Welcome to another Bear Essentials dive into a common question in coffee. This time we are going to look at a question that’s been around for a long time in our industry, and one on which I have some pretty strong opinions.
“Hey Bear, why is batch brew coffee so bad?”
As usual I’m going to give three answers, the short one, the longer one and the really in depth one. This way you can pick and choose the amount of Bear-splaining you want on the topic.
Batch or Filter: What’s in a Name?
Right a little clarification before we begin, the term filter coffee refers to (or rather it should) coffee brewed by gravity driven percolation through a coffee bed and a filter mesh. The most common “pro” example of this is probably the V60 coffee maker, but this also includes those home units that auto heat water and pass it through a paper or mesh filter containing ground coffee, into a handy pot.
Batch brew is largely the same process but generally more indicative of a commercial sized brew, or of brewing coffee for several people, to be used over a period of time. The distinction matters mostly because brewing at larger volumes means you need to keep the coffee warm, and as we will see, this can be problematic.
For the purposes of this article when using the term batch brew, I am referring to either the commercial units, or to automated home filter machines brewing for large groups and extended use, not to filter brewing a cup or so at a time.
Bear’s Quick Answer
It’s not, but sadly a lot of people brew it very poorly. You need to take care to use best practice when making an automated filter, just like any other coffee. Also far too many commercial outlets ignore the time limits on how long to keep batch brewed coffee warm, and when you do it tastes bad.
I actually recommend batch brewers for coffee shops and cafes as a rule, I think they can add to your selection in a cost effective and easy to use way. Despite the awful reputation, in my (not so) humble opinion batch brew is a fantastic thing.
So if you are a coffee drinker, don’t be afraid to try batch brewed coffee, despite the reputation, it’s not universally bad. If you are a venue serving coffee, maybe think about the advantages of good batch brew.
Bear’s Slightly Longer Answer
Despite a pretty awful reputation, batch brewing is a very valid way to make decent coffee, but it takes care. When we use a large volume filter brewing unit, often called a batch brewer, we need to think carefully about the ratio of coffee to water, and brewing temperature. With the right balance we can get some great coffee.
It’s also a sad reality that all too often batch brewed coffee is kept warm for far too long, and the flavour drains from it. This is where we get the classic reputation of batch or filter coffee tasting like American Diner coffee, which is to say stale and nasty. This overwarming/overextending problem is responsible for a lot of the poor reputation that batch brew gets.
Honestly, treated with a little care, a batch brewer can be an excellent way to brew coffee in quantity. The trick is to remember that just because it’s automated and theoretically “easy” doesn’t mean you don’t need good practices to use it well. With that in mind, I’ll round out this answer with a few Bear Tips:
Put as simply as I can, if you want good batch brew results, try to follow these guidelines:
- Don’t skimp on the quality of coffee for the brew. Ever.
- Use 60g of coffee grounds to each 1 litre of brew volume.
- Pre Wet your filter before you brew.
- Check the temperature controls if you have them, and consult the manufacturers guidelines.
- Bloom/pre-infuse your coffee grounds before brewing.
- Don’t leave your coffee on the warming plate of a home unit.
- Read and follow the time limits on the warming cycle of commercial batch brewers.
- Clean your unit. Regularly.
Bear’s In Depth Answer
Ok so if you have come this far, odds are you are interested enough to really want to understand the process and best practice of batch brew coffee. So here we go.
“Bad” Coffee on the Road
Firstly let’s look at the reputation of batch brew, which is frankly not a great one at times, indeed this reputation leads to the question that starts this whole article. To get our heads around the issues, we need to pop over to the good ol’ U.S. of A.
One of the most common views of batch brew coffee is the image of a U.S. roadside diner and the glass pot from which coffee is poured forth. If you are of a certain age, you may recall special agent Dale Cooper’s remarks on coffee in Twin Peaks. If you are of a certain generation of coffee professional/enthusiast you may also twitch uncontrollably at that reference.
This “Diner” style coffee is on the surface, a great idea. Since your business is bustling, and your guests are looking for efficient service at a good price, the idea of a machine that can automate the process of making coffee so that a server can just pour a cup on demand, seems pretty cool.
Add to that the fact that any coffee pro will tell you that brewing through a filter can really emphasise the best of some coffees, one may wonder why we don’t see this sort of brew everywhere?
The reason is pretty simple. The problem with an automated unit, is that the very fact that you can let it “do it’s thing” creates a mindset that doesn’t always help. Many batch brews are set up and powered on, only to be left a little too alone.
The Fire & Forget Flaw
Blunt Bear time. The reality of batch brew in practice is that, more often than not, best practice is not considered or adhered to, and that makes for bad coffee. So let’s look at the ups and downs of a batch brew.
Turn it on & let it be
A good batch unit will have decent temperature control, a solid reservoir of water, may even pre-infuse or “bloom” automatically. So it will, if set up well, just need some good water, and ground coffee to be ready to brew. Amazing stuff right?
You get what you pay for (mostly)
The downside here is that everything I noted above applies to a good batch brew unit, and not all units are that good. If you have a bargain or low cost system installed, odds are you have poor temperature control, a lack of pre-infusion, or dodgy water flow, perhaps even all of the aforementioned.
If that is the case you have a better than evens chance of getting some poor results. Now that’s not to say that you have to spend a fortune, but you do need to be aware of what your unit does, and doesn’t do. You can actually manually do some work to get better coffee from a lower tech unit, I do this at home.
Still and all, the reality in a commercial setting is that if you need to hand prep every batch, or monitor temperature and flow rate through brewing on your batch brewer, it’s probably not doing the job you got it for. So you probably need to pony up the cash for a unit that suits your needs.
All too Easy…
Ok, so even if you have a top of the line batch brewer, there are still some issues, and perhaps the biggest one is human nature. In the middle of a busy service, it’s pretty hard to remember about that batch unit having a timer, and it should have one. You see even with the very best tech, coffee can only be kept warm for so long, and that’s a problem.
Most good commercial batch brewers use a thermodynamic heat cycle to keep brewed coffee at a good drinkable temperature for a decent period of time, and this is great. Older or cheaper units, including those we have to make a pot of coffee at home will use a heating plate, which is a lot less great. In either case, the coffee is at its best for a limited window of time.
The Temperature Conundrum
Here’s why: Coffee once brewed will degrade in quality as the chemical reactions of the dissolved solids in the brew continue to react to the hot water. You can actually experience this flavour change with a pretty simple experiment, brew some good coffee and drink it in slow sips over an hour or so. As the temperature changes so does the flavour. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, indeed professional tasters (like yours truly) can, and should taste coffees at different drinking temperatures. The problem arises when you try to make cool coffee warm again.
Don’t just take my word for it, give it a go. Honestly after your coffee cools, try to warm it up in the microwave or over a heat source, really. Bet you the favour isn’t great. This is because in reheating the liquid you are creating a chemical reaction that will degrade flavours. I won’t dazzle/bore you with brewing science, just trust me on this, after all you can taste the problem for yourself.
This exact issue is why decent commercial batch brewers use a very technical heating process, it limits the degradation and allows for a longer shelf life in brewed coffee. Again the engineering here is not in need of explanation, rather we just need to understand that it works in a certain way. Oh and we need to respect that, which leads me to…
So Problem Solved by Technology. Right?!
Well, maybe. But we humans can still fuck it up royally. What can I say, it’s a talent.
Good commercial, or even home batch units will generally have a note somewhere in the instructions about the amount of time they can be used to keep coffee warm. But in my experience, this is often either missed or ignored. You may wonder why this might happen.
Back to blunt mode, one major/common reason that commercial outlets will ignore or stretch the “shelf life” of a batch brew is waste fear. After all throwing out coffee is throwing out money right?
Well. Yeah, but not actually that much, and I’d argue that the “cost” of serving poor batch coffee is worse than the need to lose some brew every couple of hours.
Let’s talk in hard numbers. Say you are paying somewhere in the region of £14 a kilo for the coffee you brew, a not unreasonable assumption for a good coffee spot.
With a good ratio for batch, I’d say 60g to 1litre is about right (not even going into this here, but I do know what I am talking about), you’re getting about 16 litres of coffee per kilo of bean, and so losing say 500g of brew each brewing cycle is costing you a mighty… 44p.
I’m going to assume my point is pretty self evident. Honestly if it’s not, I’m checking out right here.
So the “loss” factor is pretty minor, and hardly a reason to avoid a good way to brew good coffee at a decent price. Frankly I just recommend you let the staff drink the batch “waste” free of charge when it’s changeover time.
Summing Up: Bear’s Case in Support of Batch Brew
I won’t lie, I am a huge advocate of batch brew, I honestly think many, if not most, coffee spots should have a batch on all day. The filter brewing method is great for emphasising some wonderful coffees, batch is cheaper per cup than americano and tastes better (some may disagree but I do believe this to be true).
It also allows an espresso based bar to have a different style of coffee on tap, for those people who might not love espresso based drinks. These people exist, in fact, do you want to know a secret? I’m one of them. No. Really. I will actively avoid ordering espresso drinks as a rule, and as a result will gravitate to coffee spots that offer an alternative, and I am not alone.
Oh and lets not forget that a good batch brewing system and good practice in its use can make great coffee quicker and more affordable.
Again I’ll hit the numbers, a “standard” (I know. I know! But that’s another article) espresso shot, will use about 15g of ground coffee to produce about 50ml of drink, so a litre of espresso will use about 20 times that, or 300g of coffee. That’s about £4 per litre. A litre of batch uses only 60g of coffee or about .42p of coffee grounds.
So because of the comparatively small coffee bean use and the less work intensive brewing process, we can (and for god’s sake we should) offer batch brew at a better price than espresso. This can be game changing in both making coffee more affordable and in increasing your available market. I really don’t think I need to say much more.
So if you already do, or you are looking to run a coffee service, I really do recommend considering batch brew. As ever if you have questions, or want help in figuring out how to do batch brew well, you can contact us and we’ll try to help if we can.
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Thanks, – Bear