Larry liked the convenience of the corner cafe—it was an easy walk from his home. The problem was the baristas always made the coffee as hot as molten lava. Many times he asked if there was a way to make the drinks less searing, but he would receive the same icy, “No.” He was tempted to reply, “If only you had a button on that La Marzocco that reflected your attitude, that would surely cool down my macchiato,” or, “The beans are already roasted, buddy, there is no need to boil them.” Alas, he held his burnt tongue.
The best cup of coffee I ever had–cold or hot–was a Kyoto Cold Brew at the Temple Coffee Roasters‘ coffeehouse at 2200 K Street here in Sacramento. It featured all the pleasurable notes I love in coffee without the acid quality. When I first began to drink coffee I had to accept the acid quality of the drink as a given–that the acid taste was not a bad taste, but just a part of the drink’s signature. Similar to the hurdle new wine drinkers clear when they accept the vinegar quality and move on to notice the features that bring the wine drinker back for more. I never got there with wine, though my sister-in-law from Sonoma County is still trying to pull me over that hurdle–a particular pinot noir she poured me once has come the closest to me completing that jump.
One quality about cold brewed coffee that the taster immediately notices is that the drink is nearly devoid of the acidy note they come to accept in a hot cup of coffee. I still like hot coffee–acidity and all, but the first time I tasted a Kyoto, it was everything I come to expect in a cold brew, but it was even smoother. I was sick on the day I was scheduled to take a class on Palate Development & Tasting that I wrote about in a previous post so I can’t give you a full report on the tastes and aromas I experienced with the Kyoto. Let’s say it had a certain jenesequa.
What you get is eight fluid ounces of the best coffee you may ever taste. Yeah, that’s not a typo–eight (8) ounces. I would prefer at least twelve, but this gourmet coffeehouse serves the drink without ice, and the glass is chilled, so it isn’t that far off from twelve-ounce glass with ice cubes, but I usually buy sixteen-ounce drinks. Oh never mind. This cold brew you are supposed to spend time savoring. Considering how slow the process is I can see why the small dose. And at about $4 a glass it is worth every drop!
This experience led me to investigate cold brewers for the home. The first thing I looked for was a home-scale Kyoto, but I couldn’t find one small enough for my operation and storage. Nick Dekker of Breakfast with Nick did a thorough post on how Kyoto-style brewing works. You should check it out here if you are interested in the specifics. The image below I lifted from his excellent site and as you can see the domestic Kyoto is still quite tall and is too cumbersome for my kitchen. Also, I can see me knocking this thing over–shattered glass everywhere!
So I binged on YouTube videos looking for more practical home cold brewers. I got to know Gail from Seattle Coffee Gear like she was my out-of-town wife and watched a lot of demonstrations of cold brew contraptions. I narrowed my cold brewer down to brewers by Hario, Osaka, Toddy, OXO, Bruer (more on this one later), and Takeya (better known for its tumblers and insulated sports bottles). I settled on Hario mainly because of the design, but also its rep in the coffee business. To my frustration, I couldn’t buy a new Hario anywhere online, so I ended up with the Takeya Cold Brew Coffee Maker because it was almost identical in design to the Hario.
After I took the above two photos, I went to bed. Visions of ice-cold coffee beans dancing on my large head. I woke up in the morning got on my riding gear and blew my brand new cold brewer a kiss–promising I would brew my first quart when I got home that night. When I arrived back at the homestead that evening my son had decided he would pop the poor brewer’s cherry usings some Peet’s pre-ground coffee. Before I could taste the stuff, my son told me it was awful–blaming the bad taste on the pedestrian-quality of the coffee and the manufacturer’s fine grind. Indeed, it was horrible, but we slogged through the quart thanks to on-hand low-fat milk and chocolate syrup or vanilla soymilk (not together, mind you).
On my first try, I used my–whole bean–coffee: a blended Brazilian from Temple Roasters. I started buying this coffee because it is reported to taste like “milk chocolate in a cup.” Meh, my dull buds say it just tastes like good coffee, hot or cold. (Anyway, if I want milk chocolate in a cup I’ll fix me some chocolate milk.) The main reason I return to this product and not any of the other equally good beans the coffeehouse sells is that 50 cents of each bag sold go to the Sac Bike Park Project. Unfortunately, just before I published this post this a manager at the Temple coffeehouse told me this blend’s days are numbered. I’d better find a new bean!
I’ve had a few carafes of cold brew from my Takeya since that nasty false start and can say it was worth the purchase. Also, with the weather beginning to cool I may continue cold brewing and mixing the concentrate with (very) hot water when the weather turns chilly. My son, the ex-barista reminds me that cold brewing means not brewing with hot water–room temperature will do, you only need to watch your brewing times. Room-temperature brewing means I can heat my drink faster when I want a cup of hot coffee.
Still, the more I look at the $80 Cold Bruer Iced Coffee Maker Temple sells, the more I am intrigued: it has an adjustable valve that controls the drip. So the operator can brew the coffee one drip at a time, in a similar way the Kyoto brews. Damn! Why didn’t I notice that before? All I saw at the time was the cost-prohibitive pricing and that it was a little too small with too much glass. I should be happy with my purchase and move on, but now I want to know how a cup of coffee from the Bruer product tastes. Some people are never satisfied.
Postscript: While tooling around the web looking for Kyoto-style cold brewers I found Kyoto Black by Justin Doggett–a pre-brewed Kyoto-style coffee concentrate. In the spirit of this post, I ordered one. After tax, the 1.5-liter pouch cost about $40. That’s about $5 a drink depending on how strong you like your coffee. As far as the taste goes, it was good, though not as good as the Kyoto I had at Temple, but that’s not the point. If you have never had Kyoto cold brew and none of the coffeehouses in your area brews it, you might think the price is not an issue. If that’s the case, you may get hooked. As for me, I’ll stick with my non-Kyoto style Takeya–for now, at least. Happy sipping!
I like coffee. I probably average about two to three cups a day. I’m not a connoisseur: my tastes are wide-ranging–I’m not too picky. I prefer higher quality beans prepared expertly at high-end coffee houses, but I don’t mind drinking my wife and son’s more common beans from Peet’s or Peerless. The brewing systems are wide-ranging as well: pour over, French press, drip which I order at Temple Coffee Roasters I frequent; immersion drip, which I use at work; drip via Mr. Coffee and even (don’t hate me) Keurig I use at home usually with more pedestrian beans.
I do aspire to drink from only the best coffee beans though my domestic situation makes it hard to stick to top-shelf beans unless I buy my own, and I don’t want clutter up my freezer with an additional bag of grounds just for me. Also, I am too lazy to grind my coffee as I go so when I buy my gourmet coffee beans for my immersion drip system at work and have them grind the beans: convenience at the expense of degrading the quality of premium beans, I know, but making coffee via immersion is time-consuming enough. Add grinding and my entire break is consumed by the making of a single cup of joe.
So I think I have rammed home the fact that my taste is not impeccable. I might pick Folgers over the finest Esmeralda Geisha in a cupping, and maybe I wouldn’t mind if I did. I don’t buy the higher grade for the taste–though I always feel like I am drinking excellent coffee when I fork out the extra coin for it. I buy the stuff because it is Fair Trade, and yea, I feel like I’m not drinking shit that has been sitting around in some warehouse forever.
Then I read Dave Eggers excellent The Monk of Mokha, about Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a twenty-four-year-old Yemeni-American hotel doorman and coffee lover who leaves San Francisco and travels to his ancestral homeland to tour terraced farms high in the country’s rugged mountains. It is there he meets the beleaguered but determined coffee farmers. When civil war breaks out and engulfs the nation, Alkhanshali smuggles himself and some of Yemen’s beans with him. Like the other books by Eggers I have read, The Monk of Mokha is a page-turner featuring three main characters: Alkhanshali, some priceless coffee beans, and the coffee farmers of Yemen. A while later, Alkhanshali creates Port of Mokha, Inc.
But what about the coffee?
I ordered the four-ounce bag of “Al-Jabal Single Farmer Lot 7” beans from the Port of Mokha website for $45. (FYI: Google translates Al-Jabal as “Sea of the Mountain.”) When the product arrived, it came in a fashionable lime-peel green box with a stylish foldout of the Port of Mokha story, mission, and plenty of pictures of the homeland with Alkhanshali in most of them. There is also preparation instructions (see below), and the beans in an elegant vacuum bag and a band with the terraced farm on it.
As mentioned above, at home I usually either brew my coffee via an automatic drip, or I use a Keurig. For this cupping; however, I am going to hand-brew this cup of “Al-Jabal” to control the water, dose, and brewing. Not all steps in this cupping use best practices of handmade pour over brewing, but it’s better than dumping the grounds in mein Herr. Kaffee!
Usually, tap water is good enough for my goose-neck kettle, but this night I opted for bottled water. Optimally, one should use purified water. We never got around to installing a filter, so it’s straight City of Sac Tap.
As stated above, the coffee comes with instructions for five popular brewing methods. I don’t have any of these methods, but Chemex is the closest to my plastic cone. Yeah, I know, I should be using a ceramic cone. (Hey, is that a hair on the instructions? Eww!) Per the two notes at the bottom of the instructions, I am grinding as I go for this cupping though this humble philistine usually asks for his expensive beans to be ground before he buys them. Too, he will commence with the pour over directly after the water comes to a boil. He’s not going to mess with a thermometer.
Yeah, I know, it’s not a burr grinder. I didn’t buy it.
Perhaps a little too fine, but it will have to do.
Fold my #4…
And pour the grounds. I didn’t catch any of the grounds dropping in the filter. I need a third arm, damn it!
The same goes for the blooming and brewing processes.
The pour over process time took around two and a half to three minutes. I’m sure I got the volumes correct, but that seems like a small amount. Perhaps it is my giant mug.
After doing the math, it comes to a little less than $6 a cup, which was less than I initially thought when the 4 oz bag costs $45.
So, how does it taste? Hmm, in aroma it’s delicate but high-toned, richly sweet. I sense caramelized apple, honeysuckle, baker’s chocolate, tangerine zest, frankincense. In taste: a balanced structure with bright, juicy acidity; buoyant, syrupy mouthfeel. The deeply sweet, flavor-laden finish leads with notes of cacao nib and honeysuckle in the short and rich frankincense with hints of bittersweet citrus zest in the long. Ha ha ha. I hope I had you going for a while! Fifty years of food laced with hot peppers, horseradish, wasabi, hot Chinese oil, and all kinds of Mexican hot sauces have dulled my pallet. I really cannot describe the coffee I just sipped other than to say it’s tasty, acidy, full-bodied, but that could represent hundreds of coffees when prepared correctly or at least made as well as I could with the tools at hand–including less expensive beans.
I am drinking black coffee more and more these days. This is mainly because of how pour overs are presented at my favorite coffee house: in a Hario v60 Range Server and a cupping bowl–that holds less than six ounces of coffee–delivered on a tray. To add cream to my pour over would mean walking over to the station every few minutes to add my dairy. The first time I ordered a pour over, I nearly asked for a cream dispenser and then thought this might be a good time to learn how to enjoy coffee without cream–the way my two ex-barista sons drink it.
Also, while reading Eggers’ book, I decided I would take coffee drinking even more seriously and drink the stuff black each time I made or ordered a cup. As I write this, I am almost exclusively a black-coffee drinker, reserving the right to adulterate the brew when the swill is too bitter for me to take straight.
Recently, I started buying an extra bag of coffee in bean form and–when convenient–started grinding coffee as I needed it and using the pour over method. I have also bought a few new gadgets, and I am checking out some more. Recently, I signed up for a Palate Development & Tasting class at Temple Roasters. If things go as planned, I will be an insufferable snob to my friends and family alike!