Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When Specialty Coffee Isn't Appropriate?

For the past two weeks, I've been on a home-coming journey to the small, cigar-shaped island of Yapen in eastern Indonesia. The trip was a personal and community milestone packed with celebrations. My siblings and I were formally inducted into our tribe, reunited with long-lost friends, and joined the villages in celebrating the publication of the first book in their language, a translation of the New Testament completed by one of their own people.

This was all wonderful, but what stood out from a coffee point of view was very different. The island of Yapen is on the low side for growing specialty coffee, topping out at a little over 4,000 feet (1,200 meters). Most coffee is grown in individual plots along a single mountain valley in the lower 3,000's (900+ meters). The varietal is untested, but was introduced from Brazil in the first half of the 20th century by Dutch colonizers. I suspect the trees are robusta-arabica hybrids.

The community does a great job with managing their value chain. Crops are grown individually and then sold (either dried or wet) to the local cooperative, which owns depulping, hulling, drying, roasting and grinding equipment. The cooperative processes the coffee, packages it and sells it on the regional market under it's own brand for about $1 a pound. This is a sustainable business and price point, and the cooperative has been running for decades now without provoking either a spiral of deforestation or going bankrupt. In fact, the cooperative has amassed significant savings available for re-investment into community infrastructure projects.

Great stuff, and my first thought was that simply by changing out their coffee varietal, the community could move up market and capture disproportionate returns in the specialty market. Maybe. I think community vision and entrepreneurial willingness are definitely present, and the small family holdings of coffee would lend themselves to gradual, low-risk adoption of new coffee trees and processing methods as families observed a few innovators.

The challenge, I think, is the topography, soil and disease burden of the area. This is not an easy place to grow coffee. The current coffee stands are mature and are being replaced gradually, but they suffer from (I suspect) coffee borer disease as well as a fungal infection. Proper diagnosis and treatment of coffee stands is extremely difficult, as coffee stands are spread out in clumps over difficult terrain far from a qualified agricultural specialist.

Topsoil quality also seems to be a challenge. Without active cultivation, the soil is extremely clayey and apt to slide down the steep valley walls at first opportunity. In fact, a recent earthquake left fresh scars in the rainforest hundreds of feet across all over the island and obliterated the village's only road.

Bottom line, while there's plenty of energy and interest in expanding coffee opportunities responsibly, the low altitude, unstable soil and disease prevalence form a very tough triad that has me stumped in terms of an appropriate varietal.

Any thoughts? I loved getting a chance to see coffee and the dedication of a proud group of coffee farmers! I know they'd do their best with a better coffee varietal if one was found.

Photos courtesy of Ethan Johnson.

Landslide - where's the road?

Wet Depulper

Even the village is built on a steep slope!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Introducing (Properly) the K250 for AeroPress

One of the joys and challenges of working with a small business is that everything needs doing at once. One of those things that has needed doing for a long time has been proper introductory videos to each of our products. Without further ado, here is the first of these, a brief introduction to our K250 filter for AeroPress.

Yes, this film shows an inverted brew method. The K250 filter actually works fine with both inverted and traditional brew methods, but we decided to show the inverted because it's our favorite! :)

- Nate

P.S. Thanks to Velton again for the Colombia Camilio Torres used in the making of this film. Thanks to our AeroPress brew session, we caught a lot of the coffee's sweet complexity that we weren't getting any other way.
The K250 sealed in

...and at rest

Friday, May 27, 2011

On Constructing a Brew Chart

How do you make a brew chart for a brew method that hasn't existed before? After all, I'm still trying to understand exactly how the double catcher press brews. I'm still getting spotty results. Some brews are great, and others are unremarkable -- and I don't always know why!

This evening, thanks to a good conversation with Velton Ross of Velton's Coffees, I finally feel like I can describe and understand the critical instruments that can guide me across this uncharted terrain. What are they? First: proper brew temps and second: proper grind / dose / time ratio. Coffee extraction isn't magical, and while double catcher extraction processes are still unexplored, thankfully the fundamentals of extraction are established.

It all crystallized for me tonight as I watched the same roast of Honduras blossom over the course of three brews. Velton's outside perspective popped the problem open after each of the first two cups, getting my mind out of it's rut of assumptions and encouraging me to look at some other variables in the cup that I'd dismissed.

What changed? Cup 1 tasted under-extracted, like tea, while the coffee catcher bed exploded with aromatics that were not extracting into the cup. I pushed the grind 3 notches finer and tried again. This time the cup was much more thoroughly extracted - but it lacked the acidity, fruit and florals that had emerged on the cupping table. Velton suggested upping the brew temp, observing that the bloom-free water was likely way below brewing temps when the top catcher was pulled at 3 minutes and full brewing began.

He was right. For cup 3, I tried pouring directly from the boiling kettle and gauging my water temp each minute. The temperature really dropped off, even with boiling water to start the brew. For cup 3 I measured 198, 190, 188 and 180 at minutes 1-4, respectively. The dramatic drop on minute 4 happened almost instantaneously as I pulled the top coffee catcher and released the coffee fully into the water.

Regardless, near-proper temps made a huge difference. The bright florals and fruit jumped out of the cup. There was an enticing fizziness, a carbonated "pop" to the cup that I'd observed in previous delicious double catcher extractions. The body and middle / dark notes were still solid, though not as well-developed as they could have been. The extraction was still slightly watery, so I know I have more dialing in work ahead of me. As I start to track fundamentals, though, that's actually just what I'd expect, as I know my brew temp is still considerably below the 195-205 that I want to hit throughout the 4 minute brew process.

I realize finding a method of achieving correct brew temp in the French press is going to be tough. In fact, I know a lot of my barista friends who haven't figured it out with a traditional press method either. I'm convinced it can be done. Specifically, I'm convinced there's a way to bump the initial temp up 7 degrees to 205 and way to block the massive heat exchange during the third minute coffee catcher pull.

What did I learn tonight? Brew fundamentals stay the same, regardless of the novelty of the brew method. Nailing down my temperature will allow me to drop my dose and tweak my grind to the actual range for double catcher extractions. I feel like I have a compass I can use to dial in my double catchers - and to check my pour over and espresso and siphon too.

It's good to get back to basics.

Notice the clean press and the pulled bed, both key features of the method.

- Nate

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

195 in the Slurry!

As a good barista will tell you, it's freaking hard to hit proper brewing temps in a pour over slurry. Heat loss from the kettle, the dripper itself and the open-air bed combine for far less than ideal brewing temperatures. We tend to compensate for this with higher doses of coffee, but that really only disguises the problem.

Cole McBride went back to basics and eventually devised a hot plate-enabled pour over process that does consistently hit 195-200F in the slurry. He found he used less coffee to yield a more balanced and flavorful cup.

I thoroughly enjoyed both his presentation and the resulting drink. Check out the video below:

Questions? Comments? Get in touch with Cole through his twitter or with me below.

- Nate