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“You can derive great enjoyment simply by drinking a good cup of coffee, but your pleasure will be heightened if you can distinguish your impressions, appreciate and gauge the richness and complexity of the coffee.”
A few years ago, David Cook of the Fire Roasted Coffee Company introduced me to a kit of 36 coffee aromas known as Le Nez du Cafe (literally translated from French, “the nose of coffee”).
Its inventor Jean Lenoir had created a similar kit for wines, and followed it up years later with the coffee kit, “a collection of the most typical aromas found in the world’s top coffees”.
I finally decided to invest in this kit. I’m happy to say I’ve started my journey into better understanding coffee flavor. One of the keys of Le Nez du Cafe is that it not only isolates specific aromas of coffee, but it names them so that you can better remember the aroma, connect it with familiar aromas, and use common language when discussing it with others.
Take Vial #1: Earth. This is a vial carrying literally the distinct aroma of earth (dirt, mud). It is a very distinct aroma found in many coffees. On one hand, it is attributed to poor handling in the case of cheap robustas, or a coveted (and very intentional) flavor found in fine Ethiopian coffees. Combined with other information (and aromas), you could use this to determine a great deal about the coffee. And be able to identify it and discuss it with others.
My palette is admittedly weak. I know what I like and don’t like in a coffee, but have always lacked in being able to put words to it. Also, there are aromas to coffee that I just don’t know, or don’t know well. For instance, it is simpler for me to identify Vial #26: Dark Chocolate, because I eat a lot of dark chocolate and know the aroma well. By contrast, Vial #3: Garden Peas will take practice to identify, because I don’t eat them and don’t know the aroma as well.
Here is my training plan: I pulled vials #1-3 only, and smelled them over and over until I could put them in the correct order every time. Then, as you can see in the picture above, I added vials #4-6, and smelled them over and over until I could correctly identify all six of them blind. I plan to keep adding three vials at a time, until I can put them in the correct order without fail. I expect with each new addition of vials, it will take me longer to correctly identify them all, and that’s the point! Eventually, I’ll have all 36 in the mix, and I’ll know I’m a coffee tasting master when I can randomize and correctly identify them all. In fact, the highest certification of coffee taster in the world incorporates Le Nez du Cafe in its testing.
In addition, I’ll be looking for these aromas in the coffee I drink, now that I am able to identify them.
I always love hearing a business story that combines a lot of dedication and a little bit of luck, to create something brand new. That’s the story of Cheryl and Boyd, of the Renegade Roasters Design Group in El Cajon, California.
For 20 years prior to 2000, Renegade was installing and servicing coffee roasting equipment. At that time, they were the company helping install Krispy Kreme‘s coffee roasting plant. Boyd was getting increasingly frustrated with some of the common design features of coffee roasters. He truly felt as though he could design something that better fit the needs of the coffee roaster industry.
While they were doing their work for Krispy Kreme, Cheryl and Boyd asked if they could be provided space on the production floor for Boyd to tinker with different ideas he had. It was then that the Renegade roaster was invented. Fourteen years later, it is available in at least three different sizes depending on the amount of coffee that needs to be roasted.
Since then, the company has sold roasting machines throughout California and all over the world. While I visited them, Cheryl told me about a local roaster that I’ve been to before, that has been roasting for 25 years. When they needed to expand production by buying a new roasting machine, they turned to Renegade. They liked their trial of the Renegade, and if it fits in with their business, Renegade will be their future provider of roasting equipment. And this is a company that’s been doing the same thing successfully for 25 years. There’s always room for improvement.
So, why the name Renegade? Simple. Because the big established roasting equipment manufacturers don’t like them. They have taken a step back from how coffee was being roasted conventionally, and re-thought the model. In re-thinking the model, they have identified ways to better customize how coffee is roasted to bring out the best in it, and how to make the coffee roaster’s life easier in the process. For instance, Cheryl showed me how easily a Renegade can be cleaned and maintained, versus the conventional machines. When a big company has had the good fortune to do things the same way for so many years, it’s the companies like Renegade that reconsider how things are done, invent something better, and force the much slower-moving big companies to change.
Just as customer service is a must for the coffee roaster, so too is it for Renegade. As Cheryl pointed out to me, “we answer our phones seven days a week”. When the coffee roaster is working, Renegade is working.
Recently, I participated in an online course by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the coffee industry’s trade association. In representing the needs of the coffee industry, they also provide education in specific areas. This course was an Introduction to Roasting Equipment.
At the most basic level, coffee roasting comes down to two things: applying heat, and keeping the coffee beans in motion. Without heat, they won’t turn brown from their original green color. And without motion, you won’t get an even roast. Ironically, the appliance that both applies heat and keeps material in motion is the popcorn popper. Years ago, I used to use a popcorn popper to roast my own coffee at home.
As time has gone on, I have upgraded from the popcorn popper to home coffee roasters.
Read: Marc’s Coffee Bar
A farmer has gone to great effort to grow a consistently good coffee, and from there, your local roaster brings out the best in its flavor. Here is the jist of what your local roaster does.
The green coffee beans are fed into the hopper at the top of the machine, and into a drum that will turn at a certain speed while a burner underneath the drum provides hot air flow. The coffee roaster determines at what temperature he wants to set the drum, as well as what speed for it to turn.
It helps to think that the coffee flavor we all love is at the center of the bean. As it is roasted, the flavor is “unlocked” and brought to the bean’s surface. The roaster can hear this happening at a stage called “first crack”, the earliest point at which you would stop roasting the coffee. “First crack” sounds like popcorn popping. Further along, there is a “second crack” that sounds as though you were playing with cellophane wrapping in your hands. Darker roasts go to and beyond “second crack”, at which point the coffee will take on flavor characteristics of the roasting itself, replacing the flavor nuances that are specific to the coffee’s origin.
There are a couple important additional steps in roasting coffee. The first is cooling. After the coffee is roasted and removed from the drum, it maintains a high internal temperature. The beans need to be cooled down so that they don’t continue cooking from within.
The second additional step is incinerating. The by-product of roasting is a skin that falls from the coffee bean called “chaff”. This chaff burns, requiring strong ventilation when roasting coffee.
These are the basics. While the machines don’t differ greatly from one to the next, the real art of roasting is in how the machine is used to bring out the absolute best that the coffee has to offer. This requires much trial and error, strong knowledge of the roasting equipment, and a dedication to constant learning. When you find coffee you like from a local roaster, stick with them!
“We have an electric Percolator. You don’t write about that (or I haven’t found it yet).”
Andy, great to hear from you. We had an electric percolator in our house for years when I was growing up. I was in high school before my parents made the switch from a percolator to a drip brewer, and that’s when I started drinking coffee. I’d never known the joy of percolator coffee until a recent trip to Maui, where the kitchen in the rental home had a percolator for making coffee.
More importantly, what happened to the percolator? Most of us will remember it from when we were kids.
For starters, what is a percolator? It is a type of coffee pot that brews the coffee by constantly cycling boiling or near-boiling water over the ground coffee until the desired coffee strength is reached.
What happened to the percolator, and why? It was replaced in most kitchens in the 1970s-80s by the drip brewer that is familiar today. The drip brewer emerged as an improvement over the percolator for a few reasons. First, you spoil some of the flavor of coffee by boiling it, and the percolator relies on boiling water more than once to brew it. Second, some of the coffee that you keep in the cycle may already be brewed before you remove it, which will cause something called “overextraction”, where the coffee is thicker than is desirable. The smell of coffee brewing may be nice, but flavor in the cup won’t be. Third and related to the last point, there is less consistency with the percolator – unlike a coffee maker with a clearly defined cycle end, you can keep brewing the coffee in the percolator as much or as little as you want.
In the late 1970s, many of the large percolator manufacturers were scaling back production. The drip brewer heated the water, but didn’t require that it boil. The drip brewer’s cycle runs once, and consistently, and your coffee is ready – the same as the last time you used it. The percolator because obsolete, but fear not, Andy. To this day, the percolator has advocates that have learned its nuances and still swear by it.
“You’ll likely scoff as soon as I mention the idea of single-instant coffee such as Keurig and Tassimo but in a world where fast and convenient reigns champion they aren’t going away. Where do you see this market going over the next 1, 3, 5 years? Keurig is also promising a locked-down machine with the claim it will ensure the highest quality by only using their cups but customers will definitely see this as a move to limit using cheaper alternatives or re-usable options — are they shooting themselves in the foot?
Our culture thrives on entitlements and convenience – just look at the explosion of Keurig and Tassimo. The next logical step in this market is the increase of single press brewing and I’m curious if you have plans to review any (notably AeroPress).”
– M. Millar
Mr. Millar, no scoffing here. These are great observations and questions, and in order to do them justice, I’ll answer in the following order. I’ll let you know what I think of the single-serve pod coffee makers. I’ll speculate where the market is going. And finally, I’ll let you know what I think of Keurig‘s decision to launch the Keurig 2.0 incompatible with unlicensed K-Cups.
Pod, or single-serve, coffee was at one point the largest growing segment of the coffee gear market. I assume as I type that, that it is still the case. You hit the nail on the head in terms of why – convenience. Check out my blog post with initial reactions to the pod coffee system: The Skinny on Pod Single-Serve Coffee. Since I wrote that, there is one other advantage that I have to give these systems, and that is consistency. The system produces the same cup of coffee every time because each step is automated. Now, the cons. First of all, the coffee in the pod, even if airtight, cannot be as fresh as the whole beans that I keep in airtight cannisters and grind only as needed to brew. Second, the method by which the pod system works makes a good cup of coffee every time. When I recommend brewing methods such as Pourover, French Press, or the AeroPress, these methods are designed to be more manual, but for all the right reasons. These methods make a great cup of coffee, and only require a little skill and repetition.
I speculate that in the years to come, the single-serve coffee system will gradually replace the drip brewer that has been in kitchens for decades. Just as the drip brewer replaced the percolator used by generations before us. Both the pod coffee maker and the drip brewer are convenient, make decent coffee, and are consistent from one brew to the next. Except in the case of the pod coffee maker, it is better in all three respects over the drip brewer. The drip brewer has one advantage, in that it makes a lot of coffee at once, which is why I still use it when making coffee for a lot of people. However, the people I know with pod brewers make a cup of coffee in a few minutes and I’m not seeing them carrying a drip brewer as well – in those homes, the substitution has already taken place.
Keurig’s decision to launch the 2.0 and make it incompatible with unlicensed pods? – meh! The worst part about it is that it is probably a great business decision, but limits the choices of coffee lovers. If my speculation on the pod coffee market above ends up being accurate, and Keurig is the most recognized brand in the category, they will reap much benefit from this exclusivity. So, good for them. Bad for a coffee lover like me, that can make literally ANY kind of coffee I want with my chosen brewing methods. If I replaced all my coffee gear with a Keurig 2.0, I’m limited to what they license. Today, there is no limit to what I can brew for myself, or for you when you’re a guest in my home.
I sum it all up by saying that when a system is fully automated, it’s likely more efficient for the greater part of the system. However, a small part of the system that can greatly impact the final product cannot be automated because it requires a human touch. A machine cannot pourover like I do. A machine cannot work the AeroPress like I do. For this reason, the pod coffee maker will always make a good cup of coffee, likely good enough for many people. With the inexpensive gear I have, I’ll always make a great cup of coffee. If you drank the two side by side, I promise you could tell the difference.
I launched this website as an information resource for people to learn to make better coffee at home. I knew it would help me get better and better at making good coffee at home, and through sharing what I learned, hopefully help you too.
What I didn’t expect, but what didn’t totally surprise me, is the love and interest in chocolate that came along with it!
From all of the similarities they share in where they are grown, the care that goes into preparing each one, their history, and flavor, coffee and chocolate are married.
I knew I had to get wise on how to make a good cafe mocha, that one drink that truly brings the two flavors together.
Check out the newly revamped page on Cafe Mocha Recipes, how to make a good cafe mocha at home.
This page shows three different ways that you can do it, depending on what you have to work with.
1) With an espresso machine. The authentic Cafe Mocha is made with espresso-brewed coffee. If you have such a machine, you’re in business! If you don’t, then read on because there are still options.
2) Make a cafe mocha from coffee. If you can make coffee at home, then you only need a few extra ingredients to turn it into a mocha.
3) Quick and easy easy ways to make mocha. Six different tasty recipes that are easy for anybody to make. Or, you can keep paying $5/cup at your local Starbucks :).
As of today’s date, there are 704,397 coffee mugs available from Amazon. I scoured them all for you, and came up with my favorite nine. Here is the “scientific” criteria that I used to pick them:
1) A mug that could make its way into my personal favorites. Last year, I fatally lost the Hulk Smash 16oz ceramic coffee mug in a dishwasher-emptying accident. That mug is succeeded by a rotation of regular mugs. The ones I saw on Amazon that could hold shelf space with my regulars are below.
2) I serve a lot of good coffee to guests at my place. I think it should be a personalized and fun experience, so I don’t have coffee sets. The best mugs I saw that made me laugh thinking about serving them to guests, are below.
Heat sensitive mugs
The Prescription Coffee Mug
Good Morning Mugs
Make a houseguest feel good first thing in the morning.
Geek Out Beaker Mugs
This next one just made me laugh! I certainly won’t be serving coffee to my mother in it. But if you’re a mother, stick it the World’s Best Mom…
This year, I was fortunate at CoffeeCON 2013 to meet and interview coffee pioneer George Howell. George was the founder of the Coffee Connection in Boston, which was acquired by Starbucks as a means of entering the Boston market. He remains a leading coffee expert, and is also the founder of the George Howell Terroir Coffee Company.
Check out: Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013
I asked George something I like to ask every coffee professional I meet: how do you make your own good coffee at home?
My motivation to ask this question…the amount of human effort and dedication that goes into coffee from source to somebody’s home can all be for naught in the last five minutes that it’s handled. A coffee professional understands this, so if I can make coffee the way that they do, I know I’m making it right. George gave me three pieces of advice, and I’ll elaborate on where you can learn more here on MakeGoodCoffee.com.
1) Get the brew time right. Learn more about different brewing methods at our Brewing Coffee page.
2) Get the grind right. Just as important. The type of brewing method you use dictates the ideal grind type you should be using. Learn more about Grinding Coffee.
3) Get the ratio right. The ratio of how much coffee and water to use depending on how much coffee you’re making. This is a very popular question that often comes up, and that I’ve written about a few times. Check out these blog posts to learn more:
– The “Scientific” Ratio of Coffee to Water
– Coffee to water ratio – answering the question of how much coffee to use
– I’m Confused, How Much Coffee Should I Use?
This weekend, my parents and two of their friends were visiting me in San Diego, California. I love having people over, and I especially love having coffee lovers over. It gives me a chance to show off my gear, and raise awareness of coffee beyond their Keurig machine.
On the first morning, I broke out my Chemex, the one that makes two cups at a time. See where I’m going with this? It took me two cycles just to make a cup for each of my guests, and I still didn’t have my own in hand. That night, I thought ahead to the next morning and wondered if I even still owned a drip brewer. I’ve been using my French Press and Chemex for so long, I couldn’t remember the last time I even used a drip brewer. A quick search of the cupboards uncovered my trusty Black and Decker drip brewer.
The whole thing reminded me of my golden rule of kitchen appliances. Here it is, in all of its unscientificness…
If you want the best, buy Cuisinart. If you’re on a budget and want the best that’s adequate, buy Black and Decker.
Before learning about brewing methods like the French Press and Chemex, I had a Cuisinart drip brewer for years. It made a great cup of coffee, and had additional features that made sense, such as heating the water more for smaller amounts of coffee, since the water wouldn’t otherwise have time to get as hot as needed.
When we assembled the MakeGoodCoffee.com Coffee Maker Report Card, the Cuisinart found its way close to the top of the list, but an interesting fifth place went to Black and Decker. It was the only one priced under $40 that still met our report card criteria, and quickly became the machine I recommended to those that didn’t have $70-100 to invest in a higher-end drip brewer.
My golden rule of kitchen appliances is based on my own experience. Learn about both drip brewers at Cooking.com.
There are two kinds of electrical grinders: the propeller grinder and the burr grinder.
If you open the lid to your grinder and there’s a propeller inside…well, you get the idea. If your grinder has one chamber into which you load whole beans, and a second chamber that collects the ground coffee, you have a burr grinder.
This week, I wrote a primer on the different grind types, and how they suit different methods of brewing coffee. In it, I stressed investing in a burr grinder, and that prompted some questions as to whether or not a propeller grinder is “good enough”.
What’s the big deal with a burr grinder? Here are some things you need to know!
1) You get an inconsistent grind with a propeller grinder. If you look at the coffee you’ve ground, some of it is ground coarse, some fine, and some in-between. There’s no way to get the consistent grind you need for the way you’re brewing coffee. The ground coffee doesn’t collect in the second chamber of the burr grinder unless it’s consistent with the grind setting you’ve selected.
2) An older propeller grinder will burn your coffee. All of that coffee is flying around in the one chamber with a propeller that produces heat as it turns. Heat is an enemy of coffee. It will sap flavor from the coffee in your cup.
3) You can’t select a grind type. Check out the article above and you’ll see that each different method of brewing coffee calls for a different grind type. The best you can do with a propeller grinder is determine that a certain number of seconds that you grind corresponds to a grind type (ex. four seconds = coarse grind, eight seconds = fine grind). Even if you have such a system, remember that the propeller will slow down over time. That doesn’t just mean you’ll have to grind longer, but re-read point #2 above, it’s burning your coffee. Then, re-read point #1 above, it won’t be consistent anyway.
I recommend you make the investment in a burr grinder that provides you with a grind that is consistent, that isn’t burning the coffee, and that properly corresponds to your brewing method. You can get a great one by Cuisinart for $50 or less.
Check out our Coffee Grinder Report Card, to see our consumers report on how burr grinders stack up.