Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How to brew coffee using a French Press

After trying out several different kinds of coffee makers over the years, I firmly believe that a French Press makes the best coffee you can possibly make. I think a lot of people get hung up on a few things pertaining to a French Press. One: it is too damn simple. How can a simple process of dumping hot water on coffee grounds possibly make better coffee than a fancy machine? Two: they are so cheap. Again, how can something so inexpensive make the best coffee?

Making coffee is really simple if you break it down logically. Coffee is made by steeping coffee grounds in water at a certain temperature for a period of time. All of those fancy machines with all of the bells and whistles make all of the decisions for you except how much coffee you put in the machine. That is the beauty of a French Press. You get to control all of the variables that go into making coffee.

Items needed

  • French Press
  • Adjustable burr grinder (not the small grinder with blades)
  • Freshly roasted coffee beans
  • Good tasting water (use whatever source that you drink)
  • Something to boil the water in (I use an electric kettle)
  • Spoon
Making the coffee

  1. Water: Get the water to a boil. Water temperature is critical to how good the coffee tastes. I'll come back to that later.
  2. Grinding / Dose: The generally accepted amount of coffee to use is one tablespoon per 4oz of water used. That will make a fairly strong cup of coffee. Vary the amount to get the desired strength. Most burr grinders are adjustable. I set mine so that it makes somewhat coarse grounds. Again, vary the grind to find what suits your taste.
  3. Steeping the coffee: Here is where it all comes together. My process is simple. First I turn on my electric kettle and allow the water to boil. As soon as the water comes to a boil and the kettle shuts off, I turn my grinder on. This serves two important functions. First, the coffee grounds stay fresh. As soon as the beans are ground, the clock is ticking. All of the goodness deteriorates every minute once the coffee is ground. Second, the time to grind the coffee allows the water to cool off slightly. If you were to pour boiling coffee onto the grounds, the coffee would taste burnt. Once the coffee is done grinding, dump it into your clean and dry French press. Then, pour the water over the grounds making sure that all of the grounds are wet.
  4. Wait one minute: A crust of coffee grounds will be covering the water. During the minute of waiting, you should notice the grounds expelling some gas. This is good news. Those little bubbles are the gases being released from the fresh beans. If you just see a crust form without any bubbling, it is a sign that the coffee is stale.
  5. Gently stir the coffee: Using a spoon, gently stir the coffee grounds to disperse the grounds throughout the hot water. As you are doing this, get down next to the French Press and smell the aroma being given off. Like wine, different coffee types have their own nuances.
  6. Cover the Press and Steep: When you are done stirring the coffee, place the plunger / lid on the pot and wait for 3 minutes before depressing the plunger. Depending on the size grind, it may be somewhat difficult to depress the plunger. If it gets stuck, lift it back up slightly and try again until you get it lowered.
  7. Enjoy! As soon as the 3 minutes are up, pour the coffee into cups or an insulated container as soon as possible. Even though the plunger is down, the coffee grounds are still still being steeped in the water. The longer it sits, the more bitter and nasty the coffee gets.
Remember that the key factors into making coffee are freshly roasted & ground beans, the amount of coffee, water temperature, and duration of steeping. This is where experimenting comes into play. The biggest difference to the quality of my coffee was allowing the beans to cool slightly. The coffee was much less bitter.

Don't be fooled by the simplicity of the French Press. It allows you to control all of the steps of the coffee making process which will yield you the best cup of coffee.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Top Pot Doughnuts (Bellevue)

Bellevue? Where's Bellevue? For all you Seattleites, there is some decent coffee in that homogeneous, boring wasteland known as the Eastside.

One thing that struck me as being odd about Seattleites is the complete disdain that they have for the Eastside. I can't even count how many times a Seattleite has complained about having to drive all the way out to the Eastside. It is as if Lake Washington is some magical boundry that they just will not cross. I contacted a remodeler to see if he was interested in doing some work on our home a while back. We talked for a while & the entire time we discussed the home and the project, he was very enthusiastic. When I answered his question that we live in Bellevue, he replied "sorry, we don't go all the way out there." Since I'm a Chicago transplant, I was taken aback by this mentality. A short trip in the car in Chicago is 30 minutes. I found it odd that people are so frightened about a 15 minute drive from Seattle across a bridge to Bellevue.

Ok, back to the topic at hand. The Eastside has at least one decent coffee house, even though it bills itself as a doughnut shop. Top Pot Doughnuts is located right in the heart of downtown Bellevue on 106th Ave NE between NE 8th St and NE 10th St. The Google Map is slightly off, so just go north on 106th if you are driving on NE 8th. It will be on the right side of the street. As of today, the lot just south of the building is available for free parking assuming you are shopping at Top Pot.

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Today, I had a little time to kill before my daughter's swimming practice, so coffee sounded like a good idea. I ordered my usual latte and the barista must be used to the soccer moms, because he grabbed a paper cup. Whoa there! Can I get it in a mug please? Crisis averted!

This was a very decent latte. It was really smooth with no bitterness or burnt taste whatsoever. Since Top Pot roasts their own beans, its a good assumption that they will put out good coffee, and they did. I must admit that I really didn't expect much. I was just killing some time and found a nice spot. Oh, the doughnuts are good too. My daughter snarfed down a doughnut in no time flat. Why is it that a 4 yr old can eat a doughnut faster than I can, but when it comes to dinnertime, they take forever?

If you find yourself in the downtown Bellevue area and need some caffeine , head over to Top Pot Doughnuts.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company (University District)

Last night my wife and I made some Japanese food (Shabu Shabu) and I must have drunk a little too much sake, because my head was pounding this morning. My morning coffee didn't have enough caffeine to get me started, so I headed over to Zoka in the University District. I went there a few months ago and saw that they had a Clover coffee machine. In a nutshell, the Clover machine is one of the biggest technological advancements in coffee in a long time. The machine, which was developed here in Seattle, has tremendous control over the parameters of the coffee brewing process to optimize for a certain type of coffee bean and roast.

As I eagerly walked into the store, I had an uneasy feeling as I looked over to the counter where I was expecting to see the Clover machine. Maybe they moved it where I couldn't see it. When I was asked for my order, I asked if they still made Clover coffee. There was an immediate look of disappointment on her face and there was a pause before she said "no, sorry, we just make French press coffee now." Well, I can make French press coffee at home, so I just ordered a latte. Normally, I'm really excited to get a latte of this caliber, but I was just bummed about the absence of the Clover coffee.

As I was waiting for my coffee, I figured I'd ask the barista about the Clover. Again, as soon as the word Clover came from my mouth, there was the look of disappointment on her face. She told me that since Starbucks bought Coffee Equipment Company (the company that developed the Clover), they will neither sell machines (and here's the kicker) nor sell parts to independent companies.

Rant on.

In a bunch of my posts, I've been slightly negative about Starbucks. I started feeling a little uneasy about these comments especially in light of their financial performance lately. All of those feelings are now gone. Anyone that knows me, knows I'm the most pro free market advocate there is, but this just makes me sick.

Did Starbucks spend the money to develop this technology? Nope!

Did Starbucks get on the bandwagon early and buy these $11,000 machines and install them in their stores? Nope!

The clover machines were bought by small independent coffee houses that are passionate about producing the best that can be produced. They took the big financial risk (a French press costs $50) while Starbucks was trying to figure out a way to schlep music CDs to their customers. Nice strategy there! Instead of focusing on their core business, they just keep experimenting with all of this silly lifestyle crap.

Now Howard Schultz (Starbucks founder and CEO) enters the scene about a year after the Clover was introduced to the market. He supposedly "stumbled" on the Clover machine on a trip to NYC. This is just great. The CEO of the largest retail coffee company in the world doesn't even know about the Clover a year after its introduction? Way to go there buddy! Nothing like keeping abreast of current trends in the marketplace.

So what does Schultz do after seeing the apparent interest in this new technology? Of course, he buys the company and removes it from the market. This is no different than my 4 year old taking away a toy from my 18 month old for two simple reasons: because she can and because my 18 month old was enjoying the toy. Starbucks is just being the bratty big kid. They could have simply purchased the Clover machines like the independents, but they knew that they would still be at a disadvantage. Their coffee beans just can't compare to the independents in terms of quality roasting and freshness (just think of micro-brew beer vs. the bug guys), so they took the toy away from the little kids. (Turn on whiny bratty voice) You can't have it!

Rant off.

Zoka University District is a top notch outfit. I adore their espresso drinks. My latte was great. I don't think that any more needs to be written.

Go out and support your independent coffee houses. If you appreciate innovation and pursuing the finest things in life, those will come from the entrepreneurs, not a big fat bloated company that only reacts to the market instead of leading it.

University Zoka on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Stumptown Roasters (Capitol Hill)

What do lesbian couples, septuagenarians, families with small children, twenty somethings, & girls with nose rings have in common? They don't mind waiting in line for coffee at Stumptown Roasters. This place has a more diverse clientele than the waiting room at the DMV. They must be on to something.

Stumptown Roasters is a Portland based coffee roaster / coffee house that has locations in Portland and Seattle. The location I visited this morning was on 12th and Madison in Capitol Hill. This is down the street from another of my favorite restaurants in Seattle : La Spiga.

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Since my morning coffee didn't seem to get me fully awake, I grabbed my camera and drove over to Stumptown. This place reminds me a lot of Herkimer Coffee. The interior of Stumptown has the same clean, minimalist vibe. There are no comfy couches to lounge around on. There are two long benches with some very small tables that force people that are staying there to sit together. This seems to be more of a place to get out of the rain for a few minutes to drink some coffee rather than a place to pull the laptop out and hang out for a while. There was one big difference between Herkimer and Stumptown. Stumptown was jam packed on a weekday and Herkimer was practically empty on a weekend. Go figure.

I walked up and ordered my standard large latte. Thankfully, they don't fall into the grande / venti crap. Even with the large line, I was served my latte promptly. The barista was working on her own, but was cranking out the orders quickly. I got a little nervous as I was watching the barista, since it appeared that she was making my latte and going to serve it in a glass. My suspicions were when she called out the order for a large latte. While it's not like drinking coffee out of a paper cup with a plastic lid, a glass just doesn't seem right. It's like when my in-laws are at my house and serve themselves milk in a mug. It's just odd. Am I the weird one?

Anyways, the latte was a very good latte. I just couldn't get into it drinking it out of a glass. It was kind of a bummer. I know I sound like a baby, but it just didn't do it for me. Verite Coffee used Stumptown's beans and turned out a better final product. The next time I head back to Stumptown, I'll order a medium latte and see if it is served in a mug. The coffee was definitely good enough that I'll try it again.
Stumptown Coffee on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 3, 2008

Herkimer Coffee (S. Ravenna)

Sunday morning, I headed out to grab some coffee, but I had an ulterior motive. So far, with the exception of Firehouse Coffee, I have really liked the coffee at the shops that I've reviewed. I don't want to act like Rachel Ray and pretend that everything I taste is the best stuff on the planet. So I did very minimal research and found Herkimer Coffee, which I had never heard of before. I assumed that since I hadn't heard about them, they must not be anything to write home about. Boy, was I wrong.

Herkimer Coffee has a couple locations, but I visited the one on 5611 University Way NE. This is 5 blocks north of the bustling University district area. It almost right next door to one of my favorite restaurants: The Caspian Grill.

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This is kind of a swanky coffee house. It seems brand new inside. Everything looked like it was recently polished and was clean as a whistle. There was some jazz being pumped into the room. This place has a really neat atmosphere. Be forewarned, this place only takes cash. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I could be crazy, but I'm guessing that's why this place doesn't appear to be a hangout for the soccer mom crowd.

On to the coffee. Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to drink some burnt crapola coffee, so I could rip on it. This was not even close to what I was hoping for. This was an excellent latte. There was no harshness whatsoever. It was a nice rich, evenly balanced latte. It seemed to have the perfect amount of milk since it didn't have that diluted taste that often happens when you order a large cup and the ratio of espresso to milk gets out of whack.

The only puzzling thing was this place was nearly empty. I arrived there at 8:45am on Sunday, which is prime time for weekend coffee. When I went to Zoka in Greenlake at about the same time, the place was jammed. If I lived withing walking distance of this place, I'd be a regular here.

If you are headed out to do some shopping at the mall in the University district and need to get caffienated first, head over to Herkimer Coffee.

Herkimer Coffee on Urbanspoon

El Diablo Coffee (Queen Anne)

Saturday, my wife and I loaded up the kids and headed over to Queen Anne and stopped in at El Diablo Coffee. I told a friend of ours that I was writing about coffee houses in Seattle and said that we had to try El Diablo out. She said that it was the best mocha she had ever had. They are located at 1811 Queen Anne Ave North. As you drive up the hill on Queen Anne Ave, they are a few blocks past the Five Spot.

This coffee house is a little out of the ordinary for Seattle. They specialize in Latin style drinks, as opposed to the normal espresso drinks. I had a Cafe Cubano, which is 2 shots of espresso served with sugar. If you aren't used to espresso and normally drink coffee with milk or cream, this will be a shock to your system. The first sip is like taking that first sip of Scotch. Wow! After the first sip, however, I really began to appreciate this style of coffee. If you aren't in the mood to sit around or are in a hurry, this kind of drink fits the bill. The sweetness of the sugar balances out the espresso and it just works. I didn't know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. Another interesting side effect was the caffiene buzz. I normally have a latte which has either 2 or 3 shots of espresso in it, so this drink was really no different, but I was jittering around like a fool for 4 hours after I had this. I'm not sure if the sugar did it, but this stuff kicked my butt.

My wife had the Mocha. For the record, I usually hate these kinds of drinks. Any kind of drink that is a mocha, carmel, or other sweetened drink is just too girly for me. She had a few sips and demanded that I try it. I winced, but tried anyways. I'll admit, this was a decent drink. They give you a choice of the type of chocolate that is added to the drink and she chose Mexican chocolate. Rather being overly sweet, it comes off as being more spiced with cinammon than being sweet. For you Mocha fans, give this place a try. You won't be disappointed.

This place reminds me of being in Miami or in the Florida Keys. This place doesn't look like the typical Seattle joint, but you can imagine yourself sitting in a cafe on Duval Street in Key West. That is until you step outside and the cold mist smacks you in the face and reminds you where you really are.

As I uploaded my pictures, I realized how poor my pictures were after this trip. Having 2 kids around that are acting like lunatics surely doesn't inspire any creativity.

El Diablo Coffee Company on Urbanspoon