Adventures in slow-brew filter coffee and why I hate James Hoffmann

photo courtesy of David Walsh

He is undoubtedly at the forefront of everything we do and has an impressive ability to educate people without making them feel like an idiot. He constantly pushes the quality of what he produces and has a refreshingly disproportionate answers to questions ratio, despite his lofty status. But I hate him.

Every time I am 99% sure of how I would convey some thoughts effectively on any given coffee subject I am rudely interrupted by another one of his poignant blog posts explaining and informing the world of coffee on how to bypass said problem, increase coffee’s quality and consequently expand one’s learning. Any old idiot can claim he/she was thinking the same thing only hours before. I am that idiot.

Recently the Hoffmann’s first retail store Penny University, run primarily by the Talented Mr. Styles, decided to close it’s doors after a brief but amazing appearance off Shoreditch High Street. It had open just in time for the World Barista Championships and briefly wowed the international coffee community before folding up and packing away its cups and saucers.

Penny University was an incredible store, and having only 5 seats and no espresso machine, milk or sugar was an incredible way to focus all its attentions on the real star; the coffee.

We at 3FE have in our own way, tried to present filter coffee in a similar light albeit accompanied by some of the more familiar aspects of a coffee shop. One immediate similarity is both locations use of an Uber boiler and our consequent approach to choose a high quality, slow process approach to brewing filter coffee in a retail setting.

So, six months in and preempting what I expect he’ll do next, here is my own findings and opinions on slow-brew filter coffee in a retail scenario before Hoffmann does it himself. Enjoy and stick your oar in;

Approachability

Customers get it. You can wax lyrical about the nuances of your high-grown Guats but stick it in a 12oz cup of steamed milk and its a hot coffee flavoured milk-shake. Don’t get me wrong, I crave milk in espresso on a daily basis, but using milk drinks to truly appreciate the nuances in different coffees is a difficult task for most baristas, let alone customers. Filter coffee is approachable and customers get it.

Side step the milk and sugar

We always suggest they try it first without milk or sugar. We do this politely and don’t get angry at them if they later decide to anyway. Be nice.

Choice

I have a real soft spot for coffee that I file as “incredible examples of normal coffees” but I would never give these to someone trying a “slow brew” for the first time. The weapon of choice is always a floral, washed Yirg, fruity natural Brazilian or a bag-o-blackcurrants Kenyan. If you want to get them on board take out the flashy ones, they’ll grow to love the sweet, reliable stall worths in time.

An infinite choice of coffees is also a paralysing thing for most customers and for me often means that I really don’t get to know coffees as much as I probably should. If you can manage it, I find it best to keep the choice to 3. Everyone wins.

Context is everything

If you feel frustrated by your customers lack of understanding of specialty coffee and wish they’d open up to the joys of filter coffee then look around you. You need to make it extremely obvious that theres something else going on here.

Customers are not ready

I actually disagree. I used to look at places like Intelligentsia Venice, Kaffeemisjonen and pretty much all of Japan and long for a consumer base that was interested in the nuances of small-lot specialty coffee. We only started doing filter coffee for the geeks that would inevitably drop by. Now its catching up on espresso, and we are by no means in a trendy part of town.

As if to further emphasise this point, as I typed the last paragraph a customer tweeted me this message

@3FE The brazilian coffee? Yup. Choice was between that and a nice Kenyan. TBH though, I think my taste runs more to the kenyans.

To my knowledge, this person is not a coffee geek and has only recently started to frequent 3FE.

Mojo Everything

Scott Rao recently said in his new book “Everything but Espresso” that Vince Fidele’s “contributions to the coffee industry have encountered much resistance from the specialty coffee establishment”. Vince created the Extract Mojo and it has turned coffee into a science for me. At first I was reluctant and in truth felt deep down that I had a wonderful gift that enabled me to create great coffee. I dont.

Vince has changed the game in terms of repeatability of quality and the inherent professionalism that we should all show as Baristas. The Mojo is not there to tell you how to brew your coffee, its there so you can tell people how you brew your coffee.

Changing your grind

We change the grind from time to time for these reasons.

30g of coffee with 500ml needs to be coarser than 15g of coffee with 250ml, if used in the same brewer. In something like a chemex, the amount of coffee in the way of the falling water has an undoubted effect on its speed of passage. Grind to suit.

Different beans grind different ways. Roast, age, density all play a part. Don’t presume you’ve got a catch-all grind setting.

Extraction trumps yield

Don’t aim to yield 500ml of coffee and be reasonably sure it will taste good. Aim to make 18-22% extraction coffee and be reasonably sure it will fill the cup.

Batch Brewers will work (ignore this one if you’re from the US/Scandinavia)

They will. They can brew great coffee and if used correctly will offer a more high-volume, high-speed location. We choose slow-brew, slow-pace filter because of the context of what we do. Both will work effectively and with tasty consequences.

Pouring Kettles are to filter what latte art is to espresso

In truth its not just kettles, but the unnecessary faff that goes with them. I speak with a lot of baristas who seem pre-occupied with the visual aspect of filter and how they approach it. I really love the feeling of meticulously puring every drop onto each ground, but do so only if you’re sure it is reasonably stable in temperature and is REALLY improving your extraction.

Your most important criteria without doubt are temperature, brewing ratios, extraction time to achieve the required TDS/Extraction Yield. Do not prioritise the visual aspect of filter coffee over any of these factors. Ever. Kettles are enormously helpful way to make excellent filter coffee, but remember where your priorities lie and use them sensibly.

We’re missing a trick

One of my goals for this year is to become a better cupper. Every time new coffees arrives we line them up and cup ‘em and really try to understand the real identity of the coffee. I can’t hep but feel when I cup coffees however that we’re missing a trick when it comes to filter coffee. This may seem strange coming from someone who’s just posted a shpeel bigging up its merits, but in truth I feel that we’re 95% there.

The problem for me lies in the filtration. I still adore filter coffee but I’m yet to see a paper filter that doesn’t retain a little too much of what I want in my cup. Any metal filters I’ve used are just plain sludgey and cloth filters are just plain inconvenient. There is a next step, we just need to keep pushing on.

Its the future

They had an aeropress in Flat White. If thats not a wake-up call….

Theatrics

I’ve seen people brew great filter coffee in conventional batch brewers and watched it die on its face. We can give customers as much information and passion as we want and use the requisite brewing parameters but in the context of a specialty coffee shop turning and filling someones cup with a tap just isn’t going to impress a customer.

Slow-brew in high volumes may be a logistical pain but ultimately it demonstrates to the consumer that there’s been thought, effort and passion put into every cup. Don’t presume they know this, its not that obvious to someone walking in off the street.

Working bar you often catch people just watching you pull shots. Its theatrical, engaging and in a busy cafe can be somewhat hypnotic to watch a barista silently but efficiently pull shots and steam pitchers of milk. Slow brew coffee redresses the balance when it comes to theatrics and engages the customer in the process, thus encouraging them to appreciate the outcome that little bit more. Next time you’re in a shop, see how many people choose to stare at the wall rather than watch whats happening on the bar.

Col

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20 thoughts on “Adventures in slow-brew filter coffee and why I hate James Hoffmann

  1. Darren Sandford says:

    Pouring kettles! I never really got pouring kettles. Surely all that metal and the long spout can only make it harder to maintain a consistent temperature.

    I’ll stick to my bog standard jug kettle, I think.

  2. Tom Baker says:

    Excellent post. I particularly enjoy the analogy of kettles : latte art, because most of us know by now that the Buono is not the best at retaining heat. However, we don’t all have Uber boilers. ExtractMoJos are not entirely affordable either.

  3. colinharmon says:

    Good point Tom. If I didn’t have an Uber I would use a buono, but in such a way that the extraction was the key goal and not the visual impact of the kettle. I perhaps could have made that clearer, thanks for pointing out ;)

  4. Jesse Raub says:

    Also, I think your comments about batch brewing and high volume can be side-stepped.

    I work at the Millennium Park location of Intelligentsia in Chicago, and our coffee of the day is a V60 offering in three sizes. We’re able to keep up with our customers pretty fairly with just one person and two Buono kettles, and we make probably 200-500 cups on there a day.

    So high-volume isn’t an excuse anymore.

    Nice post Colin!

  5. Friso van Der mei says:

    dear Sir, Nice post!
    Nice to hear you put the “snozzer” in the bowl, before extracting coffee via what ever method.
    Reminds me to do it more often. I do always smell the roast… and so to expect how the brew should smell/taste, so far filter wise the clever dripper(using chemex filter) gave me the closest outcome.
    Spot on with the grind settings comment in your post. Felt this happening to me all the time…
    guess I have to mojo more than I do. I find discreptencies in the Extract mojoV2 software and iPhone app… do u?
    would you like to write a post on how you use the extract mojo at 3Fe? And how it contributes to y’r cup?
    For me no more volume’s just grams grams grams…
    greetings from the Netherlands. @frisoVDMei

  6. Ben Kaminsky says:

    I too hate James Hoffmann. Thank you for reminding me of this today.

    Also, this is a very well phrased sentence: “The Mojo is not there to tell you how to brew your coffee, its there so you can tell people how you brew your coffee.”

  7. Tumi Ferrer says:

    Great post Colin. This is a subject that I always feel conflicted.

    If coffee were Art history, then we’re now living in an Age of Enlightenment. The scientific approach is a great way to create the same cup of coffee repeatedly and we rely on that we know –or are constantly searching for – all the factors and that we control them.

    This is just one step closer to automation where the job of the barista, in the future (don’t ask me when), is simply tweaking knobs for various results. I’m not saying this as a bad thing; one can make a good argue for developing the perfect coffee machine, resulting in the barista having a totally different purpose.

    Eventually, but not nearly yet, the barista will want to make the coffee like the old days, knowing it won’t be flawless, but has it’s unpredictable values.

    Again with the Art history (or literature or any other art form): After the Enlightenment, people grew interested in old folk tales again and began collecting them and make their own tales in that spirit, which eventually became known and Romanticism. When people got enough of that, realism took over and then etc. etc.

    I can’t imagine why coffee wouldn’t go the same way.

    I find this very interesting. I’m not saying that one approach is better than other. Let me just predict that even scientific thought in coffee will not last in it’s current form; but it’s still a necessary step in constantly trying to understand the wonderful mystery behind coffee.

    And I realize now that I’m moving farther away from the topic…

  8. Mike White says:

    “Slow-brew in high volumes may be a logistical pain but ultimately it demonstrates to the consumer that there’s been thought, effort and passion put into every cup.”

    I sometimes wonder if the trade off for this demonstration is the extraction and consistency in the cup. If you’re not brewing as well as a well tuned batch brewer, but you’re engaging and exciting the customers, is it worth the drop is actual quality? Assuming of course that the drop isn’t huge, just slight (which for the majority “playing” with pourover bars tends to be the case).

    I’ve witnessed cafes implementing this system, and the positive effect it can have on the staff, which improves customer interaction, but rarely do I actually enjoy the coffee more. I can’t decide how healthy this is.

  9. James says:

    Tis true – I do indeed have a draft of a very similar post waiting to be finished. It will be good to finish it and to compare notes.

    You have it exactly right though – we underestimate people, we presume that somehow different parts of the world have better, more educated, more discerning people. They don’t – different parts of the world simply have more opportunities for people to show off how awesome they can be.

    And don’t worry – my post won’t be a cruel and biting comeback about how much I hate you, because I think you’re right lovely. Still ashamed I haven’t been to 3FE for coffee…

  10. Michael mc laughlin says:

    Great post col, we are at the very early stages of blatantly ripping you off in my shop, mainly heated discussions with the big boss and russell from Bailies. I’ve been starting to engage our customers with pour over for the past few weeks, mainly because I get my hasbean stuff delivered there and they are all nosey! However still at the stage of explaining why it takes so long compared to what they are used to. I’ve found that the provenance is a big interest for them more than the actual coffee. It’s heartening to see that it does work as I have mentioned in a previous blog post. Keep up the good work and I promise team Clements will be in 3GS on the near future!

  11. Michael mc laughlin says:

    Apologies for the spelling etc, posting on the move, I had mentioned that I did have concerns about making pour over in a commercial setting in a previous blog post, and we are going to 3FE not 3GS!

  12. Colin says:

    Jesse- I’ve seen the videos and commend you guys for the high volume pour over you achieve. My comments were more aimed at those that require high volume, high-quality coffee without putting the emphasis on the coffee itself as a process. I’m imagining some shop thats obsessed with cured meats, wants to spend all their time talking about cured meats and wants people to be engaged in the process of them slicing and serving the cured meats. They also wish to have nice coffee cause they sell a cup to every customer. Intelligentsia’s primary brief is specialty coffee so kettles it is!

    Friso-Good idea! James will probably beat me to it though.

    Ben- I thought you’d like that. It sounds like something you’d say ;P

    Tumi- Great to hear from you. I know exactly what you mean. All these things are cyclical. Im starting to talk myself into things I dismissed only months ago with espresso in particular. An excellent point, well made. You need a blog.

    Mike- I gave Jesse a ludicrous analogy and you’re getting one too. Imagine you have a pizza guy working for you. He can toss pizza dough, elastic and thin, 20ft into the air and catch it again. He sings opera songs and smiles and blows kisses to the waitresses while he does this. The pizza tastes incredible. You have two stores. He works in both.
    He works in the kitchen out back in restaurant A and works upfront in an open kitchen surrounded in tables in restaurant B. The pizza in both places is of equal quality. I wager that Restaurant B is a runaway success.

    As far as quality is concerned I think that isn’t an issue if you do it properly. Its a big “if” though. I think its an important point you make though that its not worth doing just for the sake of it.

    In Ireland 99.9% of people think filter coffee is horrific. I’ve been told by customers that they’ve tried filter coffee and they didn’t like it. When asked “where” they’ve replied “Petrol stations, hospitals, canteens….”. Filter cones and ubers/kettles are our best way of overcoming this misconception.

    James- Ok James, just calm down. We’re just some good people having a good time. We mean no offence.

    Michael- Hurry, we’re waiting.

  13. Mike White says:

    So your ludicrous analogy implies that it’s okay to serve poorly (or not as well) extracted coffee if you’re tickling the fancy of your customers in other ways?

    Does your pizza man make better pizza when he’s in the back by himself, focused on what he’s doing?

    Like I said, I can’t decide how healthy this is. But I could argue either side.

  14. colinharmon says:

    Mike- Yeh, I think I could argue both ways too. In the analogy however ” The pizza in both places is of equal quality”

    I still believe hand poured can be just as good if not better than batch brew. I also believe a lot of people will make sh*te of some really incredible coffees just so they can use a kettle.

    The pizza really is incredible though

  15. Tibor V. says:

    I’m quite novice on the brewing thing, and in the process of setting up my first little coffee bar. Kind of a simple one, influenced by 3FE and Prufrock.

    I definitely want to have filter (brew by cup) besides espresso. Since I’ll start by working alone I am considering french press as a primary method, as it seems to be the easiest to do even if there is a line of orders. Workflow wise. And then, if I have more time, perhaps I can offer the customer a V60, or something.

    So I am asking the more experienced: what’s the reason the french press seems to be sidestepped in the current trends? Is it a taste thing, or could it be it’s relative lack of theatrics?

  16. Alex Redgate says:

    Is it weird that most coffee people are also incredibly in love with pizza?

  17. [...] are those who exude some aspect of this excellence with attitudinal everymanism. hoffmann. owens. colin. peter g. and yet they, too, seem to wear an attitude that’s an exception rather than a [...]

  18. americanupnorth says:

    Love your blog and I hope to learn more about filtered coffee.

  19. Caspar says:

    Tumi I recon the age of folk tales and romance is currently expoiting it’s charm along side the increasing understanding of science behind coffee. At our roastery in Lancaster we roast on 1930’s & 40’s direct flame roasters that are properly manual. This factor is one of our loyal customer base’s main attractions, most likely not because they understand the complexities of radiant, conductive, convective heat and the accuracy of a skilled human roaster as apposed to a computer, but because of the flare and theatre it conveys.
    Also the fashion of manual brewing methods like syphon are much cooler to watch than automated machines. However espresso is espresso and it’s a particular kind of drink, but Latte art cannot get much better, I’d like to see it with some more cocktail-like theatre!

  20. [...] tips and more on making a good filter coffee, see here, here, here, and [...]

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