Doing your own grinding is not difficult at all, doesn't take much extra time, and well worth the time spent. The two most common types of home grinders are blade grinders and burr grinders. Blade grinders have a rotating blade that chops the beans like a food processor would. The ground size is determined by how long you have the blade whirling for. The problem here is that the grind size is very unstable. It is hard to achieve the same grind size each time, and some of the coffee may be turned to dust while other pieces are still coarse. Using several second pulses of the grinder blade instead using one long grind helps alleviate this problem but certainly does not solve it. To get a rather consistent grind, one needs a burr grinder.
Burr grinders have two sets of rotating teeth, the distance between which can be adjusted and set. (We supply both types of grinders, we carry a good beginner home burr grinder for $40, and with a lifetime warranty). Even with a burr grinder all the grounds are not even and one must take can to keep the burrs sharp and have a motor with a low rpm. So why all the bother with ground size? Because different brewing methods perform better with their corresponding ground size, and different coffee drinkers will prefer coffee based on the method and ground size used. Generally, a safe rule of thumb is that the longer a unit water is able to contact the grounds, the coarser grind size you want. Therefore grind size for espresso (about a second of contact time) is finer than for drip brewing, and drip brewing is finer than for French-pressing (3-6min of contact time). Vacuum brewing is kind of tricky because the contact time can vary quite a bit, I generally grind a little finer than for autodrip.
Personal preference is also a factor in these types of brewing, some may prefer using a coarser grind for their vacuum brewing than others. If you grind at home I urge you to grind you beans significantly finer for a brew and note the result and your preference. Just make sure you don't grind them so fine as to prevent the passage of water through them.
To celebrate this wonderful Specialty Coffee Month, we're having a barista competition! For those not up on their coffeehouse jargon, a barista is like a coffeehouse bartender. Usually I like to see the term used only in reference to those with sufficient skill at the position, not in reference to a "button-pusher-PBTC" (person behind the counter). In Italy, the profession is revered one, and often a lifetime career. Unfortunately, in the US this is not the case (probably because espresso is younger in US culture). The profession does require much skill and training. It is a craft and a science, even artistic in the highly skilled. All preparations for a cappuccino may be perfect: A fresh-roasted batch of specialty grade regional coffees expertly evaluated, roasted to their peak, and blended for a well-balanced espresso, along with the freshest milk. . However, it is the barista who bears the great responsibility of taking these ingredients and creating either heaven or hell.
Regularly brewed coffee is ninety-nine percent water so it stands to reason that differences in water used to brew coffee with can result in big differences in the cup. When someone asks me how they can improve their coffee at home, one of the first things I ask them about is the water they use. If your water is not pleasant to drink, don’t brew coffee with it. If you have unpleasant water, either filter it, use spring water, or save yourself some money and use instant coffee. To achieve the optimum cup of coffee, these are the water characteristics I believe you need:
1. The water should not be contaminated with any organic compounds (organisms, pesticides, etc.), copper, or lead. This safety guideline is for any water you drink.
2. Don’t use soft water; the water should contain less than 10ppm (see footnote) of sodium. If all the water in your home is softened, you might want to try the water from your outdoor hose hookup.
3. Don’t use water that is too hard. Water that is too hard tends to mute acidity (brightness). This can somewhat be compensated for by using more acidic coffee beans eg. Kenya AA. Water with 20ppm (parts per million to 120ppm of calcium is good. Calcium is essential for good extraction.
4. The water should be clear. This normally is not a problem, but if it is, running the water through about any type of filter should remove such impurities.
5. The water should have no chlorine. Some larger cities water has a noticeable chlorine taste. Water in this area doesn’t seem to have that problem. So, unless you have a well that you chlorinate, you shouldn’t have to worry about it. If you do have a chlorine taste, boiling the water for a while, letting it sit out for a couple days, or running it through a reverse osmosis system or activated carbon filters should solve, or at least mitigate, the problem.
6. Iron and manganese should be less than 0.02ppm. These contaminants don’t pose a health risk, but too high a concentration of either can taste unpleasant. For most people, 0.3ppm of iron and 0.05ppm of manganese in water is objectionable.
7. Use water with a neutral pH. Between pH 6.8 and pH 7.3 is acceptable.
8. The water should be well oxygenated. Water with little dissolved oxygen results in a flat tasting cup. If using bottled water, it’s a good idea to incorporate oxygen by vigorously shaking your water before brewing. If you manually heat your water (ie. don’t use autodrip machine) then take care not to over boil the water because as the water boils, it releases its dissolved oxygen.
9. The water should have total dissolved solids (TDS) of 150ppm ideally, 60 to 250 is good, any higher and there may be some loss in flavor. A TDS meter is needed to determine the TDS of water.
The most common, easiest solved, and quite critical issues I find are that people are using their regular soft water, or using distilled water. Switching from soft water to hard water for brewing coffee makes a very noticeable improvement; and while using distilled water is very benevolent, its logic is misguided as can be discerned from the above guidelines. I hope this helps you brew better coffee at home; and remember that your coffee can only be as good as its weakest component allows. So if you have great beans, but horrible water, you are wasting the beans, and if you have great water and bad beans you are wasting your time. ppm, short for parts per million, it is a measure of concentration equivalent to milligrams per liter.
If you are a latte or cappuccino drinker, perhaps you sometimes notice little designs carved into the espresso at the top of your drink. These designs, called “latte art” often take the form of a rosette (leafy-looking thing), or a heart. There are some good pictures of these at www.latteart.org poured by 20year barista and coffee sommelier in Piacenza Italy, Luigi Lupi. Pouring latte art is difficult. The espresso must be prepared and extracted near perfectly and with thick crema. The milk must be steamed to a creamy and velvety texture, with no foam bubbles to big. The milk must be poured in a precision fashion, and good timing is essential (as espresso crema degrades in seconds, and milk and milk foam can be significantly altered in seconds). Latte art is more than a nice presentation, it shows that the drink was prepared to the utmost quality and by a highly skilled barista. The velvety milk and pouring fashion incorporate the espresso into the milk wonderfully, while giving it a silky mouthfeel. The incorporation of the espresso into the milk is important because dispersing the espresso throughout the milk slows its degradation and also ensures that the recipient won’t get a mouthful of flavorless milk-foam with one sip, and get a sip of flat hot coffee-milk with the next, while still preserving the potential to maximizing the amount of foam (which gives the drink its silky mouthfeel). Large foam, which cannot be used for latte art, also wastes taste bud space while not contributing much to the mouthfeel. However microfoam, used for latte art, maximizes the contact area of the drink with the tongue while providing a creamy mouthfeel.
Now, while much of the previous is fact, that this necessarily results in a better latte or cappuccino, is somewhat opinion. There are other schools of thought that say I’m wrong, whether they disagree that the taste & texture is any better, or because latte art may go against an old traditional ideal. We teach latte art at Muggswigz, and Lindsey is becoming extremely adept at it (her rosettes surpass mine), Matt is beginning to get the hang of it, and I’m experimenting with new designs. It probably takes most people a year or so of diligent practice to be able to consistently pour latte art, and regardless of whether it results in a better beverage or not, it makes obvious that the barista has knowledge, artisanship, and passion for their profession.
Most traditional coffeehouse drinks are espresso based. Since espresso was developed primarily in Italy, many of the drinks are in Italian. The most common coffee beverage in Italy in straight espresso. One can order the espresso as a ristretto meaning restricted or limited. A ristretto uses the same amount of coffee but less water is pumped through it. One can order the shot as a normale meaning normal; or one can order the shot as a lungo, meaning long, where more water is pumped through the same amount of coffee. Macchiato means "marked" or "stained" in Italian, so if one orders a macchiato, one gets the typical drink - espresso - marked with just a bit of foamed milk. If one orders a latte in a Italian coffeebar, they are likely to receive a strange look and a glass of milk, because latte just means milk; which makes cafe latte "coffee-milk" (cafe (or caffé) means coffee (unfortunately now cafe seems to mean all sorts of things)). So a latte is like hot coffee-flavored milk. A macchiato has about double the espresso (per unit volume) as a cappuccino and a cappuccino has about double the espresso (per unit volume) as a latte. So what does cappuccino mean? Well cappuccino doesn't follow the trend and just means cappuccino. The word comes from the color of the drink resembling (in color) the habit of a Capuchin friar. Since panna means cream in Italian, so the espresso con panna is just espresso with whipped cream. And since macchiato means marked and latte means milk, a latte macchiato is hot milk just marked with espresso (as opposed to the milk marking the espresso in the case of the macchiato). Finally there is the cafe breve (a cappuccino with half&half instead of milk) breve means short in Italian, and It seems the reason the name cafe breve is used is because when using the light cream, the Italians were careful not to bruise or curdle it by steaming to long, so they steamed it breve.