FF Recommends: A perfect cup of coffee

July 3, 2021 | FF Daily #414: We spill the beans on upgrading your coffee experience

Founding Fuel

[Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]

Good morning,

Let’s keep this introduction short. If you are reading this with a cup of coffee in hand (or at least with the taste of the morning brew lingering on your tongue), you don’t need an introduction. Even if you are not much of a coffee person, we have no doubt you enjoy coffee once in a while. In this issue, three people from the Founding Fuel community, each with a very different relationship with coffee, share their stories, and in the process give valuable tips on upgrading your coffee experience.     

Devotion brews

By Vivek Singh

Vivek works with leaders of State, families, enterprise owners, CXOs, amongst others, in the realm of Self-Mastery and Distinctive Leadership. Delivered 100 stores to Barista Coffee 1999-2001. Drinks tea, eats chocolate.

I do not drink coffee. Save for an iced mocha, double with the chocolate shot, a few times a year at best.

But if you’re devoted to your beverage and can drink it with attention, and not while poring over papers, here’s what I’d whip up for you. You will need to account for your individual preferences. 

Beans to ground coffee

Equipment: coffee roaster, coffee grinder, or neither!

Preferred beans: arabicas from different altitudes from a single region. Roast the beans in small quantities in a roaster; each type of bean should ideally be a separate batch. Blend (mix) the beans to deliver your preferred taste. Store the roasted beans in vacuum-sealed containers to preserve the oils and aroma. 

Grind some beans before preparing the coffee, if for many people. Else grind a small batch or a few days’ worth and store as above. Grinding the coffee is a noisy but seriously aromatic experience. Your SoHo [small office/home office] will smell divine, if that’s the kind of aroma you like, and so using the grinder more often will likely make you merrier.

This is a complex manoeuvre however. There are two easier ways to go. Buy pre-roasted and blended beans. I’d recommend a Colombian dark roast, or a Jamaican Blue Mountain—both exquisite—and grind them. This is “just about” acceptable to the aficionado. Easier still, buy packaged pre-ground coffee, and with that you’ve done away with the requirement of a roaster and grinder. I wouldn’t tell anyone, though.

People have often preferred to add robusta beans to the blend. This makes for a slightly stronger coffee, but I personally recommend pure arabicas, and a dark roast. A medium-dark roast at the very least; else we’re talking different languages here. The act of drinking coffee needs to inform you that you’re drinking coffee. Olfactory senses play their part. Try Bournvita in milk otherwise, or drop in to your unsuspecting neighbour’s home for a cup of shock.

Ground coffee to your cup

Equipment: a small espresso machine. If you’re not going to use this, stop reading!

Nine grams of ground coffee makes for a good cup. Tamp the grind firmly. With a little experience you’ll see that the density will determine flow and taste of the prime liquid, called the espresso. This is the basic starting point in the making of every other type of coffee beverage. A correctly tamped pack will deliver “crema”—a light brown froth around the edges of that dark liquid. If this is what you’re looking for, enjoy your drink. But without writing a manual on coffee-making, let’s speak about the cappuccino which makes for the more consumed type of coffee beverage.

Froth cold milk in a steel jar via the nozzle in the espresso machine; an attached steel thermometer lets you get the temperature right. Make sure to clean the nozzle with a wet cloth immediately after each frothing, before you blend the froth into the espresso. It is super-important to keep your machine clean and well maintained.

Add demerara sugar to taste. If you’re a modern fitness type, add hot water to the espresso or even milk froth, and add a dollop of white butter to the brew. The fat gives you the energy you need for the entire morning. Munching a croissant with it adds to your belly, but an almond biscotti can bring you home. 

Let’s not call ourselves serious coffee drinkers if we can’t do this. I do not have any of this equipment. All I do have is the regular steel South Indian coffee filter. Why? I don’t drink coffee! Which is not to say I haven’t done my thousand cups or trained to taste and make it, a thousand or so years ago, no less.

Pure coffee is a phenomenon of its own. ‘The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup’, is NOT coffee. Nescafe is NOT coffee. Anything that has chicory—no, nada. The instant brands, no. 

Want a divine cup? Brew devotion.

My search for coffee

By Anu AcharyaCEO of Mapmygenome

The day is new and it is bright,
As I wake up to a lambent light,
The dark is gone along with the night,
Yet I search for my coffee
To feel alright

Anu Acharya, Feb 2011

I have loved coffee since I was in high school. It used to be instant coffee at that time and my mom would get it for me. It had milk, some coffee and sugar. Over time, my taste got more refined and today I drink pure black espresso or versions of it.  

There was a time I used to drink 10-15 cups a day. I’ve cut it down to one or two cups a day now. Mostly because I do not need it as much—I exercise more and try to sleep longer. Nowadays, I can go without it but I love the smell of coffee so I have to get a cup to start my day. It’s a habit and stimulates the mind.

After a lot of research and experimentation, my favourite coffee type today is a dark roast arabica—I enjoy that boldness in the coffee as well as the flavour. In the last few months, I have essentially moved to Nespresso pods due to lack of time. They are easy to use and retain freshness with their vacuum-packed pods.

For those not that familiar with the difference in coffee beans, there are two main types, arabica and robusta. Arabica is 70% of the world's production and has a lower caffeine content but is more flavourful. This is the one typically used in cafes. Robusta has more caffeine and is used in instant coffee. 

I keep a variety of coffee at home, but my staple these days are Nespresso pods partially due to laziness and time to make a cup. Some of the flavours I like these days include Espresso Forte, Starbucks Pike Place, Arpeggio, and Ristretto.

My collection also includes Arabic coffee, filter coffee using Araku coffee beans, and arabica beans. I also like to pick country- or region-specific coffee for my collection and love using different techniques to brew it. My office has a wide variety of coffee beans and powder from across the world, which needs to be refilled.

The key to getting a good coffee bean lies in differences in temperature, nutrients, topology, microbes and soil. While a lot of coffee is grown in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, etc, some warmer temperature areas like India, Vietnam and Indonesia also produce some excellent coffee and lots of it.

I typically buy the beans from Lavazza or Starbucks in India or anything new that is interesting in any other country. That often means some are quite bad! 

I think coffee has a religious connection in some form! I say that because of its origins. The legend is that a goatherd in Ethiopia called Kaldi found that his goats became very energetic and started dancing when they ate berries from the coffee plant. He reported it to the monastery and the monks began using it to stay awake. Coffee then moved to Yemen and the Middle East and these coffee places became the “woke” culture with performances, poetry, etc. I think it came to India via Mecca, the holy pilgrimage.

How I make my coffee

The flavour from the bean comes from three things:

1. The roast type: Coffee beans are green and not very flavourful just off the plant. Roasting is what gives it the flavours we are familiar with.

I like a dark roast, although they are the ones with the lowest acid and caffeine supposedly. Since I prefer espressos, the dark roasts have the same aroma as in your favourite cafe like Starbucks. While I do not roast my own beans, there are many who do.

Light roasts are more coarse and earthy and actually retain more of coffee’s original flavour. As the roast goes from light to medium to dark and extra dark, it becomes darker and shinier with its oil exuding. Vietnamese coffee has ghee/clarified butter on it. You can try this at home with a pan and one spoon of ghee.

2. The size of the ground coffee: When I have the time to make a good cup, I start with the beans and grind it myself so I can get the right size of the powder. I make do with the small electric coffee grinders like a Krups or a Hamilton Beach or Delonghi.

I’m planning to get a more sophisticated machine at some point, but Nespresso spoils you. 

I do have a bunch of coffee machines other than the Nespresso, including an Italian mini espresso, a French press, an Arabic coffee maker, Araku filter coffee etc for a cup that can be made for the mood of the day.

3. How you brew it: Of course, adding milk, cream, sugar can alter taste completely.

I typically make an espresso, but for others who enjoy a cappuccino, I foam the milk and add in the espresso shot. When I make those for myself, I add a couple extra shots.

Of course, each to their own taste, but the real flavours of coffee are when you can make a cup without the need to boil the coffee. Secondly, avoid sugar and milk or use minimum quantities to feel the coffee come alive within you.

A note on storage: How you store the beans is also key in retaining the flavour. Most of the packs you get in a store are vacuum-sealed so that the air doesn't oxidise the beans and make them stale. 

Ground beans should be used pretty much as soon as possible as the ground coffee exposes more surface area and becomes stale quicker. Please throw away unused coffee and don't reheat it. If you want to consume it, chill it and drink. 

The magic of moka pot

By NS Ramnath, Senior Writer, Founding Fuel

There's an image we all have about perfect South Indian coffee. No one expressed it as well as RK Narayan in My Dateless Diary, an account of his travels in the US back in 1956. The scene is set in a Manhattan cafeteria.

“A man in a sports-jacket came over and asked, ‘Do you mind?’ ‘Not at all,’ I said. He set his tray on the table, and said, ‘I overheard your remark about coffee. You know of any special trick in making it?’ God-given opportunity for me to start off a lecture on coffee, its place in South India (in the North they favour tea), its place in our social life, how the darkest condemnation of a family would be the warning uttered at their back, ‘Their coffee is awful’, how at wedding parties it was the responsibility of the bride’s father to produce the best coffee and keep it flowing all day for five hundred at a time; how decoction drawn at the right density, on the addition of fresh warm milk turned from black to sepia, from which ultimately emerged a brown akin to the foaming edge of a river in flood, how the whole thing depended upon one’s feeling for quality and eye for colour; and then the ding of sugar, just enough to mitigate the bitterness but without producing sweetness. Coffee making is a task of precision at every stage.

“I could not help mentioning my mother who has maintained our house-reputation for coffee undimmed for half a century. She selects the right quality of seeds almost subjecting every bean to a severe scrutiny, roasts them slowly over charcoal fire, and knows by the texture and fragrance of the golden smoke emanating from the chinks in the roaster whether the seeds within have turned the right shade and then grinds them into perfect grains; everything has to be right in this business."

That is the image we have of a perfect South Indian coffee. But the reality is quite different. Even in Narayan's writings, one can sense a bit of nostalgia when it comes to coffee, as if he is talking about a different era. Today, it's indeed a different era. We use filters, which don't give strong decoction, because it solely relies on the power of gravity. Smaller filters perform even worse. So, we buy coffee with chicory, which gives the thickness, but takes something away from the coffee. Most people who say they love South Indian Filter, mostly live a life of compromise.

That was the case with me too, till I figured out there is an easy way to make filter coffee stronger and better at home—even in small quantities. That was when I discovered the moka pot, which uses the power of steam, and so can make stronger coffee. Moka pots are popular in Italy where they originated, and also in Europe and South America, with populations that love coffee. They are slowly picking up in India too. You can buy one for less than Rs 1,000. One of the reasons the pick up has not been as fast as it should be is, it's easy to screw up coffee—making it less flavourful and more bitter. However, with some practice, you can get it just right.

Even if you are not a big fan of South Indian Filter coffee, there is still a reason to go for it. It's not strong enough for an espresso. A moka pot takes about twice the quantity of coffee to capture the flavours than a proper espresso machine does. Still, it's great for black coffee and cappuccino. (For a cup of cappuccino, use a French press to foam the milk. Keep moving the piston till the milk doubles in size with foam.)

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Coffee beans make all the difference. At home we order from a shop in Kumbakonam. But, everyone has their favourite. This thread by Ritesh Banglani has some great commendations. 
  • Preheat water before pouring into the moka pot.
  • Keep the flame really low. If the decoction is sputtering out of the machine, you have to reduce the flame. If it's already at its lowest, use an additional stand, and expose only half of the base to the direct heat. In ideal heat, the decoction should be frothing.
  • Once the gurgling becomes loud (and drops start jetting out) remove from heat, and cool it down to stop the coffee from brewing further. (You can do this with a cold towel or by keeping the pot under running water.)
  • It might take a few attempts to get it right, but you will know you have got it, the way you come to know you have got swimming or cycling. Then you are good to go.

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