Coffee: the stimulating art of pump and grind
As bleary-eyed caffeine addicts one and all, we wanted to know the secret of the perfect cup of coffee. The “cafetière” cognoscenti heard our prayers
Hattie Ellis assesses artisan brews
Coffee, the proper stuff that is, has undergone a revolution in recent times, with thriving independent cafés now serving artisan brews around the country. But despite its style and energetic buzz, speciality coffee can seem complicated and expensive. Do you need to join long queues in trendy cafés or buy fancy kit and become a barista at home?
No wonder most of us reach blearyeyed for the cafetière, vaguely scoop what we think is the right amount of coffee and plunge when it feels sort of ready. Caffeine is deeply habit forming; as much a need as a taste. Why bother to change?
Yet there’s clearly much to learn and enjoy. I ventured forth, cup in hand, to find a way through for the non-hipster. Artisan roasters are the best guides. Only through roasting do green beans develop the 1,500 aromatic compounds that are released into delicious cupfuls. It’s a highly developed craft and such experts have powered the shift towards better beans and brews.
My first guru is Ian Steel of J Atkinson & Co in Lancaster. London may be the driving force behind good coffee in the UK but it’s not the only centre.
Atkinsons has been going since 1837. The business was bought by Steel and his wife, Sue, returning to Lancashire after careers in London. With their two millennial sons, Maitland and Caspar, they have formed a bridge between coffee old and new.
Behind the shop is a state-of-the-art Californian roaster with the highest of ecocredentials. In the shop itself, magnificent old canisters and scoops shiny with custom sit alongside a 1940s gas roaster that is still used to show customers how the process works.
It’s In the roast action
The beans are ready – whether for a lighter or darker roast – when they brown and crack, filling the shop with sounds as well as the intoxicating, complex aroma of freshly roasted and ground coffee.
Next door is The Hall, a stylish 1930s parish hall repurposed as a café. On the long counter are a series of coffees being brewed in syphons, a vacuum coffee-making contraption that looks like a Star Trek gizmo, halogen glow below, glass coffee-bowl
above. The espresso machine hisses like a modernist steam engine and contented customers enjoy superlative cakes and the sourdough toasties that are de rigueur in trendy coffee houses.
Alongside espresso, coffees from two types of beans are on offer: currently, Ethiopian and Rwandan. The tasting notes for these are, respectively, “floral, peach, tea” and “candied sugar, vanilla, plum wine”.
My first lesson is that single-origin coffee, brewed well, has a broad range of tastes. The potential for sweetness, acidity and aromatic flavours will vary depending on the country of origin, processing and bean.
I sip and yes, especially as the coffee gets slightly cooler, remarkable sensations fill my mouth, including a refreshing acidity that is akin to eating a juicy apple. The complexities unroll, staying in my mouth long after the cup is empty. A whole new palette of taste and pleasure is revealed.
Ian has travelled to many of the coffee producing countries – to Kenya, India, Sumatra, El Salvador, Colombia and his ultimate destination, Ethiopia, a country with the mystique and status of being where the coffee plant is thought to have originated. The country’s multitude of wild varieties offer heritage beans with unusual flavours, some of them lightly floral.
Each region – and even coffee farm or collective – has different styles, in the same way as wines and vineyards are different. To generalise, Central American and African beans tend to have more acidity and fruit flavours, and countries such as Indonesia and Brazil give rounder, softer, heavier coffees, some with chocolate tones.
the beans count, too
As for the processing of the beans, look for notes such as “natural process” if you want to try some of the more funkier flavours and “washed” for a crisper, cleaner cupful.
When brewing coffee, you are dissolving all the miraculous components of the bean – flavour molecules, caffeine, oils – into the water. The key is to use the right proportion of correctly ground coffee to water, and to brew for the best amount of time.
All these elements matter if you want to avoid weak and sour under-extracted coffee or over-extracted coffee that is harsh and bitter.
You don’t need a special machine. Filter coffee can be made at home with just a filter paper-lined cone to put on top of a cup or jug. Pour the water over slowly and evenly to get the maximum extraction.
Good coffee can also be made in a cafetière, according to James Hoffmann, the master-roaster who is the co-founder of one of the pioneers of new coffee, Square Mile, and author of an excellent guide, The World Atlas of Coffee.
Quantity is important, debated and often misjudged. Hoffmann recommends 60g ground coffee to one litre of water for both filter and cafetière coffee. In a small, 250ml cafetière this is 15g of coffee. A standard scoop is about 9g but volume is less accurate than weight because grinds vary and so do coffees. One trick is to measure the coffee on digital scales and then to pour on the water while on the scales – 1g equals 1ml. Once you are used to this, it becomes as straightforward a habit as spoonfuls.
Then you need the coffee to be the right size of grind. When making espresso the water is pumped through coffee quickly, under pressure, and requires a very fine grind. In contrast, the infusion of a cafetière, or pouring hot water slowly and evenly over the grounds for filter coffee, requires a slightly less fine grind – but not too coarse – so that the flavours dissolve out properly.
“If you brew a pot that’s too weak, it’s probably because the coffee is a bit too coarse and you haven’t extracted enough flavour,” says Hoffmann. “The inclination is to use more coffee to fix it but you don’t
The key is to use the right proportion of correctly ground coffee to water
improve the extraction. With a slightly finer grind, the water can suck out more flavour and you get a stronger, more balanced cup.”
As for timing, four minutes brewing is about right, if the grind is correct. The water temperature is best slightly off the boil but this matters more with darker roasts that can become bitter more quickly with hotter water.
There are a couple of bigger hurdles to jump if you want to enjoy better coffee at home.
Roasted coffee is a fresh food and this means it deteriorates. Buy whole beans in packets that proudly announce the roast date and use them within a month to six weeks. Keep coffee in a cool, dark place – but not the fridge, which can cause condensation.
Once ground, the surface area of the coffee is exposed to oxygen and loses its aroma and flavours quickly. Grinding just before brewing is highly recommended.
There are two types of grinder: the whizzyround blades that are most common; and burr grinders, the type favoured by coffee-experts because the method delivers a more evenly sized particle. This is important because different sized pieces can lead to both underand over-extracted coffee in the same brew.
A simple hand-grinder costs about £30 and is effective but hard work. A reasonable electric burr grinder is £60 to £100.
“It’s a painful truth but you have to buy a grinder,” says Hoffmann. “If you buy artisan coffee ready-ground, after 24 hours you’ve lost a lot of what you’ve paid a premium for.”
Adding milk is customary for many of us but that’s partly because it improves bitter, over-extracted coffee. Milk also slightly muffles the finer flavours of good coffee. It’s well worth trying a brew black, at least at first. An espresso, however, is stronger and isn’t so much affected by a drop of milk – or more, as in a flat white or cappuccino.
As for home-made espresso, most coffee geeks say that the machines are a lot of work for less flavour than one made by a pro in a shop. If you have a machine, ideally grind your own beans. However, ready-to-use pods can contain good coffee, with companies such as Colonna and Volcano making compostable capsules of high-quality beans.
There are considerable up-sides to going to a good coffee outlet other than buying freshly roasted beans. Some of the best in the capital are profiled in a richly atmospheric, well-illustrated new book, London Coffee, by Lani Kingston. This covers the subject from the old-style Bar Italia in Soho to the early adopter of new coffee, Monmouth Coffee, to the hip new outlets. With a wider reach, The London Coffee Guide will direct you to the best independents in town.
The rise in coffee houses mirrors the fall in pub attendance. Perhaps we want to be more awake from our drinks these days. Laptops and mobile phones mean we can work anywhere and meeting for a coffee is a useful unit of time for work and friends. However, the better flavours unlocked by specialists make me, for one, increasingly willing to wake up and smell the new coffee.
J Atkinson & Co: tel 01524 65470; www.thecoffeehopper.com
James Hoffmann: tel 020 7729 3744; www.jameshoffmann.co.uk
Four minutes brewing is about right, if the grind is correct
Above: J Atkinson’s café in an old priory hall offers its patrons a new “hallowed ground” Right: coffee cherries are harvested from a farm in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda
London Coffee by Lani Kingston, with photography by David Post, profiles some of the best places to grab a mug of the brown stuff in the capital. Published by Hoxton Mini Press, £20.