Aug 10

Roasting my own coffee beans

I used to be able to buy that Lavazza ground stuff (or Illy, or whatever), put it into a stovetop, and drink it with warm milk.

How things have changed. I now freshly grind my coffee (with a Baratza Vario coffee grinder) no more than 30 seconds in advance of the espresso extraction. It’s the only way to get that freshness and crispness I’m used to. I use a Rancilio Silvia to make my poison, and I can only buy my beans from Monmouth Coffee, where I know they have roasted them within at least the last few days.

The reason is that the beans deteriorate after about 10 days after roasting, in a way that is noticeable in the cup. I’m not a snob, I just have picky tastebuds. I can’t help that.

(It always amuses me, therefore, when people talk about the relative merit of one type of coffee over the other, in a supermarket. How any of it can be considered good is beyond me, when the stuff has been on a shelf for months. I guess it serves a purpose, but – yuk.)

The problem:

  • Freshly roasted beans – really fresh – are expensive in the first place
  • They are more expensive when you throw them away because they are no longer fresh and you didn’t get through them all quick enough
  • Getting freshly roasted beans (really fresh) is costly – postage from mail-order, a trip into central London
  • The beans are never there and fresh, when I want them.

A for-instance:

  • I buy 750g of beans because I made a special visit to Monmouth Coffee, use 125g, then because life is unpredictable I have to go away for 7 days then the remaining beans get thrown away (ack). Then I get back … to no beans (double ack). I have to wait at least a few days before I can get fresh stuff again (ack). During that time I have to visit cafés three times a day. Wow. A LOT of wasted beans, time, and money.

That’s 9 shades of annoying. And 4x ack.

I go away, I come home, I want fresh beans, right here, right now!

Cafés don’t have this problem. They get through so many beans each day they can afford a shipment every day. If they overorder / undersell one day, they can use rollover beans the next day, and reduce the order the following day. Beans always fresh. Not so chez Mat.

The solution:

Buy a home roaster. Store my own green beans for 6 months. Cheap! Fresh!

I have no desire to roast my own beans other than to get around the terrible feeling of coming home to no coffee.

Actually, that’s a lie. I love the thought of defining my own roasting profiles, choosing the type of roast according to my mood, experimenting.

So I am the proud new owner of a Behmor coffee roasting machine. None of this pokey air roasting rubbish. A proper drum roaster thank you. Complete with chaff and smoke management systems.

I’ll post back when I get some results from this thing!

Nov 08

The domestic guide to good coffee

This guide is a work in progress. Currently you are seeing the first draft.

Grinding your own

Always choose a burr grinder. A non burr grinder will chop the beans instead of crushing them to release oils. Chopping a good roast is a terrible thing to do if you want half decent coffee. It’s not worth buying a grinder at all unless it’s a burr grinder. If it doesn’t specifically say “burr grinder”, it most likely isn’t one, however expensive the unit may be. If you don’t buy a burr grinder, it is always better to have your beans ground at the shop where you buy it.

The quality of a burr grinder is defined by two variables:  

  1. Consistency of grinds
  2. Build quality (length of life, ease of cleaning etc)

It’s possible to purchase a cheap burr grinder for reasonable results. The Krups GVX2 is reasonable, although it may not last a lifetime. Mine broke after a few years. I found a replacement at Debenhams for £36 – an absolute steal. I believe Starbucks sell a branded version of the same model. It’s the cheapest reasonably decent grinder, and I use it. The compartment is not the easiest to clean, it requires a little shake sometimes mid-grind, to keep the beans flowing through. Also, you’ll need to clean grinds up, it does make a little mess. But that’s what coffee is about.

Better still would be the KitchenAid Artisan burr grinder. I haven’t used this unit myself, but it has great reviews.

Espresso machines

I’ve a lot to say on this subject, but I may fill this out at a later date.

It goes without saying, you must avoid cheap units in department stores or online. They often call themselves “cappuccino makers” or “latte makers”. The look like this.

The most important specification of an espresso machine is its pressure. Pressure is measured in bars, or atmospheres. Compare different machines on this specification to start with.

Avoid machines that use anything but coffee you can put in yourself. Nespresso is a well-known brand, and it’s the exception to this rule. It can make perfectly reasonable espresso, even with their cheaper models, and at an acceptable price. It makes a very good every-day espresso machine with minimal cleaning fuss.

The very best domestic espresso is made in lever machines like those from La Pavoni. They are also very high maintenance. You really have to want good coffee if you use this regularly.

Using a stove-top

Stove-tops are the cheapest way of getting espresso-like coffee. They cannot yield a true espresso, and they do not give a crema. That’s something that only a real espresso machine can do.

The most common stove-top make and size is the Bialetti Moka Express 3 cup. This is the one I have had most success with.

Often the coffee can taste way too bitter or way too weak, and sometimes coffee has a subtle taste of burnt rubber to it, due to the slight softening of the rubber seal. The seal may be replaced on Bialetti stove-top makers.

Stove-tops can yield reasonable coffee, but it’s very difficult to make them comply. It’s therefore advisable to lower your sights and use shop-bought name brands such as Illy or Lavazza as the consistency of the grounds will always be high, and grounds consistency is a variable that can throw the results out (strength, bitterness etc) by factors of ten.

It’s best to experiment with volume of coffee, volume of water, length of boiling and amount of heat. Also experiment a little with tamping pressure (how hard you press the coffee down) – start by not tamping it at all except to level the coffee grinds. Never tamp too hard.

A good starting place is to fill a 3 cup Bialetti Moka Express filter funnel with Lavazza espresso coffee, so it comes to just below the top of the funnel. Pat down with your finger to level the coffee. Run your finger around the rim of the funnel to remove loose grinds, ensuring that the rest of the funnel has no grinds stuck to it. Fill the bottom section up with cold water (filtered water is usually better, although such subtleties won’t be appreciated with a stove-top). Screw the lot together, nice and tight. Place on a medium gas heat from the smallest ring of your stove, or equivalent. Wait until you hear the perculating noise and wait a further 30 seconds to a minute. Taste the results without milk if you can, and vary the process.

It’s not uncommon for coffee to randomly taste so bad it’s undrinkable. It’s not uncommon for the coffee to simply never percolate at all; I’ve noticed this happening randomly on my own and friends’ stove-tops. It doesn’t necessarily mean a replacement seal is required. Just cool-off and try again.

There are no hard and fast rules except the following:

  1. Never fill water above the pressure valve. It’s usually best to fill the stove-top with cold water so the water level is just under the valve.
  2. Always remove grinds from the rim of the filter funnel before proceding.
  3. Avoid using washing up liquid on any of the parts, and never use a dishwasher.