Monday, December 07, 2009

Caffeine induced thoughts

While I love roasting my own coffee, the home coffee roaster with just a jury-rigged setup is always at a disadvantage when roasting compared to a skilled craftsperson using professional roasting equipment.

This isn’t to suggest I am about to stop roasting, far from it, but the variables involved in creating a fine end product are many, and it is a natural consequence of the process at home that it is more difficult to control these in a more casual process.

This weekend I roasted six batches of Santa Cruz de León Cortés, a Costa Rican coffee. Each batch has a slightly different profile and no matter how well I watched the time or the temperature I was never going to have each looking or tasting exactly like the other.

I have no doubt they will all taste good, but some may well be better than others. There is not much I can do other than control what variables I can and maintain a zen-like acceptance of the transient nature of each roast, enjoying its unique and oh-so-brief existence.

I friend of mine has recently purchased a lovely drum roaster and I wish him the joy of it as I think he will quickly master it and produce some wonderful coffee. My own ambitions are somewhat smaller and I hope over the next year to build a larger roaster capable of more consistent product.

Most weeks I do wonder why I roast at all – there is so much good coffee out there on the market that I don’t need to roast it myself. I know one of the reasons that I persist is that roasting help me learn more about coffee. Yes, I many not be able to roast as well as any of the Master Roasters we have in Perth, but I can’t learn as well from only drinking their coffee as I can from roasting myself. I am finding it a good idea to try their roast of the same bean that I am roasting if at all possible. This helps me calibrate my expectations of how the coffee should be and from time to time I manage to surprise myself with my own roasts.

I roast single origins and drink single origins almost to the exclusion of blends, not because I don’t like blends, but more because I need to understand each coffee better than I do now before I can really consider how best to blend it.

Also at the moment I am using a pour-over, a plunger or the Clever Coffee Dripper to make my coffee as my espresso machine is down hard with a bung pump. Single Origins seem to be nicely responsive to the hands on treatment of the espresso-less side of coffee making and I’m happy enough drinking other-than-espresso for a while.

I do have some interesting experiments coming up over summer that I will share with people, including some that might be quite interesting as part of a signature drink for competitions.

It does rely on some equipment I don’t have yet, but should have shortly. I will tell more when there is more to tell!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Coffee Bias

The history of coffee is a complex web of human interractions around a mild drug that is popular the world over and affordable to most people.

Like most commodities, the coffee market has been used to influence and oppress, to change governments and shape trade relationships.

Usually this has gone against the grower and favoured the trading behemoths in Europe and the United States.

This is changing and while the large companies such as Nestle and Sara Lee hold tight rein over some aspects of the industry still there is a growing understanding among consumers that quality coffee comes from the specialty end of the coffee market.

The internet has played an important role in providing a source of information to consumers about coffee and in helping promote specialty coffee. This has included the rise of groups such as CoffeeSnobs and CoffeeGeek where there is a concentration of all things coffee. CoffeeSnobs is a distinctly Australian expression of the coffee passion and caters for home roasters by being a source of green beans - unroasted coffee.

For many people stumbling across the website of CoffeeSnobs is a revelation, and the number of 'Snobs' is growing rapidly and now approaching 10,000. When I joined in 2006 there were just about 1500 members. It is now a mature organisation with ongoing corporate sponsors and its very own foreign aid program "Faircrack" that has been delivering on its promise of assisting coffee growers in the developing world and so far has purchased milling and other equipment to help growers improve the price they get for their coffee.

It struck me this morning that most of the people that I know are people who are passionate about coffee - not everyone, but most of them, and that includes the people I work with (not in the coffee industry). I have observed what appears to be an increasing trend towards better coffee and in the last three years in my office there has been a proliferation of plungers, pour overs and even grinders and consumption from the the big bad brown tin of doom has decreased considerably.

I've also noticed a fantastic range of coffee being selected, mostly from local roasters of specialty coffee rather than the big supermarket brands. Is this shift towards selecting specialty coffee a general trend? or are my observations a form of confirmation bias? Am I just noticing it more because I am looking for it, in the same way as you start seeing a certain model of car everywhere once you buy one or think about buying one?