I realize these emails easily and often veer towards the abstract, so it is always great when I receive a collection of excellent questions about brewing coffee (not as ontological experience). This week, Theresa asks: How to clean a French press? Is a shitty burr grinder better than a blade grinder? What is the best coffee to water portioning according to experts? Is there a better material for coffee? I have a stainless steel and glass French press.
This exposes the long-buried roots of ‘Ask Lee’. I would continually have similar conversations with Cut Coffee wholesalers and end up touching upon the same areas of concern. We will get to these really great, punchy questions but let me first frame them slightly with a ‘things we were taught to care about in coffee’ versus ‘things we should actually care about in coffee’
In order to shift drinkers away from freeze-dried and pre-ground coffee, much of the value proposition in ‘the second wave’ rested on two pillars: roast degree and freshness. Rather than the brand name being the anchor, the idea of seeking out roasts (be it French, Italian, Vienna, etc) re-orientates drinkers toward a more individualized taste experience. Parceled into the deepening sense of connoisseurship is a more ritualized and refined approach, achieved typically through the fresh grinding of beans. These are certainly steps towards a better cup over your first wave mainstays, like Nabob or Folgers, but the emphasis on roast degree and freshness are less useful when it comes to the rolling tides of third wave coffee.
Roasting is a destructive process that both alters the flavour volatiles and breaks down the cellulose structure enough to enable effective brewing. To borrow from Eva Shimoni and Theodore Labuza, carbon dioxide in coffee is a byproduct “produced by both the Strecker degradation reaction (Maillard reaction) and carbohydrate pyrolysis during high temperature roasting and trapped in the fresh roasted and ground coffee” with “a higher degree of roasting resulted in an increase of CO2 sorption in the coffee”. In other words, the darker the roast: the more CO2 in the beans.
The trapped CO2 wants to escape from the beans. This ‘degassing’ process occurs rapidly within the first day and then slowly over many weeks. You can shift the timelines in two main ways according to Xiuju Wang’s research: first, you can grind the beans to reduce the ‘diffusion distance’ and increase ‘surface to volume ratio’, which facilitates a rapid getaway. Or, second, you can roast darker (destroy more cellulose), which means a more porous bean structure. So, what does this have to do with freshness? As the C02 moves out, so do volatile aroma compounds. Then oxygen becomes the new roommate and stalling/aging begins.
In that second wave, you are dealing with dark roasts that age very quickly especially if pre-ground. So, to get the best cup, the focus on freshness and grinding at home makes sense. However with light roasts, that aging process is much slower and seeking ‘fresh roasted’ will have diminishing returns. In fact, you will have a better extraction and cup a couple weeks to a month post-roast due to proper degassing. This semi-scientific detour is really the in-road to the rapid succession of questions above because this is the take-away: treating coffee as uniform is detrimental because the rules change with varying origins and roasting approaches. Then you might be asking, what should I focus on for the best ‘modern cup’?
If you have a bag of Quietly sitting in your kitchen aim for the following: clean brewing equipment, coffee-friendly water, any burr grinder and locked-in parameters. To the first point in the list and Theresa’s initial question: like all brewing equipment, the goal in cleaning a French press is to rid it of any leftover residues. Hold-over coffee oils are especially bad as they will actually go rancid. Very hot water is always the best tool with a non-scented soap. Rinse well because soap will both tinge flavour and impede extraction. Too often my beloved drip at cafes will taste like diapers (not clean enough) or potpourri (too much cleaner). Second, coffee is mostly water and the whole thing is a chemistry experiment. I have written about this before here with this takeaway advice: be that guy and mix-up some of your own special brewing water. Matt Perger has a nice outline of the main industry go-to water recipes: here.
Next question from Theresa and my third point: is a shitty burr grinder better than a blade grinder? Yes, one hundred percent, yes. The whole aim in brewing is to use water to move those flavour volatiles from the beans into the cup. Even and uniform particle size help water’s flow, saturation, and pull. The result of a blade grinder is always as random as the numbered balls in a lottery draw. Last stop on our list: locking-in parameters. There are endless factors in brewing like time, temperature, grind size, water chemistry, equipment, roast degree, coffee processing, varietal, and so on. Dialing-in become infinitely easier if you can pin-down a couple. To Theresa’s “What is the best coffee to water portioning?”, I would recommend a brew ratio of 1-part coffee to every 16-parts water. If you only use this ratio, you can then focus solely on adjusting grind and have an easier time getting that tasty cup.
Ultimately with my ontological questions or brewing recommendations, it all rests on the experience inextricably linked to the cup – that simple act that opens up the senses, awakens one’s memory, and stokes the imagination. Coffee is dynamic and the reason we don’t have a single roasting profile or brewing recipe is because its forever changing, shifting, and moving. When drinking dark roasts, the unique is often not desirable because the taste profile is all about a set of uniform flavours: bold, char, smoky, roasty, and burnt. So seeking out the right intensity through roast degrees and ensuring freshness in a quickly dissipating bean is absolutely sensible. Yet, when we are narrowing in on the delicate and unique through lighter roasting, we require new approaches. Thus, we should shift away from the obsession with dates and roast degrees to those things that play a much bigger role in the play of flavour: green terroir, processing, roast development, water, grind, and flow rate.
To Theresa’s final query on material, I will be less prescriptive and say the equipment that facilitates your tastiest cup is the best. Some people like the body of a brewed French press, while others will seek out the clarity of a filtered pour-over; espresso’s spirited intensity or batch brew’s wide landscape are equally valuable. There is a number of requirements to achieve those discrete and individual qualities of origin but the interplay at the finish line is all part of the fun and ultimately illuminates both the personality of the cup and the one drinking it.
Trust the Process,