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Trouble Brewing

March 16, 2011

I can’t even imagine what would happen if I got obsessed with trying to make espresso at home. It’s bad enough that I’m trying to tackle brewed coffee. But there are so many more variables at play in pulling a shot than there are to brewing a cup.

And even simple brewed coffee involves more variables than I care to address.

What’s even worse is that I’m still not close to producing something approaching my gold standard of brewed coffee. To many in my old stomping grounds the brew of choice is now Philz. But I still have a soft spot for Peet’s, which was my daily morning treat all those years working in San Francisco.

More than anything else, the thing that set Peet’s coffee apart was its body. This wasn’t like drinking coffee extracted from the beans with hot water. Rather, it was like drinking hot molten coffee beans itself. At the time I had heard it suggested that the secret was using an unconscionable ratio of grounds to water.

Maybe that’s the key. I’ve been spending most of my coffee-brewing time recently focusing on the pour-over technique, with a little bit of time tinkering with the automatic drip. Sometimes making coffee by the cup is just a bit too labor intensive.

But I’ve learned a couple of things in my quest for a better cup of coffee.

1. Drip coffee makers are designed to make weak-ass coffee

That’s not to say that they cannot make a robust cup, but at least mine cannot make it in the volume claimed by the machine.

I’ve got one of the Cuisinart 12-Cup models, and recently I was reviewing the brewing instructions that came in the manual. Mrs. Fussy may actually have the original manual in our filing cabinet upstairs, but being too lazy to physically get up and look for it, I found a copy online.

Anyhow, it states the maximum capacity for ground coffee is 15 Tablespoons for the 12-cup pot. And that might be perfectly fine for you. However, I’ve been playing around with this brewing ratio chart and the capacity of the hopper now puts me at a maximum capacity of 5 full 8-ounce cups of coffee. To be fair, the 12-cup carafe really only holds a maximum of 7 full 8-ounce cups of coffee, since Cuisinart oddly believes a cup of coffee to only be 5 ounces.

That’s right, I’m using the maximum amount of grounds for my “12-cup” coffee maker and only getting 5 cups of coffee. Think that’s crazy? That’s nothing. The next part is crazy.

2. Obsessive people should stay away from anything involving a digital scale and timer

Intelligentsia Coffee out of Chicago launched an evil but free iPhone app that includes some very specific instructions on how to execute a proper pour-over. It also integrates a countdown brewing timer. You need to have a lot of stuff. As it turns out I have most of it, and can improvise the rest. Although the more I make coffee with this technique, the more I want all the right gear.

The process is intense: heat the water; rinse and warm the filter; weigh the beans (28g); grind the beans; place receptacle, filter and grounds on the scale; zero the scale; saturate the grounds with water (60g); wait for the coffee to bloom and degas; slowly add more water (total 415g).

Starting the brew timer once the grounds have been saturated with the first 60g of water, your 415g of coffee should be complete in two minutes and thirty seconds. Although honestly, it will be less than 415g of coffee because some of that water weight will remain trapped in the grounds.

Luckily the iPhone app has a timer built right in, you can keep track of how you are doing.

Places like Elixr in Philadelphia use a very similar process but there they employ a glass Chemex coffee maker. The process is ostensibly the same. And it’s labor intensive. Even more so than pulling espresso shots. But on the other hand the equipment itself is a lot cheaper.

Still, the hands-on approach of this brewing technique goes a long way in justifying the upwards of $3 third-wave coffee shops can charge for a relatively modest cup of brewed coffee. I say it’s worth it, especially given the quality of their beans.

And it’s very good. But I do still miss that chewy texture of my morning cup from Peet’s.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. AddiesDad permalink
    March 16, 2011 9:58 am

    One tip I used in our, sadly now dead, Cuisinart carafeless coffee maker was to use a Turkish grind for the coffee, and use a two tablespoon measure for each cup. My biggest gripe with the machine was it didn’t brew hot enough. My hunt continues for an affordable auto-drip ( a three year old at home doesn’t seem conducive to a particularly fussy brewing method) that brews at 190-200* F.

    I will say that we’ve been testing the Toddy Cold Brew method for a couple of months now, and have been pretty happy with it. The coffee that is produced is MUCH different than a hot-brewed cup, but it is good. I do miss the smell of hot brewing coffee, though.

    • March 16, 2011 10:37 am

      I’m eagerly anticipating moving to the Toddy Cold Brew method once all the snow melts, the weather warms up a bit, and drinking iced coffee is appealing again. I know the concentrate can be heated with the addition of hot water, but for me part of the appeal of the process is the exceptional version of iced coffee it produces. Any tips from your trials with the method would certainly be appreciated.

      • AddiesDad permalink
        March 17, 2011 10:11 am

        I’m excited to try the iced version, myself. It really makes a remarkably smooth, rich cup of coffee. There is little bitterness or bite, which I like most of the time, but somehow doesn’t feel missing here.

        Not sure I have any great tips for you. I do find that the Toddy bucket should be a 1/4″ taller to truly hold a pound of coffee and water, but it does mostly contain the slurry. Also, it’s kind of a messy/fussy process, but it does make enough to last in our house for almost two weeks in the fridge (I’m not home M-Th).

        My biggest tips are:
        1.) Go slow with the water, and get as many grounds per layer wet as possible (hmmm, I wonder if using a watering can of some sort would be better than a measuring cup?)
        2.) Most instructions say the first and second layers of coffee should be put in larger amounts, but I choose to use layer (same amount of grounds and water) more frequently. I find it causes less mess at the end.

  2. Jean Patiky permalink
    March 16, 2011 10:42 am

    I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. I love your titles…they always inspire me to read on…..and I do….because I also love your writing style and I always learn something new…about food, “what is good” besides food, and something “new” about YOU,daily. Keep up the good work!!!!

  3. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    March 16, 2011 12:10 pm

    You have described why I go out for coffee!

  4. Tonia permalink
    March 16, 2011 12:58 pm

    I just use the Bialetti pot. No drip here. And, I don’t get the whole press thing… I have one, never liked it. It seems like a good idea [because it looks pretty]. :-)

  5. March 21, 2011 4:25 am

    There’s a Peet’s Cafe near my campus. It’s pretty good:)

  6. March 26, 2011 10:29 pm

    The day before you wrote this, my husband and I purchased the Cuisinart 10-cup with gold cone filter. While reading the instruction manual, my husband pointed out the same maximum allowance of coffee grinds! Then I read this and you pointed it out as well a mere day after the conversation. Eerie.
    It’s frustrating because as you’ve already pointed out, the “cups” are not true to size and therefore, for every “cup” of water, I have to add double the amount of grinds. With the 10-cup model, I’d quickly surpass that 15 tbsp. limit. Plus, the coffeemaker makes lukewarm coffee, and I’ve ended up microwaving the coffee or defeating the purpose of home made coffee, and buying out.

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