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Going from buying pre-ground to whole bean coffee

You may have been drinking pre-ground for a while. You may have only recently made the leap from instant (if you are drinking instant visit this link for the first step) but are keen to know how to make an even better cup of coffee.

Your next investment should be a grinder. Even if you’re using a cafetiere it will make a bigger difference than you anticipate to your coffee. When you grind beans, you release the oils to the air and even the most air-tight packaging or specialised grinding cannot stop the fact that ground beans have a larger surface area and therefore a larger exposure to the air. Letting the soluble parts of the beans dry up quicker can make your coffee taste flat.

Grinders can be cheap and cheaper grinders are getting better all the time. A blade grinder chops the beans and a burr grinder crushes them. You want the latter as chopping beans can give an inconsistent size which, when exposed to water, will mean different amounts of the soluble parts of the coffee go into the brew to either over-extract (smaller pieces) which could be bitter or an under-extract (larger pieces) because there hasn’t been a sufficient period for all the good stuff to be released into the water yet. Mix those two up and you will get an inconsistent cup that is never quite right.

Since this is an introduction to the subject I’m going to concentrate on two grinders only. Thousands exist but these are two I use, are usually under £30 and readily available.

Hario Mill Skerton hand grinder. This is hand grinder and is used a lot throughout the specialist coffee world. It’s small, has good ergonomics and can do the finest of grinds. Making lots of cups with this grinder will really strengthen your arm muscles as the burrs are quite small but it’s consistent enough and well worth the money. It comes apart and goes back together very easily to clean which you should do once a month.

De’Longhi KG79 Coffee Grinder. An electric grinder that got fame in the specialist coffee world because it’s hackable to produce a finer grind. However, newer models seem to grind fine enough for espresso without even being on the top setting. Plug it in, set your fineness and dose setting (we recommend pre-weighing and adding to the grinder so you never grind too little or too much), press the button and wait. It’s loud but that is the only down side.

If you look for reviews on the above grinders you will find good and bad. Mostly good, some bad but these seem to compare with mid & top of the range grinders with these sub £30 grinders so bear that in mind.

Dialing in. A bit of coffee lingo now that you may see around the place. Dialing in is what specialist coffee drinkers do when they have a new bean and they are finding the right dosage, grind and roast. It’s basically making small adjustments until it’s right. Stick to general guides for now but feel free to experiment if you want – it becomes addictive however so don’t forget to enjoy the odd cup of coffee too.

General guide to brewing, dosage size and grind level

  • French Press 1 litre 60 grams –  Very coarse
  • Drip / Filter 1 litre 60 grams – Coarse
  • Cold Brew 1 cup / 250ml 30 grams – Coarse
  • Espresso 30ml (single shot) 7 grams – Fine
  • Aeropress 200ml 16 grams Coarse – Fine
  • Moka stovetop – Fine
  • Syphon Coarse – Very coarse

The above levels can be adjusted 20% either way depending on your taste.

Any questions we are only a tweet away.

 

Image by Yara Tucek CC BY 2.0

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Give decaf a chance

image

Decaffeinated coffee has a bad rep. Part of coffee’s delight is the caffeine, a powerful drug that wakes us up in the morning and keeps us awake when working to deadlines and the to-do list is growing. The coffee plant is naturally caffeinated. Best guesses as to why plants have caffeine is to protect it from pests such as insects and fungi, but clearly not us humans.

The higher the altitude of the plants the less caffeine plants produce and this is where some of the best coffee in the world is grown. Plants grown at or higher than 1600 metres are often called natures decaffeinated. Robusta coffee is grown at a much lower altitude, has a high yield, and mostly goes into instant coffee but has the highest amount of caffeine of all coffee. Some coffee blends include Robusta for the very reason of upping the caffeine levels. However, if it was all about the caffeine then we wouldn’t be growing Arabica at all; caffeine has a very bitter taste. Good quality coffee is clearly about more than just the caffeine, it’s about the flavour. Decaffeinated coffee isn’t typically known for its flavour, however this has changed.

Decaffeination process.

Unlike more commonly used methods of decaffeinating coffee, The Swiss Water Process by Ten Peaks Coffee doesn’t use chemicals such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate to get the caffeine out of the beans. Instead it uses a process of washing and filtering to leave coffee beans 99.9% caffeine free. The lack of chemicals also means the taste isn’t altered radically. It does taste differently but not like chemicals or of anything you may have experienced years ago. The swiss water processed beans that we have tried have been only slightly mellower in taste than its caffeinated equivalent.

Reasons to drink decaf

Many of us have felt the effects of too much caffeine so we enforce rules on ourselves such as no caffeine after midday; pregnant women are advised to stay away from caffeine due to possible birth defects; and Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, and IBS sufferers find the toxic nature of caffeine hard to digest. Caffeine increases the heart rate which is great just before exercise and studies have shown coffee decreases the chance of developing heart disease, but will adversely affect those with existing heart conditions.

Addiction to caffeine is very real and headaches are a very common side effect if you haven’t had your fix. Insomnia affects a large part of the population at some time in their life, and since caffeine suppresses the breakdown of adrenaline, being stuck in the ‘fight or flight’ state will not help you to sleep.

Just like with caffeine, a lot of us want to cut down alcohol for health benefits; decaf in the evenings gives you your favourite morning drink but without the caffeine side-effects. Swapping a high calorie drink such as beer (180 calories) or wine (85 calories in red wine) for black coffee which has only 2 calories is also great for weight control along with no alcohol side effects but still allows you to have something more enjoyable and indulgent than sipping water all evening.

Summary

Very soon, having great decaf coffee in will just be like you would have caffeinated coffee on offer. Many companies are recognising that clients coming in to their office want a choice of beverage, and visiting friends and relatives (especially over the upcoming festive period), having a decaf coffee alternative impresses. You no longer have to say sheepishly ‘is instant OK?’.

So many great things are happening with coffee at the moment, including improvements in the quality of decaf after an increase in demand. It’s not the inferior ‘I’ll drink it because there is nothing else’ beverage any more.

There are a range of beans that work well with all brewing methods. A decaf espresso will open your eyes to a whole new world of coffee for any time of the day and we highly recommend it.

The Roasting House have a Swiss Water decaffeinated Classic Colombian in stock with good body, balanced acidity, and a rich, sweet, lingering finish.

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Why we sell whole beans and not ground

After flirting with the idea of offering ground coffee in 2013, we decided after a small trial run not to do so.

Although this made anti-business sense on paper as the pre-ground market is bigger than whole bean, and being a new business where every new sale mattered (and still does), this might seem like coffee snobbery. However we’re coffee lovers, not coffee snobs!

After roasting and degassing, the coffee bean is ready to be broken down and the goodness extracted into water. Breaking down that bean earlier than the point of brew exposes the chemicals to air, and the oils dry off. The longer it is left ground, the more of its goodness it is losing even if sealed in an airtight or one-way valve bag. A few hours after being ground, the coffee will never be the same again.

We are proud of the coffee we roast and the service we give. We don’t want this to be negated by giving you sub-standard coffee. We specially roast our coffee to order so you get it super fresh, pre-grinding it means you would lose that benefit.

We want to encourage you to grind your own so we spent time looking at cheap and capable grinders for all types of brews. Until recently we had in stock the Hario Skerton Mill hand grinder from Japan for £34.95 which met the criteria along with being a worthy investment that won’t break the bank. It will do all grinds from fine espresso to coarse filter. Our only negative point is the small burrs which take a few more turns to grind the beans compared to more expensive larger burr grinders. But the trade-off is a 75-90% price difference and stronger arm muscles.

Once you grind your own you will never look back. The taste difference is noticeable and when combined with the different types of beans available, a whole new world of great tasting coffee is opened up to you.

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Coffee Bulking

We don’t and will never bulk out our coffee with other substances

Something that has recently caught our attention here at The Roasting House is ‘coffee bulking’. Coffee bulking is when coffee suppliers bulk out coffee with cheaper substances. These include but aren’t limited to soil, twigs, corn, flour and anything you could imagine reasonably hiding in a bag of coffee. Coffee bags are opaque so when they are sitting on a shop shelf, all you have is the feel and the smell which gives no indication that anything but coffee is in the bag.

Coffee prices have gone up this year and are predicted to continue to rise in 2015 (due to a bad 2014 harvest in the world’s largest coffee producer, Brazil and surrounding areas) and this is the reason for this dirty trick.

It is more commonly done to ground coffee as it is harder to tell if adulterants have been added when it is all ground down. Ground coffee is a bad idea from the start but I understand why people buy it. There is the convenience and how much better can coffee be by grinding your own? The answer is fresh and much better but that discussion is for another time.

We have been victim to coffee bulking ourselves albeit in a different form, from coffee farms including small stones to add weight to shipping bags (60kg in hessian are standard). It’s impossible for importers to check before haulage; it’s only when you start to break down the bag for roasting you notice the stones.

We would obviously never pass this on to customers and we will never buy from that farm again without some solid assurances first.

The clue is in the cost

We know how much raw coffee costs. The cheapest Robusta to the best Arabica has a price difference over 1000% (one thousand percent). The difference is evident in the taste. Most Robusta goes to instant coffee, lower grade to multinational roasters, and the premium to ‘third wave’ coffee roasters – previously known as ‘snobs’ but now accepted as in the know.

You can get bargains. The small plucky upstart farm promising excellent grade coffee but can’t command a premium price because they are without reputation do exist, but are few in number. However, if it is that excellent then hosting an event to the best cuppers is probably worth the expense to prove your claim.

Next time you see bags of coffee claiming to be premium but are on offer at a price that seems too cheap, then question it. Ask for information on the providence of the coffee and do a bit of reserch. There are some small farms that don’t have much information but usually there will be something online, often cupping reports. That question could lead to a ‘yes, this is a legit bargain’ but coffee roasting is a business of tight margins. Rarely will you see roasters able to offer large discounts because the price charged is representive of the costs which right now are only going up. However great coffee is the reward. A coffee bag with little to no information about the bean used or roasting date potentially means the roaster cares little about what goes into the bag.

Trust but ask questions of your local roaster as they want your business and recommendations to friends & family.

One of the best ways to make sure that you are buying pure coffee is to buy whole beans and grind your own as its impossible to hide anything else in whole bean coffee. There could be something hidden in the bag of course but you’ll soon spot it so there’s no risk of you consuming something nasty.

Because we roast in small batches, we can always tell exactly what goes in to the roaster and then in to each bag. In the comparatively unlikely event that there are hidden stones bulking up our green

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Why don’t you offer ground?

We believe coffee is best ground just before you add it to water. Pre-ground breaks down the bean exposing to air and the longer it is left the longer that dilution to air is happening. We feel it wouldn’t do our coffee justice having ground. We want to offer the freshest coffee bean possible but breaking up that perfectly roasted bean for you would just make it another ground coffee. Although freshness of beans is an important factor when making coffee, the grind just before brewing is arguably more important and we highly recommend getting a grinder.

Because we want to encourage self grinding we’ve decided that offering ground would put us against the change we want to see. Grinding yourself gives you more tools to experiment with coffee rather than just having to go with what the coffee merchant has decided for you.

We recommend getting a burr grinder but they are more expensive than blade grinders. The main difference is that burrs will crush your beans to an even size but blades chop the bean which can leave a very uneven ground which isn’t good for consistency.

Adam reviews the Hario Ceramic Coffee Mill hand grinder (video) which we really like as a versatile burr grinder that doesn’t break the bank.

Get in touch in all the usual ways (twitterfacebook, hello@afreshbagofcoffee.co.uk) for questions.

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Fair trade and ethics

We were recently asked via Twitter whether our coffee beans are Fair Trade or not. While we attempted to say briefly what our stance was, it is difficult to fully explain a complicated and nuanced situation within the confines of 140 characters so we thought we’d reply via the blog where we can be more detailed.

Our current beans come from Honducafe, a family-run organisation which works with small farmers.

They are certified by USDA, Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade and others. However we cannot honestly say that we knew this when we bought them. Honducafe have a poor website with little information. We talked to our supplier (whom we trust) and found out what we can about them via forums. However it took us a long time to find their certification status. It isn’t always stamped all over a product like a status symbol!

This is not to say that we don’t care about Fair Trade. Ideally we would like to go out and source our beans for ourselves, and only use beans from an ethical source. Maybe if we get to a situation where we can afford the regular trips out we will.

In the meantime we do what we can.

Finding information about the provenance of coffee beans is difficult. It took a lot of digging to finally find out that our beans were indeed certified by reputable bodies.

You might say it is worth it to do this digging, however Fair Trade and similar schemes are complicated and having that label doesn’t always mean that the product is the best or the most ethically sourced available on the market.

Many smaller farmers who may have excellent working conditions are unable to participate because to do so would incur costs they can’t afford.

In our opinion, there should be no need for a Fair Trade label – all farmers should be paid a living wage but because of the ill balance of the world, that doesn’t happen. We grow enough food to feed the world but people still go hungry; it’s complex and as with any commodity that the whole world wants but isn’t available for everyone to grow themselves (coffee beans in this case), it creates tension and even wars.

Putting it like that, why would anyone drink coffee? The truth is it contains a drug and we want it. We put a lot of effort into making it exactly how we want but probably less thought into how it was grown and Tacopowell is right to question us on it.

A great thing about fair trade is that if the price collapses which markets do from time to time, then farmers still get a minimum price for their goods. However as a buyer this costs us more and unfortunately this extra cost doesn’t go to the producer. It goes to middlemen who run the co-operatives who have organised the fair trade label for their farmers. This might seem only fair since they have taken the trouble to do all the admin for it but fair trade status is only given on a snapshot of a farm’s current circumstances. Some studies have shown little to no improvement in the state of the local area after the majority of farms sign up to fair trade (see further reading below).

HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLE

Lets say Nottingham has magic beans that can only be grown here because it’s the hallowed turf of Robin Hood who blessed this land. People start to grow these magic beans and the whole world wants a piece; very soon the market is full of traders and it’s difficult to navigate. Co-operatives are then formed between a few farms, some merge to become bigger farms others stay at it by themselves. It’s a natural progression.

Currently the supply chain looks like this:
Producers > Wholesalers > Retail > Customer.

The price reflects everyone getting paid – or should do.

Reports start to come out that some of these farms are treating their staff badly and an outrage ensues. The public demand that Nottingham sort it out, but free marketers who say that nothing can be done as local laws are being abided by, although arguably they aren’t fit for purpose. We come in and say “this won’t do” and launch the Robin Hood Alliance which aims to make sure farms are treating staff well. The public love it, problem solved.

As the alliance grows we need more help, more admin is taking place and we have our own overheads. We need to spend time and money promoting and telling people what The Robin Hood Alliance sticker is while making sure it isn’t abused.

It’s also what people want on the coffee they sell and buy because it takes the guess work out of making an informed choice on every product you come across. We start to get more queries than we can deal with, we can’t keep it in-house any more and we have to get people in to help.

It is now costing more overheads to vet these people to ensure that they will hold true to the values and standards we launched the alliance on. We start printing the certificates by the thousands. We’re a global brand.

Right now, the supply chain is Producers > Robin Hood Alliance workers > Robin Hood Alliance HQ > Wholesalers > Retail > Customer.

It’s a natural progression that something so complex needs more people to work on it. A farmer comes to me and says “We have a magic bean plant; please can I have your certificate?”

We reply “are you part of one of the co-ops as they will set up for you”

“I’m very small, I want to work for myself with my name on it as I’m very proud of it”

“OK” we say, “if you pay for our costs then we will do the audit and set you up”.

“I can’t afford your costs; I’m very small and right now very poor”.

“Well come back once you have sold a few and you can afford us”.

Another farmer comes to me and says “We have ten magic bean plants, please can we your certificate? We can pay the moderate costs although we are poor but we can soon make it back with my ten plants and your certificate”.

THE DIFFERENCE

The difference here is that the poorest farm cannot afford our Robin Hood Alliance certificate but the moderately poor one can. My label is spreading so much so that the smallest of start ups want to be a part of my label but because we can’t work for free then we can’t help them as much as we might want.

Larger farms with my certificate can buy out the farmer with one plant and still have the certificate but the small farmer now works for Magic-Bean-Corp under their name. Or he could keep at it himself and not ever go to the alliance as he is hearing reports that farmers who are part of the alliance are only getting a few percent of the extra 20% it costs in the shops because of all the overheads.

The once one-planter is now earning even more than the alliance farmer per yield. Paying the costs to join the alliance will bring him and his workers no further benefits but will cost him more.
Or the alternative scenario is because he was so poor and unable to compete he is no longer in business – he was driven out by the alliance.

COMPLEXITY

We are not against fair trade but it is such a complicated area that we cannot say outright that we would only use beans with the specific Fair Trade stamp. Even if we did, we couldn’t use their branding as we aren’t audited to be fair trade in that sense and it isn’t a business priority getting that status; we would have to raise prices further than the extra cost of beans to make back what it would cost us in extra admin and auditing.

However, we do try to find out what we can. Honducafe was difficult to find information about and they are a relatively big supplier. Smaller suppliers are even more difficult. We would, without a doubt, refuse to buy beans from a supplier we have reason to doubt or who we know does not treat their workers well or pay them fairly. We decided to trust our supplier and his purchasing decision; we hope you can trust in our decisions too.

If you read the daily news, you’ll see there is always a story about a large corporation tax status being less than ethical but fully within the law but we also bet that somewhere they can point to a “we are good label”. In fact one of the verification labels a coffee supplier can get is from Starbucks whose tax arrangements are far from ethical, makes me wonder where else they cut corners and what reassurances their certificate can offer?

My argument is; if all your products and services are made by those with the passion for what they do then there would be no need for a Fair Trade label because we’d be automatically fair to each other anyway. But the world isn’t that way, the label helps, but it is far from the whole story.

We all benefit from living in a world that produces very cheap and OK quality but from a questionable provenance – consider the clothes you’re wearing and the device you’re reading this blog post on. But we want to be part of a better system, we try to do what we can.

We could go on and we want this debate to continue. Next time we are looking for beans we will balance the concerns of all points of view. However we don’t want to find ourselves in a position where we are using a label for the sake of having the label rather than because the beans are the best we can buy from a trusted source.

FURTHER READING

http://www.griffithsspeaker.com/Fairtrade/Ethical%20Objections%20to%20Fairtrade%20web.pdf (PDF 815KB)