My Coffee Conundrum
I love coffee but for sometime now I’ve felt incapable of making an enjoyable cup at home. How, in the year 2015, can someone actually say that?
This story has been brewing in my mind for some time. It’s one perk true confessions of a coffee lover filtered with some coffee therapy from my friends Phil Robertson and Sebastian Sztabzyb of Phil and Sebastian Coffee Roasters. It’s a cool thing to have expert friends to help you solve the conundrums in your life.
You are your habits
The first time I had coffee it was a black cup of instant Sanka and I felt quite ill for some time after I drank it. I took an immediate liking to coffee ice cream and Coffee Crisp chocolate bars and one day in college I added some cream to a Cuppa Joe and realized I liked coffee – as long as its bitterness was soothed by cream.
Tim Horton’s was a sparkling new and truly Canadian enterprise when I was in university in Halifax in the early 80s. It was a real treat to take a bus across town to go to the city’s one and only “Timmies”. We thought it the best tasting coffee in the world. I coveted those little white mugs with the brown logo so much that a friend stole one for me. I gave it to my parents.
I felt so guilty about the theft that I’ve paid for it a ten times over with the coins I’ve stuffed in those Tim Horton’s Kid’s Camps collection boxes. It’s too bad that Burger King just gobbled up Tim Horton’s. They’ll turn it into a TimBit. It was a good Canadian company at one time. My Dad still loves it when I send him his gift card every year for Christmas and my parents still have that stolen mug. It’s just the right size, Dad always says.
Spiraling down into drips and dregs
When I graduated from University I started working 12-hour days and night shifts as a nurse. I’d work seven 12-hour days in two weeks and then seven 12-hour nights in the next fortnight. I did well on nights until the witching hour between four and five o’clock in the morning. That’s when adrenal glands start preparing to fire up an ordinarily sleeping body. That’s when I started drinking absolute swill coffee to – as the song says – help me make it through the night. I only drank coffee on night shifts then because as a born and bred Maritimer, tea was my beverage of choice during the daytime.
When I moved to Calgary and got promoted to nursing staff instructor, I had regular daytime hours and coffee switched from survival aide to social vehicle. I’d meet my colleagues every morning at the same time, same station to have a mini pot of cafeteria coffee and a toasted cinnamon bun. I began to associate coffee with friends and cinnamon buns. It rose greatly in status.
This was at the time in my 20s when all my friends were getting married. They’d describe weekend mornings of lounging over a pot of coffee with the love of their life. Coffee seemed to be connected to the kind of intimacy I dearly hoped for in my life.
I did find a sweet partner but I had to give up the dream of him crooning to me over a cozy coffee. I just happened to marry a man, who still to this day, drinks nothing hot. Nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. All those dreams of lingering over lattes together – they were just, clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee. I suddenly knew what Carly Simon had been singing about.
Grad school and the collapse of my coffee connection
We moved to Boston a.k.a. beantown (the baked kind – not the roasted kind). I was back on the days to nights nursing shift grind but this time I was scheduled to do eight 10 hour nights in a row in each four-week rotation. The drip brew at work was MJB out of a massive green tin can. I took cinnamon to work to mask the poor quality. Without the spice it tasted like an old rubber sneaker.
I was becoming a bit of a coffee connoisseur. I had found a company called the Coffee Connection around the corner from my apartment. I loved walking in to smell the freshly roasted beans and I fell in love with their Kenya AA roast. I bought it in small amounts so it was always fresh when I brewed it in my Black and Decker under counter mounted drip coffeemaker. I started grad school and would stay up and write until two in the morning, then get up at nine and slowly sip a fresh brew until it was time to fly off to my classes.
Coffee Connection had six stores in what seemed like all the best locations in Boston. Then, one fateful day – in what’s now their predictable pattern – the mothership of Starbucks sailed their bright green mermaid masthead into Beantown and bought up all my Coffee Connection stores. I was devastated.
Gone was the mellow roast and smoothness I’d come to adore. Sunburned beans that had been tossed on the briny ocean waves arrived with the siren from Seattle. Years later they would buy another beloved café – The Hogsbreath in Penticton – for the same reason. I’d be bitter about this pattern but it would remind me too much of their coffee.
This might be a problem
After three years in Boston, with my husband cranking out research papers and me doing a Master’s Degree and working two jobs, we were both burnt out and ready for a break. We packed our car and set out to camp our way across America. I bought a little campfire coffee percolator for the trip. We camped in some pretty remote places. My husband learned that I could not go anywhere without my hit of java. It became obvious that I had been using coffee like a drug.
I had my drug’s paraphernalia, I had withdrawal symptoms, I got angry when confronted about how much I drank and I definitely needed an eye-opener everyday. I hit rock bottom when I found a good café in Carmel, California and made my husband drive me a half hour from our campsite to get there every morning for my fix – even though he still didn’t drink coffee himself.
A coffee break
When we arrived in Calgary to begin the next chapter of our lives, my gut was sore all the time and I decided caffeine and coffee needed and exodus from my life’s story. I yawned and had a headache for three solid weeks. I missed coffee terribly but child rearing gave me a break from that. I had pregnancies where I vomited about 20 times per day so coffee was the last thing on my mind during those early years as a parent. When my second son was born I made myself a Soy Chai Latte every morning for one year straight. I drank decaf coffee once in a great while.
Soft core – the LSD years
I seemed to slip into a sort of coffee purgatory. Those were the dangerous years of L.S.D.
Yes, my standing order at coffee shops was now L.S.D. – a Latte Soy Decaf. When one barista shouted – I need a “Why Bother” to his partner at the espresso machine, I thought, really, he’s right, why do I bother?
When my son was about eight I lined up some support for my busy husband and had a week away. I went with a friend to a cooking school in Tuscany. I remember coming down in the morning to the dining room and finding a fancy espresso machine with little pods and a pitcher of steamed milk beside it. I remember smiling. I thought, “when in Rome”, and made myself a full-strength cappuccino.
It was remarkable. I actually felt my night owl’s brain click on.
It was like someone had flipped a giant switch. I was alert and fully charged. Why had I been depriving myself of this? I actually, very physically, need coffee for optimal functioning. I decided to take the advice of Epicurus who said, be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.
I’ve never had over two cups of coffee in a day since making my peace with it.
Riding the waves
Back at home, Tim Horton’s still had its fans, Second Cup had come along in a second wave of coffee houses with fancier machines and coffees, and, of course, Starbucks and their barista-made coffees were making third waves everywhere. Slowly a few independent fourth wave direct trade and coffee bean terroir-driven cafes started opening and I took the plunge of checking them all out under the guise of research.
But really, it was more than research. I’m a friendly person and I’ve made a lot of barista friends around town over the years. I loved to tell my husband about my newest coffee connections.
There was Phil and Sebastian and their new stall at the farmer’s market, my friend Dave who I could always kibitz with at Higher Ground, Pierre who let me speak French to him while he made my Americano at A Ladybug Café, Paul who brought Intelligensia beans to town via deVille, Dale at Sunterra whose just plain sweet to everyone, open-minded Andy at Gravity, Julie and Nicole at Bite Groceteria, and sweet Sam and Jenn at Fratello Analog. One day my husband asked if, given the baristas age compared to mine, my affection for them did not make me a bit of a “coffee cougar?”
I assured him that I was more like a serial sipper.
I liked a few of these new coffeehouses but was faithful to none. All my time spent riding the latest wave of coffeehouses changed one thing forever though. I no longer liked any of the coffee I was making at home.
Parents and pods
I began to wonder if maybe I should look into the fancy Nespresso machines that were popping up everywhere. I had written about all the R&D that Nestle had done to perfect the micro grind and there was no doubt that, since my spouse was never going to join me in my coffee habit, brewing single cups would work nicely for me. I knew the appeal of this format had truly reached the masses, when I found that my parents – who thought Nabob was the height of sophistication and Starbucks was slough sludge – had even bought a Keurig pod coffeemaker.
“The Keurig”, as they called it, and its progeny of pods had taken over every flat surface in my Mom’s kitchen. A few days into my annual visit back home, I was relieved to discover that my parents were still hooking up to their Nabob drip every morning and my Mom had bought the pod pounder to look cool to her college-age barista brat grandkids. I also realized that I had this risk free trial of every brand of coffee that could be crammed into a pod.
Turns out I didn’t think any of them were very tasty but still I thought about the gleaming Nespresso boutiques I’d seen. Surely, the original and their beautifully presented product HAD TO taste better.
The pod police
Just when I was about to be seduced by the sheer sleekness of Nespresso’s galaxy of pods, my friend Jennifer Cockrall-King published an article called “Espresso 2.0” in Eighteen Bridges magazine. The pod phenomenon had achieved a 31 per cent market share in the few years they’d been around. People were paying – whether they did the math or not – 50 to 72 cents per five to seven grams and that added up to about $100.00 per kilogram. And, instead of those little pods floating off into space, they were taking up more and more room in our landfills.
I passed on the pods.
Via and my permanent Vacation
Here’s where I felt my modern day conundrum. I had finally made peace with my “need” for coffee but was still unable to make a good cup at home. My home has an instant hot water tap and after drinking Starbucks’ little Via micro ground instant coffee packages on a vacation I began drinking them at home. All the time. I had reached a new and very lame low.
Though they would not take up as much room in the landfill, they were still filled with crap coffee that I made palatable with the addition of a double dose of cream. I did the math for this new habit and was spending $1.00 per four gram packet. I was mortified when I calculated that at $250.00 per kilogram.
I felt like a full-strength hypocrite.
My friend Jennifer Cockrall-King’s research was right. Pods sell so well for the affordable luxury of convenient, no-mess, made at home lattes and not for the quality of the coffee they contain. But what if a person did not want to sacrifice quality for convenience?
Gadgets, geeks and pouring over my options
I began seeking advice. I had discussions about a Science article on super tasters with the owner of Edmonton’s Transcend coffee, Poul Mark. It was a mistake for a nerd like me to mention something so geeky to a geek like him (complement intended). He started describing the molecular biology and genome of supertasters and I realized I needed to steer the conversation to something more within my grasp.
I met garagiste coffee-roasting guru John Anderson at the Bean Scene in Kelowna. I admired the care and dedication he took as he roasted beans in front of me. I began to see the art and science of getting the roast just right.
I met the owners of a coffee gadget importation company and learned about their world of cuppings and chemex beakers and came away feeling like a pawn to their royalty in the chess game of coffee marketing. I had the distinct feeling I had to be very wary of coffee paraphernalia given the sheer magnitude of it that could conceivably end up in my home.
Consumerism is alive and well where coffee is concerned.
Around this time I made friends with the manager of a Fratello Analog cafe and she introduced me to one of the owners, Russ Prefontaine. The Fratello group were warm and generous to me and to the guests I brought to their café. I fell in love with their pour-over coffee method coffees. It was an elegant technique but I was not confident I could replicate it at home.
If I was ever going to regain eight ounces of self-respect in a cup I knew I had to start making some kind of coffee that I could appreciate in the comfort of my own home. I needed coffee analysis and therapy. Despite how kind the Fratello fraternity was to me, when I thought about whom I had the longest and truest coffee relationship with, I thought of Phil and Sebastian and I turned to them for coffee therapy.
I’ve always liked Phil and Sebastian. I got to know them when they were a start up. They wanted to showcase their coffee and the stories of the farmers that grew it at Slow Food Calgary’s Feast of Fields. Since I was the volunteer organizer of the event for a number of years we communicated a fair bit.
No matter how challenging it was to set up a full barista shop in the garden where we held the event, Seb would engineer it. He even rented generators after blowing out the antiquated electrical system of the host restaurant one year. His wife Emily volunteered with Slow Food so I got to know her a bit too. They were growing a sweet family life together.
I got to understand what made Phil tick when he was hired to do a coffee tasting for a catered dinner party I attended. He loved coaxing maximal flavour from coffee beans and his approach was calibrated and scientific. He gave me crap because I wanted to put cream in my cup after his perfect extraction. I actually liked that about him.
I sent an email with this saga in brief. Phil and Seb took mercy on me and took me under their wing. I explained my needs and wants.
I needed great taste reminiscent of my glory days in Boston with that good old Kenya AA. Whatever the method, it had to easy and reliable in its results. I did not want a lot of clutter on my counter. I would look at the cost as an investment. I plan on drinking coffee until my 100th birthday when I will have a big party and then die happily in my sleep that night.
Phil Robertson, coffee guru, took up the challenge to mentor me.
A Phil-a-buster session to Phil-proof coffee
To be fair, I thought I might take an hour of the guy’s time.
This shows my incredible lack of knowledge and the extent of the courtesy that these busy people were granting me. Four power hours with Phil later, I was infinitesimally more aware of what it really takes to make a good cup of coffee.
I’m going to give you the highly condensed version as follows:
A thoughtful cup of coffee by Phil Robertson – Cool thing #29 on this blog
Step 1 – The Water
Phil got me to bring in samples of my home’s Reverse Osmosis (RO) filtered water and my regular tap water. My RO system failed. It just plain wasn’t working. It was Phil-a-busted. I actually had to call my plumber to have it fixed. In the meantime, Phil told me after years of sampling Calgary’s water and using a TDS meter (it’s a fancy thing that measures the electrical conductivity of water – water has minerals – minerals are charged with ions – this gizmo measures them. Have I lost you?) to measure the parts per million (ppm), the ideal ppm for extracting coffee’s soluble flavour from its grounds is 70 ppm.
To get 70 ppm with my water Phil devised a ratio of 3 parts RO water to 1 part tap water filtered through a Brita filter.
Three to One (3:1) is not the same as one-third to two-thirds. It is truly three parts to one part. If you don’t have a RO tap you can buy Culligan’s RO water at most stores.
Get yourself one of those digital weigh scales and weigh 180 gms of Brita filtered water and then 60 grams of RO. If you don’t have a scale use ¾ cup to ¼ cup.
I had water homework after my first session with Phil. I had to get the plumber out. I bought a Brita water unit and I also splurged on a kettle to get the water to the correct temperature. In Calgary that’s 206°F. I can set my fancy new kettle to that temperature.
Step 2 – The Daily Grind
I needed to be able to grind coffee and do it well. That’s a big part of being able to extract its flavour. I bought a new coffee Virtuoso grinder from Phil and Sebastian. My former one had been used far to frequently for garlic and ginger to ever be safe for coffee again. Phil worked out the grind setting (30) that would work with my new coffee maker.
Step 3 – Full Court Press
My new method of coffee brewing is called Aeropress. In 60 seconds from pouring water over freshly ground beans in a tube, I stir and then press out my maximally extractable coffee flavour through a micro filter and into my cup. The little tube needs special filters. The filters need hot water poured over them from the RO or Brita before using them to filter the coffee.
Step 4 – I almost forgot! The COFFEE
To make great coffee at home you need great coffee and in the right proportion. I now grind 15 gram batches of freshly ground exotic perfectly roasted beans. I pour my 250 grams of water over them. Quoting from one of Phil and Seb’s packages – Carlos’ farm lies on the rich volcanic slopes of the Baru Volcano, a region with great soil and an enviable altitude. The coffee has smooth caramel overtones.
I like my coffee again. I find I drink less and appreciate it more.
Here’s a video (sorry about chopping Phil’s forehead off for most of it) taking you through this process in case you are visual learner like me.
Here’s a video of me and Phil and Sebastian having a coffee party/tasting. I’m the one whose a bit like Joan Cusack, Phil’s eloquent like John Cusack and Seb, well, Seb’s like Brad Pitt – just plain cool as always.
What did I learn from all this? A lot.
I’d always thought that Phil was a purist in search of perfection. Instead, I’d now say he is precise and thoughtful. When he toured me through the roasterie I could see his engineering savoir-faire everywhere. He loves nothing better than to build machines and take them a part and tinker with them till they do what he needs them to do. But here’s the thing – Phil has mellowed since I first met him. He smiles a lot now. He’s a business partner, husband, father and caring son to extended family. He isn’t looking for perfection, he just wants coffee to savour and to help him stop and live in the moment for at least one moment each day. I love that about him.
I also learned that Phil and Sebastian are one of a dozen coffee roasters world-wide that are taking the practice of their business to a whole new level. They are part of this small fourth wave of coffee that represents a change in the tides.
They are focused on the bean, the earth it grows in and the farmers who tend both. They have invested via micro-financing (and a sort of community-shared agricultural model where they share risk in each year’s crop) in about 25 coffee plantations throughout South and Central America. They do this because they want to help the people they work with grow the best “boutique” beans possible so they will have better product to sell and the farmers will make a better living. They visit the plantations four of five times a year and Seb is on the phone to the farmers frequently, making use of the Spanish that came with his Argentinean roots.
I think Phil is a supertaster (and I really do know what that is). If he were a sommelier he’d be a master of wine. He’d be able to pinpoint blindfolded where the grape (or in this case bean) came from just by tasting it. Phil and Seb want coffee drinkers to know what beans taste like at their best wherever they are grown so that we can begin to understand the terroir of each growing region. Their coffee tastes fruity and lighter than a lot of the coffee sold these days. It is not as pungent as it is roasted to bring forth the flavour of quality beans and not mask the quality of poor ones.
It’s a delight to be around people who love what they do this much. I am excited to watch how they change the world with their investments in these farms and the relationships that come with them. I found myself quite philosophically aligned with them and wanting to support them.
Cost/Benefit coffee analysis
I actually did support Phil and Sebastian a fair bit financially as I explored the answer to my coffee conundrum. I bought quite a bit of new equipment from them despite saying that I did not want more paraphernalia. I compensated by cleaning out the coffee gadgets gone wrong clutter and my counter top now has some shiny new toys. My husband shakes his head still.
I’m still not a purist. When I travel I’ll still take those little Starbucks Via packages along – as lame as that is. But on weekday mornings, when I’ve got the house to myself, I grind my beans, boil my water and press a cup of coffee. I sit on the couch with my dog curled up beside me and savour every sip. I imagine hills covered in shiny green-leafed bushes and gleaming bright red coffee berries and then I smile, take the last sip and move on with my day.
I like my new coffee connections. I don’t even need cream to enjoy my coffee all the time now. I’m at peace. My brain is firing on all cylinders and after my daily cup I’m ready to savour it all for another day. My coffee conundrum is solved.