Another Something Completely Different

The lockdown rumbles on so I thought I better write another post. But what to cover? There’s hardly any Game to talk about. So how about something else I like and have been interested in for a long time: coffee. Try to work out the similarities to Game if you like.

I had a mate at university who I worked with. He was super diligent and very hard working; he seemed to relish it. When he became interested in things he dived in headfirst and one of those things was coffee. Specifically making espresso. We’d work for ten hour days together and he would rattle on about it. Then when he went to do his Master’s degree in Switzerland who else should he gift his espresso machine to but me.

I fiddled around with that little Gaggia classic for a few years and made some good shots, and every now and then I’d hit on a fantastic taste, but I never made any notes and so didn’t record how I got there. That’s the first lesson of getting a better tasting coffee: you’ve got to record yourself. Weigh out the beans before grinding, weigh the shot afterwards, record the amount of time you pull the shot for, etc, etc. Without making notes on what I was doing I didn’t make any meaningful progress, but what that machine really did for me was open my eyes to coffee and led me to enjoying the flavour. I made it a kind of unofficial mission to get used to and begin enjoying the strength of espresso, and by extent all other coffees since espresso is the strongest. Now it should be said that strong doesn’t mean bitter, it just means strong, intense even.

Pretty soon after starting on the Gaggia I went to my first speciality coffee shop. A speciality coffee shop is essentially a fancy coffee shop; one that tries to differentiate itself from the high street chains by the quality of the coffee. Of course, it’s more expensive too. My shop of choice was Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street and it’s only a little shop that holds ten to fifteen people at the back in these cramped wooden alcoves.

I ordered a flat white and I can remember it distinctly: complete surprise that a coffee could taste that good. I’ve gone on to have a lot of good coffees since then but that one stands out to me in my mind. The milk was thick and creamy and sweet and complemented the flavour of the espresso wonderfully. It was the antithesis of the hot drink designed purely to give a caffeine kick.

Over time I lost interest in making espressos at home and eventually the Gaggia was packed off to live in a holiday home, but I carried on drinking espressos and flat whites very often at the coffee shops I’d visit in every city I’d go to. After that coffee at Monmouth the bar was set particularly high, and even though I don’t turn my nose up at high street chains my preferences mostly lead me to paying a bit more for a better tasting coffee.

Fast forward to now and I’ve rekindled some of that love for making coffee. The difference is that this time I’m recording everything plus I’m not making espressos and instead making V60 pourovers. It’s very easy to get started with a V60 since all you need are the V60 cone and filter papers which together you can get from Amazon for around £10. The tastes you get from V60 are often described as “bright” or “clear” but I think they’re best described as “light” (this doesn’t mean they have low caffeine content though). The paper filter removes most of the larger pieces of coffee from the brew and so you don’t get that thicker mouthfeel like you do with a French Press.

I’m following James Hoffman’s recipe and am improving wherever I can: the beans, the water, the method, the water heat, etc. It’s quite a rewarding hobby because you get instant feedback in the cup and you make it two to three times a day. I initially followed Hoffman’s recipe to the letter but then started experimenting and tweaking when my results changed. For example, when you pour the water into the V60 initially (the “bloom” phase”) you swirl the cone to ensure all the grounds are coated with water and then continue after waiting for a bit. I noticed that when I swirled more vigorously the total brew time was a lot longer. Naturally I went to Google and went on to find out that it might be because I’m causing the fines (the smallest coffee grinds) to fall to the bottom of the cone and clog the filter. With that information I went ahead and swirled less vigorously and the brew time decreased.

Now each day I’m trying really hard to taste my coffee and make notes on the flavour. I try to write down comments on the sweetness, the acidity, the body and the finish. Those are the broad categories I’m looking at, rather than trying to associate specific flavours like blackcurrant, mango or caramel. I’m trying to make the best decision I can on how to get the most out of each cup and that means paying a lot of attention to what I’m drinking, and then adjusting the grind size.

And last but not least, I’ve been watching a hell of a lot of YouTube videos on the subject. There’s something oddly addictive about them, even though I don’t plan on ever buying some of the stuff they review. One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s this movement towards number-fying the field. Everything is measured, and I mean everything (just have a look at the Decent Espresso DE1 machine). Now I appreciate that people are striving towards the best cup of coffee they could possibly make. It’s just interesting how there’s this movement from art to science.

Yours unfaithfully,

Thomas Crown

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