April 2014 Newsletter
Coffee fanatics are endlessly inventive when it comes to getting the
best out of the bean. Coffee brewing was originally all done middle-
eastern style, with freshly roasted stone ground coffee mixed with
water in a small pot and boiled over an open fire. After coffee was
introduced to Europe in the 17th Century, all sorts of interesting
brewing methods were devised.
The Coffee Biggin (basically a drip filter method, with the filter
being a cloth "sock", was invented in the 1780's, followed by the
percolator, the plunger a.k.a. the French Press, invented by Mme.
Melior, and then vacuum brewing methods in the 1860's courtesy of
Robert Napier. Espresso had to wait until 1895, and modern, 9 bar
pressurized espresso until 1948.
While there have been some interesting variations on all of the
above brewing methods since then, there haven't been any really
novel ways of getting brewed coffee out of the combination of beans
and water. What has happened is a lot of tinkering around the edges,
with automation and electronics substituting for various stages of
human input. Many of these inventions strike me as solutions in
search of a problem.
In the last few years I've seen the Clover (vacuum/plunger), the
Bunn Trifecta (pressurized drip) and the Alpha Domiche Steampunk
(vacuum/drip). All of them offer tight electronic control of brewing
parameters, none of them make a better coffee than can be brewed
manually. One thing that they all have in common is more visual
excitement than watching a drip cone or plunger at work. The other
thing they share is a substantial price tag, well out of proportion
to the quality they produce.
Coffee accessories can fall into the same sort of category. There is
no practical difference between a $10.00 tamper and a $100.00
tamper, as long as they both fit properly. Gadgets are more or less
the same. I have a portafilter pressure gauge which gets used once
per machine (during setup) and after that almost never. It's great
if you sell a lot of machines or you're a service tech, but
otherwise pretty useless.
The latest gadget is the VST Refractometer, a device which measures
the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) extracted during brewing and via a
patented "computer program" extrapolates the results to a total
extraction percentage. Which is a useful measurement, because ...
well, just because.
In fact, there is NO scientifically established "correct" extraction
level which can be used for all coffees, all roasts and all brewing
methods. About the best than can be done is to work out what tastes
good, and then measure the extraction. Sort of like noting the oven
temperature after you've baked the cake.
Could you use the VST to correlate extraction to taste? Possibly.
Has it been done in any scientifically meaningful way? No.
Unfortunately, the people it's being pitched to, high end coffee
shops, competition baristas and coffee geeks are rarely
scientifically trained. The reality is that the VST is an expensive
gadget with limited real world use, which doesn't stop the makers
from trying hard to sell it as an "essential solution", but to what
This month's special is
Colombia Agustino Forest
A distinctive sweet almond aroma and flavour, zingy acidity, light
body and clean caramel aftertaste. Absolutely top class Colombian.
Until next month