There is one thing worse than making a bad cup of coffee. Making a good cup of coffee badly: one spends extra time and money, yet ends up doing little more than ruining a perfectly good cup of water. You could rather have saved your time and money and bought the nastiest cheap 'n quick instant coffee substitute.
Coffee myth 1 to 4 which I hope to clear up are about making, ordering or buying good coffee, i.e. how to avoid coffee which tastes like a barista’s bathwater. And before you think my memory is worse than my analogies, I added a fifth less useful but interesting coffee myth, just for fun.
So let us begin.
Back in the day, I stood in front of the supermarket shelf, tempted to buy a bag of coffee labelled “Italian espresso” for my French press. It is because I believed the following coffee myth:
Coffee Myth 1: Espresso is a type of coffee bean or roast method
Espresso is the name of both a coffee extraction method and the resulting drink. Espresso is made by forcing hot water under high pressure through finely ground coffee (see below). It is possible to make a true espresso using almost any coffee beans.
But, this myth is reinforced by the fact that you often see the word “espresso” printed on packs of coffee beans, ground coffee, or even instant coffee. Impressive words like “espresso” are the marketing gurus’ magic carpets. They use them because they look fancy and also to take you for a ride. So allow me to try and rip up the carpet and expose what is really going on in these products.
The first type of product where you will probably see it is on instant coffee products. In this case, the company probably intends it to mean “strong flavour.” I guess they do this because true espresso is a concentrated type of coffee. Lies, all lies.
The second type of product you will see it on is ground coffee beans. In this case, the word is a little more appropriate, since espresso requires a finer grind than a filter machine or other brewing method. Don’t buy it though. It is understandable that if you own a French press you don’t necessarily own a coffee grinder, but then you obviously won’t need a fine espresso grind. If you can afford to pay a few thousand rand for an espresso machine, the chances are that you’ll own at least a basic hand grinder too.
But if you don't, I have to add, freshly ground coffee makes a world of difference to the quality of your final cup. All the goodness like the aromatic oils and flavours that are locked into a coffee bean start to escape and oxidise the moment the beans are ground. Ideally, you want all that beautiful flavour in your coffee, not in the atmosphere. Maybe we’ll elaborate a bit more on this in future, but if you are interested in the actual difference it makes, here is an article with a real world experiment, comparing freshly ground coffee with pre-ground coffee.
The third type of product on which you might see the word “espresso” is coffee beans. What these companies probably mean is that the beans and roasting approach employed lend itself to making a good espresso. But, they are not the only type of beans appropriate for espresso, and neither can they exclusively be used for espresso.
It simply means that, in their opinion, the specific beans will result in a better espresso than, maybe, one of their other products. In the case of Pause Coffee, Hazel’s Harmony was crafted with espresso in mind, but nothing stops you from using it in your French press. Also, don’t be fooled into thinking you are limited to using beans labelled “espresso” in your espresso maker.
Speaking of the humble French press, that brings us to our next myth:
Coffee Myth 2: You need expensive equipment to make good coffee
Before I address this myth let me just clarify what I am not saying. I am not saying expensive coffee making equipment isn’t helpful or beneficial. Specifically, the espresso method of extracting coffee is difficult to do consistently on sub-grade equipment. That is why Pause Coffee Roastery installed a state of the art espresso machine at their Café.
But espresso is just one method of making coffee. It is, therefore, possible to make an excellent cup of coffee, using relatively inexpensive equipment at home. Soon Pause Coffee Roastery will be adding pour-over coffee to their menu, as an alternative way to prepare good coffee. Pour-over coffee is made with a very simple cone-shaped device with a price tag of between a hundred and few hundred rand.
Other options that can produce very good coffee include, a French press, and Bialetti, or stovetop moka pot, among others. I have seen generic but good quality examples of both of the above at a major South African grocery store, each for under a hundred rand. I personally use a French press daily with very good results.
Of course making excellent coffee takes a little bit more effort and practice than just pressing the button on an automatic coffee maker, but thankfully Pause Coffee have brewing guides on their website to help you on your way. And the results are well worth the effort.
If you are unsure about which brewing method to choose, take a look at a few blind taste tests, where brewing methods are compared. Almost all of these methods use a main piece of equipment which costs less than R1000. Find the taste tests here, here and here.
And that brings us to the next myth. This one really surprised me when I first discovered it:
Coffee Myth 3: The purer the water used in coffee the better the coffee will taste
Once again I must clarify by saying what I am not saying. I am not saying you should wring water from your mop to brew better coffee. You should use fresh, clear, odour and colour free water. However, the mineral content of the water you use is important. I have seen many online coffee brewing guides encouraging people to filter their water before using it for their coffee. Unfortunately, a very common filter technology used in South Africa is reverse osmosis. This technology lets water pass through a membrane, which blocks all particles larger than water molecules. This means that the minerals in the water are also filtered out.
Next time you buy bottled water, take a look at the small print on the bottle. You should find a table with the mineral contents of the water. Look for a figure called TDS (total dissolved solids). It indicates the total mineral content of the water. If it is very low (something like 5mg/L) it was probably filtered using a reverse osmosis filtration system.. You might find you are paying good money for a bottle of “spring water” where the “spring” is a tap in the back of a warehouse in Boksburg.
Let me explain why, although technically such water is ultra pure, it is not the best for brewing coffee. In a coffee bean, much of the flavour and aroma is carried by aromatic oils. If you remember anything from your primary school science classes, you will know that oil and water do not mix. So if you try and extract these aromatic oils with 100% pure water, you will probably end up with a relatively flavourless, weak coffee. But thankfully our friends, the minerals, can come to the rescue. They act as emulsifiers that suspend the oils in the water and, viola - a rich flavourful cup (provided you didn’t botch the preparation by messing up one of the other variables).
A good guide is given by the specialty coffee association of America, which recommends water with a target TDS of 150mg/L and an acceptable range of 75-250mg/L. Find their full recommendations here.
As a side note, this issue is the reason why Pause Coffee Roastery installed a world class water remineraliser from BWT Germany at the roastery. It adds the perfect amount of minerals and so fine tunes the TDS value of the reverse osmosis water they use. Just another step in the quest to make the perfect cup of coffee, and a first for South Africa.
And now for the fourth myth, which I began to discover when I once sat at a coffee shop and, with a bit of smugness, ordered a cup of “single origin” coffee. It tasted like I did indeed get a cup of single origin coffee. From a single can of instant coffee, from a single pantry shelf, of a single lady, from Singapore. You see, I always thought:
Coffee Myth 4: Single origin coffee means good coffee
Generally when one sees the words “Guatemala” or “Brazil” or “Columbia” displayed prominently at a coffee shop, one tends to be impressed. However, the grade of coffee is the most important factor that determines the quality, and not the specific region as such. One cannot be sure a coffee is good just by checking if it has a fancy sounding single origin stamped on it. The country of origin of a coffee alone does not say much more than, well, the vast geographic region in which it was grown.
That said, single origin coffee can be great. It allows one to discern and enjoy the unique characteristics and strengths of coffee grown in that specific region, where it could well have been pampered on the ideal foothills of a misty mountain. Unfortunately, in the same country, it could just as well have been grown in tyres filled with pesticide and chemical fertiliser next to an industrial area with a gentle wafting of acid rain and the smoke of burning trash, for flavour.
Recently a good friend of mine, originally from Columbia, who imports coffee into South Africa, illustrated this when he told me more about the coffee that comes in from Columbia. He told me that it is all pretty good, as it is regulated by a central body, but that he is currently working to import some really good speciality coffees, much better than what is currently being imported. One origin, two very different grades of coffee, two very different cups of coffee.
What can we take away from this? Firstly, to find really good coffee it might be worthwhile to investigate beyond the country on the label. Where in that country was it grown? What grade of coffee is it? Was it ethically grown and sourced? etc. If you are on a quest for excellence, rather look out for the word ‘speciality coffee’. True speciality coffees are coffees grown in ideal micro-climates and graded 80+ on a 100-point scale (called a SCAA scale), with little to no defects.
Secondly, do not forget that all coffee actually comes from a limited number of major coffee producing countries. A coffee which does not prominently display its origin(s) is not necessarily a worse coffee than a coffee which does.
Lastly, do not underestimate a good blend. Every single origin coffee has its strengths, as well as its weaknesses. For example, a particular coffee may have a great body, or fullness, but flat indiscernible flavours. Blending can then be employed to combine the strengths of multiple origins, to create an outstanding and interesting cup.
And then the last myth - maybe something you have not really thought about yet, but should find interesting:
Coffee Myth 5: Coffee is made from a type of bean
The coffee industry has ‘bean’ bestowed with enough clever bean puns to make even Mr. Bean himself a green bean with envy. Nevertheless, coffee beans are not beans in the normal sense of the word, like string beans or baked beans. Coffee beans are the seeds, or pips, inside the red fruit of the coffee plant. The fruits are often referred to as cherries.
When ripe, the cherries are bright red and about the size of marbles. Ideally, only these ripe fruits are harvested, and the flesh removed, before further drying and processing the green coffee beans to prepare them for roasting. Normally the flesh is simply put back into the ground as compost.
Because the seeds are so valuable, the fruit hardly attracts any economic interest, and as a result, it is almost impossible to find fresh coffee fruit outside of coffee producing regions.
According to one person who has tasted a fresh cherry, it has a fleeting flavour reminding one of “watermelon, rosewater, and hibiscus all at once.” Personally, I have never tried munching on hibiscus flowers, but I will take his word for it.
Lately, there has been a growing interest to employ the coffee fruit to develop everything from drinks to flour used in baking. According to these companies, there are many health benefits to eating the coffee fruit.
There you have it, five myths I used to believe myself that were definitely not helping me make or buy good coffee. Why not comment below and tell us which coffee myths you used to believe, or tell us about your coffee drinking experiences. And remember to drink good coffee!
Written by Louis Barry.
Louis likes to brew Yadah's Delight in a french press on a tiny jewelry scale. Drawing from his background in Economics, IT, and design he helps take care of Pause Coffee's online presence and sales.