Off topic: on coffee

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Anybody who spends any length of time in the creative industry will soon realise that it’s really coffee, not money, that fuels everything from ad campaigns to shoots to postproduction. Models don’t shun it like energy drinks because you can have it without sugar, and in small (espresso) volumes, and it’s still just as potent. It’s also legal and relatively easy to obtain when travelling, and you can bring your own without being questioned about what those pills or powders are. I’ve long been reliant on the drink (finance and consulting run on it, too) but only in the last couple of years developed more than a passing interest in it. Like the drink, think of today’s post as a little refresher/ break from the photographic content…

My preferences at the moment run to either espresso or a very fine French press called an Espro; it works the same way as the traditional French press (add coffee grinds, hot water, stir, wait, depress plunger to filter out the solids) – but does it with literally a little bit more finesse. There’s two sets of very fine stainless steel mesh screens attached to the plunger that filter out very, very fine coffee grinds. This leaves you with a cleaner brew, but also the ability to use much finer grinds to begin with – which helps with flavour extraction and avoiding only getting the stronger (and often bitter or sour) notes dominating. The first time I had coffee made in this method, it was a bit of a revelation: I’d always associated French press with being strong but a little unrefined, and the other options (espresso aside, which I’ll digress to later) as either weak or ‘masked’ (anything with milk, for instance). The Espro revealed a world of flavour I’d been missing, even from the same beans: a good cup from an Espro is like an espresso that’s been lengthened, with the same complexity and nearly the same intensity, too.

The Espro takes between 2-3 minutes to steep, depending on the fineness of your grind, preference of brew strength and water temperature – it can be longer or shorter, but I prefer to have more time to control flavour development (too long results in bitterness and overextraction, too short is typically sour, weak and lacking in body). There is of course a need to balance this with personal patience and the need to start the proverbial engine – 4-5 minutes can feel like an eternity ?

This is of course where the espresso comes in: I can usually be drinking within a minute or so, or perhaps 30 seconds longer if the machine is cold and I have to wait for the boiler to come up to temperature. Unfortunately, whilst my beans will grind consistently in five seconds, tamping is a few seconds more, and extraction 20-30 depending on how much liquid you want – I think pulling a consistently good shot is one of the most difficult things to do from a culinary standpoint. Flavour is affected by several factors: the bean itself; the darkness of the roast; the grind fineness, which determines how much of the aromatic oil is extracted from the bean; the tamping, which affects extraction time; the water pressure; the temperature, and the water volume. Some things counteract each other, too: you can make up for tighter packing with higher pressure, for instance – but you can’t compensate for a darker roast by looser packing or lower temperature. Theoretically, you could come up for an ideal formula to match your desired taste profile to the bean; a certain temperature, pressure, water volume, grind setting and tamping pressure – but you;’d still have an inconsistent brew because coffee is of course an organic product, and no two batches of beans are the same.

If you’re thinking you can get around this by stockpiling, that of course doesn’t work, either. Oxidation means that you’ve probably got a week to two, maximum, before the flavour profile of the beans changes materially and you land up with something that’s going to require compensation to achieve the taste profile you want. Some expertise with the same varietal is required to determine both how the flavour profile changes with age, whether this is something you like, and whether you can compensate for any undesirable effects. Personally, having tried a very wide variety of both Arabica and Robusta blends, single origins and self-mixes, I’ve come to the conclusion that a particular medium-roasted, Ethiopian-sourced Yirgacheffe Red Cherry varietal is ‘the one’ that works for me. It’s roasted by a friend of mine in Penang, and yes, he ships overseas. I have a standing order for a kilo a month – anything more frequent doesn’t make sense from a posting standpoint, and anything less frequent results in the last bag being not very good.

This particular bean seems to be surprisingly consistent with little flavour degradation over time; peak is about a week to two, and it’s still good after four if kept in an airtight container after roasting. The flavour profile varies quite a bit depending on method of preparation: I’ve had it as a relatively low temperature pourover that yielded something dark, fruity and not that dissimilar in complexity to a good red wine; very slightly tannic with stone fruit top notes and chocolate base notes. If brewed as an espresso, the chocolate intensifies and becomes dark; there’s less stone fruit and a hint of nuts and honey. In the Espro, it’s somewhere between – lots of dark chocolate, and a bit of the rest to keep things interesting. I personally like it best as either espresso or Espro, and with a little more coffee than is traditionally recommended (12-13g for a single ‘unit’, one espresso or ~150mL of Espro). Yes, it makes the body heavier, but I’m also a huge fan of dark chocolate. Towards the end of the bean’s life, you lose the fruit and tend towards more chocolate. Despite the increased darkness/weight/heaviness, this seems to make for a better espresso, though it gets harder to hit that ideal peak between sourness and bitterness. It’s also good as a 50-50 espresso-water mix. Interestingly, an equally big change in flavour profile happens with temperature: it’s good piping hot, but improves to optimum somewhere just below the point of ‘just cool enough to drink’ with falloff fairly soon afterwards. I haven’t seen this kind of behaviour in other beans, which (personally) tend to be better served hotter.

Unexpectedly, I’m going to end this with a photographic analogy: much like image-making, coffee making is one of those equipment-heavy pursuits; just as you cannot make an image without some form of camera (even if it’s a box with a hole and some film), you cannot make coffee without some form of apparatus – even if it’s just a pot and wooden spoon (don’t use a metal one, they can react in a horrible-tasting way). Again, like photography, I think it’s very easy to go overboard and land up with a 3-group Marzocco, new plumbing, more coffee club bean subscriptions than you can drink, and a second mortgage – it become so much of a hassle to actually make a cup of coffee that it’s no longer enjoyable to do so; in the end you go to Starbucks or just use Nescafe. I’m glad I didn’t go down that route, and I’m deliberately holding off buying a ‘better’ machine – because what I’ve got works perfectly to deliver the taste that I want.

But here’s the thing: there was one piece of equipment that turned out to be far more important than you might think: the grinder. I think of this as the coffee analog to a tripod; it’s not very sexy, but without a good one, you’re not going to be consistently able to extract the most from your scene (or beans). Having a good grinder expands your brewing envelope dramatically – mine will do everything from the near-dust required for Turkish coffee to coarse bits you might drop into a chocolate truffle for some extra zing. But it will do it consistently, and quickly: this is important because you don’t want a grinder that outputs particles of varying size at the same setting (you can’t adequately tamp, nor can you filter out all of the bits from your French press or cold brew), and your don’t want the first bits of freshly ground coffee to oxidise whilst you’re still grinding. There have been (quasi?) scientific studies which have shown that fresh coffee goes off-peak within as little as 30 seconds to a minute – my own unscientific tests suggests this is highly possible. It’s not surprising given that the aromatic oils are already evaporating the minute you crack the bean, and the only way to retain that flavour is to dissolve it as quickly as possible – the faster you can get between grinds and pour or shot pull, the better. And on that note, I need my afternoon shot… MT

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