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Now's No Time for Bad Coffee!

A barista's guide to cost-effective caffeinated comfort in a cup.

By Sarah Buchanan 20 Feb 2009 |

When she is not writing, producing radio, or hounding people about their coffee choices, Sarah Buchanan can be found slinging coffee at Prado Café on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, British Columbia. You can find her radio work online here.

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Don't kill that espresso!

You see them huddled in small groups over shiny espresso machines, holding pre-warmed cups in their hands like jewels. You see them running their finger through freshly-ground coffee like a farmer would black dirt, loving it, feeling what it lacks. You've heard of their creations, tiny things you barely recognize for their freshness and thick layer of crema on top, but you are apprehensive. You may even be afraid.

Because they are nerds. And they want you to change. They want you to drink better coffee.

In cities like Vancouver, Victoria, Portland and Seattle, over-caffeinated coffee obsessives have quietly created a new wave of coffee culture known as "Third Wave" coffee. These are the shops that came post-Starbucks (the "second wave"), and have pioneered a culture of small-scale perfection, often roasting their own beans and geeking out on expensive Italian machines. They have blogs, podcasts, pictures featuring creamy espresso pouring into tiny cups and worldwide barista competitions.

"They're changing the way we drink coffee," says Amy York, owner of Vancouver's Prado Café. York, who began her coffee career in high school as a barista, has worked her way through roasting to running her own shop. "What really gets me is the attitude that 'coffee is coffee.' That's just not true anymore."

And don't tell me just because we're sliding into a new Depression we'll all be stuck with a lousy cup of joe like some scene out of Steinbeck.

I am here to declare that you don't have to spend much money to enjoy great coffee. As reliable pleasures go, the bean can be extremely cost effective. But in hard times, you need the best brew possible to keep you inspired on a daily basis, and you need to avoid getting ripped off.

Which is why, as a long-time barista and coffee drinker, watching the people I love pound back corner store coffee is like watching a baby chug a gallon of pool water. How can I help but intervene? That's me, standing in line at some caffeine franchise, desperately wanting to run behind the counter to stop the brutal over-extraction of an espresso shot. "Do you see that timer?!" I would yell. "It's over 40 seconds already! You're killing it!"

I know. Who, other than a barista, really wants to read a blog about tamping pressure? Rather than proselytize, I find the best approach is to casually offer people the best coffee they've ever had, and then stand by for the inevitable questions. People have to want to change.

Below, then, are a few tricks I've developed for discerning coffee drinkers on a budget.

Rules for Impressing Your Friends and Relatives with Home Coffee

1. Keep it simple

Most coffee geeks swear by the most low-tech methods of home preparation. "I have a fancy espresso machine at home that someone gave me, but I never use it. I recommend a French press or a stovetop" claims Amy. The French press (or Bodum) relies on pouring hot water over coffee, while the stovetop espresso maker (or moka pot) pushes steam up through the coffee. I use a stovetop every morning, mostly because it's delicious, small and cheap (from $25-$80), and also looks like a spaceship. Here's an explanation.

The simplest and cheapest method is the single-cup filter coffee, also known as "pourover." A good Melita one-cup filter will run you about $4, and cloth filters will help keep a strong flavour. CoffeeGeek has a great explanation of the specifics here.

2. Grind Appropriately

When it comes to taste, the most important element is grind. Every brewing method requires a different size of coffee particle, meaning you can't use the same grind for your French press as you would for a drip coffee-maker. Settings vary between grinders, so this chart will give you a broad idea of how to grind for your method.

3. Grind Well

Any coffee nerd worth their salt will tell you to spend the money on a burr grinder. When I was working at Caffe Fantastico in Victoria, I used a cheap blade grinder (which my roommates also used to grind pot, causing me great anger). When I stumbled over a working burr grinder (worth about $100) on my neighbour's lawn, I brought it home and noticed an immediate difference in taste. "Blade grinders are inconsistent by nature," says Gareth Edwards, who works at Fantastico. "They will just chop and bash the coffee around. Don't be surprised if you reach your desired grind and still have the occasional whole bean kicking around." Burr grinders may be expensive, but you can usually hunt one down at a thrift shop. "A good electric burr grinder can go for nearly $200, but if you are cheap (like me), you can probably find a hand grinder at a thrift store for under $5," recommends Gareth. "Judge it purely on how the burr looks -- the less dings the better."

4. Grind Daily

The most important thing you can do is grind right before you drink your coffee. Never ever grind more beans than you need in the next five minutes. Think about the wonderful smell of coffee being ground. Think about all that flavour escaping with every second it is exposed. Think about this happening in your cupboard for three days, and then expecting these beans to yield even half of their flavour potential.

5. Pay Attention!

"You have to pay attention to detail," explains Audrey, co-owner of The Bump n' Grind Café. "Little things like leaving your bag of beans open on the counter, dirty equipment, improper bean storage -- they can all make a huge difference." Get to know your method of brewing, and ask questions. "Take the time to find a place that takes pride in the coffee they produce," advises Gareth. "Ask where it is from and how it is roasted. Just being more alert to what you are grabbing will help you make a better decision."

Mistakes That Will Ruin Everything and Cause Every Barista in the Room to Place Their Hands on Their Faces Like a Stockbroker.

1. Improper Grinding

When you grab a bag of ground beans off the supermarket shelf and bring them home and prepare them without regard for equipment, you lose everything special about that coffee. When you treat it all the same, it all ends up tasting the same, which is: crappy.

2. Storage

When someone orders more than a pound of beans from me, I ask them how many people they are buying for. This is my subtle way of saying "I don't believe you can drink this much coffee before it goes stale." You have about two weeks before your coffee reaches the end of its shelf life, preferably in an airtight container at room temperature. Never freeze your coffee because it changes the taste and affects the moisture levels already in the beans. Buy small, and buy often.

3. Over-boiling

When using a French press, take your water off the heat just as it hits boiling temperature. "When it boils and boils and boils, it changes the taste of the water, and therefore the taste of the coffee," says Amy. The moral is: the water in your coffee is almost as important as the beans.

Going out for Coffee: How to Know When You Are Getting Ripped Off

Here are a few warning signs that your latte is not worth what you're paying for it.

1. The hopper is full of ground espresso

Take a quick look at the grinder the barista is using. Is he/she grinding only the beans necessary for that shot? Or is the container below the beans totally full of ground coffee? If it is, you're getting a stale shot.

2. They're not wiping the portafilter

The portafilter is the little metal thing that holds the espresso in a commercial machine. The barista should be wiping it out with a dry cloth before every shot, quickly filling it with espresso, and running your shot right away.

3. The espresso sits for more than 10 seconds

Espresso goes sour by itself, which is why the barista needs to add the milk or hot water right away to stabilize the flavour. If they're chatting and steaming while your shot sits, you're being ripped off.

4. They don't have a "small" size

Any quality coffee shop would be proud to serve an eight ounce latte, because the flavour of their espresso really comes through. When I order a "small" Americano and end up with a full 12oz mug, I know they've got something to hide.

5. Everyone is drinking hot chocolate

"I started my career at Starbucks," explains Amy. "We used to get free staff espresso drinks, so I would order a mocha with espresso on the side, so I didn't have to drink the espresso. It was terrible." Shops that have a huge menu of sugary treats are generally not concerned about the flavour of their coffee since it's usually buried under a pile of whipped cream. Avoid them if you enjoy the taste of actual coffee.

Two Dangerous Myths That Are Not True

1. Espresso has more caffeine than drip coffee

A cup of drip coffee has significantly more caffeine than a common double shot of espresso. Depending on how the drip coffee is brewed, it holds from 30 per cent to three times as much caffeine. "The water extracts more caffeine in a dripper because it is in contact for a longer period of time than a 30 second shot of espresso," explains David Abersek, manager of Caffe Fantastico.

2. Fair-trade organic coffee means high quality

For years, fair-trade organic actually meant crappier coffee. Most roasters still use a broker to buy their coffee, meaning they don't really know the specifics of where it's coming from. But many have now embraced the idea of Relationship Coffee. Roasters like Vancouver's 49th Parallel will travel to the coffee farms to make sure they're doing everything ethically, and forge a lasting business relationship directly with the source, meaning everyone gets a better deal, and better coffee. The lesson in this is to make sure you know where your beans are coming from, instead of looking for a label that has little to do with quality.

I've only touched the tip of the coffee iceberg with these suggestions, so I encourage you to dig deeper when you have the time. There are a lot of geeks out there who are really excited about helping you indulge, and once you taste their coffee, I guarantee it will be hard to say no.

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