How to Brew the Best Cup?

Following up on previous ‘what makes a good coffee, good?’, Magda asks, “what brewing method would work best in tandem with a contemplative attunement to coffee?

In our last dispatch, I tried to make a case for appreciating a cup of coffee beyond our material interests or individual preferences by using Emmanuel Kant’s notions of the ‘agreeable’ and ‘beautiful’. This fabled ‘beautiful cup’ requires a lot: well-grown coffee that is picked ripe, expertly fermented, precisely washed and dried. It must be roasted with care and attention. Last, but certainly not least, it needs to brewed just right. So how does one best do that given the plethora of options like aeropress, pour-over, brewer, espresso, French press, or moka pot?

In all of these variations, you need a proper extraction to achieve clarity from crop to cup. In other words, you need to effectively use water to move all those flavour volatile compounds from the grinds into mug. I made this many questions ago:

Sip a cup and you should get elements from the left: various taste impressions, a wheelhouse of flavours, and a sensation on the tongue. At its best, it will be sweet, juicy, and fruity; at its worst, it will be astringent with the universal bite of char or clawing vegetal notes. For unique, you must trek the difficult path of well-developed roasts and a well-extracted brew; sadly, the journey often fails, as even the best brewing won’t do much for a broken roast and a poor brew will mask a perfect roast.

So how to maintain the unique when brewing? Well, each preparation will have its own, appropriately, individual qualities. Amounts of oils, fine particles, and filter pores will shift body. Pressure, agitation, and grind size will change flavour. Thus, a french press will have huge body but lack clarity, while a pour over may best showcase crisp acidity but be relatively thin. Espresso will be concentrated, adding milk will provide contrast, and the filter choice will make all the difference for an aeropress.

There is also all the prep work for tasty cup. You need a good grinder, appropriate water, and a tasty roast. Why? Well, the distribution of grind size is crucial. Think about chopping an onion, uniformity matters. If you would be reluctant to use a blade grinder for a shallot or green pepper, the same doubt should be cast upon using it for coffee. With apologies to the slap chop, the same way that vegetables cook unevenly, a coffee will both over and under extract if there is too large a gradient.

For water, you need some calcium, magnesium, and a bicarbonate (or similar buffer), otherwise you will never get the full flavour impact. You can buy pitchers like the BWT+ or supplements like Third Wave Water, but it is also easy to mix your own. All that remains is to dial in your brew, be it pour-over, clover, or drip brewer. I would say reaching the blue in that chart above means you are well on your way to the contemplative cup. In other words, on the the trail of tasting origin. Yet, in all these technical recommendations, there is something lost, so let’s turn to the abstract with of my favourite philosophers!

This question of ‘how to brew’ creates an internal conflict for me: I want to say brew the coffee you like best. Yet, that seems to comes at the cost of new experiences. In his book Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty asks a relevant question: how do we form habits? He writes, “the acquisition of a habit is the grasping of a significance” with our bodies “catching”, “comprehending” and “cultivating” movement. He uses the idea of dance: we might need to analyze where our feet or hands should go but it only works because of our existing sense of walking or swinging our arms.

In other words, its not a abstracted intellectual act but rather reliant on the way our bodies mediate the world for us. And this extends to tools, like hats or cars or espresso machines. He points to ducking below a doorway while wearing a feathered hat or driving through a especially narrow alleyway. We extend our bodies into the instruments we use. In his lovely words, “habit expresses our power of dilating our being in the world, or changing our existence by appropriate, fleshy instruments”.

To learn to skateboard, one must learn the feeling of being above the ground on four wheels, the way it accelerates and stops, and how to prevent falling. It is a sensation of turning the strange into the familiar. The slow progression of learning or the body ‘catching’ movement. So what if we apply this to coffee brewing? Well this might be the key point for Magda’s question: the best brewing method to ponder the unique aspects of the cup is one that ruminates and reflects on the act of brewing itself. Learning details like the feel of an appropriate grind, the way to move a kettle’s stream through a bed of grounds, the smells of a bloom, the colour of a perfect roast and, ultimately, those tastes in the cup.

I love philosophy that aligns to my everyday and I can totally relate to this: there are no lab coats or beakers in my kitchen but rather a very ritualized routine of weighing beans, grinding them, filling the basket, pouring water into the reservoir, and listening to the warm, satisfying sound of percolation. While it is easy to get stuck on those formal and technical specifications behind a great cup, there is also something to the fact that we habitually make it, smell it, and taste it. Our bodies already operate with a great deal of expertise and cultivated understanding.

For Merleau-Ponty, we constantly “reckon with the possible” through our bodily habits. And it seems like a pretty great way to understand the world around us, including the simple act of brewing a cup.

 

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