Cream

I enjoy just a bit of half and half in my single origin coffee. As a committed coffee third wave-er, it’s a tough thing for me to say publicly, but it’s the truth. When I was roasting with Flying Five Coffee, I never added anything to the single origins we offered. I mean, it’s common third wave knowledge that you just don’t add anything to your single origins. After all, you’re after tasting the bean and the terroir of that origin, right?

As my other posts in this blog might indicate, I’m a huge fan of Cortados for espresso. For me, it’s the perfect balance of espresso and microfoam milk goodness. I feel that the sweetness in the milk always brings out interesting tastes in the espresso. Much more milk than a Cortado and the espresso’s character typically gets lost, drowned out in the milk.

For me, it’s the same with single origins. Actually, truth be told, I like tasting single origins both ways: on their own, and with a little half and half. It’s interesting to taste the differences between the two, and I find that the slight sweetness of the half and half often brings out some interesting tastes in the single origin coffee that I’m drinking.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about dumping a ton of cream into the single origin. I’m talking about just a teaspoon to a tablespoon of half-and-half in an 8 oz cup. Pouring a ton of cream into a coffee is the same thing for me as a latte: all you really taste is milk, and the origin character of the coffee is lost.

So, I say challenge the common third wave wisdom, and do the unthinkable: put just a bit of half and half in your favorite single origin coffee and see how it turns out.

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Macchiato Thoughts

In Seattle, a Cortado is a Macchiato, so I ended up ordering a number of Macchiatos so I could enjoy my favorite drink on vacation – a Cortado. Ordering so many Macchiatos to get my Cortado made me wonder what exactly a Macchiato is to me, so I went looking.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Macchiatos. I’ve occasionally had them over the years, but I can’t say I’ve ever gotten the gist of the drink. Back in the Flying Five days, I drank a decent bit of straight espresso, and also a lot of Cortados, and I explored the in-between region some, but really only to pass through on the way to finding Cortados.

I’ve ordered a decent number of Macchiatos, and it’s amazing how many different drinks you get from the same name. Putting Starbucks’ interpretation of this drink name aside, I’ve been places where a Macchiato is espresso with exactly one tablespoon of foam placed on the top, period. Then, on the other end, visit Seattle and ask for a Macchiato and you’ll be enjoying a very nice 1:1 Cortado.

Personally, I think the Microfoam revolution is to blame. Back in the old days before we figured out how to make delicious creamy texture-y Microfoam, a Macchiato was clearer. Translated from Italian, Macchiato means “marked”, and you could make a strong argument from that that a Macchiato should be espresso with some foam on top. But, as James Hoffman points out in his Macchiato post on his jimseven.com blog, even that tradition-based description is flawed: apparently in Italy, baristas were marking espresso with milk way before anyone figured out how to steam milk and make foam.

For me, microfoam changes everything, and it made me realize that I hadn’t tried to find my Macchiato in the age of microfoam. So, I went looking. And what I found surprised me.

I started off by playing with ratios of milk to espresso. I took a shot of espresso, and started adding milk a bit at a time. It didn’t seem this way to start, but a rule of thumb emerged: for it to be a different drink for me, the drink character had to be different in some way.

Here’s what I mean: when I took a teaspoon, or something like 0.1 oz of milk and added it a shot of 1.8 oz espresso, it didn’t really change the character of the drink much. It tasted basically like espresso with a tiny bit of milk in it. But, not really different.

It wasn’t until I got to about 1:4 milk to espresso that I felt that I had a different drink. Let me back up and be detailed here: I’m using my Bezzera Strega lever espresso machine, and for this exploration, I was using Storm King espresso from Thump coffee (a new arrival to Denver). And, as is typical for me, I was obsessively weighing both the shot and the amount of microfoamed milk that I was adding.

As straight espresso, I get a big chocolate note from this espresso, as well as a deep cherry note. As a 1:4 ratio, the chocolate note fades a bit and morphs into a big deep cherry-chocolate note. Really enjoyable, and really a different note than the espresso alone.

So, perfect, for me, a Macchiato is 1:4, which seems to fit with tradition: in my mind, you’re still “marking” the drink, and it neatly fits my rule of thumb in that it changes the espresso character. 1:4 is my Macchiato, case closed, right?

Well, I was enjoying the espresso so much, I kept looking and I found what for me is yet another drink down below the happy Cortado-land that I typically live in. At 1:2, for me, the deep cherry-chocolate note changes: a milk-chocolate note emerges and the cherry starts to fade somewhere in the direction of peach for me.

And, of course, I couldn’t stop myself from also making a Cortado and drinking that as well. In the Cortado with Thump’s espresso, I get a very pleasant faded milk-chocolate note, and a nice peach note. Interestingly, despite having had many Cortados with this espresso before this exploration, I never thought to call that note “cherry”, it was always “peach”.

So, if I take my rule of thumb seriously, I have to call this drink at a 1:2 ratio a different drink that lives between Macchiatos and Cortados. I’m sure this varies by individual taste, type of espresso, pump vs lever, pressure profiling and probably the phase of the moon too.

But, for me, it’s a drink that stands on its own, and is worth a look.

In Seattle, a Cortado is a Macchiato

Over the summer, my family went to the Pacific Northwest on vacation. One of the fun things we did on our trip was go and try different coffee places when we were in Seattle. As I’ve written here before, my favorite coffee drink is a Cortado, which in my mind is a perfect balancing of 1:1 espresso and microfoam milk.

When we were in Seattle, Cortados weren’t on anyone’s menu. That’s not unusual though, it’s sort of an insider drink at a lot of places. You just have to ask for it. In Seattle though, when I asked, nobody knew what a Cortado was. I explained the 1:1 ratio, and then suddenly all the baristas I talked to knew exactly what I was talking about and made the drink immediately, and without any trouble at all.

I’d end up with a perfect 1:1 Cortado in a cup that was seemingly sized exactly to fit the drink. I got a little suspicious: usually when you ask someone to make a drink that isn’t on the menu, they won’t have a cup that fits it perfectly. Plus, a number of shops were pouring latte art into Cortados with amazing skill. That’s tough to do in a Cortado: there’s not much milk to work with. It’s not called “latte” art by accident.

Then, at the end of the trip, I noticed someone ordering a Macchiato, and out popped what I call a Cortado. Mystery solved: In Seattle, a Cortado is a Macchiato.

 

Thump Coffee, Denver CO

A new coffee shop opened a few weeks ago in the Capital Hill area of Denver that’s definitely worth checking out. They’re new to Denver, but Thump is from Bend Oregon where they’ve had a shop and a roasting facility.

I’m always both excited and apprehensive to try a new place. I love trying new coffee and seeing what different places do with their space and how they feel. But, what if their coffee isn’t any good?

No such worries at Thump. After just walking in the door, I knew that it was going to be great. We were greeted with a very pleasant open space with a lot of seating that was completely occupied on a Sunday afternoon. I immediately was drawn to the Steampunk, a new siphon-like machine they have for their single origins. I was so interested in seeing one of these machines in person, that it took me a while to notice that they had Slayer espresso machines.

Steampunk or Slayer? It’s impossible to choose, there’s only one answer: both. I had an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe out of the Steampunk, and a Cortado out of the Slayer. Both were fantastic.

My 6 year old had a hot chocolate with chocolate syrup that they make at Thump, and his verdict? He finished it off, and with a big chocolate mustache, he said: “That was ridiculously yummy.”

When we went in, there were no seats left, and we decided just to stand in the back with a little railing. It turns out we stood next to where their roaster is going to go: it’s on its way. Right now, the beans are shipped in from Oregon, but once it arrives, they’re be roasting in the store.

We stood there for a bit enjoying our drinks, and were perfectly happy. But, they noticed we were standing and apologized that there weren’t any seats left and brought out extra chairs from the back for us. How great is that?

So, both for the very friendly staff and for the excellent coffee (and hot chocolate), definitely go and welcome Thump to Denver.

Espresso Pressure Profiling and the Bezzera Strega

In the last 4-6 years, pressure profiling of espresso has been a cutting-edge technique to extract different interesting tastes out of espresso. The latest crop of the best commercial espresso machines all have pressure profiling capabilities: the Synesso Hydra, the La Marzocco Strada, the Slayer and others. These machines have high-tech approaches to change the pressure electronically during the shot. So, what is pressure profiling, and what does it accomplish?

Pressure profiling is the ability to vary the extraction pressure over time during an espresso shot. Typical pump-driven espresso machines extract at a constant 9 bars of water pressure during a shot. With pressure profiling, the pressure can be changed at will during the shot from 0-9 bars.

I haven’t had the opportunity to work with these machines myself, but the consensus that I’ve heard is that pressure profiling undoubtedly changes the taste of a shot. However, that change can be better or worse depending on what you do with the profile and the particular espresso blend you’re working with.

The only consensus that I’ve heard is that a gradual pre-infusion ramp to 9 bars almost always is a good thing, and then a declining pressure curve from 9 bars to a lower number at the end of the shot also generally improves a shot.

The funny thing to me about this consensus is that older lever machines have had both these characteristics for a very long time. Spring-driven levers inherently have a declining pressure curve: they typically have a peak of 9 bars and then decline to 4-5 at the end of the shot. Also, levers are usually plumbed in, and their design results in an initial pre-infusion at the water pressure of the line.

I’d worked with a Synesso Cyncra for years with Flying Five Coffee, and after Flying Five closed, I didn’t have an espresso machine for a few years while I tried to figure out a home machine that could measure up. After a two different Denver coffee shops switched away from their lever machines to Hydra’s and Strada’s, I was nostalgic for the lever taste that I had been enjoying. 

After lots of research and hand-wringing, I came across the Bezzera Strega, a “prosumer” lever machine. I’ve really enjoyed this machine, and I think the engineers at Bezzera are telling us something with its design.

Two features of the Bezzera in my opinion bring the Strega into the modern age and produce shots that vie with commercial pressure-profiled shots. First, they added a group-head heater to keep the temperature of the shot within about 5 degrees. This isn’t Hydra or Strada accuracy, but it is in the right neighborhood, and the results are great. With my old Synesso, I could taste differences as low as 2 degrees, and I can taste differences now with my Strega, so better temperature control would be a nice thing. But, what they’ve accomplished now is definitely good enough.

The second feature is a built-in vibration pump. Ostensibly, this pump allows the machine not to have to be plumbed in, but rather pull water from its built-in reservoir. But, in making the pump a 9 bar pump instead of putting in a 3 bar pump to mimic a typical water line pressure, I think the engineers at Strega are taking a cue from the pressure profiling world. The vibe pump creates a nice pre-infusion to 9 bars, which then switches over to the spring in the lever, starting at the same 9 bar pressure. The result is a nice continuous pressure curve that appears to match up with the pressure profiling consensus.

In a sense, with pressure profiling, we’ve learned some reasons why lever machines still have such a fanatical following today. It’s poetic that after some high tech development, the pressure profiling consensus found its way back to where espresso was born. The first espresso with crema was produced by Achille Gaggia with a lever in the 1940’s. 

Everything old is new again.

Freezing Coffee Beans

If you ask people who care about quality coffee whether to freeze their beans to help preserve their taste, you’ll get two wildly different answers. Some will say: yes, freeze them, freeze them immediately, and you’re a fool if you don’t. Others will say that freezing is always bad, and why would you even consider doing such a terrible thing to your freshly roasted coffee? With such different and strong opinions, is it possible that there’s the middle ground here?

Freshly roasted coffee is a wonderful thing. When you first encounter coffee just a few days out of the roaster, it’s like drinking an entirely new beverage. It’s fairly widely accepted in quality coffee that you should always buy freshly roasted beans and drink them up within a week or two from the roast date. And, I completely agree: fresh beans are always best.

The freeze camp was probably started by Mike Sivetz, the very scientific coffee inventor and researcher that invented the fluid bed air roaster. Mike has some very interesting patents on freezing coffee that lay out the case for freezing. Vastly simplified, the argument looks like this: coffee’s main enemy is oxidation, and chemical reactions slow down as the temperature goes down, and so oxidation is reduced at low temperatures. Mike took it much farther than that of course , essentially proving that freezing measurably slows oxidation down, and also slows the escape of CO2 from coffee as well.

The never-freeze camp says that freezing coffee causes trapped water to expand when it freezes, and this expansion breaks down the cell walls in the beans, releasing some trapped flavor oils and altering its structure.

Puzzled by this split-decision of the coffee industry, a number of years ago I set out to form my own opinion. I took some freshly roasted coffee, and froze some immediately after roasting, and kept some unfrozen. Then, I did day-by-day cuppings of both to attempt to prove to myself which was right.

The result? My opinion is that both camps are right. Freezing results in an immediate slight degradation in taste. But, you can’t fight oxidation, and so slowly the frozen coffee catches up to its unfrozen siblings. My take is that about between days 7-10 out of the roaster, it crosses over, and the frozen coffee preserves the taste and represents the coffee better than the unfrozen coffee.

The other interesting thing I found is that freeze-thaw cycles seem to each have their own penalty. Every time you freeze and thaw, you lose a bit in taste, perhaps something like 5 or so days of sitting idle.

For me, the result is a fairly simple answer: I keep whatever beans I’m going to drink in the next 7-10 days unfrozen, and then I freeze the rest. Then, after I’ve gone through then unfrozen part, I unfreeze a few days worth of beans at a time.

 

Scales

I’ve been using scales for brewing coffee for years. My friend who owns a bakery first clued me into this way of controlling not only the amount of grounds, but also the amount of water that go into a particular brew.

At first glance, it would seem like measuring water with a scale is overkill: it’s easy to measure water with a cup measure. However, when brewing drip/pour-over with fresh coffee, the bloom of the coffee prevents you from being able to accurately measure the water going into the brewing vessel. Same deal with espresso: the crema in your shot expands the volume so that you can’t measure it effectively. So, scales to the rescue: they precisely measure the amount of water regardless of bloom or crema. 

For pour-over or french press, I’m typically brewing for just myself. For a French Press, I measure out 14g of beans and then put a scale underneath the press. I then pour in 210g of water. How did I arrive at these numbers? I started with how much coffee I like to drink in the morning: about 7-ish ounces. I then used a 15:1 brewing ratio of water to grounds and converted it all to grams. This concept of a brewing ratio is a useful one: you can use it to find what ratios you enjoy, and then scale up or down the amount of coffee you like to drink.

For espresso, I’m even a bit more obsessive than most with scales. I use them at the grinding and brewing end. For my grinder, I measure out a bit more than 18g of beans, and then after I grind it, I tare it down to 18g precisely. Why take this extra step? It’s because of my grinder: despite my best efforts, some grinds tend to get trapped, and so the amount that comes out varies a decent bit.

Then, when brewing, I put a scale underneath the cup I’m pulling the shot into, and measure the amount of espresso in the shot, which is 1.5 oz. This isn’t the usual approach: I’ve seen many coffee shops that do a very good job pull shots into a measured shot glass and measure the shot by volume. While this is a pretty good approach, it’s inaccurate because of the crema expanding the shot and making it difficult to measure. Also, it means that you have to pour the espresso from that shot glass into the drinking cup, and in that process some of the precious crema is left behind in the shot glass. Popping a scale underneath the cup, and pulling the shot right into the cup gives you both precision and collects every morsel of crema.

Is this obsession with precise measurement really necessary? That depends. For me, the precise control of the brewing process provides solid platform that greatly increases my enjoyment of quality coffee. 

Here’s how I think of it: accurate brewing measurements create a technical foundation for the artistic and culinary aspects of quality coffee. Given that solid foundation, it’s fun to explore the possibilities of different coffees and go exploring for different tastes.