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Drinking vs. Tasting: Brewing Parameters

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In the blogging, twittering, and generally-interneting specialty coffee world, there seems to be a renewed interest in not just the way we brew coffee, but particularly in the specifics involved in the ways we brew coffee. Take, for instance, the french press: it allows coarsely-ground coffee to be saturated with hot, almost-boiling water for roughly four minutes to create a brew that is then filtered by the pressing action of the french press, thereby separating the grounds from what has now become brewed coffee. Though it's mildly long-winded, that explanation sounds fairly straightforward, doesn't it? The problem that some of those involved with coffee are running into is that such an explanation only suffices as a starting point.

A quick observation is in order: I don't think it's overkill to claim that most coffee consumers, even coffee aficionados, would distinguish the differences between the french press and, say, a Chemex, only along the lines of their cup characteristics. Said simply, the tendency is to describe and judge the brewing method based on its finished product, not by the process and nuances of the method itself. This may not sound like much, but let me make a parallel observation: if I asked you to tell me the differences between a cut of beef that's been roasted and one that's been grilled, you could likely list a few distinctions without thinking much. Now, if you were a chef, you could likely go into far greater detail about the processes of roasting and grilling and their respective effects on a cut of beef. You would expect this knowledge of a chef, wouldn't you? Translate that back over to coffee. Any barista worth his or her salt could tell you the difference between a cup of coffee from a press and one from a Chemex, right? How many of them, even outstanding ones, can tell you what's happening in those brew processes? How many will be able to intuitively and intelligently theorize on the effects brewing temperature, water flow and agitation, grind size, roast level, bean varietal, and dwell time will have on a cup of coffee? What about with espresso, a preparatory process that is far, far, far more intense and sensitive and mysterious than "just" brewed coffee?

I pose these questions not because I thought them up on my own, but because I've run across others posing the same sorts of queries. Alex Negranza, James Hoffmann, Alex Brooks, and Paul Stack are just a handful of industry professionals that have been publicly -- meaning, via the web and otherwise -- thinking through and pushing the envelope on our "accepted" standards of brewing, both for filtered coffee and espresso; they're challenging the status quo. If guys like these are doing some outside-the-box thinking and are freely sharing their thoughts with the rest of the specialty coffee world, I think I am correct in expecting the bar to be raised yet again.

That's a good thing, right?

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