Cafe culture 2008 - Home, office and beyond, chapter 1

Home, Office and Beyond!

Whether I am walking through Whistler village, future home of the 2010 Olympic games, downtown Vancouver, Victoria or the University campus where I work, it is always the same: Someone stops me to ask...

"Colin! I love your website and I have a couple of questions..."

Yes, this really does happen. More often in Victoria and at my work-place where there are 2000 employees and 19,000 students...


Anyhow - Question one is generally: "Man, you must have the greatest espresso machine set up at your home! What do you use?"

You can imagine the wilt that happens when I answer:

"Hey, thanks for the kind words...but."


When I am not testing espresso machines for in Vancouver, or out of New York or one of the many proud sponsors of this website, I generally do not go near espresso coffee - at least in my kitchen.

Why you ask?

Well. I have a million reasons and I am going to list a few... with some of my rationale.

I repeat the following mantra over and over to all my coffee (and tea) loving friends:

"Coffee is a journey, not a destination." I have repeated this a zillion times in the last 20 years plus. And for some of my readers it is starting to sink in.

Then again, sometimes I get a blank stare.

Coffee in its purest form (in my cup at least) has been brewed one of several ways; through a drip paper filter, in a French press or Bodum pot or in a better-than-average electric drip thermal carafe brewer. If you want to really experience a great cup of coffee or to learn a little more about coffee - stop and think for a moment: --->

---> Espresso is a blend of roasted coffee beans from a wide (and wild) variety of origins (in simple terms an origin being one spot on the Planet Earth where coffee is grown; like Ethiopia, or Indonesia, or Panama or Mexico...)

For clarity: An example of a single origin bean would be "Ethiopian Sidamo". An example of an espresso blend could be "Two Old Goats" blend, which might contain Nicaraguan Selva Negra, Mexico Malinal, Jamaica Blue Mountain, some Kona and Sumatra Mandheling for good measure.

You see where I am going with this? No?

Ok then. A single origin coffee brewed in some of the alternative methods that I have discussed provides a conduit to coffee nirvana that is less (but not always) complicated or confusing than messing with complex espresso blends.

Here is a sneak peek at what I am on about: Espresso coffee is great, folks and I love cappuccino, latte and Americano as much as the next person (and maybe even more!) And although you are probably eager to move from the home Folgers or office coffee (that you abhor) or the $15 dollar a day latte habit that you have been fueling by breaking into cars at night - deep breath - to go directly to great home espresso coffee... produced (tentatively) by you and your $1700 dollar HX and E61 equipped espresso tank and Mazzer grinder [another deep breath] and...

"Stop! Stop, stop, stop!" you call out to your computer screen...

But no one can hear you. Maybe your cat is looking at you now.

Anyway. My point is: Before dumping a wheel-barrow full of cash on a fancy-pants espresso set-up, why not start with the basics?

And learn something!

The basics: Whole bean coffee. Burr grinder. Filter or Press. And hot water.

I really feel that by jumping from your daily ritual of bad coffee directly to high-end espresso coffee, you are cheating yourself out of the journey. It is like driving from New York to L.A. without stopping to smell the flowers.

Another example: Some Ontario, Canada resident family members whose diet of coffee consisted of Folger's (pre-ground and pre-staled in the tin) from the semi-rural super-store begrudgingly yielded to my influence after our 5th or 6th semi-annual visit when we out and out refused to drink their acidic brew anymore. It took a while, but they discovered that there is a better beverage than Folger's at 9$ for a 2-pound tin! Bit by bit though. Baby steps.

Finally they relented - as we were packing to leave for Victoria they asked: "What do we need to make our life a bit better (and yours when [and if!] you guys return to Ontario again)?

Get a grinder! I offered. A Burr grinder. A simple burr grinder opens so many doors in your coffee journey. It is that one very important thing that changes everything... because that one single step from pre-ground to whole bean, ground just prior to brewing is one gigantic taste increment!

Food fact: Whole bean coffee is fresh and suitable for grinding and brewing upwards of 2 weeks out of the roaster. Oxygen is its enemy but roast coffee is built to protect itself for this duration. Coffee, once it is ground is totally vulnerable to the ravages of oxidation and staling within about 1/2 hour. Big difference huh!? So why would you ever buy pre-ground coffee? Sure, for convenience and all - but to sacrifice all that taste? Shame!

So what do you buy? Well, those cheap blade grinders are readily available but are they any good for specialty coffee? Not really. The blades create an uneven blend of coffee that is ground too fine and too coarse leading to an uneven extraction of coffee during brewing...

  • Ideally, the perfect grind for any one style of brewing is very uniform - this means that the water passing through the ground coffee carries away just enough of the desired flavor components.

Blade grinders are cheap and available everywhere - but the results can be dissappointing and encouraging at the same time. The limits of the blade grinder are realized early - but they also tease you with the possibilities!

Anyway - in this continuing series of articles, I am going to talk about how you can shape your coffee journey and pick up some useful knowledge along the way... and to enjoy yourself.

Colin Newell lives, works and writes in Victoria B.C. Canada - and considers coffee and tea wonderful beverages to wile away the hours with - but only if they are brewed right! Hence this website.