Coffee 101

  • Brew Methods and Flavor Profiles

    We've talked at length about how to get started with different brewing methods. Sharing tips on brewing coffee is kind of our deal! An important piece of the puzzle that's often skipped though is helping you decide how you want to brew. There's more than a few factors in choosing a brew method, which we'll be sure to detail over the next few weeks. Today we're talking about an easy one: Flavor! Here we'll dig into the flavor profiles of each brew method to help you understand what you might like. This should also inform the types of coffees you might enjoy in each method.

    Drip

    The simplest, most common starting point for most people is a good ol' drip brew. While the principle here is the same as in pour over, drip brewing is distinct because we assume it's coming out of an electric brewer. To that end, we'll cover pour over in a separate section.

    Drip coffee is perhaps the most balanced brew method in terms of flavor. Typically if a coffee isn't specifically brewed for espresso, it'll at least taste fine in a drip brew. That means you're going to be getting lots of standard chocolate notes and any earthier flavors in the coffee. On the flip side, drip brewers can sometimes obscure lighter floral or fruit notes. To this end, the very best coffees in a drip brew are going to be well balanced blends and single origins.

    Press

    Press brewing is an immersion style method that lends itself to big, bold flavors. This results in a body and flavor profile somewhere between drip and espresso. Where drip presents smokier notes and chocolate flavors, press brewing will really amplify them. This means that you'll get an extra strong cup of coffee out of a press without going all the way to the syrupy espresso consistency.

    With that said, sometimes brighter single origins will actually be better as espresso than in a press. We really recommend doubling down on those perfect medium, or even slightly dark, roasts if you're brewing press.

    Pour Over

    Pour over is the taster's choice for trying out coffees. We use this method whenever we test coffees here at SCG. This is because pour over tends to be the best brew method for separating flavors. When we say separating, we mean that complex roasts come across as open as possible when brewed as a pour over. This is most noticeable with light coffees that feature floral and fruity notes. If you're trying to understand why a roaster listed pink bubblegum or jasmine in the tasting notes, this is the method to use.

    The trick with pour over is the number of variables. Where press and drip brewing are pretty simple, it's often difficult to re-brew the same pour over twice. This is because water flow rate, minor temperature variations, and timing all tend to vary from brew to brew. This can make it hard to stay consistent, but just means it takes some practice!

    Espresso

    Espresso brewing is one of the most complex methods to use, but also very repeatable once you've dialed in a roast with your setup. Pressurized brewing from espresso tends to extract the sweetest, richest pieces of a coffee's flavor. The result is a syrupy body that is easy to pull too bitter or sour. If you're someone who thinks they *don't* like espresso, there's a good chance you've had it brewed poorly! A good espresso should be smooth, sweet, and very chocolatey. On top of all of this, adding steamed milk or foam and a syrup or two to an espresso creates a rainbow of delicious concoctions!

    While some prefer the super dark traditional Italian espresso roasts, there's actually a wide range of coffees that are great for this brew method. Round, simple blends can make a great espresso, but so can super light, tea like single origins. To get the very most out of the brew method, we recommend juicy, berry notes and classic chocolate flavors. This is the best way to start with this brew method!

    There are plenty of other interesting brew methods we will approach in future articles, but these four should get you started!

  • An Introduction to Seattle Coffee Gear's Getting Started Guides

    Hello coffee fans!

    Over the years, we've offered lots of insight, reviews, and advice for getting started with coffee. Through our Coffee 101 posts we've provided information on the basics of brewing, from espresso to pour over. We've helped to teach you how to start brewing all kinds of ways, but usually those guides don't help too much with purchasing. We've done guides designed to help you figure out what to look for in espresso machines, for example. Now we'd like to do some purchasing guides to show you what machines have those qualities now!

    We'll be breaking these guides down by brew method, and they'll include examples of why machines work well for new users. We'll talk about setting budgets as well to help alleviate the sticker shock of new machines. Also, these guides will work to help you understand why items cost what they do, so you'll come away with an understanding of what you should be paying for.

    Finally, we'll also be refreshing these guides every year or so to help provide insight into new products. This way you won't find the perfect machine that has been discontinued or is in between models. Check out all of our 2020 Getting Started Guides below:

     

  • Super or Semi?

    Superautomatic and semi-automatic machines have similar names but ultimately work quite differently. If you're a regular reader you already know the difference between them. For the uninitiated, a superauto handles everything from grinding the beans to steaming your milk. All you have to do is press a few buttons and maybe hold a pitcher, otherwise the machines does it all. On the flip-side, semi-automatics are a little more hands on. While they don't requires you to manually pump water in (we'd call a machine like that a manual machine) they do require you to grind and tamp the beans yourself. They also require you to steam milk yourself for lattes or cappuccinos.

    So which one's for you? If you're new to espresso, you may jump to assume that a superauto is the right option. While that's absolutely the right call for any users, there's reasons to take a closer look.

    Superautos

    The superauto customer is someone who simply wants good coffee quick. Maybe you like a range of drinks, maybe you're laser focused on getting the best latte or americano. In either case, if your concern is convenience, superautos are the way to go. These are machines that don't require finesse to operate and can brew coffee just a few minutes after being plugged in. There are considerations, of course, you won't want to use especially oily beans, for example. Superautos also can struggle to produce very hot drinks due to the nature of their design.

    In any case though, if you are more concerned with quick coffee than learning the ins and outs of espresso, these machines are for you.

    Semi-automatics

    Semi-automatics definitely require more work than a superauto. While there are grinder/machine combos, you'll probably need to buy a separate grinder at some point if you get into semi-autos. These machines also have a real learning curve. Dialing in a tricky single origin to taste good on your semi-auto can be very challenging. It can also be tough to learn to steam milk at first, as there is technique involved. The thing you do get out of semi-autos though, is control.

    Controlling the brewing process with a semi-auto gives you a lot of options. You can really pull specific notes out of lighter roasts, or get extra hot milk. You can make your cappuccinos as dry as you'd like, or, with machines that have PID controllers, control brew temperature. All of this definitely results in a more hobbyist angle. With all of that said, after some practice, making drinks on a semi-automatic machine gets much quicker. Before you know it you'll be brewing with speed and confidence.

    Of course, none of that matters is if you're mostly looking for a quick caffeine fix, or a simpler drink. It's also important to note that superautomatic technology has come a long way. While it's still hard to replicate the work of an experienced barista on expensive machines, they're getting close. You can get incredible good coffee from a superauto, it all comes down to your desire to tweak and control the process!

  • What Makes An Expensive Machine Better?

    It may seem odd that espresso machines have such a wide price range. Why is it that we recommend such expensive machines when $200 options exist? What makes a $2,000+ machine worth it? Loads of factors actually! Some may seem obvious, but others are not.

    Heating Elements

    Arguably the largest cost point of an espresso machine is its heating element. Espresso needs a tight temperature band right around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Producing consistently hot water like this can be a challenge. You have probably noticed that as soon as you pour boiling water, it drops by a few degrees. Water for espresso needs to get from the water tank, through a heater, then to the portafilter at 200 degrees. Cheap machines tend to fail to do this without telling you. The result is lower quality espresso.

    Another factor is heatup time. Some machines are designed to quickly heat small quantities of water for each shot. Machines with larger boilers take longer to heat up initially but hold more hot water for multiple shots. In both of these cases, water is heated quickly and efficiently, which isn't always true with cheaper brewers.

    Pumps

    Consistent hot water is one of the keys of brewing perfect espresso. Consistent pressure is the other big element. 9 BAR of pressure must be applied to the puck with the water in the portafilter. This pressure is what creates proper extraction. To brew good espresso, the pump must be able to quickly put out 9 BAR and sustain it through the brew process. Cheap machines offset this requirement by using pressurized portafilters. These portafilters have additional material in them to provide resistance. While some great machines do brew with pressurized filters, they generally still have consistent pumps. Cheaper machines lack this.

    Case Material, Interface, Odds and Ends

    Another core element of machine pricing is materials. It may seem obvious, but a shiny stainless steel machine just costs a lot more to produce than one made of plastic. While plastic isn't always a bad thing, it can be a factor for many users. Having that solid, metal case can be a major selling point. More important than the case though, is the inside. hoses, gaskets, and fittings made from solid, long lasting materials matter. Cheaper machines might use plastic on the inside of machines at common failure points. More expensive machines avoid this by using stronger metal and rubber.

    Also important are things like controls. Does your machine have mechanical control elements like levers and dials? Or are you simple pushing a cheap feeling button for steam? This won't matter for some, but for others having that tactile control is important.

    Finally, little odds and ends like cool touch steamwands, specific grouphead styles like E61, and three way solenoid valves may SEEM minor, but they can matter. E61 groupheads, for example, help hot water stay hot during brewing. There are a lot of seemingly small bullet points that really matter in the long run.

    ...And Much Much More!

    Beyond everything here, there's so much more to talk about in the nitty gritty. Temperature controllers, plumbability, NSF certifications for commercial outlets, and even more! Trust us when we say, there's a lot that goes into upping your espresso game. It's worth it to do hard research on your new machine purpose to understand the cost. It'll help you end up with a generational machine for you to learn on instead of one you'll replace in a year or two.

  • Coffee Extraction In Non-Espresso Brewing

    We talk a lot about sour vs. bitter shots in terms of espresso, but extraction matters for other brew methods too! Drip, pourover, press, espresso, cold brew, and more are all just different ways to get molecules to bond. We thought we'd talk a bit about extraction in pourover and drip coffee too!

    Sour Vs. Bitter

    You may already know that espresso shots can turn out bitter our sour. This is usually because your grind is too course or fine. A bitter shot is due to under-extraction and a sour shot is the opposite. What's happening here is that the bitter shot is being run through grounds that are too course. This means the water comes through the coffee grounds without getting a chance to properly bond with the coffee molecules. Sour shots are the opposite. In this case, the grind is too fine, making it harder for water to pass through and over extracting the coffee. Both of these things can happen in other brew methods as well!

    While its true that drip and pourover coffee are less demanding in terms of grounds, they still matter. What you're looking for here is consistency as much as fine-ness, because these brewing methods just work differently than espresso. In the case of espresso, water is being pumped through the puck of grounds. This means that finer grounds are needed to "stop" the water. In the case of drip and pourover, gravity is the thing pulling the water through. That means that much coarser grounds will work. That said, consistent grounds are important to ensure even extracation. So how do you correct for sour and bitter shots?

    Grind and Flow Rate

    The first thing to do is check your grind. Much like with espresso, if you're getting sour pourovers, consider making your grind a bit coarser. Do the opposite for bitter pots. Another thing you can seek to modify is your pour rate, and your amounts per pour. While the difference here should be minuscule, using a Gooseneck kettle will keep you from pouring too fast. In terms of amount, more water in your filter can lead to a faster flow rate through the coffee. Using less water per pour if your coffee is bitter and a bit more if its sour may not fix the problem, but it's a thing to try.

    Again though, grind courseness and consistency is almost always the most important thing!

  • Espresso vs Coffee Beans: Is There a Real Difference?

    This is an update to an old post which you can find right over here!

    A question that people new to espresso ask all the time is "can I use any bean?" The answer is a bit complicated! We'll dig into what separates espresso and drip beans, and give a little insight into superautomatic appropriate beans as well. Read on to learn!

    What's the Difference?

    Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Coffee is coffee. When we see beans labeled for espresso, it's not because it's a different kind of bean. Ultimately, the thing that extracts the flavor from coffee beans is brew method. What is important to understand is the ways in which brew method cultivates the natural flavors of the coffee bean. This is where that espresso vs. drip beans distinction comes into play. The espresso brew method is pressurized. This means that more delicate flavors are often smashed together when brewing without high end equipment and beans. Thankfully, modern third-wave roasters use high quality beans, and its easier than ever to access great equipment. With that said, espresso generally leads to more intense flavors, hence the distinction between beans for that vs. drip.

    So with that in mind, it's important that you're intensifying flavors that you want to. There are plenty of great roasts that work best with less intensity. Very rich, fruity roasts, for example, often work better in a drip or pourover brew. On the flip side, sugary, chocolatey roasts make for delicious espresso to a wide range of coffee drinkers. So to answer the "what's the difference" question, the difference is all in the flavor profile.

    So Why the Distinction?

    So that brings us to why a roaster would make the distinction in the first place. The simple answer is user error! You can use any coffee for any brew method, but when a roast works well for a specific one, it just works. As a roaster, you'd likely hate it if your wonderful new espresso was described as bland by a drip drinker. By contrast, a coffee that needs the extra oomph of pressure from espresso brewing may be less palatable in drip. Roasters want you to have the best experience with their coffee, hence the guidelines. We try to help too, offering brewing suggestions for every coffee we sell in the product description.

    But this doesn't mean you shouldn't experiment! Brewing coffee is an art, and you may just find something wonderful. Just know that it's much harder to preserve delicate floral notes in espresso. On the other hand, it's sometimes hard to get straight chocolate notes to shine in a pourover. By understand the process of brewing and what each method adds to the coffee, you can make informed choices about what to buy for different methods.

    What about Superautos?

    You know we love our superautos, so how do they factor in? The biggest thing you'll want to be careful of in superautos is level of oil on the surface of the beans. Oily beans clog up grinders, so try to avoid darker roasts! Superautos work great with any coffee designed for espresso, and many other blends as well! The thing superautos don't do well is preserving the little notes on the edge of a brew. They're great for convenience, but not as precise as a semi-auto process. Because of this, we recommend roasts with simpler, stand by flavors. With that said, it's hard to go wrong and get something totally terrible for the method.

    We hope that this provides some insight on the great "drip vs espresso" question, and we how you enjoy some experimentation!

  • Espresso Machine Maintenance

    One key element of owning an espresso machine is maintaining it. This means regular cleaning and maintenance. We get a lot of questions about how often one should backflush and descale, so we wanted to talk a little bit about that here! We'll start with more frequent maintenance like cleaning the grouphead and backflushing, then get into descaling.

    A lot of your cleaning schedule will revolve around usage. If you brew multiple drinks per day, you'll want to clean more frequently. For the purposes of this article we're assuming you make 1-3 drinks per day. Another thing to note is that we're keeping this general. Most machines, from Brevilles and DeLonghis all the way up to Rockets and Izzos will require the maintenance outlined here. You should, of course, take the guidelines of the manufacturer into account when planning maintenance! We're also catering this piece for those with semi-automatic machines. Superautomatics have more guided cleaning cycles, but we'll talk more about maintaining them in future posts as well!

    Daily and Weekly Cleaning

    One easy to do thing that will keep your machine making great espresso day to day is to ensure that your portafilter and the screen in the brew group is free of coffee grounds. This means giving your portafilter a quick wipedown after every shot, ensuring it is dry and clean. You should also run a quick rinse of water through the screen after each shot before you reattach the portafilter. Simply start a brew cycle and stop it to push some water through. This clears and grounds that may have clung to the screen during brewing. It's also VERY important to purge the steam wand whenever you steam milk! This is as easy as turning the steam on outside of milk after you finish steaming. This will clear any milk that gets sucked back into the wand during steaming. You'll want to be sure to completely wipe off any stuck on milk as well. As always, when handling the steam wand, be careful not to touch a hot wand or the steam it produces.

    You will also want to perform regular backflushing of the grouphead. Backflushing is done by using the blind basket (the one with no holes!) in your portafilter along with a little bit of water and/or backflush detergent. You'll then run a backflushing cycle, which differs from machine to machine (your manual should explain how to do this). It's worth it to backflush with water every day or two, but detergent backflushing is only needed every 1-3 weeks depending on use. A busy cafe might backflush with detergent daily, but this isn't necessary for home use.

    It's also worth using a grouphead brush to scrub the grouphead every week or so. This can free and clingy grounds and keep the screen clean. These tools make this easy, but a used toothbrush or other small, handheld brush can work to clean the screen too.

    Descaling and Steam Wand Cleaning

    The two maintenance items you'll perform less frequently are thorough cleaning of the steam wand and descaling. The former involves using a milk system cleaner with your machine's steam wand to clean out any milk gunk stuck inside the wand. This process can vary from system to system, so refer to your manual and the cleaning product's guidelines to clean it properly! This process should be performed every month or two on your espresso machine. Soaking the steam tips in a cleaning solution like the one above in this timeframe can also keep your steaming system fresh! Just be sure to fully wipe down and purge the wand to ensure no cleaning solution ends up in your latte!

    Descaling is, of course, one of the most important things to stay on top of to maintain your machine. You can descale with a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar, or with a dedicated descaling cleaner. To descale, you'll want to run the water/cleaner mix through the machine until you've pulled through about a cup of water. This allows the mix to fill the boiler and pipes of the machine. Next, you'll shut of the machine for 20 minutes to an hour. This will give the solution time to remove the limescale buildup inside the machine. Next, run about a quarter of the reservoir through the brew head and the steam wand, then shut the machine off for another 20 minutes. Finally, run the rest of the reservoir through the machine, and then run two or more reservoirs of clean water through the brew head and the steam wand. In the end you'll have a freshly descaled machine!

    It should be noted that some machines should NOT be descaled by anyone other than a professional technician. This is true, most notably, of Rockets. A quick search for your machine + descaling should help you determine if its safe to descale your machine at home. This is a process that should be performed every 3-6 months. The main factors affecting time between descales are how frequently you use the machine and the hardness of the water you run through it.

    We hope this look at normal maintenance is helpful for you! By adhering to a simple schedule like this you can keep your machine running in great shape for many years.

     

  • Water Temperature and Why It Matters

    It's a common refrain: The perfect water temperature for brewing coffee is 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit. But why is this? In most brewing guides it will explain that this is the ideal temperature for "proper extraction," but what IS extraction? What are we even talking about!? Read on to learn more about water temps and coffee extraction!

     

    What's Extraction?

    So what do we mean when we say extraction? Extractions is simply the act of dissolving the solubles from the coffee grounds and bonding them with the water. One way to conceptualize this is to imagine water saturating your grounds during brewing, and that water pulling the good parts out of the grounds as it passes through them. The filter then stops the leftover gritty, grimy bits of the coffee. The stuff that ends up in your cup is water bonded with the flavorful, caffeinated parts of the coffee.

    But what does temperature really have to do with this?

    Coffee extraction, or brewing, is a chemical process. Things like grind fineness, amount, and water temp matter because chemistry happens in the brewer as you brew! On a simple level, things like grind fineness can make it easier for the water molecules to bond with the coffee grounds. Temperature plays into this as well! In truth, you can actually brew coffee with water of any temperature, the problem is control. Cold water extracts very slowly, which is why cold brew can take many hours to properly, well, brew. On the flip-side, near boiling water extracts coffee VERY quickly. Since varying flow rate is even more challenging than controlling temperature, and since temperature is constant, it's the variable that is easiest to control.

    For all of these reasons, we've determined a 195-205 degree Fahrenheit range as being the best for coffee. The remaining question, of course, is where exactly should you set your kettle? 204? 196? This is going to come down to the roast and brew method more than anything. Some brew methods, like AeroPress, work even better below 195, but for simplicity's sake we'll stick to the 195-205 range. In general, presses work best lower in the range, as the pressure of the press aids in extraction. On the opposite side is pourover, which is usually better brewed around or above 200 degrees Fahrenheit. That said, all of this really comes down to the taste of the roast.

    More bitter roasts tend to want cooler water, closer to 195. On the other hand, if your coffee turns out sour, try brewing a little hotter to aid in proper extraction.

    Either way, there's plenty of room for experimentation! The most important thing is using an adjustable kettle like the Fellow Stagg or the Bonavita Variable kettle. Armed with these tools and the knowledge above, you'll be ready to really experiment with water temp!

     

  • To Heat Or Not To Heat?

    One complaint we often see is that brewers don't keep coffee hot long enough. This, or that they don't brew at a high enough temperature. While we'd never tell someone how to enjoy their coffee, we thought we might share some insight on what's up with all this temperature talk!

    Brew Temp

    Generally, it's agreed that coffee is best brewed at 198-202 degrees Fahrenheit. The reason for this is chemical. It's a complicated topic, but suffice to to say that we can scientifically guarantee that this temperature range produces the best coffee when brewing drip. For some coffee drinkers, that's just not hot enough! We can respect a want for a hotter brew, but the fact of the matter is that high quality drip brewers stick to this temperature range. Cheap brewers often start at lower temps and then shoot up to temps above this range, scorching the coffee. A high quality drip brewer will maintain the ideal temperature the whole way through.

    So what's the answer if you want hotter coffee? Really, it's to drink lighter roasts! Darker roasts extract at lower temps, so your cup will get very bitter if brewed too hot. Lighter roasts may lose some complexity at higher temps, but you can enjoy them hotter with less bitterness.

    Warming Plat Woes

    The other component of this equation is keeping the coffee hot in the pot. First of all, by warming the pot with some hot water before you brew, the coffee will keep its temp as it hits the carafe. This is a huge help, because a room temp put will suck some of that heat as the coffee brews! The other element is carafe type and heating plate. Sometimes we get complaints that high end brewers don't have plates that stay on all day. This is a feature, not a bug! By sitting in a glass carafe on a heating plate, coffee tends to scorch and burn over time, leading to an awful taste. If you plan to drink a pot more than two hours later (the shutoff time for most heating plates) we recommend brewing a fresh one then!

    Another option for maintaining heat is to switch to a stainless steel carafe. If pre-warmed, a well insulated stainless carafe can keep coffee hot for hours. This works especially well if your palate doesn't notice the metallic taste!

    Of course, all of this changes when you introduce pressure to create espresso!

  • 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!

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