Educational

  • What Is Coffee Rust?

    One of the biggest threats to coffee around the world is coffee rust. This disease threatens every major coffee producing country in the world. So what is coffee rust? What does it do to coffee plants?

     

    white ceramic mug beside green leavesIs this a new issue? What is it?

    Is coffee rust a new disease for our favorite plant? Well, sort of. The first reports of coffee rust came from English explorers in East Africa as far back as 1861. As such, this isn't necessarily a new disease, and it was quickly reported in other parts of the world as well. But what is coffee rust? Why do we call it that? It turns out that the name makes a lot of sense!

    Most Coffee Rust is a fungus called Hemileia Vastatrix. Another strain of the fungus, H. Coffeicola, is exclusively found in West and Central Africa. Both of these fungi create a distinct yellow-brown ring of lesions on the leaves of the plant. The appearance of these lesions are what gives coffee rust its name. It makes the leaves look like they are rusting. What sort of damage can this disease do?

    Because Coffee Rust is a fungus, it can quickly spread and destroy vast swaths of plants. The easily spreading disease can be devastating to individual harvests and the long-term health of a plantation. So what can be done to stop this disease?

    Spread and Management

    It is nearly impossible to save a crop once the Rust has developed. This means that the safest means of managing a Rusted crop is to quarantine it. This means ensuring that local farmers know not to remove any plants from the area, first and foremost. It is believed that the spread of this disease is carried out on the wind. This means that the only true barriers to the spores are large open areas like oceans. This is why it's extremely important for plant importers to check their plants for lesions before accepting the plant. Crops of infected plants are generally killed with herbicide to prevent their spread. It is also common practice to kill surrounding plants as well, so that the spores have nothing to cling to. The hope is that the colonies of fungus will die off before they can be carried to another plantation.

    There are some fungicides that can help prevent Coffee Rust. Application during wet seasons can help prevent spores from taking hold. Higher, cooler plants and those in shade are also less susceptible to the disease. Unfortunately rising global temperatures will likely eliminate this advantage. Some resistant strands of Robusta coffees have been developed, but these are often viewed as lower quality for consumption.

    Because this is such a global issue, many researchers are seeking ways to stem the tide of this disease. While continued climate change puts more plantations at risk, hope exists in developing technology to identify and eliminate spores before it's too late!

  • Piecewise Coffee Co. - Building a Drink Menu

    If you haven't been keeping up with our friends at Piecewise Coffee Co. be sure to check out their Bio and Selecting Equipment posts! Today we asked Stanton and Lindsey a little bit about how to build a drink menu for a coffee shop!

    First off, from a “chicken or the egg” perspective, did you decide on a general menu before selecting equipment? Or did you decide on what equipment to purchase and then build your menu around that gear?

    The answer I wish we could give was to knock out the menu first, but it was too tempting not to get caught up reading equipment descriptions and watching product reviews. Choosing the equipment was exciting, while locking in a menu was more-so work. However, we learned it is very difficult to build a shop without first thinking about the menu. Without it you can find yourself fighting to make the layout functional. We were fortunate to stumble upon a podcast by the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) covering café startups and it helped give us a big picture focus on how equipment and menu influence each other.

    Our menu doesn’t incorporate much onsite food preparation and a big reason was an attempt to make the startup cost more manageable. Eliminating equipment needs is an obvious answer to keeping cost low, but far costlier was the additional need for architectural designs and engineered systems. Take for example biscuits, we wanted to offer some as a secondary option to our other breakfast items and we started pricing out small ovens. Well the oven led to a ventilation hood which led to additional building penetrations for air flow which all lead to an increase in the size of the HVAC units. Our commitment level to that menu item changed quickly with those additional costs. Learning about things like insurance cost increases for using an onsite grease fryer or the sizing and placement of grease traps were part of the learning process for us. 

    It’s inevitable that menu and equipment decisions will impact each other but starting with the menu first can help keep changes to a minimum. 

    What kind of market research did you do for your area to make decisions about what kind of drinks to carry?

    We visited a lot of local restaurants and coffee shops. We felt like anything within an hour’s drive was fair game for learning what products were already successful in our market. Asking waiters or baristas what the more popular products were was very helpful as was just asking for favorites from family, friends, coworkers or anyone who was interested in what we were doing with the shop. Learning their favorites made it more personal while still reaching out to our customer base. Our goal with this research was to help develop a perspective outside of our own for the drinks people want to see in any coffee shop. Generally, people were very open to share what they liked and didn’t, which was encouraging. 

    How much did your vision for a coffee focused shop affect menu choice? The assumption would be a lot, but I’d like to get at the “coffee identity” factor and how it relates to your menu.

    With our goal to offer high quality in every drink, the shop’s menu won’t be overly extensive. We didn’t want to spread ourselves to thin starting off with a lot of options. Something about tons of choices, just didn’t seem like, “us,” right now.  We aren’t minimalists in nature, but we do love to cut waste enough to truly enjoy what is in front of us. We live our lives that way and believe the same for our coffee shop and its offerings. With that in mind, we’ll offer the best of the basics, focusing on amazing taste every single time.

    Do you think about food pairings when building the menu? Or was the thought to offer standby food options but build the drink menu independent of that?

    For us, the food and drink menu were built independent of each other. We knew the size of our shop limited space for food preparation so we built the drink menu and then developed relationships with high quality food establishments to help on the food side. Pairing between the two comes into play, but it is a little further down on the decision tree for us than may be at some other shops.

    How much does ingredient/coffee sourcing play into the development of your menu??

    Sourcing hasn’t impacted the menu development as of yet! We are working with local stores, which has made most of our development more convenient.

    How do you offset the desire to do something different with the need to offer a standard set of coffee drinks?

    It’s definitely a balance act between the vision for the shop and maintaining the shop’s economics. Our vision was so intertwined with serving the community that we started from the desire to know how best to serve the customers already surrounding us. This meant providing the standard coffee offerings based off the market research mentioned earlier. We then looked at how we could advance specialty coffee in the shop. We settled on some highlights with the pour over selection and building in coffee education events. Knowing every customer won’t want to know the growing region of a bean or the solid particle distribution in their espresso shot keeps us grounded to high standards on the more traditional drinks while focusing on stellar service. We believe quality speaks for itself in any form.

    Are you working with a specific roaster or seeking a wider range of roasts?

    The bulk of our coffee offerings will come from a single roaster who is local to our city. This is in large parts to the quality and diversity of the beans they offer. 

    How did you settle on your roaster?

    This was a big decision for us and a little intimidating at first. We started with several cold calls and email inquiries to regional and local roasters. Most were happy to answer questions we had and share about their range of products. Often they would send samples, and several allowed us to visit their roasteries. While the roaster’s bean quality was high on the list in making this choice, number one was having a relationship with the roasting company and knowing we could develop a good working relationship. You place a lot of trust into your roaster and knowing the people helped us feel settled in our choice. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with our roaster. 

    Are you looking to expand the menu in the future or specialize strongly in what you already have planned?

    While we are open to making menu changes to meet our customer’s needs well, the plan is to stay within our current style of offerings or at least stay very near them.

    How did you decide what you want to carry beyond coffee?

    Great question! We’re still working on that lol. A great part about opening the shop is knowing that every decision doesn’t have to be made before opening. This is one of those items for us that is still developing. We knew we wanted the food selection to be classic foods with a gourmet bent that would elevate the shop’s experience, almost without noticing. We believe we’ve done that with the partnership we have. The rest of what we’ll offer is still in process!

    How do you decide what to offer in terms of dairy and alternative milks?

    We wanted some variety in the alternative milk options but stayed close to the types commonly found in most shops (soy, almond, etc.). We’re big fans of the current oak milk products due to the great taste and ability to steam them like milk.

    One thing that always frustrated me when working in a coffee shop was general misconceptions about different coffee drinks from customers. Things like misunderstanding what a macchiato is, or not understanding the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, leading to customer complaints. Do you have any strategies for dealing with a customer that lacks coffee knowledge? How does that play into your drink menu?

    We see this as such an opportunity to help our customers learn more about the products they love and how they vary. It’s not possible to expect each customer to “order correctly” when so many shops vary the recipes for the standard range of drinks. This is one flaw of the coffee industry that gets translated into the customer’s error. The goal is to serve each customer and have them know they’re being served. This includes covering ordering miscues and helping to ensure they get exactly what they hoped for when they came into the shop. With the drink menu, we anticipate having a few pictorial descriptions around the shop to assist with ordering and help prevent unnecessary waste.

    Building some coffee drinks can be a challenge from a technique standpoint. How much does training and staff capabilities factor into building your menu?

    We are working to build the training program and want to really break it down to a series of small skills that build on each other. The barista trainings by the SCA are fantastic and we plan to utilize them with our baristas. With a comprehensive training program and several quality control measures, we don’t anticipate having to restrict the menu.

    Do you have any other recommendations for aspiring cafe owners on how to construct their menus?

    Definitely get a subscription to a specialty coffee magazine or two. We’ve read about some fascinating and original drinks that may be inspiring.

    We'll be back soon with more from Stanton and Lindsey!

  • The Crema Craze!

    One of the most frequent questions we get is this: How do I produce more crema on my espresso shots? We decided it would be a good idea to give an overview of what crema is, and explain why you might not want more!

    What is crema?

    Crema is the tan liquid that forms when you’re first pulling your espresso shot. As the shot pulls, the liquid gets darker, and you end up with a layer of this tan colored head on top of the drink. This gives it the look of a well poured stout beer. But where does it come from? In part, crema is created when water is pushed through the coffee at pressure. This emulsifies the oil in the coffee and forms tiny bubbles of air. Brighter liquid is also formed by C02 emissions during the extraction, though this isn’t quite the same thing as the crema from the fat in the coffee. That C02 is present in the bean after roasting, and naturally defuses through a process called “out-gassing.” Fun fact, the valve on your bags of coffee exists specifically to facilitate this out-gassing process.

    But what does it really taste like? Sour, it turns out! While certain roasts benefit from a layer of crema to balance out the flavors of the espresso, in other roasts limiting crema is actually preferable. In fact, some roasts don’t even produce any crema due to low fat content. So what factors actually influence this sour layer of bubbles?

     

    How to get more (or less) crema

    The first thing to note is processing. Natural/honey process roasts retain more of the bean’s fat content. As noted above, a fattier bean will result in more crema. This is part of why it can be hard to dial in a natural, and why espresso blends are so popular. Ultimately, climate also has a lot to do with the oil content of the beans as well, so the whole production process influences the fat levels in the roast. Another thing to consider is roast date. It’s tough to call out the ideal time to brew and espresso after roasting. However, you’ll definitely see more of the brighter liquid during the first 72 hours after roasting. Generally the coffee will take this long to de-gas as described above. This is why it’s usually advisable to wait a few days after roasting before attempting to dial in fresh beans.

    Another factor in crema formation is roast level. Darker roasts pull the oils in the coffee to the surface of the bean, this actually results in less crema. This is because there is less oil in the bean after grinding and transferring to a portafilter. Finally, equipment matters too. a pressurized portafilter will naturally result in higher pressures, which will create more crema. That said, it won’t be as rich as crema created through more natural, unpressurized means.

    In any case, it’s important to remember the point above: While crema looks nice, you should work to pull a good shot, not one that is loaded with crema. This will create a more sour shot, rather than a balanced one!

  • The Convenience of a Superauto

    We talk a lot about semi-automatic and superautomatic espresso machines. If you've read our blog before you probably know that a superauto combines grinder and brewer in one. This is different from a semi-auto, which requires a standalone grinder. You may also know already that a superautos can brew coffee (and usually steam milk) with just a push of a button! But how do they stack up against semi-autos?

    Ease of Use

    The first and most obvious answer is ease of use. Professional baristas train for a long time to be able to make exquisite drinks on semi-automatic machines. A superauto makes this process far easier. It's true that in reality there's more to them than pushing a button and getting coffee out of one of these machines, but it's pretty close. The machine will also help you learn what different coffee drinks are if you're intimidated by the café menu!

    The other challenge with semi-auto machines is milk steaming. Where you may need to spend hours learning the perfect way to steam a pitcher of milk, a superauto's milk system does it by itself. Now, it's important to note, you'll never get milk like what a professional can steam on a superauto. Correctly creating microfoam and incorporating it into milk is so delicate that a machine will always struggle. However, milk systems in superautos do a great job, and steam milk better than many amateurs out there anyway!

    These machines also save time. The full process of grinding, weighing, brewing, and steaming milk on a semi-auto can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on your skill level. A superauto can produce a latte or cappuccino in just a minute or two. What's more, there's usually less clean up with a superauto.

    Another component in the ease of use argument is maintenance. Semi-auto machines require you to know exactly how and when to perform backflushes, cleaning, and descaling. While these aren't impossible to learn, they do make maintaining a one of these machines more complex than a superauto. By contrast, a superauto will give you helpful indicators, warnings, and prompts. Typically cleaning and maintenance is a step by step process that the machine can walk you through as well.

    The Tradeoff

    None of this is to say there's no tradeoff with these machines. The biggest is control. On a semi-auto you can tease out the complexities of a single origin to really craft something unique. Superautos work better with blends, as they tend to pull shots with a little less finesse. This isn't to say their coffee is bad though. On the contrary, the control you get out of a semi-auto doesn't mean better drinks. Instead, semi-auto espresso machines are often enjoyed by coffee hobbyists who enjoy a more complex process.

    As noted above, the same is true for milk. Superautos create good milk texture, but not on the level of a pro barista. That said, it takes a lot of practice and skill to make quality steamed milk, and some higher end machines get very close to what a barista could do.

    Finally, superautos tend to create cooler drinks than semi-auto machines. This is a real stumbling point for some coffee drinkers, so be sure to take a look at reviews for the specific machine you're considering.

    One thing you don't necessarily have to compromise though, is price!

    Pricing

    Superautos, like semi-autos, run the gamut in terms of price. From the Saeco XSmall clocking in around $500 all the way up to higher dollar machines like the Miele CM6350. Truly, there's a superauto for every budget.

     

  • Single Origins Vs. Blends

    We talk a lot about single origins, blends, brew methods, and tasting notes here, but when you’re new to the coffee world those terms can be intimidating! This week we want to look at some basic coffee vocabulary.

    Single Origins

    There are two main types of third wave coffee that you can buy, blends and single origins. Some people think the term “single origin” is just a snooty buzzword used to sell expensive coffee. On the contrary! Its just a designation to help people understand what they’re drinking. A single origin roast is one who’s beans come from the same processing station (and often the same farm) in a region. Typically you’ll see names like Counter Culture’s “Ethiopia Idido” or Tony's “Kenya Kiganjo AA.” These names can be confusing! The first thing to look for is the country. This is the most simple element of single origins, as coffees from a single country tend to have similar flavor profiles, with the details worked out in the processing and roasting. In the case of our first example, the word “Idido” refers to the Idido cooperative where the beans were produced and processed in Ethiopia. In our second example, the term AA refers to the grade of the beans. AA beans are the largest and most dense coffee beans, something that effects flavor. On the flipside, the word “peaberry” would denote a specific type of smaller bean, preferable for other roasts. These elements of a single origin’s name are often explained on the bag, but if they aren’t covered there you can usually search for the coffee on the roaster’s website for the full story! We try to share anything especially unique on our product pages as well!

     

    We usually recommend trying single origins as pourovers to get the most out of their complexities. Once you have some experience with selecting different single origins, you can start experimenting with different brew methods!

    Blends

    Most coffee drinkers consume more blends than anything. A blend is simply a combination of single origin beans mixed together! Most grocery store coffee you find will be blends, but plenty of micro-roasters get creative with them too! Often blends will be developed to highlight a specific tasting note or region. Most blends will feature a creative name, such as Stumptown’s “Hair Bender." A blend of South American beans may provide a jumping off point for you to find other South American origins that you enjoy! In other cases, roasters work to find a combination of beans that when roasted in a specific way create a particularly intense chocolate flavor. In these cases, blends can help you dial in specific notes to look for in the future. Most blends tend to be signature or seasonal, and are also often offered for specific brew methods as well! Intelligentsia’s “Black Cat Espresso” is a combination of beans perfect for espresso, and a great place to start for the new home barista.

     

    Blends tend to stay in stock for longer than single origins as well, because the beans can rotate in and out with less noticeable changes to their flavor profiles. In some cases, roasters may offer seasonal blends to celebrate specific holidays, or feature freshly harvested beans that are only available seasonally themselves. We update our product pages when we get a new batch of a blend in so that the page stays accurate to any bean changes!

    Notes and Additives

    One question we get a lot is whether or not roasts contain the items listed in their tasting notes. It’s important to know that those notes are simply a roasters interpretation of the flavors in the coffee. If a coffee notes strawberry, it simply means that it has a strawberry like flavor in the mix, not that it actually includes strawberries. In some cases, coffees DO feature additives, but this is always very clearly noted. The only coffee available through SCG with additives is Coast Roast’s “New Orleans Blend With Chicory.”

     

    We’ll dig into tasting notes and cupping in a later post, but we hope this helps outline some differences in different types of coffee!
  • Interview: Ivania Rivera of Aldea Global

    Hey coffee lovers!

    We were given the extraordinary opportunity to interview Ivania Rivera, Head of Specialty Coffee for Aldea Global! Check out our video interview below, followed by the full transcript of the interview!

    Full Interview

    Seattle Coffee Gear: Can you tell us a little bit about Aldea Global?
    Ivania Rivera: Yes, we are a farmer’s association in Nicaragua. Right now we have over 11,00 members, total members. From those we have some vegetable producers, women who do business in rural areas. From those, 4,800 are small coffee producers. We started in 1992, and have been in the coffee industry since 2000. We are growing every year, little by little. We offer very different speciality coffees, and very different qualities of coffee.
    SCG: What does your role within the organization entail?
    IR: I do kind of everything! [laughs] But I have a lot of contact with the farmers and producers. I normally am taking care of the receiving centers, working with the dry milling process to the different preparations of coffee we have on contract. I also do the sales and contracts with importers, and follow up with roasters.
    SCG: Very cool, so kind of working in the middle area connecting roasters and producers. This is exciting for us because we don’t get the opportunity to talk much with people involved with producing. We get to talk to roasters all the time, but it’s a really awesome, unique opportunity to get to talk to someone involved with producing the coffee. How did you get involved with Aldea Global originally?
    IR: Well, it was something that I always liked, coffee. The first experience I had in coffee was I was a coffee picker on a farm. So I was wondering what’s next. What happens to the coffee cherry, where is this coffee going to? That was when I was pretty young. Then I moved to the U.S. to study agricultural business for export, then came back to Nicaragua and went to Aldea Global to see if there was an opportunity for me, and of course there was because we are coffee producers. Inotega is a region that produces 60% of the coffee from Nicaragua.
    SCG: That’s great. It’s an interesting story because we often work backwards. I worked in a cafe when I was a college student making coffee. I’ve always had an interest in where the coffee comes from. So it’s very interesting to hear the reverse of that. Someone who was involved in producing the coffee wanting to know where it ends up. It’s very exciting to bring those two groups together. So what excites you most about coffee in general, as an industry?
    IR: For me something that is really important is all of the people that are involved in the industry. It’s not only the production, but the transport, the milling, the processing, the shipping, the importing, roasting the coffee… Putting together all of the logistic people it takes to move this coffee from the producer to the final consumer. It’s a lot of hands involved. It’s a lot of work and a lot of love.
    SCG: Yea, there’s a lot of…
    IR: Passion!
    SCG: Yes! And the exciting thing about third wave roasting too is I think there’s a lot of passion all the way through. It’s not just going to a huge company doing the roaster. It’s going to small roasters that have a concern for the people that are producing the coffee too.
    IR: Yes, just imagine for example, one cup, having a cup of coffee. How many cherries does this coffee need? How many hands touched the coffee? Who was in charge of selling and buying that coffee? Who did the logistics? Who did the transportation? Who did the distribution? Who did the roasting? All of this takes a lot of effort, hands, and passion. So that’s why I’m excited about coffee.
    SCG: That makes sense to me, that’s one of the many things that excites me too! What do you think it is that makes coffee from Nicaragua unique?
    IR: I would say, for Nicaragua, for most of the producers, it’s a lifestyle. It’s something that our people are doing for a lifetime. Once you are born on a farm, once you grow up enough in a coffee farmer family, then that’s something that you will do for life. That’s something that will become the only way of income for the farm. A way of living living, that produce is paying for the whole life of the family. So something that is really unique for Nicaraguan coffee is that all of the processes and production is done by family members. 92% of the producers in Nicaragua are small producers. So they are normally doing all of the process with their family. That’s something that’s important.
    SCG: Sure, that’s really interesting and I imagine that leads to a respect for all parts of the process that maybe you wouldn’t see in a factory farming setting. That’s definitely unique.
    IR: Yea, it’s something that’s important to the whole family. Even the kids are assisting with the harvest, and they’re taking care of the quality there. Doing sorting to add quality to it. They get involved with the process.
    SCG: So something we talked about that ties into all of this a little earlier that ties into all of this is that the current socio-political climate in Nicaragua is kind of tumultuous and in flux. I think that many people here and in most parts of the Western world don’t have a great understanding of what that really means, especially how it affects the coffee trade. Do you have any thoughts on that particularly?
    IR: We had some difficulties when the situation started in April. It turned very difficult to do some shipping of coffee in some parts of Nicaragua, but in terms of the coffee producing areas, they were not affected. The producers continue taking care of the farms, continue working, and this year we are preparing all of the receiving centers to receive that coffee. So what we hope to do during this political crisis is support the farmers. We cannot say “hey I’m not buying your coffee because this is going on in Nicaragua” or “I’m not financing your coffee because this is going on in Nicaragua.” We have to support our members because if they receive the services that they require, they stay in the farm, they keep producing, and that’s the only way that we can say “we are here to support our members.” So we provide them with loans, even during the crisis, we are financing right now, we are opening our business to new members, and getting ready for shipping and sales. I know many importers and roasters are worried about whether this coffee will get out of Nicaragua, but the coffee needs to get out of Nicaragua anyway. We don’t have any reason to have the coffee sit there.
    SCG: Right, and I think it speaks to, regardless of the political climate, these are still families working these farms.
    IR: and this is the Rural areas, most of the crisis is happening in the big cities. The big cities and urban places. But the Rural areas are working. Everybody needs to produce coffee there.
    SCG: It’s very interesting, and we’re very privileged to be able to ask you directly about things like that. Because that’s something that’s hard for us to get an accurate picture of a lot of the time with the wild news cycles that we see here. It’s hard to get reliable information about this. Do you think political challenges aside, more broadly, and maybe even historically, what do you think the biggest challenge is for growing coffee in the region specifically?
    IR: Many people may thins politics is the biggest issue or challenge, but I think it’s prices. That’s the biggest challenge right now. Not the political crisis. As you’ve you seen in recent years, prices have been lower. For a producer, it takes more money to produce enough coffee. So it gets really difficult to negotiate prices when the prices are down, as they are right now. It’s a difficult time for the producers because they ask if the coffee prices are how they are, how are we going to keep producing? How are we going to invest in the farm? How are we going to pay our workers to pick the coffee? How are we going to move that coffee from farms to the receiving centers? How can we continue the process? For small farmers it’s really difficult to think “we have been working on this farm for many years, this is the only way we have money to invest in the farm, and now I’m selling my coffee for less than it costs to produce.” So that’s a big challenge right now in Nicaragua and the region. It’s hard.
    SCG: I think that speaks to the value and importance of organizations like yours too. In terms of building those alliances and trying to help provide answers for those farmers because without that help it might be even harder.
    IR: Yes, but I’m also not just talking about the 4,800 members that we have. In Nicaragua we have 42,000 coffee producers. What about the rest? What about the coffee farmers who are not part of a cooperative like Aldea Global and have to sell coffee locally? It’s difficult for them.
    SCG: That’s a definite challenge. You’d hope, as the political environment improves, that perhaps you’d see prices improve as well. Ee appreciate your time so much, did you have any other thoughts that you wanted to share?
    IR: Well something that I always encourage people in the industry to do is, if you have the chance to talk to people about coffee, it’s good for you to come and visit us someday in your life. That’s the only way you can get the real, real information from the farmers on how coffee is produced. On all the effort it takes to produce a single bean. Did you know, coffee is hand picked? Did you know coffee is hand dried?
    SCG: I bet many people don’t!
    IR: Yes! Many people don’t know. So it’s good for people who are involved in coffee to know all the processes it takes, all the people it takes. That’s something that I like to share, that I always encourage.
    SCG: Well we appreciate your knowledge and willingness to share that information with us, and we’ll do our best to try to educate people on that too. Thanks for your time!
  • What's a PID?

    You may have seen that certain espresso machines include what's called a "PID," or "PID controller" more accurately. This week, we're going to talk about what a PID controller is, and why it's worth the extra cost!

    The Basics

    If you've been following along with us, you probably know that temperature is extremely important to brewing coffee. While different brew methods and roasts demand different temps, stability is key. PID controllers help ensure that stability. Machines without these devices often use a simple thermostat that isn't as accurate as a PID controller. By comparison, a machine with PID control monitors itself to ensure temperature stability and control.

    PID stands for Proportional-Integral-Derivative. Quite a mouthful! On a basic level, a PID controller uses the PID algorithm to determine the best way to control whatever process it's used for. PID controllers are used in a wide range of industrial applications, in our case, it controls the temperature in your espresso machine!

    A traditional thermostat has a tendency to hit a desired temp, then turn off the heating element as the temp rises above its target. Then it'll kick back on as the temperature falls below the target. This results in uneven temperatures that can result in inconsistent shot quality in an espresso machine. There are ways to mitigate this with many machines, but it often means learning how to ride the temperature wave with your specific machine. This may require timing the heat-up time precisely or running water through the group head before pulling a shot.

    PID controllers use the PID algorithm to keep your machine at the proper brew temperature. This also means the you can directly control the temperature of the machine. While not true in every case, PID controllers are usually visible on the machine. They also usually feature control buttons to increase or decrease the brewing temperature. While this won't matter for most, for some home baristas, experimenting with different roasts and temps is key!

    So You Want a PID Controller?

    It's possible to install a PID controller into most home espresso machines. The process however, can be daunting. Performing an after-market install of these devices is essentially rewiring the machine. You'll have to find the thermostat, disconnect it, and install the PID controller. This will require a pretty strong understanding of how these devices work, and competency in basic electrical work. You'll also need to understand how to program the PID controller , as these are devices used for a wide range of applications. Some vendors offer kits for specific espresso machines that will make this process easier. In any case, installation of a PID controller will definitely void your warranty.

    But there is hope! If you're in the market for a new machine, many now come with PID controllers installed. These devices used to be used primarily on commercial hardware, but have entered the home market. While you might pay a little extra for a machine with one of these devices, it'll come under warranty and save you digging around the guts of your machine. Once you have a PID controller, you'll be able to eliminate temperature as one of the variables in dialing in your shots.

    It's important to note, some PID controllers are clearly visible boxes attached to the machine. The PID installed in the photo above is an example of this. Other machines have external PIDs that are attached via a cable. Further, some PID controllers are internal and show up as a small screen on the machine, like the Ascaso Dream above. Finally, some machines have internal PIDs that do not have an interface. In these cases, you won't be able to control the temp easily, but the PID controller is still keeping it stable at a set level.

    We hope this helps de-mystify these devices!

  • Choosing a Superuatomatic

    You've probably seen us talk about superauto vs. semi-auto espresso machines. Some of you might even wonder what the difference is at all! This week we're diving into what makes superautomatic espresso machines tick and what to look for when purchasing.

    What's a Superauto?

    A superautomatic espresso machine simplifies the process of brewing espresso. other espresso machines require you to grind, tamp, and pull shots of espresso manually. While many enjoy the process of dialing in a new roast and tweaking it's flavor, you may not. With a superauto you can get a solid espresso or milk drink in the morning without the time sink of a standard machine. You do sacrifice something on drink quality, however. Semi-auto machines (and manual pump driven machines) give you finer control over strength and quality. For most though, superautos are a great alternative without the hassle of a complicated manual process.

    So what is actually in a superauto? Most of these machines feature a bean hopper, grinder, brew unit, and milk steaming system. Beans go in the hopper, which feed to a grinder that automatically grinds coffee for espresso. This coffee is pressurized automatically in the brew unit and a shot is pulled. All of this happens at the touch of a button. Additionally, with another press or two you can have milk steamed for your latte or cappuccino as well!

    How Do I Choose?

    Choosing the right superauto for your kitchen can be daunting, but we're here to help. One of the biggest deciding factors for you will likely be price. superautos can be expensive, but you don't have to break the bank to get the right machine. Let's break down the things that are most important when picking out a superauto:

    Shot Quality

    Shot quality is an extremely important factor when purchasing a superauto. After all, you bought the machine to make coffee, so it had better be good! It's hard to gauge shot quality from the box, but generally user reviews and professional critiques can help you to get an idea of shot quality. It's worth noting that we avoid carrying any machines that we think pull downright poor shots, regardless of the price.

    Milk System

    Nearly as important as a good shot is decent milk quality. This may not be a consideration for you if you don't have interest in milk drinks, but it will be important to most. There are two main types of milk systems in superautos, carafes and tubes. With a tube system, you'll drop the end of a tube into a pitcher of milk. The machine will then pull the milk into the steaming unit and dispense steamed milk into your drink. The other option is a carafe system, which includes a carafe that you can store in the refrigerator that connects to the machine. Both systems can work great, and really come down to preference.

    In addition to the format of the milk system, quality is also a consideration. Perhaps the biggest weakness of superautos is how difficult it is to get quality steamed milk from an automatic system. While they are getting close, nothing beats a hand steamed pitcher of milk. this is another area where a look at the product page may not be of help, but you will want to look into others' opinions of milk quality when selecting a machine.

    Temperature

    Both for shots and milk, temperature is worth calling out. While many superautos can produce decent milk texture and shot quality, temperature is an area that many of these machines struggle with. It's hard to know exact measurements from product specs, but it's an important question to ask a sales person or look for in user reviews.

    Controls

    Superautos feature a range of controls. Some machines feature physical buttons with indicator lights and knobs. Others have vibrant touch screen interfaces that guide you through selecting your beverage. This is one of the areas where you can save some money if you're willing to compromise. In many cases, a touchscreen interface will increase the cost by quite a lot. For many, though, this ease of use will be worth the extra investment. You'll want to consider this after narrowing your focus based on shot/milk quality.

    Odds and Ends

    There are other bells and whistles to consider when looking at superautos as well. Recovery time, or the time between shots, could be a consideration if you serve a full house. cleaning options, tank type, and hopper/tank size are a consideration as well. Larger tanks mean less refills but can also be harder to remove or add cost. Many of these options come down to preference. Finally, proper cleaning and maintenance are important as well, so look into how that is done before making a final decision!

     

  • Milk Drinks Galore!

    Last week we looked at a few different brew methods that might fit your tastes. This week we're following up with a few ways to enjoy one of our favorite methods, espresso! Plenty of people around the world love to drink espresso straight (and we do too), but it also makes a great pair with milk! Whether you're a whole milk drinker or prefer substitutes like soy and almond milk, espresso makes a great companion. The rich, chocolatey flavor notes of a good shot of espresso really shine with the creamy consistency of a milk beverage. So let's take a look at a few options!

    Latte

    The latte is one of the most iconic and classic milk drinks you can order. starting with a shot of espresso, a latte is simply steamed milk poured over the shot, with a little bit of foam on top! Latte's can be made with a variety of syrups and additives for a truly customizable, tasty treat. Many baristas will even create some latte art using the foam! Can also be enjoyed iced for a tasty Summer treat.

    The Cappuccino

    Cappuccinos are similar to lattes, but with more foam. Steaming milk for a cappuccino involves incorporating more air into the milk, thus making the beverage foamier overall. You may be surprised when you pick up a cappuccino from your local coffee shop if you're used to ordering them at a chain. A proper cappuccino will be much drier than a latte. As such, the cup will be much, much lighter in weight!

    Caffé Macchiato

    Your daily trips to chain coffee shops may have given you a false impression of what these little drinks really are. While some coffee shops simply call flavored lattes macchiatos, in reality, the real drink is a little different. A macchiato is a double shot of espresso topped with a dollop of foam. This tasty drink gets its name from the Italian word for "marked" or "stained." Caffé Macchiato literally translates to stained coffee. 

    Flat White

    A flat white is a similar drink to a latte. The main difference is the amount of microfoam and milk, which is lower than in a latte. This higher coffee to milk ratio leads to a richer, more espresso driven flavor. Instead of the espresso acting as a syrup for the milk, the milk just compliments the espresso flavor. Not as well suited for flavored syrups as a latte, this is a great beverage for espresso lovers wanting just a little extra creaminess.

    That should be enough to get you started ordering like a pro at your local roaster!

     

  • So Many Brews, So Little Time

    Hey Coffee Fans!

    We thought we'd stop for a moment this week and get back to basics. Learning to craft the perfect pourover or espresso is great, but is it right for you? Our goal at Seattle Coffee Gear is to help you make coffee you love! With that in mind, we wanted to provide an overview of what several different brew methods are actually like.

    Drip Brew

    Drip brewed coffee is a true classic. The combination of convenience and ability to brew large quantities at once makes this the most popular brew method in the world for a reason. The thing most people don't realize though is that more goes into drip brewing than meets the eye. Proper extraction requires proper water temp and distribution through the grounds. Cheap drip brewers tend to overheat above the recommended 195f to 205f that is recommended for coffee. On top of that, these brewers will often drip water right into the middle of the filter. This means that water isn't saturating all of the coffee, which leads to a scorched, thinner cup.

    When buying a brewer, consider one that offers temperature control or brews in the 195-205f range. You'll also want to consider a brewer that has an auto shut off warming plate that won't scorch your coffee in the carafe (or, if you don't mind stainless steel, go with that material for your carafe). Finally, a spray arm that evenly distributes water in the grounds is important.

    Drip brewed coffee tends to be the most basic taste. You lose some of the complexity of more delicate roasts, while maintaining the bitterness and acidity pourover gets around. This can be mitigated with pre-infusion, which blooms the coffee (saturating with water to release acid), something many nicer drip brewers offer. Despite some negatives in the taste department, drip brewed coffee is the standard that most coffee drinkers learn about first.

    Pourover

    Pourover is the same principle as drip brewed coffee, but with a bit of a lighter touch. This brew method involves brewing coffee by manually pouring water over the grounds through a filter. The nice thing about this is that you can directly control everything about the brew process. Pourover begins with a bloom, where you pour a small amount of water into the grounds to saturate them and release acid. This is followed by your first draw. In this stage, you'll pour the water in a motion spiraling out from the center, so that you can evenly saturate the grounds with water. After a first draw, you'll wait and perform another draw, this time rotating inward, to catch grounds on the sides of the filter.

    The result is delicate, delicious coffee that gets rid of the bitterness and scorched taste of cheaper drip brewers. The downside though, is that pourover is a time consuming process that takes practice. You'll want to measure your grind, the ratio of coffee to water, and things like kettle temp and flow rate as you go. It's a complex brew method that may not be worth the better taste at 6:00 in the morning.

    Press

    Press brewed coffee is strong and thick. To brew in a press, you'll add coarse grounds and hot water, then stir vigorously and leave to brew for 10 minutes or so. After waiting, you'll plunge the press, forcing the water through the grounds and simultaneously separating them. The result is a strong, well saturated coffee that misses all of the delicate notes in flavor of offering rich chocolatey coffee taste. Best used on darker roasts, press brewed coffee definitely is a different experience than filtered brewing.

    Espresso

    The most complex, expensive way to prepare coffee. Espresso brewing involves pressurized water being pressed through a puck of finely ground coffee. This brew method creates incredibly rich, creamy, and sweet flavors, which is why it goes so well with steamed milk. Some may find espresso to be too strong, it's also far more caffeinated than other brew methods due to the concentrated extraction.

    Those things come down to taste, where the biggest hurdle for brewing espresso is cost and learning curve. Even on the low end, a proper espresso setup costs hundreds of dollars. You'll need a good burr grinder to be able to grind fine enough for espresso, as well as a specialized machine. On top of that, learning how to properly dial in a shot takes time and patience (though we do provide plenty of guides and resources for it).

    With these concepts in mind, it's important to know that there are even more ways to brew out there, these are just the most common. We'll talk more about some more adventurous methods, like Turkish, in the future!

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