By David Alan
If, according to singer Paul Simon, there are 50 ways to leave your lover, then perhaps there are just as many ways to awaken your beloved morning paramour. I’m talking about coffee, of course. There are many things to consider. What kind of brewing method is best? What to brew—a blend or a single origin? Whole bean or freshly ground? Arabica or Robusta? Light or dark roast? Does it really matter if it’s locally roasted coffee? And what do fair trade and direct trade really mean?
Drip: While the most popular method, and one of the simplest, drip coffee is not entirely without pitfalls. Whether you’re using an electric Mr. Coffee-style brewer or a manual device such as a Chemex or Hario pour-over, it’s important that you use good-quality water at the correct temperature of 195 to 205 degrees. Grind is also important; use a finer grind for pour-over brewers and a medium grind for electric drip machines. Pour-over brewers allow the user to pre-infuse the coffee, and offer
more control over water temperature and brewing time than electric machines. In both
of these brewing methods, the paper filter is sometimes cited as a drawback, because it captures many of the essential oils and particulate matter that make a cup of coffee taste great. Some coffee drinkers also detect a papery taste imparted by the filter. Using a fine-mesh, metal filter will allow more of the desired flavors to pass through to the finished cup. Also, wetting a paper filter before brewing will help prevent the taste of paper in your cup.
French Press: Long a favorite of coffee connoisseurs, a French press allows the user complete control over extraction time. The fine metal filter captures the grounds but still allows fine particulates and essential oils to pass through—a delicate tell-tale sheen of oil droplets can be seen on the surface of a cup of French press coffee. This brewing method produces one of the fullest-bodied cups of coffees available, though some drinkers may be turned off by the fine sediment left at the bottom of the cup.
Cold Brew: Also called the toddy process, the cold-brew coffee method uses a coarse grind that’s soaked in cold water. Whether brewed via a fancy apparatus or in a mason jar and filtered through a bandana, the resulting liquid is a rich, low-acid concentrate that can be diluted with hot water, cold water or milk. Though initially time-consuming, it’s a convenient way to have coffee at the ready at all times (lasts several weeks in the fridge), and a great way to make iced coffee.
Turkish or Ethiopian: For this brewing method, coffee is pulverized into a fine powder and boiled—often with sugar or spices. The resultant brew is pungent and served unfiltered.
Blends Versus Single Origins: Single origin refers to beans from a specific location—broadly speaking, the country of origin, but more specifically, a designated region or farm. Single-origin coffees show off the terroir of the producing region, as well as the skill of the producer. Like wine grapes, they will differ from year to year and from one producer to another, even in the same region. Put simply, a blend is a combination of single-origin coffees. Blends tend to show the signature of the roaster, and are created to achieve a specific flavor profile. While the components of a blend may change over time, the overall flavor profile will not.
Trade, Fair and Direct: One of the most commonly asked coffee questions I hear is whether or not a coffee is fair trade. While this may seem like a simple question, the answer is not. Coffee, being an agricultural product, is subject to the whims of nature and the caprices of the market on which it’s traded. As a result, the price fluctuates dramatically, which, in an off year, can be devastating to coffee growers whose livelihood often depends solely on this crop. This is where fair-trade certification enters the equation.
TransFair USA is a third-party organization that certifies coffee based on economic, environmental and social sustainability. Products meeting its criteria will carry the familiar Fair Trade Certified mark. The premium paid for Fair Trade Certified coffee assures consumers that the coffee is produced sustainably, and that the producers are paid a fair price for their product. Obviously, fair-trade certification is an excellent step toward narrowing the gap between what consumers are willing to pay for coffee and what producers are paid for their product. But it’s not a complete solution. What, for example, are the barometers of quality? If all producers are required to be members of a co-op, what does that mean for the ambitious, talented, unaffiliated grower? And what enforcement mechanisms are in place? For example, using the words “Fair Trade Certified” or the FTC logo without permission from TransFair is a violation of its trademark, but labeling a conventionally traded coffee as simply “Fair Trade,” while unethical, is legal and not a rare practice. Furthermore, the lack of fair-trade certification does not necessarily mean unfair trade. This is where direct trade enters the picture.
Direct Trade is the service mark of Chicago coffee roaster Intelligentsia, and refers to its practice of traveling directly to countries of origin and establishing trade relationships with producers. However, direct trade more broadly refers to the evolution of the efforts by TransFair and other organizations to ensure that a higher percentage of a coffee’s purchase price goes to the grower. Direct trade seeks to eliminate as many of the middlemen as possible between producer and coffee roaster.
Of course, most independent coffee companies cannot afford to travel to every distant port of call to establish direct relationships with coffee growers. Instead, they rely on companies like Mercanta to perform this service. Some roasters will have direct-trade relationships with one or a few producers, and supplement those purchases with coffee bought through a reputable importer.
What it boils down to is being able to trust the company from which you’re buying coffee. Ask questions and be open to new ideas—just because fair-trade certification is a good and accepted idea doesn’t mean that there aren’t other, possibly better, models of doing business.
There are two main types of coffee grinders available to the home user: the blade grinder, which houses a spinning blade that chops the coffee beans into irregular pieces, and the burr grinder, which features adjustable burrs that create uniform grounds—a necessity for espresso drinkers and the choice of connoisseurs. While those caffeine fiends possessing $100 burr grinders in their homes are coffee drinkers after my own heart, a burr grinder is not a priority for the average Joe drinker unless you’re making espresso or have a considerable budget for gadgets. Consistency of grind affects brewing consistency—this is crucial to espresso, which is made under pressure. As water travels along the path of least resistance, the coffee will channel and extract unevenly if the coffee isn’t ground and tamped consistently. The most important thing about a coffee grinder is to own one—grinding coffee at home is the only way to get the maximum freshness from your beans. Coffee begins to lose its freshness immediately after grinding.
Cold brew or French press: Coarse
Flat bottom paper filter: Medium
Conical filter: Medium-fine
Turkish: Powder, pulverized