Michael Phillips, the 2010 World Barista Champion and 1/3 of Handsome Roasters, recently gave a Super Talk about coffee at a TED-like event in Korea called Super Series.
The talk, named “Cultural Coffee & Artistic Barista” begins with a brief definition of Specialty Coffee before Mike goes on to share his passions for coffee and being a barista. As the talk progresses, he discusses important changes taking place in the world of coffee guided by cultural interest in the process and origin of the things we consume and a desire for authenticity in our every-day experiences.
After briefly explaining barista competitions, Mike elaborates on why they are good for baristas and the positive innovations they have led to in the industry, which results in better coffee for the consumer and inspired new ways to look at coffee.
Things like this have caused coffee to be reborn, re-examined, and challenged in entirely new ways.
This video is an approachable explanation of the changes people have begun seeing in their local coffee shops, read about online and heard about from their friends. There’s a lot of great information delivered without pretension and a handsome face.
There are a few things a person needs to help them brew better coffee at home and the tool most often overlooked by beginners is a digital scale. Weighing coffee and water, rather than using scoops and cups, allow consistency when measuring your ingredients.
Different coffees have different densities depending on how they are roasted or the size of the bean, so one tablespoon isn’t equal for all coffee. You’ll also notice that many of the better coffee brewing tutorials found on the internet use grams as the common unit of measure. Since 1mL of cold water weighs 1 gram, it’s simple math to calculate your dose ratio and learn to measure and brew coffee this way. Most coffee shops concerned with quality use scales, if not for brewing, at least for weighing the proper dose.
When I make coffee for friends, the first reaction to my scale is usually, “whoa, you’re really serious about this, huh?” Well, yes, but the scale shouldn’t be an indication of that. The digital scale is a valuable tool that every kitchen should have (even the New York Times agrees) and cost between $10-$50. When it takes less than a gram of coffee or a milliliter of water to alter the balance of a good cup of coffee, the scale shouldn’t be reserved only for “coffee nerds,” but should be embraced for the consistency it adds to the brewing process and the quality it creates in the cup.
The NYTimes article, though specifically about cooking, shares this coffee revelation:
The scale also ensures repeatability. I once calibrated exactly the amount of beans that I need to make coffee the way I like. Now, every morning, I place my can of beans on the scale, and then scoop out 28 grams — allowing me to repeat the same pot every day.
You don’t need to buy a scale that’s super fancy, just something with accurate gram measurements and a tare function will do fine. After fresh-roasted coffee beans and a good grinder, a scale will help improve your coffee brewing the most. Understanding your dose and being able to consistently repeat it, will contribute to better coffee on a regular basis without much added effort.
Love Keurig? Not one bit. But yesterday Twitter was all a-buzz about the machine that brews single-serve coffee pods (K-cups) while they were “promoted” to the top of the trending list. So I tweeted my 140 character dissertation on the topic, simply stating that “Keurig is bad for coffee and bad for the Earth. #killthekcup.” While a few people—145 of them—agreed with me and re-shared the message, not everyone felt the same.
I was quickly contacted by Keurig with a link to their reusable K-cup as if that rectified the issue and put an end to the discussion. Then a few loyal K-cup fans were upset that I criticized their right to never have to wipe coffee off their counter tops, followed by another guy who thought that the billions of non-recyclable plastic cups are not an issue and I should invest my activist angst elsewhere.
The reality, it is a big issue—not just in the coffee industry, but in the bigger ecological picture. When the most important ”R” of conservation is to “reduce,” ignoring the rapid growth of an unnecessary and disposable product like K-cups is far from inconsequential. So, I’ve broken down my issues with this growing coffee trend into four categories: economics, quality, environment and the company behind it all.
First we’ll start with money, the topic people are generally concerned with the most. There are many ways to brew coffee, much better coffee, for the same cost (or less) than K-cups. On average, you can brew 30 cups of coffee with 1 pound of coffee beans. So let’s compare the two.
A 24-pack of Fair Trade Green Mountain Sumatran Reserve K-cups cost $15.45, which comes out to 65 cents a cup for glorified instant coffee. Meanwhile, you can buy a pound of Intelligenstia’s Direct Trade coffee for $20, which is a premium compared to what most people pay in a grocery store or even at most local roasters. Divide that by 30 and it comes out to 66 cents a cup for some of the best coffee you can buy. Cost savings per cup? Need a penny, take a penny.
What about all the expensive tools you need to brew fresh coffee? Let’s compare. The cheapest Kuerig brewing system you can buy is the Mr. Coffee KG1, which costs $79.50. Or for just $1.95 more, you can get an AeroPress, an entry level burr grinder and an electric kettle (assuming you need one). Once your water is heated, you can brew coffee with an AeroPress in the same amount of time as a K-cup—30 seconds. If time isn’t a concern, a french press, clever dripper, or pour-over cone can also brew one cup at a time and will take about 4 minutes.
Keurig’s tagline is “brewing excellence one cup at a time.” However, all basic principles of properly brewing coffee are ignored by the Keurig. For starters, the water in a Keurig only reaches 192°F (89°C), the Specialty Coffee Association of America suggests a minimum of 197.5°F and the industry standard is about 200°F. Combine the low water temperature with such a short brew time and you get a very under extracted cup.
There is also no control over the coffee to water ratio, so whether you want a small, medium or large cup, the same amount of coffee is used for the various levels of water. So a small will be extra strong, while a large will be weak and watery. When you push the corresponding size button, the amount of coffee in the cup doesn’t magically change.
The only way to truly make a cup of excellent coffee is to use fresh-roasted quality beans, ground just before brewing. No amount of freeze drying, airtight packaging or artificial flavors will produce a comparable cup. However, when your coffee options include “Chocolate Glazed Donut,” your beverage is as much coffee as Kool-Aid is fruit juice.
While taste may be subjective, quality is not.
In 2009, 1.6 billion non-recyclable plastic K-cups were sold (it was estimated that 3 billion would be sold in 2010). That’s enough plastic to circle the earth 1.25 times. Plastic that will take millions of years to degrade—if ever— and will continue to pile up in landfills and the ocean, increasing the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and killing wildlife. All in the name of low-quality convenience.
While loyalists and the company will quickly point out the “My K-cup” reusable basket as proof that Keurig isn’t all bad, that’s like saying Starbucks doesn’t have a paper cup problem, because they also sell ceramic mugs. Truth is, the reusable basket hasn’t prevented the sale and waste of billions of K-cups, so its prevention efforts are little if any. Another company argument is that the Green Mountain R&D department is laboring away to develop more environmentally friendly solutions to a problem their product created in the first place. A disposable product can never truly be sustainable.
If this were a life-saving medical device preventing the spread of AIDs in the developing world, I would be a bit more lenient. But that’s not the case. The K-cup was designed to save incompetent adults the trouble of wiping up coffee grounds from their counter top in the morning. I find it disturbing that such a “green company” can even justify the continued production of such an irresponsible and unnecessary product.
Back in the early 2000′s Green Mountain Coffee was the anti-Starbucks. They were a growing coffee company based in Vermont and stood on a foundation of admirable environmental ideals with a history full of environmental innovations. In many ways, they are still a leader of corporate environmental stewardship. But with the acquisition of Keurig in 2006, the company quickly became a walking contradiction.
While continuing to profess their environmental sanctity, advertising in GOOD magazine, and using the tagline “brewing a better world”—the company shifted from promoting and selling Fair Trade organic coffee, to more than 80% of sales coming from Keurig machines and K-cups. The company seems to ignore the irony in selling Fair Trade organic coffee in little plastic cups by the truckload.
But even with most sales coming from the coffee equivalent of bottled water, Green Mountain’s marketing still paints the company as a beacon of environmental morality. At what point are all the positive things they are doing completely negated by the billions of plastic cups they are contributing into the waste stream each year? Does their corporate sustainability record give them a free pass on the absurd waste of K-cups?
Are K-cups the only problem in the world? No. But it’s a relatively new problem that has been manufactured for convenience. People can point to other disposables, but coffee is everywhere. It’s the third most consumed beverage in the world and its consumption continues to grow with the rising middle-class in China and India. A person can easily go through 3 K-cups a day, while a toothbrush lasts 3 months or more.
Coffee has come so far since the introduction of post-WW1 instant coffee, yet the rise of K-cups takes a giant step backwards for consumers, the industry, the environment, and the beverage itself. As someone who loves both the drink and the industry, it seems so completely obvious—K-cups are bad for coffee and bad for the Earth. #killthekcup.
The day after I wrote about Stumptown’s printed brew guides, Intelligentsia released their own guide in the form of an iPhone app. Though very different in its delivery, the slick sophistication of the app is just as fitting to Intelligentsia’s brand, as the texture of the chipboard and the smell of ink are to Stumptown’s.
The free iPhone app, made in partnership with 79Lines, has an up-to-date listing of Intelligentsia’s coffee offerings, as well as detailed information about each. You can read about the taste notes, elevation, country origin, harvest date, etc. It goes as far as including a section for images and videos, where even more behind the scenes media can be added about the coffee varietal.
Moving beyond Intelligentsia’s product descriptions, the app also includes a series of nicely illustrated tutorials for a selection of brew methods: pourover, Chemex, cafe solo, French press, and cupping. Hopefully the list will be expanded with a future update to include others (eg. AeroPress, moka pot, syphon pot). However, the initial list covers a good selection of common methods.
Along with the tutorials, there are timers that correspond with each method. The timers aren’t just a stylized version of the phones built-in timer, but also includes alerts within the countdown to indicate next steps. For example, 45 seconds into the pourover countdown, an alert pops up to say, “bloom time is finished, start your pour.”
An additional page includes links to Intelligentsia’s twitter feeds, information about their Direct Trade system, in-season coffee, and the company itself. While this is obviously branded content, it’s also a valuable tool for anyone brewing their own coffee. Intelligentsia continues to be a leader in the coffee industry, consistently pushing for better prices for farmers, the best coffee for consumers, and doing it all with remarkable style and a well-polished sense of design.
Tomorrow is National Coffee Day, so what better way to celebrate than with a tip about an often overlooked way to improve the quality of your coffee and a contest to help you do just that. The coffee we all love so much is roughly 99% water, which means the quality of the water used to brew it, drastically affects the quality of the end product.
The water you use is very important to the quality of your coffee. Use filtered or bottled water if your tap water is not good or imparts a strong odor or taste, such as chlorine. If you are using tap water let it run a few seconds before filling your coffee pot. Be sure to use cold water. Do not use distilled or softened water. –The National Coffee Association
The Specialty Coffee Association of America even has standards of acceptability for the water used to brew the highest quality coffee possible. Now the last thing I would do is advocate using bottled water for making coffee—that’s ridiculous—however, I would suggest filtering what comes out of the tap.
I use to have a filtered water pitcher, but I left it behind during my recent move. Thankfully, PUR was kind enough to send me one that clicks easily onto my faucet. This means no more pitcher refilling and easy access to quality water, making sure all the coffee I brew is equally as good.
Check back tomorrow for the launch of the contest and all the details on how you can win your own PUR One-Click Faucet filter.