by James Freeman, Caitlin Freeman, published 2012
It seems that coffee might best be appreciated by a mathematician when one considers how many various ways the factors of coffee production can be manipulated prior to it being poured into one’s cup. For example:
- Arabica or robusta species? Which varietal?
- Where was it grown? (Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil, Hawai’i…) At what altitude? What were the weather and soil conditions during that crop?
- How was it processed? Dry or wet? Organic?
- Is it single-origin or a blend?
- How was it roasted? What temperature? How long? Starting and stopping moisture? Time to first crack? Second crack?
- How were the beans ground? Coarse? Fine? Hand grind or motorized?
- How was the coffee brewed? Pour-over? Espresso? French press? Cold brew?
- Black or with condiments? Whole milk or heavy cream? Butter? Sugar? Spices?
It may be that only true professionals can discern meaningful differences between one cup and the next when it comes to certain degrees of some of these variables, but nonetheless they’re there and on a gross basis they’re meaningful. Coffee from Ethiopia is different from coffee from Costa Rica. Pour-overs have different profiles than coffee that has been French pressed. Even the temperature of the water and the time of extraction matter within each brewing method.
Coffee is a global commodity, but the Freemans’ book makes it clear that coffee nonetheless defies commoditization for those looking for an individualized, craft experience. One can endlessly explore the world of coffee by twisting these knobs and pulling these levers.
Something about coffee seems delicate after reading this book. One grower profiled had 6,000 trees on their plantation which each yield only a pound of green coffee. A talented human harvester can clear about 2 pounds worth of finished coffee per hour from the trees. We’re not talking about shaking pounds of fruit with one bump like an orange tree here. And coffee goes stale quickly after roasting and even more speedily after grinding. With all the time and intermediate steps between planting and drinking, one could easily ruin the essential qualities of their coffee with simple mistiming or lack of coordination. Brew a minute too long, swirl the water in your pour over a little too fast, and something sublime is lost forever, replaced with tasteless mediocrity.
It is surely an art to do it well!
The discussion around organic certification on coffee also caused me to pause. Organic is not a perfect measure of quality or nutrition by any means when it comes to food, and organic farming practices have some of their own problems. But all else equal, we’d rather not ingest the pesticides if we can avoid it. Yet when it comes to coffee (and wine, “biodynamic”), I haven’t thought twice about insisting on organic sources. This is an odd oversight on my part because it’s probably even more important given that the act of extraction in coffee making virtually guarantees that residual chemicals end up fully dissolved in a readily-digestible concoction, but even more so because for most people coffee is a daily habit so you are being exposed constantly rather than periodically. Unfortunately, this is one place where the market isn’t keeping up. I think on average at my local coffee shop there is one organic offering for every ten or twelve types of beans presented.
James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee and author of the coffee sections, makes it clear that most people in America drink bad coffee each morning. Their sins are many and born of ignorance mostly, convenience secondly. They use automatic drip brewers, pre-ground (stale) coffee, unfiltered water, incorrect temperatures for brewing, unkindly ratios of water to coffee grounds and, worst of all cases, “pod coffee” (K-cups, Nespresso, and so on).
To take back the pride of good coffee, to create one’s own coffee ritual and to further develop the art of the craft, he recommends a basic setup for the novice:
- electronic gram scale
- thermocouple thermometer
- conical burr grinder
- swan-neck kettle
- single-cup pour-over dripper + filters
There are many preparation methods detailed in the book but I was surprised to learn that he recommended the simple pour-over as the first and best technique to master. He also recommends making coffee one cup at a time– a difficult task for a family man trying to mass-produce breakfast! Most interestingly, while he believes you can have a delicious cup of coffee with any kind of bean and roast that has been properly farmed and processed, he recommends single-origin light roasts, black, for the cleanest presentation in the pour-over method.
It’s easy for me when reading a book like this to focus on the “recipe” and ignore the “principles”. Freeman offers a number of rules of thumb and general guidelines but the key idea is personal experimentation and discovery within extreme bounds. Water that is too cold or too hot is just never going to produce good coffee, but water between 205F and 190F, to personal preference, will produce personally-satisfying coffee. It is not about what is objectively best but what is subjectively delicious to you.