The Complexity of Coffee

16 April 2019

Until a year and a half ago I disliked coffee. I didn't understand what people liked about this bitter, black beverage. But there's this weird part of me. I want a part of the action. I want to be a part of the cool cats.

My Story

I don't know the reason, but a year and a half ago I decided I will like coffee. So I started on the journey to acquire the taste. I know it sounds weird, but it wasn't a first. I had done it before. I'd find something I didn't like and I'd keep trying it until I liked it. And, I'd end up loving it. I noticed this pattern with all my acquired tastes. I wonder what the mechanism behind it is.

From Cappuccino to Double Espresso

In any case, I started slow. At first, I was drinking cappuccino. Sometimes I liked it, sometimes I found it bitter. In the beginning it was more of the latter. Then I started to find more and more coffees that I liked. After that, I switched to drinking flat white. The reasoning was that flat white has two shots of espresso, one more than cappuccino. So the coffee flavour is a bit stronger.

Again, I found coffees I liked and coffees I didn't. I never knew if it was my taste or if the coffee was poorly made. That's one thing about specialty coffee: it's very easy to screw it up. It's one of the consequences of complexity.

I realised now that I forgot to mention one detail: I was drinking specialty coffee the whole time. The specialty coffee scene in Bucharest started to boom and I had plenty of places to go. Also, I chose specialty coffee because of its perceived higher status. If I was drinking coffee anyway, it should be the best. This is another pattern of mine: when I start pursuing something, I aim for the peak. Sometimes I take myself too seriously.

After flat white, I tried espresso a few times. I found it bitter and sour every time. I couldn't understand how someone could enjoy it. I went back to flat whites and enjoyed them more and more. Then I took one step closer to the black coffee goal. I had cortado a few times. If you don't know, that's a shot of espresso with a little bit of milk. Others call this macchiato.

Anyway, I had this a few times, but didn't enjoy it much, so I moved straight to long black. I actually started to enjoy long black sooner than cortado. I finally could feel the sweetness that people were talking about. Sometimes the fruitiness too. It didn't take long for me to move to double espresso after that.

You would think that after reaching my goal of drinking double espresso, I would get bored and forget about coffee. That's what had happened with other previous pursuits.

This time it was different and it had something to do with the complexity. Every coffee cup is different. Even the same beans taste different from day to day. That means you're always chasing the perfect cup.  At least I am. That's why I can't ever get bored. Sometimes I drink a perfect cup of coffee. It's divine. The sweetness combines with the fruitiness in ways that make me zoom out everything else.

And then the next cup is meh. Even if it's the same beans.

Fast forward and I was having 3 doubles a day. Going from café to café, discovering new places and new coffees.

Coffee Brewing

I don't know how long this took. Half a year? Then, with the pretext of saving money, I decided to buy a grinder and an Aeropress. That's when I started to experience how the complexity influences the brewing process. It didn't take long for me to change the grinder for a more expensive one, while on a trip to Berlin. Then I also bought a Cafflano Kompresso, which is a manual espresso maker.

Here is how I experience the complexity through my coffee-making routine.

Every morning, I start by cleaning the grinder and its jar. Then, I take the scale and the measuring cup and pour 15 grams of beans. I place them in the grinder and start grinding.

Roast and coffee origin influence grind size.

My grinder has a standard setting for espresso, but things are not so simple. I've noticed I have to adjust the setting based on the coffee. With the same setting, some coffees extract too quick and others too slow.

Roast style influences grind difficulty.

Because I use a manual grinder, I can feel the hardness of the beans. The darker the roast, the easier it is to grind them. It makes sense, because the green bean is hard and roasting cooks it and makes it softer.

After I finish grinding, I put the coffee in the espresso-maker basket, tamp it and screw the shower screen on top. Then I put it on a glass. I start the electric kettle at the same time.

When the water has finished boiling, I pour 70ml in the cylinder and put the piston in. Then I press slowly while counting. This is the pre-infusion.

Duration of pre-infusion determines the flavours in the cup.

If I count less than 15, the coffee comes out acidic and fruity. If I count longer, say up to 30, it has very little acidity and a lot of sweetness. I've settled to 15 for my taste.

After the pre-infusion is over, I start pressing hard.

Roast date influences the extraction experience and the flavours in the cup.

As more time passes since the roast date, the extraction experience changes. First, the coffee becomes less fluffy. It looks like it's less coffee in the basket, although I always weight 15g of beans.

Second, the extraction happens faster. Even though I don't change the grind size, the water goes through the coffee faster. That's why sometimes I have to lower the grind size to get the same taste as before.

Third, coffee needs to rest after roasting. I had an Ethiopia which tasted bland in the first 3 weeks. I couldn't taste any distinct flavour. It all felt muddy. At first, I thought there was something wrong with the water. But after those 3 weeks, it "opened up". The fruitiness was so clear. I loved it.

Roast style influences the flavours in the cup.

It's a similar experience to beef steak cooking. The more you cook the bean, the more the coffee will taste like caramel and chocolate. A lighter roast leaves more of the original compounds untouched. Both the pleasant and unpleasant ones. You get more fruity, floral flavours and more acidity.

After I finish pressing, I clean the device and decide whether I drink the espresso as is or dilute it with hot water.

Water influences the flavours in the cup.

No surprise here since water is the main ingredient. But it's more complex (that word again :D) than you expect.

First, the minerals in the water determine what compounds you extract from coffee. That's why the coffee you make at home can taste different from the coffee shop where you bought the beans. I always get that.

Second, diluting espresso with hot water seems to stabilise it. When I drink it undiluted, the espresso becomes more acidic after about a minute. With water, I can also taste more of the sweetness, but I lose the creaminess.

So that's why I'm not bored with coffee. It's as much a sensory experience as it is fiddling with the variables. Sometimes I have an ideal cup, sometimes it's okay. That's what keeps me hooked.