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    Entries in how to brew (10)


    Grind it better - the Hario Skerton

    Our French press broke the other day, so I went out and bought a grinder. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense, but I’ve been meaning to buy a better grinder for a long time. Several coffee people told me having a good grinder grinder is the most important factor in making better, more consistent coffee at home. The replacement grinder I chose was a Hario Skerton, a hand-cranked, ceramic burr grinder. I want to share what I have learned from using it.

    The Hario Skerton ceramic burr grinder

    For many years, we used an old electric blade grinder, one of those nut/spice/whatever-the-hell-you-want grinders that still worked, even though it was about thirty years old. The more I learned about coffee, though, the more I understood the weaknesses of blade grinders. They produce a very inconsistent grind, where the particle size of the coffee varies from super small (fines, in industry jargon) to nearly half-bean chunks (boulders). The inconsistent particle size means that—if brewed for the same length of time—some will be over-extracted, adding bitterness to the coffee, some will be just right, and some will be under-extracted, adding sourness. Additionally, the friction of the blade creates a lot of heat, which degrades the flavor compounds inside the beans, long before they are dissolved into water.

    Burr grinders provide a more consistent particle size than blade grinders, and the ceramic burrs should maintain their sharpness for a long time. They create much less heat too. According to the person selling me the grinder, the Skerton is adequate for French press, pourovers (e.g., Chemex), and drip coffee makers.

    A solid working surface is important.

    At $50, the Skerton was relatively affordable. I really wanted to get was the Baratza Encore, or more likely, it’s more expensive cousin, the Virtuoso. However, I wasn’t ready to spend $129 or $229 on my coffee grinder. Not yet, at least.

    The Skerton has many things going for it. It is much more compact than the electric models, so it fits into our kitchen’s limited space better than another countertop appliance would. Using the hand grinder is very satisfying too. It makes you feel more intimately involved with the brewing process. As the beans are pulverized by the rotating burrs, they give off a satisfying crunch that resonates in your ears and through your hands. The aromas that pour out of the freshly-ground beans are intoxicatingly sweet.

    However, the Skerton has some significant limitations. The grinder is pretty slow, for example. If you need to make coffee for more than one or two people, your grinding time might end up being longer than your brew time.

    This particular model can be tough to grasp.

    Also, if you have small hands, this grinder is difficult to operate. The beans create a fair amount of resistance as they work their way through the burrs. Keeping the grinder level and stable can be difficult, because it requires the user to firmly grip the jar beneath. For people with larger hands (including your author), this is not too much of a problem, but people with smaller hands may struggle to keep it steady. A rubber grommet on the bottom of the receptacle does help in this regard. Just be sure to operate the grinder on a firm countertop.

    The finished product. The gold flecks are remnants of the papery silverskin that sometimes remains on coffee after it is processed.

    The Hario hand-cranked coffee grinder is a step up from the blade grinder. I like its price, the physicality of using it, the more consistent grind and the compact size, but for grinding large amounts of coffee or for people with small hands, there are other options (e.g., the aforementioned Baratza grinders) that would work better. 


    Ristretto Nicolai

    If you are someone who really likes coffee, the opening of a new specialty café in town is big news. On a quiet Sunday morning, Jinsu Lee (who shares a passion for good coffee and café experiences) and I went on a mission to find the new Ristretto Roasters café. Having not spent much time in that part of Northwest PDX, we were unsure about where to go, especially when we arrived at a large brick building with “Schoolhouse Electric Company” painted on the side. The multi-story brick structure looked like an old factory. It was surrounded by industrial and commercial buildings, with no houses or condos in sight. A freight train grumbled heavily by as we pulled up to park.

    At first, we saw no indications of the café. After a bit of hesitation and wandering around in the street, though, we noticed the RR sign on the sidewalk. We were at the right spot after all.

    Walking in, my first impression of the café was Wow – beautiful! Who would have thought a great café would exist here?

    According to Ryan Cross, distribution manager for Ristretto (who happened to be working as a barista that day), the Schoolhouse Electric building was indeed an old factory, but it had served as an office building for several years, stuffed full of low ceilings and claustrophobic cubicles. No longer. The developer completely gutted the building for the renovation, throwing out the cubicles, getting rid of the false ceilings, and pulling plaster off the walls to expose the brick underneath. The space now has the feel of a cathedral, a cathedral of coffee.

    The large windows that used to provide light for factory workers’ days now gives the café a light, open feel. The bright, airy feel of the café is juxtaposed against the imposing power of the massive wood pillars and beams that give strength to the space.

    Accelerated Development, the same company that designed Coava’s Grand Avenue café space, also designed the new Ristretto Roasters café. You can see some similarities in the modern-retro-industrial chic design. It is an example of industrial elegance.

    A shiny new La Marzocco Strada espresso machine sits on the  gracefully curved coffee bar, gleaming under the warm lights hanging overhead. Behind the bar, a legion of six(!!!) grinders stood ready to grind. Three were dedicated to coffees for pourovers, three were for espressos – one blend, one single-origin, and one decaf. A plethora of choices for most coffee drinkers, but a coffee wonderland for a pursuer of great coffee.

    I tried two different coffees. The first was a pourover of a natural-processed coffee from El Salvador. The deep, fruity aroma preceded the sweet, medium-bodied coffee. The second coffee was an espresso of an East Timorese coffee. It was rather savory.

    In addition to drinking coffee, we also got a lesson on some of the finer points of barista know-how. Cross gave us a close-up view of how the Strada works. The Strada is a high-tech machine with accurate temperature and pressure controls. The variable control paddles on the Strada are very sensitive, allowing the barista to precisely control the pressure, speed and intensity of the extraction. Cross showed us how he was pulling the espresso shots using a bottomless portafilter (no pour spouts). By taking off the spouts, he made it easier to spot any “channeling” through the filter.

    Channeling is the phenomenon where water passes through the puck in small “channels” instead of filtering evenly through the coffee. One way to envision channeling is to think of the ground espresso as if it were the soil in a garden. When you water a garden, you want the water to sink evenly into the soil. Otherwise, the water will run together and form a trench (channel) in one part of the garden. The excess water washes the soil away and you lose both water and nutrients when this happens.  

    Baristas want the water to evenly pass through all of the ground espresso in order to produce an extraction that pulls out the best flavors inside the coffee. When coffee channels, too much water passes through the grounds too quickly, causing overextraction in that part of the puck. Pulling a shot with a bottomless filter gives the barista a quick visual check on the evenness of the grind and the tamp. He or she can see if the coffee is coming out from one part of the bottom of the filter or if it is coming out evenly.

    The new café shares a space with the Schoolhouse Lighting Company, a home décor store that takes used industrial equipment and gives it a new twist, fashioning it into usable home décor. Ristretto’s décor blends seamlessly into the space.

    The café seemed isolated from any residential neighborhoods, farther away from houses than cafés usually are. Cross explained that when the building’s developer held an event to celebrate the renovation, Ristretto ran a pourover bar to serve coffee for the event. The developer was impressed, and he encouraged Ristretto’s owners to set up a café there, setting the wheels in motion. Northwest Portland residents should be glad they did.

    Is that a card catalog over there under the bench?

    Ristretto on Nicolai would make a great stop for coffee if you are in the Northwest area. The space is beautiful and the coffee, some of Portland’s finest. Not everyone who goes in will want to learn about the intricacies of the espresso extraction process, but everyone who visits the newest Ristretto will be able to sit and enjoy great coffee in a beautiful space. 

    Address: 2181 NW Nicolai, Portland, OR  97210 (map)
    Phone: 503-227-2866
    Hours: Monday-Friday 6am-6pm
                Saturday 8am-6pm
                Sunday 8am-4pm
    Coffee: Ristretto
    Wi-Fi? Yes, I believe so.
    Recommendations? Ask what’s on grind…


    Coffee follies - a moka misadventure

    The goal: make some good coffee using a moka pot

    The result: a pot full of steam and not much else (story below)

    For those who enjoy drinking strong coffee (espresso, anyone?), if you want something stronger than brewed coffee but don’t have the money to spend on a high-quality home espresso machine, the moka pot makes a reasonable substitute. A moka pot is sometimes called a stovetop espresso maker, even though it does not make real espresso. Although it uses steam to brew coffee, the steam is not pressed through the grounds at high enough pressure to emulsify the oils inside the coffee, a key part of the espresso-making process. Nonetheless, the coffee that comes out is very strong, which is how I prefer to drink it.

    The apparatus has three parts—a water chamber on the bottom, a coffee carafe on top, and a filter pot where the coffee grounds are held, sandwiched in between. As water from the bottom chamber heats up and boils, steam pushes up through the grounds and brews the coffee, filling the upper part of the coffee maker.

    Back when we lived in Boston, we used a moka pot regularly. We weren’t as aware of coffee quality in those days, but we were generally pleased with the coffee it made. Last night, we broke out our new (used) moka pot to see if we could make some good late-evening coffee. It turned out to be harder than it should have been.

    Start with good coffee

    No matter what method you use to make coffee, the most important thing is to start with is good coffee. We had that. Batdorf and Bronson, a coffee roaster based in Olympia, Washington, just sent me two freshly-roasted coffees to try—a single-origin from Papua New Guinea and also the company’s Holiday Blend. Our plan was to brew some of the Papua New Guinea coffee with the moka pot.

    Add water

    We looked to Stumptown’s online brewing guide for some tips on how to best use the moka pot. The most important tip was to fill the water chamber with hot water instead of cold. When you do this, the heat from the burner does not cook the grounds before the water gets hot. We were also advised to pull the pot from the heat when the coffee coming out the tower was about the color of honey. That seemed easy enough, so we set to work making the coffee. Shayna ground the beans and filled the carafe with hot water. She set the pot  on the stove (medium heat)with the lid open, so we could watch the coffee as it brewed. If the smell of the fresh grounds was any indication, the coffee was going to be tasty.

    Ready to brew

    Our gustatory pleasure was not forthcoming, however.

    And wait….

    As we sat there watching the pot with anticipation, the coffee seemed in no hurry to come out. Since the water was hot when we put it in, the pot should have begun bubbling out coffee pretty quickly. The water did boil (we could hear it gurgling in the chamber beneath the grounds) but nothing happened. No coffee came up the spout.

    Maybe it just needs a little more time, we thought. We waited another minute or two to see what would happen. Still nothing.

    Maybe it needs just a little more heat. We turned the burner up to high and waited some more. Same result.

    Where's the coffee?

    Maybe next time

    By this time, the kitchen was filling up with the smell of singed coffee, sweet and burnt. The heavy odor nearly pushed us out of the kitchen, and soon we conceded we were not going to get any coffee, pulling the pot off the burner.

    Not much there

    It took a while to figure out why the pot didn’t work, and I’m still not 100% sure. The spout where the coffee should have come out was worn, but that should not have prevented the coffee from brewing. A little online investigation led us to the conclusion that the seal between the water chamber and the top half of the pot was probably the culprit. Even though it looked okay, it must have been letting steam escape out the sides of the pot instead of pushing up through the grounds.

    Evidence of a tired coffee maker. It looks like a lot of coffee has passed through there.

    Not to be denied

    Thwarted in our effort to make moka coffee but still craving something to sip, we broke out the French press and brewed a batch. The coffee was a bit fruity, with some walnut flavors too. It had a full mouthfeel and was evenly balanced. The flavors were vibrant and it was obvious the coffee was high quality.

    While we enjoyed the coffee, it was a shame that we could not try it with the moka pot too. I’ll have to get a new seal and try again.

    Our lesson for the evening was that “you get what you pay for.” We had bought the moka pot at Goodwill for a couple dollars and all we got was a couple drips of burned coffee. Oh well, next time…


    Barista theory – Dialing it in

    In conversations with baristas about espresso, one of the things they always seem to be talking about is “dialing it in.” As an expression, the phrase means that they want to make the espresso great. In practice, it means that they are adjusting their equipment to make sure that you get the right combination of grind (particle size) and dose (amount) of coffee. Literally, it involves moving the dial on the grinder towards coarser or finer.

    If you stop in at your favorite specialty coffee shop and watch the baristas during a busy period, you will probably notice that they keep filling up the hoppers on top of the grinders, without letting the amount of beans get too low down the sides. A barista at one of my regular coffices explained to me why doing this is so important.

    As the weight of the beans pressing down toward the burrs of the grinder changes, so does the grind. When the beans get lighter, the pressure they exert is lower and the grind becomes coarser, so you have to turn down the dial on the grinder. Conversely, if you have a grinder adjusted properly for a hopper with few beans in it and then fill up the hopper, you need to open up the burs a little to compensate for the extra weight. Maintaining a constant level in the hopper helps the barista make consistent shots without having to adjust the grinder each time.

    Keeping the hoppers filled is not the only thing the baristas must watch. When the ambient temperature and humidity rise or fall during the day, the grind changes too.  According to another barista, some days the beans just do not want to cooperate, as if they had their own personality. Regardless of what causes the changes, baristas must watch the grind very closely to make sure that their shots stay consistent. They measure the consistency by watching the flow of espresso as it pours out of the machine, by measuring how long the shot takes to pull and also by tasting the occasional shot.

    As baristas gain experience, they learn to instinctively adjust their equipment to accommodate changes in the beans and the grind. They start making more consistent shots and drinks and they can do it more quickly. As a customer, you might not be aware of the little details that go into making your drink, but you don’t need to be, because your barista takes care to “dial it in” for you. 


    How do you like your iced coffee?

    It’s summertime (finally, if you live in Portland) and it is hot outside (unless you live in Portland, where it’s pleasantly warm), which means that you might be looking for a little change from the hot coffee routine. Iced coffee is a particularly hot (cold?) commodity this time of the year, and few things are more refreshing than drinking a tall, cool glass while sitting in the shade.

    When you look for iced coffee, you have several options. You can buy (or make) an iced espresso drink (Americano, latte, etc.), an iced toddy* (coffee brewed at room temperature for long periods of time then poured over ice) and the traditional iced coffee (hot-brewed coffee that is quickly cooled or brewed directly over ice). Among iced coffee drinkers, there is some debate about which method makes the best cold coffee.

    My favorite of the three is the iced toddy. The slow, low-temperature brewing process leaves out much of the acidity that you would find in hot-brewed coffee, making the toddy very smooth and easy to drink. The resulting beverage has a liqueur-like mouth feel, and tends to taste more chocolaty than fruity.

    Not everyone thinks so highly of the toddy. I was talking with a friend today about coffee and he said that for him, the toddy is overrated. He believes that coffee needs to have the acidity, because a lot of the coffee’s flavor comes from “the acidity moving across your palate.”  Without these flavors, the coffee is flat. I countered that both are enjoyable, as long as you expect each one to be a different experience.

    Since it is iced coffee season and I am curious about these kinds of things, I have two questions for you:

    1. What kind of iced coffee beverages do you drink?

    2. If you make it at home, how do you do it?


    *The term toddy comes from the name of the person, Todd Simpson, who popularized the cold-brew method with a patented brewing system in the 1960s.


    Espresso quality control

    Here’s a demonstration of the variation in quality between cafés. Compare the two pictures below. In both cases, I ordered a double espresso.

    Small and flavorful Too big for an espresso

    As you can see, there is a significant difference in the size of the drink (the quarter in the picture gives you a sense of the how big each one was). The difference in quality was even greater.

    Click to read more ...


    How do you store coffee?

    Quick, what are the two most destructive things on earth?

    I will give you 10 seconds to come up with them.

    1. . .2. . .3. . .4. . .5. . .6. . .7. . .8. . .9. . .10

    Okay, what are they?

    I can only guess at some of the answers you might have come up with: Guns, nuclear bombs, George W. Bush (if you are a Democrat), single-payer health care (if you are a Republican).

    I might pick ignorance, but actually, the two most destructive things on earth are water and air. Water, given enough time, can move mountains. Air, or more specifically oxygen, combines with many materials to cause destruction in the form of rust, or in some cases, fire.

    As you can imagine then, if you are trying to preserve your coffee beans, you do not want them to come into contact with either air or water (heat and light are two more things that coffee beans should stay away from). If  you can remember this, you have a pretty good idea of how to store coffee. Ideally, you would not store your beans for very long, but if you must, then these tips will help you get the best flavor out of them.

    Click to read more ...