Thursday, September 12, 2013

The state of the coffee culture Pt 1

There was a review of coffee grinders in Wired last April that I have long meant to blog.

First a digression. About fifteen years ago now, I read a lot of articles about water features for gardens in order to prepare to build my own. Several of the articles I found featured a line about how you didn't want the finished product to sound like a running toilet. When I first read that line, I panicked. I pictured the garden atmosphere ruined because the sound was like a running toilet. I thought, "Maybe I shouldn't try this myself."

Which was exactly what the writers had been striving for.

Expert journalism—whether it's the op-ed page of the Washington Post or a review of coffee grinders in Wired—aims to make you feel helpless. This for a simple reason: If you didn't feel helpless, you might realize how little you need experts.

In this case, our writer, Lauren Crabbe, gets to work at making you feel like a loser right off the bat.
A great bag of coffee beans is the final product of a lot of hard work and a series of small miracles. From water quality at the farm, to the method used to process the cherries, to bean storage and shipment, and on to the final roasting, blending and bagging, those coffee beans have traveled a great distance and endured a lot of fondling before landing on your kitchen counter.
And then she slips in the first shot at undermining your confidence.
Now, it's up to you to brew it without messing everything up.
Now stop and ask yourself a  question: How much difference do you think the water quality at the farm really makes? Obviously it makes some difference that the water not be laced with diesel but do fine gradations in water quality make  a difference?

The correct answer is, "No!"The real point of that paragraph is to build up a whole of mystique about coffee. The truth is that coffee is produced in third world countries under conditions that are not only poorly controlled but under conditions which would be impossible to control. In the end, it really doesn't matter because you can produce good coffee under a fairly wide set of conditions. No, you couldn't grow good coffee in Montana but once you get into the right general territory, you can do it. The proof of this being that very good coffee is produced by unskilled labourers using crude equipment all over the world.

Now that she has you on the ropes, Crabbe goes in for the kill:
The biggest mistake home brewers make is in the grind. Most consumers are happy to buy pre-ground or (gasp) instant coffee, but if you're serious about your daily cup, you need to grind your own.

When coffee is ground, the surface area increases drastically, exposing the oils and dissolvable particles. The results -- and the taste -- will vary based on which method your grinder uses to pulverize the beans. There are the super-consistent conical burr grinders that have been around since the mortar and pestle went out of style. There are flat burr grinders which have a nasty habit of heating the coffee as they grind it. And there's the lowly blade grinders that will chop your coffee into a mix of huge chunks and super-fine powder. Seriously, if you're using a blade grinder, you'd be better off junking it and reverting to the aforementioned mortar and pestle.
There is some truth to this. Grinding coffee really does drastically increases the surface area exposing more of the oils and dissolvable particles  (grinding anything at all does). It's a good idea not to grind your coffee until just before you make it because the increased surface area is exposed to the air and leaving it like that will cause it to degrade in ways that will affect the flavour.

There is also a huge untruth here (but not necessarily a lie as Crabbe may actually believe what she is writing). That untruth is the claim that the coffee all needs to be ground to the same size.
The best grinder is the one that gives you the best particle consistency. 
That's roughly true. You want larger grounds for a French press than you do for espresso. But you don't need to be able to make gradations finer than you can see with your eyes and you definitely don't need to be any more consistent about the ground size than a quick visual appraisal will allow you to determine. (And if anyone tells you that you do need more, challenge them to a blind taste test.)

On the other hand, if you can be convinced you do, you can be convinced to spend a couple of hundred bucks on a machine that will use up a huge amount of counter space.

By the way, there is a fascinating reversal of attitude that happens as soon as Crabbe has you sufficiently paranoid.
But let's face it, grinding coffee should be as easy as drinking it. You're operating this machine before you've had your morning caffeine fix, so a good grinder needs to be quick, quiet, and easy to operate.
What you are being sold here is a sense of being elite with the minimum effort possible. Crabbe assumes that you don't have the time or inclination to really learn about coffee (and if you go to Wired for your expertise, she's probably right).

1 comment:

  1. My lowly blade grinder ($10 Crappy Tire) does a good job--and now I'm not ashamed to say so. :) (I had wondered whether splashing out on an exotic grinders would make a noticeable difference, but hadn't thought it through. I suppose the law of diminishing returns kicks in too.)