Summer is here. The snow retreats and offers trails deep into the hinterlands.
Exploration is the act of moving forward, being open to new things along the way, seeing new things, experiencing new things, it requires being open, being observant, and forward motion through space and time. Just as we explore our geography and the world of new coffees with each turning season, we also explore the ways we make these coffees.
In our shop at Black Coffee we possess and utilize a number of tools to help us hone in with precision and consistency for developing our roasting protocols and liquid extraction of each and every coffee we get in. From our roaster that utilizes highly efficient and precise mechanisms by which to take our coffee from a green, fermented coffee seed to a brew-able toasted coffee bean, down to our precision scales, highly temperature stable brewing machines that control pressure, temperature and time, and our refractometer that allows us to measure the particle density of our coffees, we believe in precision, consistency, and foremost, our palates to explore the coffees and their potential flavors that we bring in to our shop every season.
But there is something beyond the instrumentation that comes to play with coffee. Even with all the documentation, instrumentation, and precision, there is something magic about coffee that can be found by simply crushing the beans and applying water. Really, when you break it down to its simplest form, all the side instruments are unnecessary for great coffee. While they help us maintain a high quality, when it comes to extraction we believe that great coffee should and is easily extracted with almost nothing fancy at all.
So when camping trips take us out of doors, we get to leave the protocols behind. And while I admit I take what most would consider to be an obsessive approach to coffee while camping, for me it is genuinely one of my favorite things in life to brew coffee surrounded by forests and wild lands. With a fire nearby and the air scented with pines, there is no better place for coffee. And in this laboratory I get to experiment with the casual side of coffee brewing.
This last weekend included three ways. Kalita pour-over cone, a stainless steel French press, and an Aeropress. All ground with a Porlex hand grinder with only moderate attention paid to the changing of grind between brewing. The French press received the more coarse grind, and the Aeropress the finest. There was no measure of beans by weight, no thermocouples to test the temperature of the water, and while I glanced at my watch, I made myself look away and went more by the feel of it for how long I let things brew.
As with most things I tend not to judge in terms of better and worse, but look more for the differences and nuance that exists. Preference is a highly personal thing, and I certainly have mine, but I also like to first examine and break down the differences to better understand where and why my preferences lean one way or another.
First, the French press. I love the French press. Mine is a Freiling twin walled stainless steel, two cup. It has been toted around the world with us for over a decade. It is bulletproof. Nothing breakable. And the screen, which may someday wear out, is easily replaceable… though a decade in, it shows no signs of wear. I love that I can make two cups of coffee, one for me, one for my wife, in under 5 minutes. I love how much flavor is extracted in the brew process of it steeping the beans for about 4 minutes. I love how easy it is clean, and unlike the Aeropress (which is also great for cleaning) I love that is has no plastic parts. In my opinion, the only thing I wish it had, is a slightly cleaner cup, like those produced by methods that utilize a paper filter. The small bit of silt I find distracting and just slightly less desirable than paper filtered methods. But the body and flavor is delicious. I tends to bring out the more robust characteristics of a coffee.
Next up was the Kalita pour over cone. We’ve been playing with this side by side with the Hario V60 cone, a ceramic V shaped cone. The Kalita differs in that it is 1. Stainless steel (lighter, unbreakable), and 2. it is flat bottomed.
In blind tastings at our shop I have chosen the Kalita every time. Literally, every time. I believe it is because the water is allowed to steep and sit in the grinds for longer while the V shaped cone tends to pass the water more quickly. But my word is not the gospel by any means. There are plenty of people in our shop that prefer the Hario. The flavors of both are highly accurate to the coffee and each brings out slightly different nuances. I tend to find more of the finer notes of acidity and silkiness of body seem to be highlighted by the Kalita. And honestly, I initially thought I would certainly prefer the Hario because it is ceramic. But not so. If the Kalita were bigger and I could make two cups at once, and maintain the temperature while doing so, I would probably consider it at the top of my list of camping extraction methods.
Then there is the Aeropress. I personally want to dislike the Aeropress on principal more than I can for practicality. I dislike that it is plastic, because I hate adding hot water to anything plastic knowing that inevitably I am taking in invisible plastic molecules that are more easily passed into my drink by the nature of the hot water being used. But, regardless, there is no denying that the Aeropress makes a terrific tasting cup of coffee.
There are countless opinions on how to brew Aeropresses, and even competitions held around the country now, waxing poetic about this odd plunger system that shares company with the iconic frisbee made by the same producer. I have my own method, but this weekend took it to a new level. Typically I fill the coffee grinds to about half through the “1”, add hot water, let it bloom, stir, add more water until it is near full, then put the plunger in top to hold the water in place for about a minute and a half until I plunge the coffee. Then I add more water to the cup to taste. The flavors are highly extracted, the body is silky, and the acidity always comes through in a well defined and delicious manner.
This weekend after plunging after what I deemed to be about a minute and a half, I added more water again to the Aeropress instead of the cup, and allowed for a second brewing time of about a minute and a half, and plunged again. Cutting edge stuff. The Double Brew Method. And the results? Delicious. Simply delicious. While I know that some baristas around the country are probably cringe at such a thing, experiments and progress are made by way of this kind of irreverence to tradition and rules. My rational is simply that if a coffee can be brewed at four minutes in one setting, there is little difference then to brew that same total time, but in two consecutive intervals. And the result was a rich, full bodied cup of coffee that had a strong but not overwhelming acidity that had nuanced notes of green apple and tangerine.
So I can not really offer which method is the best. All the methods above are quite well suited for camping or home brewing. My personal preference is with out a doubt the Kalita brewer, but because of it requires no filter and has the ability to brew two cups at once, I will no doubt continue traveling the world with the Freiling French press. But domestic and car trips… the Kalita will always be part of the kit.
I should perhaps make note of the coffee we drank in this completely informal and poorly documented experiment… A single origin Colombian we brought in from the very north highlands of Colombia. This is a region we are hoping to visit later this year, and while sadly current popularity does not necessarily shine on Colombian specialty coffees, we have been sourcing some incredible beans from the country that explain how the country has become over the years iconically synonymous with coffee. Rich without being heavy, dark flavors without being darkly roasted, and full spectrum in terms of bright notes to heavier tones. Its acidity is silky, with green apple and lemon zest and tangerine highlights.