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Friday, June 19, 2015

What’s Brewing?

WE’RE NEVER FAR from a cup of coffee, be it an overpriced Starbucks concoction or a cup of diner joe. We do unspeakable things to our coffee, lacing it with flavorings and sweeteners and even smothering it in whipped cream. We’re known internationally for our lousy preferences: A barista in Florence, Italy, told me that “coffee” in his country has long referred to espresso, but even the standard brew is strong enough that tourists have earned their own beverage sobriquet: “We call it ‘American’ coffee. That means it’s as weak as water.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But the worst thing we’ve done, in the unholy name of convenience, is stock our shelves and landfills with K-cups, the pods that have taken over a substantial portion of the household coffee market. I’m sure you’ve long been grinding fresh beans for your morning cup, but you can do Dad a Father’s Day favor and wean him away from that single-serve monstrosity.

Or, even worse, a percolator. I know this from experience. I grew up in a percolator household. My father, up at the crack of every morning’s dawn, had the urn a-bubbling even before his eyes were fully opened, but it produced a burnt-tasting brew that put me off the stuff for years. With the early-’70s introduction of drip-brew machines, coffee became palatable, and I’m happy to say that my dad is among those who made the switch.

The legacy of that percolator carries on in the moka pot, originated 80 years ago by Bialetti and now available in a variety of sizes and styles, from many manufacturers. The so-called six-cup model has become my standby. It purports to make espresso, but without the pressure that true espresso requires, you get something better regarded as strong coffee.

It’s simple to use. Fill the lower chamber with water, add to the filter cup enough grounds to fill it, place the filter cup in the water chamber, screw on the top section and put the unit over high heat. The water boils its way up the percolator chute and falls back through the grounds, a fairly quick process. And when it’s finished it’s scaldingly hot.

The brew makes a strong get-started cup, or you can whip some hot milk with a handheld electric frother and enjoy an acceptable latte.

Krups has one-upped the process with a fabulous machine called the Moka Brew. Its original incarnation required special filters that were a pain to work with; now it has a reusable metal filter basket. Fill its heating chamber with water, fill the basket with eight scoops of ground coffee, lock the pot and filter assembly into place, and flip the switch. As the water boils, it’s forced up a pipe alongside the pot and steam-sprays through the filter basket.

Where the stovetop moka pot is always on the brink of burning your coffee, this one regulates the brew. The result is as good as a French press, and threatens to tug my allegiance away from the latter.

I should explain that my own journey comes by way of the industrial-sized drip units used in the restaurant where I worked in the 1970s. The chef who first made me aware of the importance of coffee’s flavor observed that it’s the last thing a customer tastes before leaving, so it had better be good.

From there, I went through a succession of Mr. Coffee-type units. But with the growing availability of good espresso-based drinks at independent coffee shops, I began to better appreciate the deliciousness coffee can offer in even a regular brew.

Fresh beans, a good grinder—conical burr, preferably, although I’ll confess I’m still saving to get one—excellent water and a sense of temperature requirements are needed. Your thickness of grind makes a difference, rendering it medium-coarse for drip, fine for espresso. And the purists will insist you preheat pot and filter.

Another confession: I don’t yet have a Chemex brewing unit. It’s in both Mad Men and the Museum of Modern Art, and it’s a favorite of fanatics who bloom the grounds within its thick-filtered maw with just-hot-enough water eased from a gooseneck kettle. There’s probably a Chemex in my future, but I’d feel insufficient approaching it without that burr grinder on hand.

Which still leaves me with a French press. I started with an inexpensive plastic Bodum, which sold me on the brew style even though it seemed pretty flimsy. I graduated to a stainless-steel Frieling, which is insulated enough to keep the pot warm for the length of time it takes me to polish it off.

Again, your result is influenced by your fanaticism, and allowing the right measure of just-ground beans to blossom in a small amount of not-quite-boiling water will improve the flavor once you top it off and press it efficiently.

How long should you wait before pressing? How long should the pressing itself require? Although three to four minutes of brewing (“dissolution,” to the hip) typically is recommended, try a coarse grind and a dissolution time of six minutes. Then push the plunger (“diffusion”) slowly, pausing and pulling back a bit should it feel stuck.

There’s a plunger at the heart of the popular AeroPress coffee system, and it returns us to where we came in: the lure of the single-cup system. But this is a single-cup system that allows you to take control of the components.

Before this, Alan Adler was known as the inventor of the Aerobie, super-efficient, ring-of-Saturn frisbee. To solve the coffee problem, he took the principle of the Melitta cone and shortened its drip time in order to reduce acidity and bitterness.

The AeroPress is a plastic tube with a filter at its bottom. Place it over a coffee cup, add grounds atop the filter, pour in hot water, stir, insert the rubber-bottomed press, and spend 20 to 60 seconds easing the coffee out of its chamber.

Enthusiasts have come up with their own techniques, a favorite of which is to invert the assembly to keep the water and grounds in contact for a bit longer. But the result is pretty much the same: a strong brew that’s oddly sweet owing to its reduced dissolution time.

And then be sure to visit your local indie coffeeshop to get to know the varieties and roasting styles of the brews on offer. You’ll soon leave the whipped cream and other nonsense forever behind.

Metroland Magazine, 18 June 2015

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