Monday, September 26, 2011

One Cup at a Time

Recently, someone asked me what I would recommend for brewing coffee for one... for someone who didn't drink a ton of coffee, and who didn't want to obsess over the details.

Then a few days later, a forum reader asked for recommendations for making coffee on a liveaboard boat. 

I figured I would set my rather long response down here in blog post form.

So  a little background, for those of you who may not have followed my blog obsessively for years, as to why someone would be asking me for coffee advice:

I am a coffee fanatic. I was at one time an 8-12 POT, not cup a day drinker. Through my late teens and twenties, I was so caffeinated, you could have distilled my blood to make energy drink concentrate.

There was a collectible card game called netrunner, that had a card with the quote "There's too much blood in my caffeine system". I lived by that quote religiously, and had a framed copy of the card up on my office wall at one point.

Over the past six years, I have written six posts, specifically about how to make coffee; never mind the literally hundreds of references to or mentions of coffee.

I have cut my coffee consumption WAY down over the past few years; but as it is, today I still drink anywhere from one to four, 12oz mugs of coffee a day, most days (usually just one or two though now).

I only drink GOOD coffee.

Starbucks, is not good coffee...

....and fritalian is ridiculous to order coffee in anyway; plus it's overpriced crap.

I had a technivorm drip brewer, which makes the best drip coffee there is... Because it's the ONLY drip coffee maker that brews at the proper temp.

I have a 15 bar pump espresso machine, with a dual boiler; and a conical burr grinder.

I have several different French presses, and an electric kettle that gets me a full pot of just under boiling water in about 90 seconds for said presses.

I have or have had, a classic Bialetti moka pot, a vacuum pot, and a Chemex brewer.

All of these make spectacular coffee. All of them take a fair bit of time and effort to do so.

I break out one of these brewing methods (usually my thermal carafe and my double walled stainless French press. Less heat loss) when I want the best possible, truly excellent coffee.

However, as I no longer drink pots of coffee at a time, and my wife drinks far less coffee than I do. Unless I'm entertaining, I have no need for brewing more than 4 cups (we drink 12oz mugs, so thats 2 6oz "cups" each right there by coffee measure) at a time anymore.

Also, the biggest problem with drinking good coffee, is keeping coffee good for more than a few minutes. There are a lot of tricky, or expensive ways of doing that, and they work quite well... but they're tricky or expensive.

The best way is to just brew good, hot, fresh coffee; as many cups as you need right then and no more; and drink it immediately.

To my mind, there are about six good ways of doing that.

The first is to use a single cup drip filter. These work pretty well, but can spill easily (especially on a boat) and be a bit messy. Also there is a lot of heat loss during the brewing process. On the plus side, you control the water very precisely; the temperature, volume, and steep rate.

The smallest two sizes of chemex brewer and french press also do pretty well; but you really need to brew at least 4 cups (coffee "cups", so 24oz) at a time to get proper results. any smaller amount of grounds, and the wetting and brew times aren't quite right.

There's something called the "aeropress", that makes really excellent coffee, one cup at a time. It's a bit less messy than the other methods here, and makes about as good quality coffee, but of a slightly different character and flavor.

There's also the cold brewing process; where you brew in cold water, overnight, and VERY strong, to make a coffee concentrate. Then when you want a cup of coffee, you either mix the concentrate into an iced coffee with ice water and adulterants (cream, milk, sugar etc...); or you mix it with just under boiling temp water.

There are a couple of elements to take note of, that these methods share.

First, they all require you to grind your own coffee for best results. So does every other brewing method of course, but each one requires a different grind to brew properly.

You shouldn't grind more than a few days worth of coffee at a time at worst, and it's best if you just grind a days worth, or even a pots worth, at once. However, I don't recommend you grind coffee one cup at a time, as such a small quantity tend to grind suboptimally. You want to grind as much as you'll consume for the morning, or all day, and just keep it in an airtight container.

Second, all of the methods I listed above require an external source of hot water. I personally prefer an electric boiling kettle. Most U.S. branded kettles aren't very good, because we aren't major tea drinkers in the U.S. The UK and EU brands are generally better, but also considerably more expensive. The best of them can boil a quart/liter of water in under 90 seconds (some in as little as 30).

Unless you're cold brewing, you need to brew coffee at over 190 degrees, and under 210 degrees; with an ideal temperature of 195-205 degrees. A good boiling kettle will get you there quickly. Just let it come off the boil, and by the time you get the water into the brewer, it'll be at 206 or below.

Actually, if you want to know why your drip coffee maker produces crap coffee, that's probably why. Most of them don't get the water near hot enough; and most of the ones that do drop the water onto the grounds while still boiling (which extracts much more bitterness and off flavors from the grounds).

So... all of that is a bit fiddly... and a bit messy, and all require a multistep process etc... etc...

I think they're worth it for really great coffee, but they can be a pain in the ass. And I think that they're a bit impractical for a boat, unless you have a lot of room, and stay docked all the time.

Even mediocre coffee making methods like drip and percolators, leave a lot to be desired on a boat. There's still the glass carafe, or the relatively unstable percolator etc... and of course the mess of grounds.

About 18 months ago, recognizing that my wife and I no longer drank a pot of coffee at a time, that we ended up throwing away more coffee that we were drinking, no matter what we did to keep the coffee "fresh" and tasting good (and we tried everything)....

And recognizing that "really good" coffee was acceptable most of the time, instead of "spectacular" coffee...

...We bought a Keurig machine; this one in fact: Cuisinart Keurig Brewing System

We brew one cup at a time, each cup takes about 30 seconds to brew (including the time to heat the water), each one is hot and fresh exactly when you want it.

More importantly, it's really good coffee. Some of the k-cups (the single serving coffee packs) verge on excellent. Yeah, I can make better coffee with a French press, but this is almost as good, and a hell of a lot more convenient.

There are four disadvantages to the Keurig: One, at retail, it's about $0.40 a 6oz cup for coffee (a lot better than starbucks, but still more than the standard "1 tablespoon per six ounces" Folgers at $6 a pound {appx. 64 tablespoons per pound}, or about $0.09 a cup; or the local whole bean roasters at $9 a pound for about $0.15 per cup). Two, there is a bit more waste per cup to dispose of. Three, you are limited to the coffee that k-cup makers decide to give you. Four, you have to have k-cups, and they aren't widely available everywhere.

On the other hand, there are a couple of mitigating factors here:

We found that compared to when we were brewing full pots, we wasted so much less coffee, that we were spending less on the K-cups as we were on the coffee we were brewing. Also, we were throwing away about the same volume of trash as we were before (though admittedly, the keurig trash involves non dumpable/digestable/compostable plastic). Finally, buying mailorder is much cheaper, and more convenient; to the point where through Amazon we can get each cup down into the $0.20 range (or $0.40 since we brew a double into a large mug), with free shipping (free two day shipping in our case, since we're prime members).

Oh and as to general availability, I have found k-cups in every supermarket, Target, WalMart, Costco, and Sams Club I have been in, in four different states, over the last two years.

Further, there are three direct solutions for these problems:

Firstly, there is a filter pod accessory, that lets you grind and use your own coffee, on a single cup basis. Our Cuisinart came with one, but third party models are available from Amazon for $10-$15.

You simply load your coffee up to the line (first line for "normal' second line for "extra bold"), drop it into the machine just like one of the disposable kcups, and brew. Just rinse out the filter when you're done.

This reduces the cost to whatever you pay for coffee normally. There no additional waste, no additional cost, over and above whatever brewing method you were using before. It also lets you use whatever type of coffee you want, whatever roast you want, and gives you some flexibility in grind (though not too fine or too coarse, or it won't brew properly).

What you lose of course, is the sealed k-cup convenience. You still have to grind your own coffee, and you clean up one at a time etc...

The second solution is a little tool and filter papers, that lets you make your own disposable filter coffee pods. You grind and seal the coffee in the filter papers, then drop the sealed filter paper into a reusable kcup holder.

The filter papers are a few pennies a piece (the current amazon price is $10 for 50, or $0.20 a piece; but if you buy by the case, it goes down to something like $0.02 a piece), and are compostable. You don't throw away any plastic. Also, the plastic reusable kcup holders can often also hold coffee pods from other brands like Nepresso and Senseo; so you aren't just limited to the brands that offer K-cups.

It's still less convenient than the k-cup, because you have to grind the coffee and load up the filters; but its no more inconvenient than any conventional coffee brewing method.

The third method also uses a little tool and disposable filters; but the disposable filter is part of an entire disposable kcup. Instead of using a resuable filter holder, you just seal the coffe in and discard the whole thing, just like the original kcups.

Oh and for our machine, there's an added convenience, in that it will give you up to 12oz of 195 degree water on demand, for tea, hot chocolate, instant soup etc... And then 30 seconds later, another 12oz.

When we want coffee that isn't offered in a k-cup, sometimes we break out the french press... but more often than not we're just loading up the filter pod, because it's so easy and convenient.

Of course, there's always instant....