Espresso and the illusion of supremacy

It seems, en masse, Australians have suddenly adopted the mindset that at some point in their life, they simply MUST own a “coffee machine” – or, what they really mean is an “espresso machine”. The forest-loads of department store propaganda choking-up our mailboxes have us convinced that this is a worthy aspiration; an emblem of sophistication and status, when in fact, most households already own a coffee machine. It may not be big and shiny and handmade by an Italian company you can’t pronounce – it may not even plug in – but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable or producing a fine cup of joe.

Ok, let’s back up. So, what is “espresso” and why do we crave it so? There’s a real fine technical explanation here, but I’m going to summarize and just call it “the product of the espresso machine”. Ground coffee goes in, pressurised water is forced through it and this generates “espresso” coffee, otherwise known as a “short black”. You can add milk to it, build it into any manner of familiar concoctions, or drink it neat, but that, essentially, is espresso coffee. (Yes, I am aware that sentence had, essentially, too many commas.)

Don’t get me wrong – espresso is delicious; it’s viscous and intense and complex and good; it cosies up perfectly with warm milk and, when you get a good one, it can make your toes curl like ten tiny foetuses. However, that is not to say that espresso is the only way to consume coffee – or even that it is the best. In fact, of the many forms available, espresso is most akin to playing Russian Roulette – unpredictable and fraught with danger. It takes a great deal of technical skill and understanding to truly master the art – and it’s done poorly WAY too often. It also necessitates a considerable investment in equipment, compared to many other brewing options (I’m not talking about some hundred-buck Kmart pod machine – I’m talking about something that makes coffee).

Clearly espresso constitutes the dominant brewing method in Australia, with every café, restaurant, service station and sandwich bar decked out with a hulking machine and someone protectively boasting they know how to use it. This goes a ways to explaining why we might want one in our homes – just as people devote huge slabs of their floorplan to creating home theatres. Elsewhere in the world however, other brewing techniques rule; the USA love their bottomless, diner-style dripolator (“another top-up there daarrlin’?”), the Japanese favour the gentler and more tea-like siphon (or syphon) brew, the ibrik is still a popular gadget in the Middle East, and many Italians adamantly swear nothing beats the smell of a machinetta gurgling away of a morning.

A few of these “alternative” brewing methods are beginning to crop-up in Australian cafes, but many consumers still dismissively ignore them as mere second-rate novelties. I feel this stems predominately from a lack of understanding about what they actually do and are supposed to taste like, but is just as much about how we have allowed a few big players pumping out bland, milky, bucket-sized expersso [sic] to restrict our appreciation of coffee to such a one-dimensional level.*

Without jabbering on about precisely how to brew every non-espresso method out there, I’m just going to jott down a few notes on some of my favourites, and the experience offered by each. I guess the main thing is to understand the style you’re working with (or ordering) – what to expect, and what variables are at play. (If you’re looking for them, there are a bunch of in-depth brewing guides published online by a host of companies – by far the prettiest is this one from Intelligensia – and Market Lane also offers this).

Key points for understanding immersion brewing: The crucial difference between espresso coffee and brewed coffee is in the coffee-to-water ratio – something pros call a TDS (total dissolved solids) rating. For example, an espresso is made up of approximately 12g of coffee / 30mls of water, whereas a filter brew uses around 17g of coffee / 250mls of water. While the espresso is an intense, slap-you-round-the-face experience, an immersion brew will be lighter, sweeter and more spacious, allowing you to identify more of the coffee’s subtle characteristics**.

Immersion brews become sweeter as they cool, and should always be made using water that is slightly below boiling to avoid scolding or over-extracting  the coffee.

Lighter roast coffees are well-suited to immersion brewing as they retain more natural sugar than dark / espresso roasts. If brewed well, you should not have to introduce sweeteners.

The average espresso brewing time is around 60-90seconds – from grinding to serving. Preparing other methods takes a little longer, so be patient.

Most non-espresso brews are served black and adding milk in generally frowned upon. (Plungers and mokkas are the most notable exceptions.)

When you read descriptors like “grapefruit”, “strawberry”, “jammy” or “melony” on a menu / board, these are most often referring to the particular bean’s cupping notes. Cupping is the standardised process of grading and scoring coffees, and involves a very basic (yet meticulous) brewing method designed to highlight certain characteristics and / or defects. Some coffees are better suited to particular methods of extraction than others, hence the gamut of options available.

If you’re unsure what the heck a “clover press”, “trifercta” or “Hario V60” does, just ask your barista – most will happily geek out and talk you through the process. WARNING: You could be in for quite a chat (the length of a barista’s beard or sleeve tattoo is generally a reliable indication of their knowledge depth).

Pour-over or Filter Coffee is by far the easiest and most time-efficient method of brewing coffee – and it requires the least clean-up. The process involves little more than pouring water over ground coffee and having it filter through fine paper into a cup or other vessel. The body or “mouth-feel” of the brew, as well as the depth of flavour (which will likely be bright with dominant fruit sweetness) are all dictated by the speed at which water travels through the coffee bed and the water-to-coffee ratio.

The Clever Dripper is a mod on this idea. It has a plug that holds in the water, allowing the coffee to remain immersed in water for a longer period without agitation caused by gravity. It tends to provide a heavier flavour profile than a traditional filter apparatus, such a a V60, Koava, or similar.

Woodnecks use reusable cloth filters in place of paper ones, but are otherwise pretty much just another type filter coffee brewers. The vessel and the filter cone come in one piece. Good for the Eco-concious and caffeine-addcited.

Everyone has probably made plunger coffee before – or at least, everyone’s mum has. Coffee goes in, hot water goes on top, count to whatever, plunge and pour. Easy as. One of the inheritance issues with plungers is that the brew continues to extract while the coffee remains in contact with the water – meaning the first cup is always milder than the last. The simplest way to avoid this variation is to decant the whole brew into another vessel (preferably preheated) once plunged, and then divvy it up from there.

Plungers allow control over the steep time, and therefore how much flavour you extract. Filters are usually made from metal, meaning some of the grinds make it into your cup and form a sludgy residue that, while not hugely pleasant to drink, contributes a certain intensity and weightiness to the brew.

If you want to sound fancy or worldly, you can call it a “French Press”.

Siphons and Vaccum Pots – No dad, it’s not a bong. Or did you mean that thing…? Siphons (or syphons) are great conversation starters and add an element of splendid theatricality to dinner parties. There are modern ones, ornate ones, antiquey ones, sciency ones, balancing ones… They look like complicated mini chemistry labs, but are a common sight in Asia (particularly Japan) as they produce a very tea-like experience.

Most come fitted with fine cloth filters that should remove most of the sludge, creating a clean cup with a juicy, full body. Most siphons give you the ability to manipulate the steep time (control over your extraction), but others – like the balancing style – are more automated and will take care of themselves. One of the key factors in siphon-brewing is agitation. The water is pressurised and constantly in motion, creating a “full”-tasting brew. If you’ve never seen one in action, here’s a great video, again from Intellegentsia.

The Macchinetta or Mokka is a beautifully quaint, old-school and quintessentially Italian method of brewing coffee. It uses essentially the same science as any cafe-style espresso machine (forcing pressurised water through finely-ground coffee) and, unlike immersion brewing methods, produces “crema” (that caramel-coloured, moussey layer on top of your coffee), caused by emulsifying the coffee’s oils into a colloid. Like machine-made espresso, the presence is more intense than brewed coffee (hence the flavour is able to cut through a large volume of milk) and the served volume much less.

Some variations on the traditional Mokka contraption (such as the Atomic or the more recent Otto) allow the user to harness excess pressure in the form of steam, to heat and texture milk.

While not a common site in coffee shops or cafes, this is a personal favourite of mine. My little 2-cupper is now a camping staple and comes along whenever I head out for a few days, with friends, to a music festival, etc. Coupled with a butane stove (around ten bucks from any camping store) and a hand grinder (this Hario one is a ripper) this is not only a great way of brewing tasty coffee away from home, but also for making new friends. When everyone around you is waking-up to the Black Death (aka instant) as you’re grinding beans and relishing a fresh brew, you suddenly become very popular.

On one side of the brew spectrum you have “filter coffee” (light, long and deliciously sippable) and, on the opposite end, what is commonly referred to as “Turkish coffee” or “Greek coffee” (depending on who’s making it). The Ibrik or Cezve brewing style is very different from all the others discussed here. It produces a dense, granular coffee paste, often infused with spices and sweetened with sugar, served and drunk black. ALWAYS. The TDS is off the charts and would send your Extract Mojo into meltdown. The coffee and water are combined (usually using a ratio of around 1-to-1) and boiled several times in a small pot, reducing into an intense sludge. It’s a great “second wind” coffee – perfect for kicking the metabolism into gear after a big meal.

You’ll need to grind your coffee into a talc-like powder to achieve a good slurry and this requires a special (often beautiful) grinder, which you should be able to buy a from your local Middle Eastern grocer (or, if there’s not other option, have your coffee preground by your roaster).

There are – of course – a bunch of other methods in addition those mentioned here, but these are some of the most common / familiar. Keep an eye out for them at the more progressive coffee spots, or try one at home.

So, lastly, why immersion brewing might be a good fit for you: If you like to taste coffee, not just drink it, then filter coffee allows you to identify the subtle characteristics of different coffees, leading to a greater appreciation of the bean. Also importantly, there’s no need to drop thousands of dollars on a fancy espresso machine, grinder, water filtration, tamper, knock box, milk pitcher, thermometer (etc etc) to enjoy great coffee at home. Save that for buying the best beans you can get your mitts on.

If your love coffee, but are not into ingesting large volumes of milk, then an immersion brew might be just what you’ve been searching for.

Making cappuccinos for 18 friends at a dinner party is a total drag and means spending long stints in the kitchen, away from tasty gossip. An 8 cup Chemex or Mokka is much faster and easier.

There’s less that can go wrong. Making espresso is a complicated and ridiculously technical exercise, with a vast number of variables at play (and like I said way back there, it’s amazing when brewed masterfully / horrendous when not) but a pour-over say, or plunger, requires a much more straightforward technique.

Here are a few items you may want to look into if you’re going to attempt brewing at home (not featured in this week’s Harvey Norman catalog)…

A burr grinder like this handheld unit from HARIO Japan is much cheaper than your entry-level electric variety and does a great job of grinding on-demand (while also working out your guns). It’s adjustable, easy to use, and even comes with a lid for storing excess ground beans. Steer clear of spinning blade / spice-style grinders; they’re rubbish and produce an inconsistent particle size which will mess with your extraction.

A pouring kettle (or goose-neck kettle) is also a good idea as it allows you to introduce water at a controlled flow-rate.

If you want to take your brewing to the next level a timer and scales are handy as they help you monitor and control all your variables (like dose and brew time).

Thanks for stopping by. Be well, TV.

*It is important to also consider our heritage and post-war migration that saw thousands of Europeans settle in our major cities. They brought with them not only the infrastructure for producing espresso coffee, but also a culture based around it – one that quickly cemented itself as a cornerstone of our own dining experience.

** If you’re into experimentation and want to work your way through a bunch of coffees side-by-side, allow me to recommend one of these more diluted methods to avoid uncomfortable palpitations and long stints in the latrine. [EDIT: I read recently that brewed coffees often contain a higher percentage of caffeine than espresso, due to the depth of the extraction and extended steep time. Either way – drink safe.]

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One thought on “Espresso and the illusion of supremacy

  1. timmyvolume says:

    Further reading: “How to brew better coffee at home with a few essential, but economical, tools.” http://www.imbibemagazine.com/Coffee-Tools-and-Tips

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