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Much more than a reflex, for coffee lovers, that first sip marks the beginning of a beloved daily ritual. The aroma, the warmth, the complexity of flavour — and of course the jolt of caffeine — a good cup of coffee can make our day. On the flip side, the absence of one can break it. Until I’ve had a satisfactory cup of coffee, I feel that in many ways, my day hasn’t really started.
Stopping at a favourite coffee shop on the way to work, or taking a break and hitting a spot near the office — these are the acts that used to punctuate our days with a reliable rhythm. Now that most of us are working from home and very little is usual or typical, the practice of enjoying a well-brewed cup of coffee provides a necessary sense of normalcy.
“Stay home” is our new mantra. And if you’re looking for ways to improve your at-home coffee setup — with minimal outlay and maximum ease and enjoyment — there are a number of things you can do. From how to source and grind your beans to brewing methods, here’s some advice from a competition barista, a coffee shop owner, a coffee writer, and a purveyor of specialty coffee and artisanal brewing equipment.
Last week, running low on coffee, I emailed my local café, Supernova Coffee in Toronto. Like many independent coffee shops, they’re closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but are offering delivery of beans. Rather than shipping via Canada Post or courier, though, they swung by on their motorcycle to drop off two bags of coffee.
Ordering freshly roasted beans from your favourite local coffee shops and roasters is an ideal way to continue to support small businesses. Subscriptions ensure you have a constant supply (I just ordered one from Quietly Coffee in Stirling, Ont.), and as long as the beans are whole, amassing more bags than usual doesn’t present an issue. Liz Clayton, author of Where to Drink Coffee and associate editor at coffee website Sprudge.com , started stocking up on coffee and filters in February to ensure she wouldn’t be without.
“We talk about coffee being fresh and (buying) it regularly. That’s great, but anyone who’s a really reputable roaster that is packaging their coffee in one of those sealed bags that has the one-way valve where the gas comes off the coffee, but air doesn’t come in — those are going to last a long time,” she says. “You can rest assured that that coffee is going to be good and decent for a while — for weeks, months, some people maybe even would say a year.”
In terms of what kinds of beans to buy, specialty coffee opens up a whole world. “It’s like wine,” says Momiji Kishi, high-level competition barista and co-owner of Toronto’s HotBlack Coffee . Just like you might have a fondness for Pinot Noir or Barolo, she adds, the more you taste and note the differences, the better you’ll start to understand the specifics of your preferences.
Packages of specialty beans typically include information on their labels that will help you identify what you like and dislike. Two bags of single-origin beans I recently ordered from Detour Coffee Roasters in Hamilton, Ont., for example, detail tasting notes (chocolate, lime, nougat; red grape, butterscotch, guava), variety, origin, altitude, process and producer.
“If you pay attention to those things,” Kishi adds, “it’s easier for each individual to decide what to try. Because specialty coffee’s not cheap like commercial, supermarket coffee, and you don’t want to gamble.”
When it comes to choosing between a blend or single origin, it really depends on personal preference and budget, Clayton underscores. Often, blends are more budget-friendly than single-origin coffees, since the latter are seasonal, and sourced from specific farms, harvests, producers or regions, and are usually available in smaller quantities.
Blends often contain a balance of heavier-tasting beans (Brazilian or Indonesian) and lighter-tasting ones (Colombian, Ethiopian or Guatemalan), Kishi explains. “It’s really hard to see the terroir of the country (in blends), but they’re good for milk or cream coffee drinkers because they usually have a heavy body. Blends are a punchy sort of coffee,” she says. “Single origins are more like a wine or single malt whisky.”
Yozo Otsuki, director of Kurasu , an online shop centred on speciality coffee and artisan brewing equipment, recommends considering different regional characteristics as a starting point. “If in doubt of countries, for starters we usually recommend an African coffee like Ethiopian, which tends to have fruitier and brighter characteristics. Or Central/South American like Colombian, which has rounder flavours — easy to drink for everyday but complex at the same time.”
Ideally, you would buy whole beans and grind them as you need for maximum freshness. “The most important thing by far is to grind your beans fresh,” says Eugene Fung, co-owner of Tandem Coffee in Toronto. “People will be surprised by how good you can make your coffee at home just by following some pretty basic rules.”
If you don’t have a coffee grinder and don’t plan to buy one, coffee shops and roasters will usually grind your beans for you, according to your preferred brewing method. But if one is within your means (my Porlex hand grinder was $95; companies such as Krups make electric versions that start at around $70), the difference a burr grinder will make to the quality of your coffee is tremendous.
Unlike a blade grinder, which produces inconsistently-sized coffee granules, a burr grinder mills beans uniformly. This in turn results in an even extraction and more balanced flavour. “The number one factor to up your game is to have a good grinder,” says Clayton. “If you have the means to get a burr grinder on board in your kitchen right now, that’s going to make the biggest difference. That’s going to make a bigger difference than what kind of maker you brew the coffee in. In some cases it might make a bigger difference than which coffee you’re using.”
If you opt for having your local coffee shop or roaster grind your beans for you, Otsuki recommends using them within two weeks. “They lose aroma and flavours fast,” he says. “Freezing coffee in portions to maintain freshness can be done as well if you don’t think you can consume that quickly.”
From pour-over (a.k.a. filter coffee or drip coffee) to immersion (French press, Aeropress) and stove-top systems such as the moka pot, there are many different brewing methods to consider, all of which require less of an outlay than a coffee maker or espresso machine.
“It’s relatively easy to get something tasty at home. You don’t need all the fancy equipment,” says Fung, who recommends the French press as an underrated method of making coffee. “Many people have one … It’s not new. It’s not sexy, so people don’t give it a chance. And many people also have a stove-top (maker), like a Bialetti Moka Express. That’s a bit trickier, but you can play with it and get a good cup. It does require a bit more watching and fiddling with temperature. But with French press it’s consistent and relatively easy to get a good cup.”
As Clayton points out, another benefit of the French press is that since it has a built-in filtering system, you don’t need to worry about buying filters and keeping them in stock. You can also buy permanent stainless steel filters for the Aeropress, she adds, which is a nice single-cup solution for making coffee.
Kishi usually uses the Hario V60 at home, which is a pour-over method. For fun, she sometimes brews coffee using her Neapolitan flip coffee pot, which is a rare Italian stove-top style. She recommends a stripped down immersion coffee method, though, for its ease and minimal equipment. Rather than worrying about the timing and technique of pour-over, you only need a filter, coffee dripper and vessel (like a mason jar).
Using a medium to coarse grind, add 30 grams of coffee to a heat-resistant container. In a kettle, bring water to the boil and let sit for 30 seconds. Then pour 500 grams/mL over the coffee, steep for four minutes and strain through the filter-lined dripper into the vessel. “That will give you really nice, full-flavour, clean-finish coffee,” says Kishi.
Pour-over methods like Chemex and Hario V60 are great options for those who enjoy the ceremony of coffee-making and have the time to dedicate roughly 15 minutes to a tactile process. As with Kishi, it’s Otsuki’s go-to way of brewing coffee at home, and Clayton turns to it as well, when making individual cups later in the day. “It produces a really clean and tasty cup that should really represent the qualities and characteristics of the coffee,” says Otsuki. “It might seem a bit tricky for those who’ve never tried, but it’s really easy once you’ve gotten the hang of it.” (For step-by-step instructions, see his Hario V60 Brewing Guide on the Kurasu website.)
For people who prefer specialty coffee drinks, Clayton recommends using a method that produces a more concentrated coffee base, such as the moka pot or Aeropress. You could then add frothed milk, syrups or other flavourings to emulate the coffee shop experience. And now that we’re moving towards the warmer months, she adds, cold brew coffee lends itself well to alternatives as a versatile signature drink base.
“When you make cold brew coffee overnight in the fridge or on your countertop, that becomes a concentrate. And to that concentrate you can add sparkling water, milk, tonic, lemonade. You can add all kinds of crazy things to make summery coffee cocktails that might scratch that itch,” says Clayton. “Especially non-dairy milks tend to taste really delicious in cold brew. I feel like you get a little more of their flavour, a little more of the creamy nut or oat flavours that are part of those milks. And over ice, it gets kind of bright.”
Whether you choose a blend or single origin, grind your own beans or have a roaster do it for you, or brew using an immersion or pour-over style, consistency is key to making good coffee.
“Consistency is really the most important thing to make sure that what you do tastes delicious. If you are a real aficionado and you’re willing to be a little geeky, I really recommend brewing with carefully measured quantities,” says Clayton, adding that many people use a digital scale to weigh the coffee and water, which can seem extreme to others who don’t feel the need to be as precise.
If you choose not to use a scale, you can ensure regularity in other ways, such as using the same settings on your grinder, using the same container or scoop to measure your coffee, and adding the same amount of water to your kettle or coffee pot every time, she adds. “Once you arrive at the flavour that you want, then you’ll be able to repeat that,” says Clayton. “That’s the secret to it, is having repeatability as part of the comforting ritual.”
Roasters across Canada offer subscriptions as well as single bags of beans (including wholesale-size five-pound bags), and many independent coffee shops (including Kishi’s HotBlack Coffee and Fung’s Tandem Coffee) deliver beans and/or brewing equipment. Clayton suggests checking out Elysian Coffee Roasters in Vancouver, Monogram and Phil & Sebastian in Calgary, Detour Coffee Roasters in Hamilton, Ont., Pilot Coffee Roasters in Toronto and Dispatch Coffee in Montreal.
“These are all super high-calibre roasters that anything you get from them is going to be delicious,” says Clayton. “Anything, whether it’s a blend, a single origin, their decaf offering — they’re all going to still be the top quality they were when you were going to the café. They’re just going to be something that you can experiment with at your skill level at home to try to get to that familiar feeling.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020