By Tim Carman*
Sometimes obsession sneaks up on you slowly. One day you’re satisfied with 7-Eleven coffee poured into a used Big Gulp cup. A few years later, you refuse to choke down anything not prepared on a pour-over bar at the nearest specialty coffee shop.
Other times, obsession strikes you in a flash.
I can, for example, tell you the exact moment my home-coffee-brewing addiction kicked in: It was 10:58 a.m. on Dec. 12. I was sampling cups prepared by Alex and Chad McCracken, the brothers behind the Wydown, the forthcoming specialty coffee shop in the Louis at 14th.
At their former pop-up on U Street, the siblings had brewed five different preparations of the same Finca Kilimanjaro, a Salvadoran bean roasted by PT’s Coffee Roasting in Topeka, Kan. Among the devices they employed was a siphon, a twin-chambered glass tower powered by a glowing halogen lamp.
The siphon’s charms were immediate: evil-scientist-grade equipment that can make you feel like a 10-year-old with a chemistry set. But that childhood reverie vanished with one sip of coffee.
Compared with the other devices (two pour-over cones, an AeroPress and a Clever dripper), the siphon-produced cup was more complex, balancing sweetness and acidity. If the other devices had emphasized the Finca Kilimanjaro’s bracingly sour brightness, the siphon had transformed it into candied lemon. I was hooked.
I was sold on the siphon, sure, but more than that, I was fascinated by the different flavors that each device unlocked in the same coffee. I wanted to experiment more.
Within a month, I had secured not only a Yama three-cup siphon but also other tools for my morning caffeine ritual: a Bee House dripper, an AeroPress coffee and espresso maker and a digital scale to weigh my coffee and water down to the nearest gram. Then came the more expensive stuff: a high-end electric drip maker often touted as the best on the market, and a single-cup device capable of brewing any freshly ground beans.
That latter piece of equipment, I thought, would serve as a litmus test to see whether, when it comes to coffee brewing, convenience and quality are mutually exclusive.
But the paradox about trying to improve your home coffee experience is that none of those fancy instruments and machines will guarantee you a perfect cup every time. As any veteran roaster or barista will tell you, coffee is not a fixed commodity, its quality the same day in and day out. It’s an agricultural product that degrades like any other fresh ingredient you buy at the grocery store. Freshness is paramount.
Home brewing is “a moving target, because the coffee itself is a moving target,” says Joel Finkelstein, the owner and roaster behind Qualia Coffee in Petworth. He says only one kind of coffee will give you the same cup each time: “If it’s old and stale, you can get total consistency,” Finkelstein cracks.
So a high-quality cup begins with freshly roasted beans, but it doesn’t end there. Home brewing has evolved beyond the one-button convenience of Mr. Coffee and the disposable pods of Nespresso. You need education.
For starters, you need to understand the benefits of a burr grinder, which pulverizes those fresh beans more evenly than your typical cheapo blade grinder. A burr grinder also allows you to adjust the grind size of your beans, an important feature when you start using the more labor-intensive tools to brew coffee.
One grind size does not fit all of these contraptions. Immersion brewers — devices such as the siphon and French press, in which the full complement of water remains in contact with the grounds for the entire steeping process — typically require a coarser grind to prevent bitter, over-extracted coffee.
Pour-over devices — whether a Hario v60 dripper, a Chemex coffeemaker or some other contraption in which water passes over the grounds more quickly — generally take a medium or fine grind.
“The longer the extraction time, the coarser the grind,” the Wydown’s Chad McCracken notes.
From there, things can get really geeky really fast. Any barista worth her weight in Geisha beans will determine the perfect coffee-to-water ratio for every available bag, looking for a calculation that brings out a bean’s best characteristics.
Baristas may start with a general ratio — say, one ounce of coffee to 16 ounces of water — but will quickly adjust the percentages to arrive at the perfect cup. Or at least the perfect cup according to their taste, which is important to remember.
“At the end of the day, it’s good to who’s making it,” says Judith Mandel, a former barista with Peregrine Espresso who finished ninth out of 40-plus competitors in the U.S. Brewers Cup last year in Boston. Mandel now works as a barista for Blue Bottle Coffee in the Bay Area.
Then again, those tattooed coffee-bar baristas probably know a lot more about their drinks than most of us. They know the proper water temperature for extraction (195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit), the proper technique for pouring water into a dripper cone (concentric circles from the middle, careful not to overfill the device) and the proper amount of time for “blooming” ground beans with hot water (variable, often dependent on how fresh the beans are as the wet grounds release carbon dioxide). They probably even use a timer and digital scale to make sure the weights and brewing times are airtight.
And that’s just for a pour-over device. At shops such as Chinatown Coffee, baristas must also know how to use even more tools, such as the Clever dripper and that high-tech siphon. If you talk to enough baristas, you begin to hear a pattern: They all have their own approaches, their own ratios, their own ideas about brewing the ideal cup. It begins to make you feel like it’s a Wild West out there, with no set standards for baristas and home-brewers to follow.
“There’s a lot of opinionated baristas who don’t have a lot of science behind them,” says Alex McCracken of the Wydown.
Yet there are standards. The Specialty Coffee Association of America has set them down in its “Coffee Brewing Handbook,” which is based on the scientific research conducted by the Coffee Brewing Institute (later the Coffee Brewing Center) in the mid-20th century. Of course, to make sense of the science, a barista has to become familiar with a refractometer and how to measure things such as the “extraction percentage.”
At this point, my own personal obsession stops just short of refractometers. I’m not sure I’ll ever reach the level of Mandel, whose OCD-like labors have led her to employ screens (to sift grounds for precisely uniform particles) and a rubber restrictor in her kettle (to slow the flow of water). But she’s striving for Brewers Cup championships. I’m merely looking for a great cup of home-brewed coffee.
This is where the bad news comes in: There is no ideal brewing system, perfect for every bean and every taste bud. I’ve been absorbing that hard lesson through a lot of trial and error, testing and retesting, and yet some part of me still wants to pronounce that one of these devices outperforms the others. Some days I think it’s the siphon (which generally produces a balanced, full-bodied cup). Other days I think it’s the Bee House dripper (which always seems to extract a bean’s best flavors). But one morning the Clever might surprise me with an exquisite cup, and I want to hold it forever close.
Then the Moccamaster KBG-741 AO arrives via delivery. It’s a handmade automatic drip machine, the top model produced by Technivorm in the Netherlands, engineered to heat water to the proper temperatures and steep grounds the proper length of time. It’s one of only four home brewers certified by the SCAA. I don’t want to believe this contraption can brew something as complex as my (increasingly sophisticated) efforts, but it does. Or it can, I should say.
The Moccamaster’s performance reminds me of something Ryan Jensen, owner of Peregrine Espresso, told me recently: Large-batch brewers may one day reclaim specialty coffee shops. Think of it as the rise of the machines, again.
“The next wave is actually not doing manual brewing,” Jensen says. It’s sort of an admission, he adds, that “machines are better at this than humans.”