Thursday, April 14, 2011

Coffee Love

I have spent the last 24 hours thinking about what my ageing brain absorbed on Tuesday and wondering how exactly I might impart this information to you.

The Speciality Coffee Association of Europe developed their Gold Cup Programme to improve the standard of filter coffee consumed in the marketplace.  The SCAE Gold Cup Brewmaster’s course combines the art and the science of coffee brewing, linking the subjectivity of taste to the objectivity of scientific analysis.
To become a Brewmaster, you must sit an intensive one-day training course.  I attended a Brewmasters Level 1 course held in Marco HQ on Tuesday this week in an attempt to learn how to make the perfect cup of coffee. 

The course covers coffee from the seed, through roasting, grinding, brewing and tasting and includes hands-on grinding and brewing and professional coffee cupping. Most significantly it trained us to scientifically assess extraction rates of any brew, enabling the Brewmaster to objectively assess a filter brew against the Gold Cup standard.

The SCAE Gold Cup Standard recommends for brewing a cup of filter coffee one must use a ration of 1L of fresh water brewed at 92-96C through 60g of freshly ground coffee and filtered through an oxygen bleached filter paper to extract between 18%-22% of solids from the coffee.

Fifteen years ago we were quite likely to have been handed a cup of filter coffee in Ireland. But basically we ruined it.  After years if abuse, filter coffee has a bad reputation.
Our coffee industry, took the cheap route and used less coffee, 30g-40g of it, ground it finer after roasting it darker, made it in bulk, held it for hours and served it up as a fresh filter brew. The result - a disgusting bitter, astringent puddle which we remember from many family weddings and funerals. This practically killed the filter coffee business.  The coffee we know today is the Americano or Espresso, flooded or topped with foamy milk, shots of chocolate or vanilla, to the extent that it is sometimes more like a dessert than a cup of coffee.

The Start of the Process
The Coffee plant  typically grows in regions between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.  There are two main coffee trees - Arabica which make up about 70 percent of the harvest and Robusta which account for about 30 percent.  Arabica being lower in caffeine content than Robusta. 

The coffee bean, as we know it, is half of the seed found in the middle of the coffee 'cherry', the fruit which follows the flower on the bush.  The bean is exposed using  either a wet or a dry method - the wet method involves soaking and washing the cherry so that the pulp is removed.  In the dry, pulped natural process, the bean is spread out to air dry and basically the flesh rots off the bean, leaving it exposed.  This, as you might imagine is the traditional method.  Bearing in mind also that there may be a water shortage in certain coffee producing regions, this is also a necessity.

It is fascinating though that trends world wide are beginning to move towards single estate coffees.  A single origin coffee is one from a specific country, a single-estate coffee comes from a particular coffee estate or plantation in a specific country, and it has diversified again into a micro-lot whereby coffee is coming from a specific plot within a specific estate.  The traceability and knowledge being passed between farmer and importer/roaster and the coffee drinker is amazing.

There are various variable elements at play when you have your roasted bean in your hand the water at the ready.

Roasting is a fine art and is the subject for another course I imagine.  There are some small local roasters in Ireland worth checking out here.  The bean is roasted to varying degrees, cooled usually by air but sometimes using water, ground as consistently as possible and exposed to water to form a cup of coffee.This sounds wildly simple, right?  Well you would be wrong there.

Grinding is infinitely important.  The grinding of the bean increases the surface area of the coffee being exposed to the water molecules and thus influences the rate of extraction.  The finer the grind, the larger the area exposed to water, the stronger the coffee.

This then has to be balanced by time which in turn correlates with the brewing method. 
The temperature of the water is also essential to have correct.  The water should be between 92-96C.  Cold or even warm water will not react with the soluble matter and thus give you an under-extracted cup with less flavour.

The 'turbulence' or wetting of the grounds is the reaction between the water particles and the coffee grounds.  In order to achieve an optimum result, the water should pass uniformly through the grounds allowing for a balanced extraction.  If the depth of coffee in the filter is less than 2.5mm, the water will blast the coffee particles and pass straight through, reducing the contact time of the coffee and water and thus producing an under-extracted cup.

The brewing method is important when considering the other variables like time and grind.  Are you using a filter, french press, percolator, aeropress, vac pot?  What kind of filters do you use? Cloth? Unbleached? Brown?  Is the water that you are using good quality?  Is it hard water or soft water? Very hard water can give you an under-extracted cup due to the excess calcium molecules clinging to the water molecule.  Very soft water can cause over extraction by more readily being absorbed by the coffee. 

I could go on but I suspect you have had enough.

David Walsh (World Cupping Champion 2010, 2nd place among other major accolades) and Paul Stack (MarcoBeverage Systems and creator of the uber boiler) and check them out here

Coffee is one of those things which is universally adored wherever you go.  Maybe the finer nuances between an Americano and a Filter are irrelevant and its okay that we don't move away from the current successful formula.  I think it can also be about who you are with and just how you feel at the time, huddled into Coffee Angels cosy bubble in the Docklands drinking cappucino on a winters morning brings back fond memories. 

Consumer awarness about coffee, its origin, its seasonality, its freshness is important and it is the barista at the coalface who has the greatest opportunity to raise this bar.  So the next time you get a coffee, ask the barista about it ...if they have been trained like they should, they will be more than willing to impart their knowledge and give you a good cup of coffee.  If you are more interested, I would highly recommend embarking on the Brewmasters course, I am hooked!


  1. I have to say Java Republic have been doing a good job on education and consistently good coffee in each outlet. Worthwhile taking a trip to Blachardstown to see the roastery have a good coffee and some of their lovely food !

  2. This sounds like a plan ... will do soon, thanks

  3. Great read Elizabeth! And I'm delighted you gleaned so much from the day... I should have warned you that you'll now never view that leisurely cuppa the same way.

  4. Hi Karl, I had a great day. Thank you for encouraging me to do it, it was all really inspiring, not to mention all the fun coffee geeks I met! Talk soon

  5. That was very interesting. The coffee nerd in me is pining for The Monmouth Coffee House now. You know what, you should start a cafe! *wink*

  6. Hi Wheeler & Co,
    Karl Purdy recommended your great blog.
    Really pleased you enjoyed the brewmaster course. The more informed people become the harder we will have to try and the better our industry will get.
    Keep up the blog it's a super read, now in my bookmarks.