One of the great things in life that I indulge in is coffee. There’s some stereotypical geek persona that I’m sure I fit right into. I’m a writer and a geek — therefore, I drink copious amounts of coffee (it wouldn’t be incorrect). I also happen to work with technology on a daily basis, as part of my vocation, so that further propels this stereotype.
Whilst I’m confident plenty of geeks drink coffee, I know some that don’t, however I think there’s just something about being a computer geek that seems to be synonymous with coffee consumption. The most obvious rationale behind this way of thinking seems rather clear to me. People that work with computers for extended periods of time: e.g., gamers, programmers, designers, web developers, etc., sleep very little. A consistent pattern of poor sleep habits will take its toll on you — thus why a stimulant like coffee is needed in order to keep us awake.
Let’s talk about how I went from drinking less than stellar coffee — not thinking about how to prepare it properly — to drinking superb fresh coffee on a daily basis. There are many things to discuss, including how to squash some bad techniques, as well as what kind of gear you may need and how much money you can expect to invest. The later part is going to be a bit tricky, because you can end up spending a lot of money. I’m pretty convinced that if you do end up getting sucked into the world of the fussy coffee drinker, you’ll be a seriously picky person. You may start to annoy friends, family, and coworkers. Please heed my warning before proceeding further.
Down The Path
My memory is a tad fuzzy at the moment. I’m wracking my brain trying to recall the exact age I was when I started drinking coffee full-time. I believe I was 16 years old at the time, which would make the year 1998. There was a huge gap in my life where I had no interest in learning about all of the varietals of coffee, fancy conical burr grinders, or all of the vast array of brewing methods available. From the tender age of 16, all the way through 28, Starbucks was pretty much my go-to place, for what I thought was the absolute best coffee money could buy.
Starbucks is an interesting company. They have managed to build an incredibly successful and lucrative coffee chain. It’s now a household name, and there’s practically no city you can walk around in and not see a Starbucks logo somewhere. Up until only very recently, my home town of Vancouver, British Columbia, had two Starbucks on opposite corners of Robson and Thurlow street. I know, it sounds completely bonkers, but it was true. Back in the 70s, right before Starbucks opened their first store in Seattle, you can pretty much guarantee that coffee was completely undrinkable. By today’s much stricter standards, coffee before Starbucks made it universally drinkable was horrible. So you see, even though I am no longer a regular customer of theirs, I feel it’s important to reflect on history and what they were able to accomplish in a relatively short period of time. By the time the 80s were in high gear, Starbucks had managed to open more stores, although it wouldn’t be until the 90s where they would hit the big time. The 90s truly brought a decent coffee experience to the masses. Consumers flocked to Starbucks locations across North America just so that they could get their morning kickstart. Now in the 2000s with thousands of stores across the globe, Starbucks is truly a force to be reckoned with.
One could postulate that it would be impossible for an individual with relatively little start-up capital, knowledge, and resources like Starbucks to open a competing coffee bar. If you’re nodding your head to this, well you’re probably right. You wouldn’t be able to compete and open a mass chain of coffee bars across the country, and win against Starbucks. The good news is that all of that really doesn’t matter. The reality is there are quite a few vastly superior coffee roasters and cafés serving up delicious fresh coffee, all across North America. There are some great small businesses that I can think of (Revolver in Vancouver, and Blue Bottle) who have carved out their own niche in their respective towns. If you’re looking to refine your pallet and try something new, I can’t recommend venturing down the path to becoming a fussy coffee drinker enough.
Starting to get nostalgic again about my late teens and early 20s. I look back on those days and cringe at just how clueless I was about what it took to make truly amazing coffee. There was no gradual transition that allowed me to get from point A to point B. I one day decided to take interest in learning more about coffee. Not just how to buy better coffee beans, but to soak up as much knowledge as possible about the origins of coffee, how the beans are cultivated, produced, shipped, and served. The impetus to making a radical change in my life can probably be attributed to Marco Arment. When I started reading some of his blog posts about how he makes coffee, I admit I was intrigued. My geek brain was telling me I had to discover more. It was when Marco started, the now very popular 5by5 podcast, Build And Analyze, that pushed me over the edge. I decided I was going to plunk down some of my hard earned money and buy some decent coffee paraphernalia. Starting with high quality tools is incredibly important, although the source of your coffee has to be top notch as well.
I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s going to be a little daunting at first. I remember having many chats with the great people at Revolver when I first decided to go down the rabbit hole (it’s rather hard to go back to drinking Starbucks after having exceedingly good coffee). We talked a lot about coffee origins and they were very kind enough to spend time with me and give me tips on how to make great coffee. Once in a while on Fridays at noon, I would pop by and participate in a free cupping session. I made sure to try many different varieties of coffee from all over the world. They each had their own wonderfully distinct notes and flavours — all to be appreciated individually.
Starting with baby steps, I had stopped buying beans from Starbucks. I discovered a local coffee shop called Revolver. They import from roasters like Ritual, Heart, Sightglass, and Phil & Sebastian. This is now where I exclusively buy my beans from. I know not everyone has the privilege of having a great local coffee roaster. If you can’t find one near you, I really recommend having a look at Tonx coffee beans. They source, roast, and ship you exceptional beans.
The first thing I did was go out and buy a grinder, albeit a sub-optimal $25 one from the local hardware store. I don’t recall the manufacture (it may have been Black and Decker), but it was cheaply made and was far from what I should have purchased. I knew next to nothing about what I was doing, and that was three years ago when I was still putting sugar and cream in my coffee. At the very least, I figured I would start with an inexpensive grinder, because that was surely better than not grinding my own beans. There’s certainly some truth to this, however, I’ll explain a bit later why anything but a burr grinder is just awful.
So here’s the thing with grinders — don’t cheap out. When I first started to experiment, I purchased a very cheap Black & Decker grinder. If memory serves correctly, it was around $25. It was a blade grinder, had zero adjustable grind settings, and had an unreasonably high-pitched whiny noise. Conical burr grinders by their very nature deliver a precise and even grind, and they produce minimal heat — through less friction — meaning the beans aren’t being burnt. This is absolutely crucial in order for the beans to retain their flavour, however it’s understandably difficult to visualize how badly your beans are being affected by a blade grinder since you can’t tell how they are being affected, chemically.
In my recommended equipment list, I listed Aerobie AeroPress, which by now I’m sure many of you have at least heard of it, or have seen other people use them. The AeroPress remains one of my favourite ways of brewing coffee, for a number of reasons. For less than $40, the AeroPress will make some of the best tasting coffee you’ll ever have (provided you start with great beans and grind them properly). It ships with 350 paper filters, a plastic funnel, stirring stick, and a nice carry bag. It’s generally understood that good espresso machines are capable of at least 7 Bar. The AeroPress can do about 2 bar which means you get an impressive amount of extraction from the coffee for barely any effort at all (it has a 30-second brew time). This will only make a single serving of coffee, however the best methods of coffee brewing are typically this. At one or more points in your life, you have probably tasted coffee with very acidic properties. I would say the greatest benefit of the Aeropress is the fact that it’s one-fifth as acidic as drip brewing methods.
As time passed on, my general knowledge of coffee making expanded. I got significantly better at brewing coffee, and my curiosity expanded into other areas. I wanted to see what else was out there other than just using the venerable AeroPress. I was already familiar with drip machines and French press (neither of which I liked), so I started to do some research. This is when I discovered vacuum coffee makers (more commonly referred to as just Siphon) as well as the Chemex, which is a more advanced pour-over method. I must admit, I have a real soft spot for this thing. I like it for a multitude of reasons, and I use it quite often. The primary advantage Chemex has over something like the AeroPress is that it can make larger quantities of coffee. They offer several different sizes, ranging from three cup to ten cup capacity. I personally have the eight cup model (40oz capacity). I typically start my morning with brewing in the Chemex, as I get to drink a few cups of coffee in a row (this really wakes me up!).
The Chemex coffee maker is beautifully made and features very high quality paper filters, which you can buy directly from the company. I initially started using the paper filters, but recently I switched to the superior and more environmentally friendly stainless steel Able Kone filter. This is the new third generation Kone filter that I have long anticipated. It’s of even higher quality than previous generations, and features smaller perforated holes, which allows less grounds to pass through — ultimately lending itself to a cleaner cup of coffee. It also features a very nice teflon seal ring, so as to not scratch your lovingly made Chemex coffee maker.
I have always loved a good espresso. Its unique and super concentrated flavours burst in my mouth and put a huge smile on my face. I spent the past couple of months researching espresso machines, ranging from $200-$1000. I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on a machine, so I opted for an entry level model. Most espresso machines in the $200 range will not be well made. They tend to feature a lot of plastic exterior parts, which give them a cheap look, and a horrible tactile feeling. The only machine I found at $200 that met my standards was a Breville ESP8XL “Cafe Roma”. Unlike most of the competition in this price range, the Breville features a mostly metal exterior casing, so it not only looks great, but feels great when you are using it. It has a really nice warming plate on the top, where you can place two small cups, as well as a frother. The Cafe Roma is a manual espresso machine, meaning it won’t automatically shut off for you. It features a single font-mounted knob that can switch between steam and espresso. The knob itself does not feel cheap and feels durable when you switch between both modes. Whilst using it, I found extraction to be excellent (of course you have to start with great beans and a perfect grind), and it makes a very acceptable level of crema.
Recommended Equipment to Start Out with
- Baratza Encore burr grinder
- Bonavita gooseneck electric kettle (I recommend this over most kettles, because the gooseneck spout is what you need for precise and even control when pouring boiling water)
You can probably expect to spend around $200 if you end up going with a good burr grinder and Aeropress.
Research, Experiment, Have Fun
The last few years have been a wonderful journey. I have talked to many knowledgeable people who have pushed me to explore and try new things. I have and continue to search for the best possible coffee beans, and continue to read and understand the origin of coffee and how it’s cultivated and brought to our doorstep. For anyone who’s interested in exploring the intricate world of coffee brewing, for the sake of your own well being, start with great gear (this includes beans). You may have heard the expression: “a cook is only as good as his or her ingredients” — unequivocally this is true for coffee brewing. Start with the best beans, the best grinder, and the best brewing system, and you have a one-way ticket to spectacular tasting coffee.