In almost 15 years of writing about specialty coffee on line (since 1996), we have probably never been in harder times. Times are tough. No question. A lot of people are hurting right now - and it would trivialize the state of the Union to suggest that we all suck it up and pretend that everything is OK - and steer people into a situation where they are spending money that they don't have...
Sadly, many economic studies reveal that there are certain things that folks will not give up - even in hard times... like coffee, the occasional meal out (even if it's fast food), a good cigar and the odd drink.
Coffee. It's a hard habit to break. And what people do give up is the pricey stuff - the fancy stuff... the more exotic drinks, like double lattes twice a day... or a cappuccino and a muffin at every coffee break. Heck, I don't even do that. And although my wife and I are both truly blessed and working - with a roof over our heads, I do all my own baking and I make 100% of my coffee during the work week. It's what you have to do.
And what has attracted me (about coffee) the last year or so is the very simplicity that the brewing processes afford. Afford being the operative word.
The way I see it: 2011 is going to be the year of living frugally - where coffee and life is concerned.
And coincidentally, I am here to help you navigate that road - In our latest installment of the Seasonal Buyers Guide we are going to concentrate entirely on the simple - and affordable - and tasty. Because that is what we are all about!
Photo Right - Hario Japan has come up with some fantastic new takes on some old designs - the Manual Burr Grinder!
A close coffee mentor of mine recently said... "Espresso, it's so yesterday!" - of course he can say that because he is the grande master of espresso coffee on Vancouver Island. In fact, he is one of the Sensei's of pretty much all methods of brewing coffee in cafes. And although this is not about cafe coffee, or getting cafe coffee in the home, it is about doing what gets you the best bang for the buck... in your home. Or getting it for a friend or loved one - who also happens to love coffee.
In buyers guide past (recent past in fact) we have introduced some of the most basic methods of coffee brewing (as they relate to gifts.) Yes, you can buy a paper filter holder by Melitta and a carafe and a bag of beans - but unless you have some of the tutorial background or instruction on what you do with these tools... well, you might be up coffee creek without a functional paddle.
In the last year I have been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of some new bits and pieces in Coffee World; new brewers, new ideas, new techniques and some very different phrasing on some very familiar songs.
Take the good old fashioned manual burr grinder. A very, very old idea has been freshened up with some modern components (like Italian ceramic burrs), mass produced and offered to the coffee drinking public at a fraction of the cost of a powered burr grinder. And what better way of burning off some calories when you enjoy your favorite beverage?
Photo Right: The Hario Buono Kettle at $50 and tax could arguably be the priciest watering can money can buy. I use it with my V60 pour over filter holder and carafe and honestly, I am now making the best coffee of my life. I also use the kettle to water my delicate cacti!
Hario Japan has been in the business of making fine glassware since 1921. A lot of their energy is currently going into coffee and tea products at the moment. Reg James of EspressoTec.com and Geir and Pat Oglend of Drumroaster Coffee set me up with almost the entire catalog of products; from the V60 Brewer, carafe, all the grinders and accessories. I bought the Buono Kettle arguably the fanciest watering can money can buy!
Taking your espresso machine out of gear...
I have had over one dozen espresso machines - and only really one I wish I had kept. The Rancilio Silvia was a loyal kitchen companion and produced shot after shot of great espresso. Paired up with the Rancilio Rocky grinder (which I still have) made for a winning team. The Silvia is still built like a tank and if you want to consider this kind of purchase, think of it as "the last espresso machine you will ever buy".
Silly me, someone showed up one day and waved $500 in my face and I fell for it. It was, however, a mixed blessing. It got me out of the espresso groove. A groove that took some time to find.
Here is the thing about espresso. When you have a winning set up, like the Silvia and the Rocky, you can do no wrong. When you have to get used to a new machine, there is a learning curve - and as a result, lots of thrown out shots, wasted coffee and water and heart break. So I have had a few machines - but because of "giving my machine away" to a new home and being deluged with a variety of new coffee making toys, I changed my way of thinking.
EspressoTec.com and Espro.ca sent me an Espro Press brewer - The Espro features a double walled stainless shell (good as a thermos) and a double filter system for ultra-clean tasting press coffee. Great for travel! Around $75 from EspressoTec.com or Espro.ca
Do not get me wrong. Espresso is an incredible thing. It is the back bone of many fine drinks, like the latte and cappuccino. And there is no other way of making these great specialty drinks without an espresso machine.
And me, not being a milk drinker, I find I was getting a better bang by hitting some of the fine cafes in Victoria for my occasional 'espro down. And occasional it is! I have discovered that there is so much more to explore by focusing on single origin coffees and the simple way of preparing them.
Simple as in a filter holder and #4 paper filters.
Simple as in a French press. Many made of glass and some built right into travel mugs or made of double-walled stainless steel with double filters - like the Espro brewer. More on that nugget later.
Espro Press filter system (photo at right) produces some of the cleanest tasting press coffee - and it is a thermal brewer - which keeps the coffee hot until you drink it - $75 from EspressoTec.com and Espro.ca
Simple as in investing in the one thing that makes or breaks a great cup of coffee: A grinder. And in this particular case, a manual coffee grinder that is as versatile on the road as it is at home or in the office. The Hario Slim Mini (mid photo left) for a paltry $30 from Espressotec.com gives you burr grinder precision without the hefty price tag that often accompanies some of the better electric burr grinders. And if you do not mind "doing it yourself" - that is, expending some "armstrong" to get the job done, you can expand your coffee experiences exponentially with this one investment.
The Hario grinder I tend to travel with is the Hario Skerton (mid photo center)(also available from Espressotec.com) for $10 more.
And yes, I go on and on about this: The one thing that can kick your coffee experience up serious notches in quality is about being able to grind your coffee moments before brewing it. There is no greater disparity in coffee flavor quality than the gap that exists between pre-ground coffee out of a bag or tin and the whole bean fresh ground experience.
That's because ground coffee is only actually fresh for an hour after it is ground - and I do not care how it is stored.
Grind your coffee right before brewing and oxygen, coffee's enemy, has not had a chance to rob your beans of their delicate flavor,
Want to kick it old school? For $90 you can score a Hario Coffee Mill standard from EspressoTec.com - Any of these grinders can handle any brew method from Cowboy to French press to drip to fine drip and even cut it for some espresso machines with pressurized portafilters. I have done some Turkish coffee with these units but that is really pushing the envelope.The
The Last Minute Stuff
Ah. Now days before Christmas and there was a whole bunch more that I should have written here. Bottom line was (and is), there is a whole lot of coffee experience you can roll out with small dollars.
As I have discovered in 2010 (and some of the best coffee of my life) that I did take it to the next level with less bucks and more flavor. Yes, the coffees have improved something impressive particularly among the single origins (I am not a coffee blend drinker much anymore - don't see the point.) Anyway, a summary:
Bottom line: More and more folks may be taking their coffee in in 2011 - so you might as well improve the experience with some old school and re-imagined methods.
Thanks for reading and have a jolly and caffeinated festive season!