Avoiding the Push Down the Rabbit Hole

I’ve been hanging around coffee forums again, and realized my dander was rising to levels requiring a post here, away from the proscribed topics and heat of the public fray. Frequently, a new member will pop into the forums to ask about using an air popper to roast coffee. Around and around we go about how inadequate this method is; do it some other way; why put yourself through it? Maybe because it’s the best coffee has tasted. Maybe it’s a lot of fun–the act of roasting–and you learn a lot about coffee. It could be because it’s so fresh. It’s cheaper, too.
Risking the curmudgeon tag, there’s a trend in coffee shops today, a phase in which the apex of coffee roasting is to take the roast just to the end of first crack. This is called a City roast. One is supposed to be able to divine origin flavors and characteristics of a particular varietal. If you roast too far you burn up the sugars and burn off the flavors unlocked by the roasting process. That’s all good and sensible. But often sweetness is left on the table, as the gods of the roast are in thrall to acidity above all other qualities of a high end cultivar. If they roasted anywhere from 15 to 50 seconds longer sweetness would be increased.
It’s iron law right now. I’d been waiting for months for the newest emporium to open, and since the proprietors all migrated from an old-line, mainstream roaster I anticipated a more flexible take on roasting. Nope, it’s all City, all pourover, all the time. Putting a medium roast on a coffee is verboten.
I have bought brewed coffee at all the best shops in town. I have had a vacpot of the same coffee I roast and brew at home using a popper and French Press. I have had V60 pourovers of Ethiopias, Kenyas, and a Sulawesi. They were uniformly better than anything one might get at a restaurant or hotel, but none were nearly as good as what I do at home, while kneeling and shaking a popper loaded with 68 grams of gray-green seeds. They are not “beans”.
The owners

are the professionals, so how can this be? I voraciously pored over the literature on roasting. I taught myself a lot. I think after a stretch of figuring out what was going on with roasts and how to generate reasonably repeatable results I can point to four factors that allow me to enjoy the best coffee of which I know: the system–the fluid bed air roasting and the necessarily nano-nano batch sizes, roast level, freshness, and brew method.
If you’re used to drum-roasted coffee, air-roasted is often an acquired taste. The drum imparts a richness that can seem lacking in air-roasted coffee. What one tastes is what highly-heated air does to the coffee. It can be incredibly revealing of the inherent flavors of a varietal. One learns to appreciate this “window on clarity”. I believe it’s more true to the coffee. I don’t miss the drum.
But I think the other three factors comprise the reasons my coffee is better than theirs. I think most great coffees–dry-process Ethiopias, Kenyas, Rwandas, good Guatemalans, are best shown off at City +. This is the stage of the roast just beyond City. I’ve made a few City roasts that were astounding, but it seemed to be just luck. More often, City + has all the acidity and complexity of a City roast, but with just a little more caramelization sweetness will be foregrounded. It’s City, but enhanced. Of course you can roast it anyway you want at home. A Full City on a DP Ethiopian can be glorious as well, in fact it can taste more “balanced” than the almost crazy fruits and florals found in a light-roasted African varietal such as this. A slightly darker roast can “tame” or change the flavor profile.
The shops typically use coffee five-to-ten days post-roast. This is not ideal. The aforementioned DP Ethiopians’ florals are the first to fade, and do so quickly. They are at their best no more than 3 days post-roast in my experience.
Brew method: this is where I get to make funny. The French Press is an immersion method–the grounds are in the water. In the water are oils. Volatile aromatics waft from the crust. Presently, one will filter the brew with metal screens. There will be sediment. So don’t take the last sip. I steep for six minutes. Chris Schooley, a roaster with Sweet Maria’s and Coffee Shrub, (a major online greens vendor and its b-to-b offshoot), plays no favorites but has said that French Press coffee can be sweeter while pourovers–Hario, Chemex, Kalita Wave, etc. highlight acidity. In this method the water is in the grounds, which sit on top of paper, and the resulting liquid is drained off into a receptacle. No oils. No sediment. No…haha.

Acidity is great, it can be very welcoming to the palate; it should be prized. But if it could be naturally sweet, too, would you want that?
I do. These high end shops say they roast correctly…all their parameters are on point…they don’t even stock milk and sugar…then what do they do? Hand you over an underdeveloped hot beverage run through paper because it’s convenient for them. All this rigmarole and whaddya know, we’re busy here. Then they extract $6 for the privilege of their enlightenment. We wanna buy a Steampunk and go to all the barista competitions, you see?
I say take it one step further, with a twist: How about no paper, and buy 50 8-cup Bodums and get to washing and drying beakers and screens!
Yes, it takes more time. We’ll all have to just plan better to get our great coffee. What’s five more minutes? You’re that rushed? Maybe you’ll have to find another place. As Yogi said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
I would leap through their front window if they could prove to me their coffee tastes better than mine. They haven’t come close yet.
Coffee is too great to cut corners.

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