Recently I had the opportunity to attend a product demonstration given by Nuova Simonelli at Octane Coffee in Atlanta, GA. Nuova Simonelli had asked 2009 World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies to demonstrate the Victoria Arduino Athena Leva a lever-operated espresso machine. This was seriously cool retro stuff, and I was itching to see a master at work. I learned a lot, and perhaps in a future post I can share more about that demonstration.
The next day, I was given a guided tour of the Atlanta IKEA by Jason and April Dominy, two dear friends that have kindly hosted me several times during my visits to Atlanta. As I was pushing my cart with a few neat toys for my daughters, Jason drops a bag of coffee into the cart. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, “I want you to do a review of it.” Well, ok. Given Jason’s and my preferences for artisan-roasted, roast-dated coffee, I was skeptical, but decided to give it a shot.
Now, you need to understand something. At some point in recent history, back in the late 80’s I think, someone did a phenomenal job at promoting “dark roast” as something truly wonderful. And to this day, we are still finding vast amounts of “dark roast” coffee out there on the shelves. The average American palate has become so used to the flavor profile of dark-roasted coffee, that the only time they think about it is when they drink coffee that ISN’T dark roast.
More to the point, I don’t CARE for dark-roasted coffee. It’s not the flavor profile, or roast profile, I prefer. However, some coffees shine better as a darker-roasted coffee vs. a light-roasted coffee. I believe it is up to the discerning artisan roaster to determine the BEST roast level for a given lot of coffee beans, and if that means a darker roast, then so be it. I’ve tried enough coffees from around the world that I can generally tell very quickly if I am going to like a coffee or not. There are certain things I look for: roast date, bean color, oil on exterior of bean, and uniformity in size. Take a look at these beans:
These beans are pretty dark, but not very oily. That’s a good thing! The more a coffee bean is roasted, the more the oils INSIDE the bean are forced OUTSIDE the bean. This means that the only thing left INSIDE the bean is the organic cellulose framework that once held lots of flavor, but now is only so much burnt plant material. If you see the words “French Roast” or “Italian Roast”, you will likely see oily, very dark beans.
There was no roast date, but I’m not surprised by that. Most chain stores or supermarkets don’t want a roast date, they want an expiration date. More particularly, they want one a year down the road. Fact about coffee: it expires long before a year is up. After the coffee is roasted, if left in whole bean form, and kept out of contact with oxygen, carbon dioxide, sunlight, and moisture, the average coffee’s shelf life is a month, at best. Two weeks is better. This particular coffee has an expiration date of Oct. 15, 2011.
There is one foolproof way to determine a coffee’s freshness, by the way. But it will require you buy the coffee first. I’ll show you a picture of that proof in just a moment.
I opted to use my Clever Coffee Brewer, partly because I love the coffee it makes, but also to give me a benchmark to compare this coffee with others I have made in the past. I use this a lot. I have a few different brewing parameters I use, and some coffees shine better at one than the other. I decided to try two different sets of parameters with this coffee. First, let’s take a look at my brewing setup:
My first brew is a 20g dose of coffee beans, ground medium coarse. I tare my scale to a reading of zero. I also set a timer to 3 minutes. Starting the timer simultaneously, I start pouring 204`F water, measuring the weight of the water, and stop at 100g. I stir the coffee to make sure all of it is evenly saturated. Then I continue pouring until my brew weight measures 340g. I stir again, then place the Clever Brewer’s handy lid on the top to retain heat. Now I wait.
Just before that 3 minute time is up, I remove the lid, and stir the brew vigorously enough to create a mild vortex. By placing the Clever atop my coffee mug WHILE the vortex is still in motion, I assure an even draw-down of the coffee through the grounds. I’m left with a nice, little dome of coffee in the filter.
Now, take a look at the coffee bed just prior to adding water:
Now look at it, just after the initial 100g of water was poured in. See how the coffee is swelling up, just a bit?
This is called “bloom”, where carbon dioxide, created inside the bean during roasting, and trapped in the coffee after grinding, is released via contact with the hot water. The gas expands, forcing the coffee bed upwards, creating the bloom effect.
You’ve probably picked up a bag of coffee at the store, and squeezed it, forcing air out the one-way valve, allowing you to smell the coffee’s aroma. That “air” is actually carbon dioxide that is slowly being released by the coffee beans after the roasting process. Chances are, while a puffy bag of coffee may be fresher than one with no puffiness left, there’s no guarantee that coffee is, indeed, fresh. But if that coffee BLOOMS during brewing, it is relatively fresh. Now a coffee just a few days off roast, the bloom is quite dramatic.
So, since I saw blooming, I had hopes in a relatively decent, though dark, cup of coffee.
The dry aroma of the coffee, both whole bean, and ground, was somewhat spicy, with a hint of dark chocolate. I could clearly discern the smoky aroma I associate with dark-roasted coffee, just short of burnt. Meh.
The wet aroma retained that spiciness, with the chocolate intensified. I tasted the coffee, once it had cooled a bit, and learned that, while this coffee isn’t my impression of an exemplary coffee, it was pleasant enough to drink. The smoky flavor was there, but wasn’t standing out too far.
On my next brew, I dosed the coffee at 24g, kept the same grind, but backed the time down to 2 minutes, 30 seconds. I did my normal 100g initial pour, stirred, and then poured to 362g. Finished brewing just like the previous brew. This approach to this coffee had very similar attributes to the first attempt, but was a bit smoother. More milk chocolate mixed in with the dark chocolate. Not bad at all.
I generally drink coffee black, no sugar, for tasting or reviewing purposes. This is the best way to really understand the character of a coffee. However, I do prefer, when drinking for pleasure, to add a little sugar to enhance the natural sweetness of the coffee. Not much, but a little. I added some sugar to the second brew, and was treated to a very mellow, almost creamy, coffee. And I hadn’t put any milk or cream in it!
Oh, one other thing. I always encourage coffee and food pairings, as I contend that proper coffee is culinary in nature. So of course, I paired this one.
With my favorite, lemon chess pie, my birthday gift from my wife. Thanks, Hon!