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Coffee myths busted

Five Senses CoffeeJeremy Hulsdunk 15 June 2009

We are revisiting one of our favourite past articles, adding some urban legends we’ve come across over the years and reconsidering a few common myths within the coffee industry today.

One of the curious things about coffee making is that, historically, there has been no formal training structure. Most parallel pursuits (cooking, wine making etc.) have formalised apprenticeships and education systems. Coffee making is often learnt from more experienced coffee makers or coffee roasting companies. This can lead to the perpetuation of practices that are either a total waste of time or possibly even counterproductive to making great coffee. The latter are often ingrained and hard habits to break, even though they have no reasonable basis.

So, we’ve waded through some of the more commonly encountered beliefs about coffee to bring you the hard facts and dispel some of the myths. Whether you’re an experienced home barista or working behind an espresso bar, here is the definitive Five Senses’ guide to busting popular coffee myths.

Myth 1: A 30ml ‘single’ shot in 30 seconds is the only way to have espresso

To this day, one of the most common coffee myths is that espresso means 30ml of brewed coffee in 30 seconds of extraction. Coffee is an organic product, so there will always be variables e.g. where it was grown, roast levels and even freshness. All these variables mean that there is no one ‘golden recipe’ which will work for all coffee.

We now brew coffee using more accurate metrics and create espresso recipes for each different coffee. Starting with the industry standard ratio of 1:2 (coffee : yield/brew weight), we design a recipe to best represent the inherent flavour of our chosen coffee. Calculating dose weight, yield weight and the time taken to brew helps baristas duplicate recipes.

This is a great starting recipe, then adjust to taste!
Dose: 22g
Yield: 44g
Time: 28sec

Myth: Busted

Myth 2: ‘Blonding’ results in a bad brew

The previous school of thought believed that observing the shot and removing the cup as it started to ‘blonde’ (become pale, watery and thin looking) would result in the best brew. This has left some baristas frightened by colour change during extraction. Using a recipe individually tailored for the specific coffee, we no longer look at colour change in the same way. An espresso will undergo textural and colour changes for the entire duration of the shot, starting with a viscous dark brown pour. This then tans out, becoming a lighter shade of brown and lighter in texture; this part of the extraction contributes to creating a balanced drink. Then, finally, the blonding occurs which leaves the coffee looking pale yellow and even thinner, almost like water.

If the ‘blonde’ part of the extraction is taken out of the drink and tasted separately, it has a heavy bitterness and harsh, thin body/mouthfeel. By brewing our espresso correctly, we eliminate any ‘over’ taste which always results in a better taste in the cup.

Myth: Confirmed

Myth 3: Longer shots equal stronger coffee

I am often confronted by this myth, particularly when people crave a stronger espresso, but don’t want to brew more coffee to achieve this.

Essentially, only a small amount of coffee dissolves when we use water as our solvent. Up to 30% dissolves, and what remains is cellulose/plant matter. The amount of soluble matter reduces as we pass water through it, especially at the start of the extraction. As discussed above, different sections of the shot contribute different things to the final beverage and the last bit of the extraction is not the part you want to drink. Running espresso for a longer period of time doesn’t result in a stronger beverage!

Imagine adding more water to whisky? It doesn’t make it stronger, it just makes it a longer brew. If you are after a stronger brew, brew a double shot or add an extra shot to the cup. This loads it with caffeine, while keeping the coffee delicious!

Myth: Bustedimg_7765_x

Myth 4: Once the grind is set, you shouldn’t touch it

This very common idea is often thrown around the coffee industry and it’s one of the easiest myths to test! When we talk about grind, we mean the ability to adjust the burrs of the grinder to give a coarser or finer grind. When the grind is set too coarse, the water flows faster, resulting in a thin, watery-tasting coffee. When the grind is set too fine, the water drips slowly out of the machine. Because the hot water is in contact with the coffee for a longer time, the coffee extracts more bitter compounds, leaving the brew tasting bitter and dry.

The grind is a constant variable in a café and at home, and throughout the day can cause all sorts of problems if not properly maintained — even if you are doing everything else exactly the same!

This is pretty much all due to changing air pressure and the residual heat in the grinder burrs. For example, if the day starts out cool and dry but ends up hot and humid, the grind will very gradually change from being a good pour to a bad pour. So, a good barista will always be in contact with the most important piece of equipment, the grinder, adjusting the pour whenever it looks wrong!

Myth: Bustedmammoth-3774-x

Myth 5: You should never re-steam milk

The goal when steaming milk is to achieve a smooth texture, one that is glossy and fluid and reaches a desired temperature. We start by using fresh, cold milk which is made up of water, fats, proteins and sugars. As we slowly add hot steam and start creating texture, these things begin to change; fats melt giving us a lovely smooth mouthfeel, sugars dissolve making our warm milk sweeter and proteins move away from water creating micro-bubbles. Therefore, it’s important to note that hot and cold milk are physically and chemically different in many ways.

If we start with milk that has already been heated, or add cold milk to previously heated milk, we catalyse these reactions sooner, resulting in some interesting (and unpleasant) changes. When milk is reheated, it will start to develop a sour, scorched aroma and flavour. As we are unable to create any more aerated foam in hot milk, the texture of the milk will split with a thin meringue-like micro foam which forms on top of the hot, thin milk.

Use fresh, cold milk every time for superior results. If you’re aiming to reduce waste, work on judging the appropriate volume of cold milk per cup.

Myth: Confirmed

Myth 6: Tapping the side of the portafilter with the tamper when dosing helps to remove any loose grinds

This was once common practice, and indeed it still is in many cafes around the world, but there’s actually a clear answer to this debate. Just to get things straight, back in the day when I knocked the side of my portafilter, the loose grinds did fall from the sides of the basket and onto the coffee puck – but what effect does this have on extraction?

To confirm that this practice has no place in the coffee industry, we experimented with using an old tamper (for smashing) and a Naked Portafilter. No matter how gentle the tap, it always cracked or dislodged the puck, allowing the water to find the path of least resistance through the coffee. Although tapping the side does create a nice flat surface, it creates an unpleasant brew because it results in channelling and uneven extraction.

Myth: Busted

Myth 7: Decaf contains no caffeine

To be certified as decaffeinated coffee, only 97% of the caffeine needs to be removed, so most decafs contain a small amount of caffeine — roughly 2mg /100ml as opposed to 175mg/100ml in regular espresso.

Myth: Busted

Myth 8: A cup of drip filter contains more caffeine than a shot of espresso

Different brewing processes have different steeping times, which has a big impact on the amount of caffeine that’s extracted. Per 100ml, espresso contains the most caffeine, at 175mg, followed by drip filter and then plunger (see www.energyfiend.com). However, if you compare a full sized cup of drip filter to an espresso shot, it’s clear that the cup of drip filter contains more caffeine (around 107.5mg) than the shot of espresso (77mg).

Myth: Plausible

Myth 9: I don’t need to dry my portafilter when I wash it with water before dosing.

This myth is easily investigated using the Naked Portafilter, which allows you to see the bottom of the coffee basket, and so to determine where the water flows through the coffee. The aim is to obtain an even press of water through the coffee basket, which will achieve an even extraction.

When the basket already has a coating of water, that water tends to attract the other water droplets creating a path of least resistance — not unlike a newly waxed car, where water moves to join up with other water drops. When this occurs, water is encouraged to move around the wet side of the basket rather than obtaining the desired even extraction by moving evenly through the puck. This leads to an over-extracted watery drink, lacking in the body and sweetness.

If you want to ensure an even extraction, make sure you always dry your basket with a tea towel.

Myth: Busted

Myth 10: Tamping requires all my might.

When we tamp a coffee puck, we aim to create an even surface with an even level of resistance to allow water to flow through the bed of coffee smoothly. Do we need to overpower the coffee to do this? No.

If we tamp with too softly, there is less resistance and we run the risk of having water pass through the less dense areas in our bed of coffee. This means water will run through our coffee bed super-fast and not extract the content we require to build a delicious coffee.

We are looking for enough resistance to both create structure and slow the extraction down. When you can feel the resistance provided by the bench you are tamping on, you’ve reached an appropriate level.

Myth: Busted

Myth 11: Soy milk always curdles.

Soy milk is commonly used in cafes, but how can we get the best result with this product or will it always curdle? Baristas dislike dealing with curdled soy milk, and soy drinkers dislike it even more! But can we help it?

The truth is we can’t always help it. Unfortunately, soy milk (in particular, heated soy milk) doesn’t like acidity or high temperatures, so when we add soy to a hot acidic brew we aren’t really helping it remain stable.

Heating soy milk encourages coagulation. To try and prevent this, soy milk is often heated to a lower temperature than dairy milk. Methods we’ve tested at the academy to reduce temperature have included adding a small amount of cold soy to the espresso, or we’ve tried cooling the espresso by placing it in a fridge whilst steaming the soy milk. For more information, read The Trouble With Soy.

Myth: Kinda Busted

Myth 12: You should never turn your machine off

Well, this obviously depends on whether you’re working your magic behind a busy espresso bar or pulling shots in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Café Machines

In a café setting, there are definite advantages to leaving your coffee machine switched on all the time, and it’s what we recommend. Firstly, when a machine is heating up, its components are under significant mechanical stress (we really mean significant), as the various parts expand at different rates, often resulting in electrical and mechanical breakdown. Leaving your machine on permanently can help you to avoid these costly breakdowns. In addition, the time it takes to fully heat your machine after you first switch it on is usually much longer than the time it takes for the light to appear on your machine indicating that it’s warmed up. This is because it’s not just the water which needs to heat up, but also all of the group head components. If you start using the machine too early eg before all of the metal parts have had time to heat up, the temperature stability of your machine will be less than ideal, and your coffee will suffer.

On the other hand, there’s obviously an energy saving if you switch the machine off when you’re not using it, and the rubber seals in your machine will not go brittle as quickly … but with regular maintenance this won’t be a problem.

Home Machines

Our advice to home users is a little different though. We recommend to switch on the coffee machine about half an hour before you want your first coffee. Your manual probably says that the machine will be ready to go in 6 or 7 minutes, but in reality it takes about half an hour. Like we mentioned for cafe machines above, this is because it’s not just the water that needs to heat up, but also all of the group head components. If you start using the machine before all of the metal parts have had time to heat through properly, the temperature stability of your machine will be less than ideal, and your coffee will suffer.

In the early A.M. hours, many of you may be tempted to skip the half hour warm up and go straight for a shot. Well, we’ve got the perfect solution to that problem. Invest in a timer switch that you can attach to the cord at the power point (although make sure it’s a high grade timer that can handle 10amp power). You can then set the timer to turn on your machine half an hour before you get up, so that you can wake up the way you want — that is, with a coffee in hand.

And while it’s true that the process of heating up puts mechanical stress on the component parts of your machine, a home espresso machine uses considerably less energy than its commercial cousin, making it worth your while to turn the machine off when you’re not using it.

Myth: Confirmed for café machines, Busted for domestic machines

The world of coffee is exciting. It’s constantly growing, learning and expanding its field of reference. That means we’re continually learning how to create a better result in the cup — and we want to pass that knowledge on to you. Enjoy!

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