppers Handbook, which provides masses of detail regarding coffee aromas, flavours and descriptors. I began adopting a formal cupping procedure to help develop my palate.  I became a home-roaster, delving deeper into the factors that influence the cup. I no longer felt like a newcomer. I had leapt over the bar and now stood behind it, beside my fellow baristas, talking the descriptive talk. In my quest for coffee knowledge I deliberately unlearned what it is like to be a relative newcomer to speciality coffee.

That's worth repeating. I deliberately unlearned what it is like to be a relative newcomer to speciality coffee. In other words, what it is like to be an average customer.


For anyone who (like me) has been on a coffee journey, investing time, effort and money in their passion, it is difficult to admit to having lost one's wider perspective. After all, we are speciality coffee evangelists, and we have conditioned ourselves to promote, with unwavering zeal, the path of righteousness. (Or could that be self-righteousness?)  In a bid to encourage dialogue between customers and coffeeshop staff regarding coffee quality, I set up a Facebook page to encourage sending back bad coffee - in the politest possible way.  I was so sure it would help the cause.  It didn't. No matter how tactful I was when returning the bad coffee, the dialogue was always awkward and feedback was always rejected. The gulf between my vision of coffee and their vision of coffee was so great that we could not even begin to find common ground.  Eventually I deleted the Facebook page as it was at risk of making things worse. Of making the gulf even larger.  Perhaps of making coffee afficionados like me look like cocks. In a completely unrelated incident, a sign appeared in an independent cafe window in Brick Lane. It read "No Coffee Wankers!"  It made me wonder...

But my self-assurance in preaching the speciality coffee gospel soon returned. "We know best, we self-proclaimed coffee geeks.  Yes... we know best. If only we could convince the general public. Those poor ignorant souls drinking bad coffee. " So we're back to dialogue. To communication. To good signage. To setting the stage. Surely these things will help convince the general public... the relative newcomer to speciality coffee, won't they?

As I write this I begin to see the similarities with Jehovah's Witnesses who knock on your door in pairs, like an odd version of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black. There we are, we enlightened coffee folk, certain of our message, trying to find someone who will listen, who will be readily converted to the Church Of The Third Wave.  Normal people point at us and snigger.

I actually do passionately believe that effective dialogue and communication is so important to our industry's aims. Improved dialogue between the speciality coffee world and the relative newcomer/average joe customer. If done well then newcomers will flood to speciality coffee on a mass scale, rather than the dribbling niche movement that it remains to this day.  Effective dialogue and communication. This is something I think many in the industry agree upon, and the need for it has been documented exceedingly well by the 2012 UK Barista Champion in his blog.

But how can we do it well? How can we make the dialogue effective?  These are, to my mind, the big questions.  Despite some compelling arguments made by credible industry members, there is room for further debate. My view is we are still failing to get through to the public at large, still failing to make it easier for customers.  The messages are still not clear.
- We still use lengthy descriptors and flavour notes, and because we love them, and coffee-educated customers love them, we wrongly assume relative newcomers to speciality coffee will love them too. We bang on to the unsuspecting public about temperature, grind size, the altitude the beans were grown at, and how complex the brewing process is.
- We then demonstate this by pulling our a syphon with a halogen beam heater, temperature probes and squiggly stirring techniques. This makes us hope the customer will realise how skilled we are, and will suddenly realise the error of their ways & become a speciality coffee convert.
- We keep moving the goalposts. For example, last year we said that latte art a difficult thing to achieve and was a sign that your barista has devoted time to developing his skill. This year the cool kids are saying that latte art is easy to teach and should be avoided by any self-respecting barista. How are customers supposed to know which is good and which is bad?

Another reason we are failing in our communication is our over-aversion and over-reaction to the branded chains.  We all know the saying... "You can't hope to compete with Starbucks, so don't try. Focus on your strengths instead." So we focus on making good coffee, which we do exceptionally well. And we do a rotten job of various other factors that the branded chains do well, and which customers enjoy. For example,
- We spend as little as possible on environment.  We offer uncomfortable seating on makeshift or shabby second hand furniture, because we're distancing ourselves from the Central Perk comfy chair thing with its 16oz latte connotations. Little or no heating in the customer area. No background music and tweets about how annoying background music is (honestly - when did music of your own choice and played at your own volume become annoying?)
- We offer a tiny food menu, if any, thus making it all about the coffee. Admirable, but ultimately many speciality coffeeshop owners eventually either close down or increase their food focus as they realise (a) many customers like to eat something when they drink something, and (b) you have to sell a helluvalot of cups of coffee to cover your rent.

So we assume all of the above are the right things to do. And this false assumption is reinforced because we see other baristas and coffeeshops doing it too, and we tell ourselves that it must be right if that is what they're doing at that amazing artisan coffeeshop everyone's talking about. It must be right if our favourite roaster is doing it. It must be right - because if it turned out to be wrong then our egos would be crushed by how misguided we were. This highights another quirk of the specality coffee industry. We have our industry luminaries... often people who have achieved success in a coffee competition somewhere around the world. And because they have succeeded in that we listen to them. And often we trust their opinions more than they necessarily deserve or want. In a recent discussion someone said to me:
When a coffee pro, a respected one with great accolades, stands up and announces something… we should listen, then digest it, and THEN come up with a response that takes time to craft. MORE time than the professional spent on their original statement. Why more time? Because they have more experience in the field.
I agree with this statement... insofar as it refers to coffee and the preparation thereof.  But coffee industry accolades do not equate to business management success. Just because a World Barista Champ says something, that doesn't mean it is correct. Particularly if it is about marketing, or pricing, or interior design, or customer opinions across the entire nation.  It just means they have an opinion.

Like I say, we have these views regarding the right things to communicate what we do. And I admit it,   they are right - for some coffee businesses. Some customers like it. Some customers are immediately won over by what they see and experience. And some are attracted to the niche nature of artisan coffeeshops. And some are influenced by their friends and acquaintances who are already speciality coffee lovers. And some, like I was, are intrigued and interested enough to press beyond their initial confusion with this new and different way of presenting a cup of coffee.
But we in the industy are deluding ourselves if we truly believe we've found the best approach to dialogue and communication - one that will work nationwide, with the general public in its many shapes and sizes.

Saying anything unflattering about the speciality coffee industry feels weird, like I'm some sort of traitor.  But it is the opposite. I care about this enough to risk the wrath of my coffee colleagues. And I'm not alone in recognising this situation. As I type, the online coffee news magazine Sprudge have just published a piece on this subject, contrasting two US writers' views. In Time Magazine, Josh Ozersky's article The Perils Of Coffee Snobbery opening paragraph includes the statement - "The cult of coffee, at least in its most puritanical form, is deeply alienating, even to me". He goes on to say that "So-called third wave coffees...are the best coffees that can be had in America", but goes on to use terms such as "insufferably pretentious", "self-congratulatory" and "sanctimonious", and alludes to contempt for consumers.   Erin Meister's article All Get Along also recognises the jarring reaction that can happen when hipster baristas and ordinary customers meet.  Meister reminds baristas that customers are "not the enemy, and they are not 'beneath' you".

Initial responses to Ozersky's article from those in the speciality coffee industry are very defensive and somewhat savage, as expected.  Rather than take it as useful feedback, they see it as an insult and respond with more insults.

The US has a stronger coffee-drinking culture than the UK, and arguably experiences a lot of coffee-related scenarios a few years before the UK market does (for example, Intelli had customers queueing out of the doors for V60s long before pourovers were readily available in UK independents). So we in the UK have an opportunity to listen and learn from the experience of the US speciality coffee industry, and try to avoid history repeating itself - to curtail that disconnect betweeen baristas and customers before the phrase 'coffee wanker' becomes commonplace amongst the UK customer base, and Costa start using it in their adverts.

I don't have the answers, of course. Mainly because there is no single correct answer. The answer, if there is one, is that each of us ask ourselves the right questions... and come up with our own right answers rather than using someone elses.  So I can tell some of you MY answers, the ones we will adopt in my own cafe.

1. We will serve good coffee. I am happy with that descriptor. The best coffee, I hope. We will buy our coffees from a roaster who we believe is the one of the world's finest, for all the right reasons.
2. We will train our staff, and train, and train, ad infinitum, and they will self-train too. Not just in coffee, but in Hospitality... the industry in which we operate.
3. Our equipment ... I believe there is far too much emphasis on which machine a coffeeshop uses. The machines coming out these days are amazing, and make it easier for a barista do his/her job consistently well, but the machine must be fit for purpose and not just a badge to prove that you're in the Serious Barista Club. Excellent espresso does not require a multi-boiler with endless steam and a reflective plate on the drip tray for eagerly watching the naked portafilter drip at a rate so slow that the espresso tastes acrid. We are able to devote time to building love for our HX machine. Our grinders are possibly our most important fixed asset, followed by our building's water supply and treatment.
 4. We will not overwhelm customers with this information unless they ask us to. We will give them what we think is amazing coffee and let them decide. Often it will be free, as a sample taster.  I believe they will be able to taste the difference, and that will be one of the catalysts for their permanent transition to speciality coffee.
5. As I mentioned the syphon earlier, yes we will use that brew method. But judiciously, and only when it suits the beans and helps produce that amazing coffee.
6. We will use descriptors, and in truth we will not be afraid of simplifying our narrative. I would not call it dumbing down though. Dumbing down, whether in news articles, Saturday night TV, or indeed coffee, generally results in a lower quality product. Our product will retain its quality, despite being described in an accessible manner.
7. We will offer a mix of comfortable seating and reclaimed dining chairs to go with our handmade farmhouse tables.
8. We will use Extract Mojo for quality control and to help us dial in brewed coffees, but behind the counter, both literally and figuratively.
9. A significantly larger part of our net profit will come from food than from coffee. Shock horror. I said it. So does that mean our coffee will be any worse? Many will assume so before trying it, because it is usually difficult to find good coffee in a restaurant, so they will do the 2+2+5 thing. I hope I can change that.
10. There are different ways to apply it, and we will never compromise on quality, but we will consistently adopt a time-honoured principle that many coffee professionals have found difficult to reconcile with their own view of the world.  The Customer Is Always Right.  As a means of improving communication and dialogue, it's a good start I think.