The Flavour Journey Part 4: Brewing Coffee

Welcome back to The Flavour Journey. It’s finally here, the last part of my series on the journey of your coffee from crop to cup. If you have been following along, thanks! If not you can find the rest of the series {here} {here} & {here} I recommend having a read of the whole series, but then I would wouldn’t I?

When you first start to taste coffee it can be an eye opening experience. It’s amazing that a single drink can have such varied and complex flavour, but it really does.

Extraction: How it’s Brewed

So in the past we have discussed the farmers, and the roasters who put so much hard work into creating those amazing coffee beans that produce our favourite drink. Now it’s time to look at the last process, brewing that cup of coffee.

I could, and do, dedicate a lot of time and words to discussing this part of coffee life, for the purposes of sanity saving brevity I will settle for a broad strokes discussion of a few brewing methods and how they can change coffee flavour, concentrating on some of the more common methods and how they work.

Espresso

There can probably be no better place to start than Espresso. Nowadays these shiny machines and their hum and hiss are synonymous with coffee throughout the world. Espresso is an unapologetically modern way of making coffee, and the process has such a profound effect on the flavours that in my humble opinion it really rates a discussion all of its own.

In fact many roasters will tell you that selecting and roasting an espresso coffee, whether single origin or blend (another article of its own really, but basically coffee made up of one bean type, or several combined together) is one of the most challenging arts of their trade. Espresso is at its most basic, coffee produced by forcing hot, but not boiling water through finely ground beans at high pressure. The process produces an intense balance of bitter and sweet notes, along with the recognisable crema (cream like covering on the top of the drink).

After brewing, your espresso shot can be served as is, a classic espresso, diluted with some hot water, the americano, long black etc, or combined with steamed milk to give us the latte, macchiato and many more. The world of espresso drinks is a complex and unique one.

Pour Over

As a contrast to the technical magic of the espresso machine, we have the simplicity of the pour over method. This process involves passing hot, again never boiling water mixed with ground coffee through a filter usually made of paper, to extract flavour. The pour over is something of a coffee icon, many drinkers will recognise, and perhaps own, some of the vast variety of pour over systems on the market (the Hario V60, Kalita Wave and Chemex are all good examples).

The coffee resulting from pour over brewing is often lauded for its clarity of flavour, indeed around the coffee industry pour over is likely the most commonly adopted “First Processed Taste” the processed part is my nod to “cupping” as a tasting method, which I will come to later. I fall firmly into this category of taster as I use a V60 as the workhorse of my coffee life.

Filter or Drip Coffee Machines

While in the vicinity I’ll talk about another commonly seen home brewing method, the good old filter coffee machine. This well established system is in effect, an automated pour over, using mechanical control to heat and pass the water through ground coffee and a filter, finally dripping into that warm and inviting glass jug that you can then pour from. The main advantage of these machines lies in convenience, with pre ground coffee the method is almost effortless and you can just leave the machine to do its job in the morning.

The price of this convenience is that flavour can suffer, the quality of the machine will affect the control of temperature and extraction time, usually controlled with precision and instinct by a human in pour overs, and so you may not get the very best of the coffee you buy. Still the method is a feature in many homes and I have no doubt will continue to be.

French Press

Another common method of note is the cafetière (french press) probably one of the most, perhaps even the most common coffee device to be found in homes around the world. This venerable veteran of brewing is both ingenious and simple, producing a consistent and recognisable style of coffee that has held people’s affection, even as coffee brewing constantly evolves.

The ground coffee is mixed with hot water in the cafetière and once enough extraction time has passed, a plunger with a mesh filter is pressed down to separate the grounds from the final brew. Cafetière brewing is a staple of homes and restaurants for a reason and while the process can succumb to over or under extraction (too much or too little time spent brewing) with a little practice is one of the most consistent methods on the market.

And the Rest

There are an extensive range of other brewing methods out there, and I would struggle to cover them all, or even a decent range of them in a reasonable amount of writing. Many methods are arguably variations on those I have already discussed, while a few are true innovations from the creative minds of the industry. I will doubtless address many of them in articles all of their own. But for now I will move on, with one last method to finish.

Cupping

As my final topic in this article, I want to discuss and demystify one of those phrases you will doubtless hear wherever you are in your coffee journey, one that can often cause confusion until it’s explained, “Coffee Cupping”.

This industry-wide tasting method is used throughout the whole journey of coffee from crop to cup to monitor flavour and ensure quality. So just what is it?

Cupping is about as basic as coffee brewing gets, beans are roasted, sometimes on site, ground very finely, weighed out precisely and placed into bowls (or cups). Hot water at a precisely measured temperature and volume, is then poured onto the grounds. The coffee is left to extract for a fixed period of time, as this happens the grounds will form a layer on the top of the brew (called the “Crust”).

Once the allotted time has passed the tasters will break the crust with a spoon and smell the coffee and begin to gently stir the brew, the idea is to allow the grounds to sink to the bottom, getting a mouthful of coffee grounds is not pleasant, trust me on this, though it is an occupational hazard! Any remaining grounds are spooned off carefully and then the brew is tasted.

This procedure is one of the most entertaining, and honestly ridiculous sights, and sounds, in the coffee world. The tasters will use deep spoons often made of carefully chosen materials, to reduce impact on flavour, which they fill with coffee and then slurp loudly, yes really. The slurping is very deliberate, the idea being to combine the inhalation of aroma and drawing of liquid onto the palate into a single action, experiencing the whole flavour of the coffee at once.

Despite its amusing appearance and seeming touch of madness, I prefer to think of it as eccentricity since I do a fair amount of it myself, cupping is a fantastically effective tasting method. A skilled taster can get a full idea of the coffee’s quality and profile, with as little external influence as possible. Records are kept of the various aspects of the coffee and used to educate and influence processing and roasting going forward.

Many industry cupping sessions are deeply serious events, tasting many coffees, perhaps up to 40 at one time. The process is often conducted in silence, barring the sounds of slurping and spitting (as in wine tasting it’s advisable to spit the coffee rather than swallow, unless you want a mighty caffeine high and the attendant detox hangover to follow) as the tasters consider the coffees and write their notes. Cupping is coming out of the shadows nowadays, and you will likely be able to find a coffee shop, or roastery near you that conducts public cupping sessions, an experience worth looking into.

That’s All Folks

That brings me to the end of this little series of articles. I hope that they offer a little knowledge for everyone, and allow an understanding of the journey that your favourite drink takes from Crop to Cup. Perhaps the most important thing I hope you can draw from my witterings, is a respect for the sheer quantity of hard work and dedication that is needed to bring coffee to life.

Over the years the coffee industry has sadly had a sadly well earned reputation for the exploitation of those who grow this valuable crop. This has changed as more and more companies adopt fair and direct trade (you can find an article from me on this [link]), in reading this series I hope you will have gained an understanding of the larger cost of a cup of coffee from your local coffee place and a willingness to ask about its origins.

About Bear Essentials Coffee

If you have enjoyed this or any of my writing please check out my Homepage to find out more about me and my work. Follow the blog and if you feel you can, drop a donation to support this project.

Thanks, – Bear

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