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Waiting for Trifecta - Part 4

March 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Burros--Er--Brewers

Not long ago, a friend of mine--who also goes by the name of barkingburro--started making coffee at work. My namesake, who coincidentally also lives at my house, had consulted with me and I recommended a small CafeSolo or to start looking into one of those German porcelain flow-through brewers. But he decided instead on a Sowden Softbrew." />

Now, personally, if I were to start using another total immersion brewer in competition with my cherished CafeSolo, I might find it hard to compare the two. Especially if I started getting consistently different but equally tasty brews from each one. So I was glad to leave the comparison up to my namesake, who also happens to share my same preference in coffee. Otherwise, the frustration in having to choose between the two could give one a split personality, knowhutimean? So, with notes from both the CafeSolo and Softbrew, let's press on with the journey.

We'll now address the 14 points discussed in part 2, starting with:

1. Measure coffee and water quantities more accurately

This was actually addressed in part 2, in which I bought a shiny new digital scale to measure grounds and H2O." />

The scale works well, and I definitely found that my surprises at brewing coffee too strong or too weak were eliminated once I used the scale.  And, in terms of practicality, I find that using a scale is even more convenient than relying on measuring containers, particularly when it comes time to pour in the hot water.

2. Maintain more optimal water temperature

There are three concerns here.  First, you want to initially get the water in the right temperature range, which for our purposes we'll claim to be 195F to 205F. Second, you want to keep that water in the correct range as much as possible during the brewing process. Third, you want to avoid scalding the beans on the first pour. Now, these may all sound like different aspects of the same concern, but operationally, they're not.

To get the right initial temperature, you want to use a thermometer or, failing that, wait 30 - 60 seconds after the water has boiled. With the CafeSolo, I found that waiting 30 seconds would scald the beans and yield a detectable bitterness. But if I waited longer and made sure to always pour against the side of the carafe instead of directly on the grounds, all was well. Finally, for the best consistency, I learned to wait until the boiling sounds completely subsided, THEN count to 40, THEN pour against the side. The carafe was always preheated beforehand. This tended to give me the best result.

Meanwhile, my technique was slightly modified to accommodate the Softbrew. First, the measured amount of water was placed in the Softbrew and the porcelain brewer sans metal filter nuked in the microwave for 4 1/2 minutes. Again, I waited until the boiling sounds abated. I counted to 30 instead of 40. Then I inserted the large stainless steel canister/filter, which held the grounds. The steel conducted some of the heat and prevented scalding the beans as the water trickled in through the zillion tiny holes. By the end of the 4 minute brewing cycle, considerable heat was lost, compared to the better-insulated CafeSolo. This temperature drop had the effect of producing a juicier cup, which my working counterpart actually preferred to the CafeSolo. I, on the other hand, preferred the more balanced flavors I was able to get at home (did I mention we both drive the same model car--weird, huh?).

3. Grind more consistently and at the optimal particle size (or range of sizes)

After my revelation drinking my coffee filtered through Hario paper, I made a blind investment in equipment to remove the finer particles and improve consistency of size. I bought a Baratza Virtuoso Preciso and sold my Kitchenaid grinder.


Then I went one step further and bought a Brunopasso Fine Powder Separator. If you hold it right next to a CafeSolo filter, the two sets of wire mesh look nearly identical." /> 

My theory was that if I tasted bitterness amongst the fines, then I should try to remove the fines. So I not only improved the grind consistency using the Preciso (which has earned quite a reputation for doing a great job for coarser grinds), but I was also removing a substantial portion of the fines, which may or may not have contributed to the bitterness. My results validated this decision, with a marked improvement in smoothness. And there was noticeably less (approx. 50%) fines in the bottom of my cup. Still, I felt there was plenty of room for improvement. One thing I did was to adjust the grind to be finer. My reasoning was that if the range of sizes was now much tighter, with far fewer tiny particles, I should be able to take advantage of the consistency and try to extract more. I think my results after this last step were at least as good as before, and certainly not worse. So I stuck with the finer setting.

4. Tweak the timing of the pre soak and soak

I next turned to the matter of optimizing the brew time. I wanted to be more precise in gauging how long it was taking me to stir down the foam and get the filter/stopper onto the CafeSolo. Typically, I would pour in the water, stir down the foam, cap the carafe, and only then start the 4 minute timer. So I was surprised to find that I was actually taking a full minute to stir down the foam. After reading about others' sample timings, I finally evolved my technique as follows:

1. Pour in 150 to 250 ml. water and stir grounds to saturate them.

2. Start 4 minute timer.

3. After 30 seconds, pour in remaining water and stir again.

4. Decant brew with minimal agitation after timer rings.

This made another improvement about equal to that of improving the grind. Now, when I sampled my brew that had been sitting around a while, even the last silty drops were smooth and rich with flavor. For me, this was another eureka moment (as in, "it can't get any better").

Meanwhile, back at the cubicle farm, my doppelgänger was using the exact same timing with spectacular results. Things hadn't worked out that great at the beginning, because the brew kept tasting bitter after the first pour, even though only a few more seconds had passed. It turns out that agitating the brew and grounds was all too easy with the Sowden. The solution was to remove the filter very carefully at the end of the brew cycle. Then the contents of the brewer could be stirred before pouring. The end result was almost indistinguishable from the CafeSolo, until the cup cooled a bit and then the acidity would become more prominent. Much more prominent.

Now, one thing worth mentioning is that during the initial 30 second bloom, the grounds in the Sowden would actually get hoisted by the foam above the water level, where they'd stay suspended until they were stirred down at the 30 second mark. I couldn't really tell if this was happening to the same extent in the CafeSolo, but it seemed to behave approximately the same way. This leads me to conclude that you needn't worry too much about submerging the grounds underwater and absorption of CO2 into the water during the bloom, because the grounds appear to do a good job of separating themselves from the water while out-gassing.

5. Agitate the brew at the right time(s)

See above.

6. Filter the brew

Yeah, not gonna happen. It's a religious thing with me that the paper interferes with delivery of all the essential flavor and body that makes a rich cup of coffee. But I hope the reader appreciates that there's no substitute for experimentation and sampling other brewing techniques to put you on the right path. Sometime soon, I intend to do a repeat of the filtered vs. unfiltered tasting to see where I now stand.

7. Use pressure to improve extraction

It's at this point where barkingburro #3 would have typically entered the picture, talking about how his Aeropress is the best of all worlds, what with the extra concentration of goodness that only a healthy dose of pressure could provide, not to mention the fact that once you add pressure to the equation, you start radically backing off on the brew time. Which means you have a possibility of juggling the variables to yield a better sweet spot that is less likely to yield bitterness yet much more powerful in terms of the range of flavors you can pull out of a roast, which is also much wider in range of acceptance (that is, the roast can be darker and the pressure will do wonders where a simple soak couldn't do justice).

Or so one might think. It's a shame we'll never know, because just as barkingburro #3 was catching up to us at a busy intersection to tell us how superior his coffee was, this freakishly huge safe fell on him at the exact moment he stepped onto the chalk mark where... uh... ... ...

Three! No, two! 

That's enough for now... To be concluded next time (hopefully). 

Previous: Waiting for Trifecta - Part 3

Next: Waiting for Trifecta - Part 5

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