Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Coffee directions

leave a comment »


Corby Kummer has an excellent article in the December 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (the one with the composite photo of Barack Obama on the cover) on the new directions in coffee. There’s movement away from the heavy, dark-roasted coffee pioneered by Alfred Peet and made famous by Starbucks, toward lighter and more complex coffees—and the movement is spearheaded by George Howell, whose non-compete agreement from being bought out by Starbucks has now expired.

Howell is selling his coffees through and is specializing in direct-trade coffees, where he buys directly from the coffee growers, as well as the lighter roasts. Kummer’s article is definitely worth reading if you like coffee, but let me point out this bit:

Good complex flavors are Howell’s specialty, and ones that dark roasts, with their brute power and body, generally obliterate. Light roasts show best when brewed at high temperatures and relatively quickly. This is why he sells only the Technivorm brewer, a Dutch machine that has long been the gold standard for brewed coffee. I brought a few standard home-brewing machines to Howell’s headquarters for what I thought would be a straightforward taste test against the Technivorm. Peter Lynagh, a young man who moved from Austin to fulfill a dream of apprenticing with Howell, and Vince Fedele, an engineer and longtime Coffee Connection fan who is Howell’s chief operating officer, became somewhat obsessed, comparing heat cycles and flavor profiles. So did Howell, who was just back from Colombia. What Lynagh and I thought would be a morning turned into three very long, highly caffeinated days.

The Technivorm delivers results that professionals demand: consistency batch after batch, whether in small or large quantities. It is particularly well suited to lighter roasts. Water at 197 to 201 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which Fetco and similar professional, but few home, machines brew (home machines generally don’t get above 185 or so), brings out the greatest range of flavors in coffees with high acidity—the fruity, desirable kind. These are the flavors that come out in the marathon “cupping” sessions roasters stage constantly, steeping ground coffee in hot water and, after a set time, “breaking the crust” and allowing the grounds to settle to the bottom of the cup.

Fedele asked Lynagh to measure water temperature at every stage of the cycle, and then plotted the results on a graph… The Technivorm won, as it did most but not all of the blind taste tests. The brewer that got up to a high temperature most consistently after it, a Capresso, was generally but not always second in the taste tests. Sometimes a Braun I picked up at the hardware store was, and sometimes an inexpensive Mr. Coffee; sometimes the Technivorm itself came in second. “I’d drink all of them,” Lynagh remarked after the first round on the third day. Given that Lynagh had paid $179.50 for the Capresso at Williams-Sonoma, and sells a terrific-looking Technivorm for $215, the Technivorm seems a clear choice if you plan to explore the world of light roasts and are willing to spend more than, say, $60 to $80 for a brewer.

The coffee in the tests really showed its stuff when it cooled to near room temperature. This is the telltale point for any coffee, and it marks a sharp division between dark roasts, which start out mouth-fillingly rich but tend to become bitter and flat when they cool, and light roasts, which can start out fruity and thin but go on to develop a light, syrupy body (Howell calls it “buttery”). At the cooling point, the Technivorm brews always stayed true.

The Technivorm isn’t for everyone. Though the neat new design has a smaller footprint than its predecessors, it’s still deeper and taller than most home brewers. The precise heating control that brings out the full spectrum of flavors is best suited to what the Italians call vini di meditazione. Even Howell admits that his palate is at its sharpest in the morning, when he claims to spend a full 45 minutes pondering his first cup of coffee. After dinner he’s just as happy with a sediment-filled, thick cup (light roast, of course) from a French press pot.

Anyone thinking of meditating over a morning cup of coffee should try out a Technivorm. Start with a Kenyan from Terroir, and you’ll soon see what keeps Howell cupping in Concord and Kenya.

Useful coffee information here.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2007 at 5:10 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: