Tag: brewing

Re: Manual Brewing: On the Rise or On Its Way Out?

This post is a response to this post on manual brewing , which links to the most recent issue of Barista Mag, which you can read here!

I have been thinking about manual brew for a while, spurred on mostly by assertions by some in the industry that manual brew is the only responsible way to present specialty coffees.

To keep things straight, when I refer here to a manually brewed coffee, I’m taking for given that it is a cup that is well executed and properly served. The grind is attended to, the barista cares, all of the pieces of the puzzle are in place. I think we can all agree that a manual brew program done poorly is, frankly, no better than snake oil, and probably is setting the industry back by building a distrust into the exact early adopters we would normally seek to impress.

I think that for some special coffees, especially 90+ coffees that come at significant expense to the roaster, and then to the retailer, do deserve to be brewed and served by the cup. I would agree that it would be irresponsible to serve a 92 Kenyan in a one-gallon batch, regardless of how good that batch brewer is. That is, I do not think it is irresponsible to the farmer – they have already received the higher cost of their higher-quality coffee (maybe, hopefully) – but rather it is irresponsible to your customer. If a customer is paying a premium for an excellent coffee, they deserve to get that coffee ground, prepared, and served exclusively to them. They deserve to have that cup at the very best that you can offer it to them, especially since they are willing to pay a premium for it. This is mostly due to the rapid decline brewed coffee (especially excellent brewed coffee) experiences stored in an airpot – stored in any pot. I acknowledge that airpot technology could improve! But right now, there are many top-flight coffees that it would be incredibly difficult to serve well and profitably using a batch brewer.

That being said, I believe that the vast majority of coffee, including an awful lot of coffee that is getting by-the-cup treatment today, would be just as well served using a batch brewing system. A well-tuned, properly-cleaned batch brewer with low (very low) hold times, can allow customers to enjoy good-to-great coffees at a reasonable price point. I think that if you have an 82-scoring coffee that does not diminish in a huge way by batch brewing, if you serve that coffee by-the-cup and charge $4 for it, you are doing a disservice to your customer. You could serve an excellent product at a lower but still profitable price point, serve more customers in less time, and split tips with at least one fewer co-worker.

I think that there are 3 ideal set ups (which are being done by many!):

1.) Pure Manual: All coffee is made manually. This type of cafe will only bring in the kind of coffee that deserves to be brewed manually. Bringing in lower-scoring coffees is simply not in the business plan. Slightly slower service and higher labor costs are accepted and expected. Their customers will leave home 5 minutes earlier, because the coffee is that good. (ie: SPRO, Intelly, MadCap)

2.) Pure Batch Brew: This cafe understands its context and customers will not allow for a manual program – they are in-and-out, and make this clear with their spending habits. Or, perhaps the ownership is simply not interested in the training and QC that goes along with an all-manual set-up – or whatever. This cafe brings in only coffees that they can make sing using a batch brewer – and these coffees exist! It is a bit tougher to distinguish these cafes from their less-specialty cousins, but they’re out there. They recognize that for whatever reason, they cannot responsibly serve high-quality coffees using their batch brewer, and as such leave that to their more maniacal brethren. (ie Seven Stars, Handsome (sort of))

3.) The Hybrid: This cafe works to bring in both coffees that can do well in a batch program, and sells them at an appropriately lower price point compared to the smaller by-the-cup menu. Their customers can include both the in-and-out crowd and the hang-and-sip coffee nerds who really are interested in what elevation their coffee is grown at. This straddling of the fence is complicated, but could pay off. (I don’t have a good example)

I think if I were to open a shop, #3 would be my choice. A tiered pricing structure, allowing for the morning just-a-coffee crowd to do their thing, and a higher price-point menu of next-level brews for those who are into it.


5/8/2012 Brew

Random Brew Recipe:   98g coffee / 1 kg water, 5 minute brew time.

Brew Method: Aeropress
Actual Recipe: 20g coffee, 200g water at 198F
Coffee: Rwanda Coko Coop from New Harvest Coffee Roasters

Notes notes notes:  This is a one-two punch; a high dose with a long brew time. Since things were already way off my usual specs, I figured I’d use an Aeropress; why not? I coarsened the grind quite a lot (ELEC PERC on a Bunn), and avoided any kind of agitation during the brew time. All five minutes of it.

Once pressed, the coffee was actually at its peak while quite hot, which I find to be unusual. It also presented an interesting sweetness that I’ve never tasted in this coffee before, a toasted marshmallow kind of browned sugar sweet. This faded as the temperature cooled, with the finish growing longer and dryer as it cooled, with almost no sweetness remaining at room temperature. We had a barista training on bar, and I used that finish as the perfect illustration of the finish one expects from an overextracted cup.

I’d give this recipe in an Aeropress a 3/10. It would probably be not as punishing with a non-immersion brew – a FetCo Extractor springs to mind.

Also: If you are a Providence / Boston local, the First Ever Providence Aeropress Championship is being held this month! Sponsored by the Providence Coffee Society, New Harvest Coffee Roasters, Aerobie and others – read more about it here. 

5/1/2012 Brew

Random Brew Recipe:   30g coffee / 1 kg water, 1 minute brew time.

Brew Method: Clever
Actual Recipe: 6g coffee, 200g water at 198F
Coffee: Honduras Las Flores from New Harvest Coffee Roasters

Notes notes notes: This coffee is thin and insidious. It opens with a somewhat round body that almost immediately fades into a long, dry finish. I suspect that these poor brews are a result of my slowed posting, some kind of cybernetic revenge emerging from the seemingly random machinations of the Random Brew Generator. It is a fickle mistress, to be certain.

There is something in the cup to indicate that it isn’t low-quality swill; it’s thin but not without some sweetness, and while unsatisfying it is certainly not actively offensive, as have many similar cups I’ve had at diners and hotels across this great nation. It is better than anything I’ve had at a free breakfast, but in a sense it is worse exactly because it hints at how good it could be if only someone had cared just a little bit more. That being said, if 30g/L for one minute (one minute!) produced this cup, it boggles the mind as to exactly how someone buying high-quality coffee could make a really aggressively bad cup. But they do!

I’d give it an 3/10.

4/26/2012 Brew

Random Brew Recipe:  67g coffee / 1 kg water, 3 minute brew time.

Brew Method: Aeropress
Actual Recipe: 14g coffee, 200g water at 201F
Coffee: Ecuador Loja from Tonx Coffee

Notes notes notes: Thanks to Mark (@marcushundley) for sharing his Tonx!

Huge nose on this coffee, both through the grinder and in the cup. Through the grinder it was just a sweet berry, in the cup it was distinctly that thick, sweet smell of a cherry cordial. The long brew time in the Aeropress pushed it over the edge, but it still had heavy, dripping chocolate-covered cherry body and flavor. A little tart berry in the finish – I’m excited to try this coffee again with brew parameters a little closer to previous outstanding Aeropress brews.

I am very curious how this would pull as an espresso – it has the kind of flavor that is not just enjoyable, but armed with the kind of clarity and distinct nameable notes that make me immediately think of what a competition routine would look like using this bean. Probably a presentation on Ecuador and the Tonx model, direct-to-consumer coffee evolution…

I’d give it an 8/10.

4/25/2012 Brew

Random Brew Recipe:  32g coffee / 1 kg water, 2 minute brew time.

Brew Method: French Press
Actual Recipe: 16g coffee, 500g water at 198F
Coffee: Honduras Las Flores from New Harvest Coffee Roasters

Notes notes notes: 16g is a woefully tiny amount of ground coffee in a 500mL french press. Even grinding quite fine results in a brew that just looks strange: muddy and silty as you’d expect a finely-ground french press cup, but quite light, more tan than brown. I was not looking forward to this cup.

Using a french press helped to add a little body, but the flavor itself is practically missing. It’s a hot cup of something – not water, certainly, but in a blind tasting I don’t know that I’d identify it as coffee, either. It’s present in the mouth but without any kind of acidity or actual flavor to associate with the heft. It isn’t offensive or hard to drink, but it isn’t interesting  – it isn’t much of ANYthing, really.

I’d give it an 3/10. I don’t think this recipe would work with any coffee.