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;
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.
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.
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….
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.