Coffee – How to Order With Confidence

Coffee choice is one of those aspects of food and drink so deeply fascinating that I could read about them for hours. My position is one of an eager student, but nonetheless a student who feels qualified to give advice. I have drunk a lot of the brew, but I have never approached my morning cup from a caffeine centric position. Instead, I am interested in what can be considered the first delicious thing of the day. Coffee, with the possible exception of dark chocolate, is the first thing that we as humans have to learn to love. It’s characteristic bitterness is disgusting to children, and the subtleties of its taste are all to easily lost when the brewer is not handling the beans with care. It’s my view that all of life’s sensational flavours are difficult at first: the sweaty funk of truffles, the tannic power of Pauillac, and the raw, animal note of game. Coffee is no different, but once understood, it has magical properties.

The first hurdle is which beans to choose. There’s plenty of information out there on which locations produce good stuff, so I won’t explore the geographical side of bean production here. That said, I would note that I love almost all the beans I’ve tasted from Yirgacheffe in Ethiopia. Generally speaking there are 3 types of beans: Washed, Unwashed, and Semi-washed. (I won’t dwell on semi-washed, as it offers a balance between the two other types.) Unwashed is the method which produces the bulk of the world’s beans. Here the coffee cherries are left to dry in the sun with minimal processing. This causes the beans to dry out with the fruit, and, in general, yields fuller bodied, richer coffee. Washed coffee is, well, washed! The fruit is removed from the bean before drying, and in general yields brighter, cleaner, more acidic brew. The rise of New Nordic Cuisine and the natural wine movement have shown us that fresher, higher acid approaches are popular at the moment. It’s no different here: washed beans have picked up a devoted following.

Thankfully, coffee culture has advanced from the days of dark, oily, over-roasted beans. The chaps at The Scandinavian Coffee Pod can fill you in on the merits of a lighter roast, while Gary at The Coffee Dispensary can fill you in on the importance of the perfect grind. Either of those coffee shops can talk you through the variety of espresso based drinks and their associated merits, but I want to focus on the different methods of brewing filter coffee.

Aside from the old school Cafeti√®re and percolator, there are four methods for the modern barista: the Aeropress, the Hario V60, the Chemex, and the Siphon. The Aeropress is arguably the simplest and quickest. Coffee is steeped for a short time in what is more or less a giant plastic syringe. It is then forced through a filter by plunging the er… plunger. It produces a cup with less bitterness than conventional drip coffee, thanks in part to the speedy brew time. The Hario V60 is a delightfully simple process. A conical filter is placed in a specially designed ceramic dripper. Coffee is added, and then hot water is poured over. Timings, temperatures and ratios vary depending on who’s pouring, and are often closely guarded secrets. The V60 produces delicious coffee which can be infinitely tweaked thanks to the low tech approach. Another pour over technique uses the Chemex, a beautiful, hourglass shaped piece of glass which yields an incredibly clean cup. This is due to the filter, which is thicker than most. Some find that Chemex can strip the end result of some of its body, but in my experience it produces a delicious, lighter brew.

The last method is as enjoyable to watch as it is to drink. Siphon brewing utilises a two piece glass contraption that looks as much at home in the lab as it does in a cafe, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a highly technical bong on first sight. Hot water is added to a spherical container, and placed over a heat source. A second piece of glass shaped like a wine glass with a hollow stem is attached once the water is boiling. Steam pressure causes the water to rise from the lower chamber to the upper, then the coffee is added. The water appear to be boiling, but is actually at the perfect temperature for brewing. After a time, the heat source is taken away, and the liquid drops back into the lower chamber, passing through a filter in the way. The technique enables a lot of adjustment for personal preference, while water temperature stays nearly constant. Plus it’s easily the most fun of all the filter methods.

Cafes¬†in Cheltenham range from the banal to the brilliant, but quality is on the rise. My advice- if the shop doesn’t know when their beans were roasted, have a cup of tea or try somewhere else.