Monday, December 5, 2011

Madison Coffee Review?

The boss of MBR is an irresponsible slacker who believes that living without computers for three weeks is a better use of time than meeting his publication deadlines. The nerve! I'll try to pick up some of the slack, but I'm lucky if I can churn out nerdy homebrewing articles on a monthly basis and, as a professional brewer, I'd like to avoid masquerading as a beer critic. While I wake up the ol' brain and ponder which politicians to randomly accuse of torpedoing Wisconsin's beer industry, I'll talk about something that's vaguely related to brewing beer: brewing coffee!

The best and worst coffee in my household are both made via French press. In fact, they both exist in a given mug at the same time. The top 3/4 of the mug is beautifully robust, with thin wisps of brown foam on top and an aroma that can stain walls and make you optimistic about the existence of heaven. The bottom 1/4 of the mug is a sludgy, gritty ooze that needs to be chewed before swallowing. My French press is a cheap piece of junk, pain and simple. I have a small drip machine as well, but its default coffee defines mediocrity.

Thinking of coffee in beer-making terms, I realized that using a French press is like batch sparging and using a drip machine is like continuous sparging. Could I batch sparge the coffee grounds in my drip machine? Hell yes! For coffee to flow out of my coffeemaker, the pot needs to be on its warming plate. By just brewing the coffee without the pot, I can let the beans steep in the brewing water for as long as I like. Once the grounds are steeped, I quickly slide the pot onto the warming plate and wait for it to fill. Because the filter housing needs to hold all of the water in addition to the beans, batch sparging cuts my brewing capacity in half. Luckily, I rarely drink more than one mug a day.

After some trial and error, I found that grinding the beans coarsely and letting them steep for four minutes (starting when all of the water is in the filter housing) works really well. The coffee is much better than what my drip machine would normally produce, but it's not quite as good as the first 3/4 of a mug that comes out of my French press. At some point, I'll throw some money at the problem and make it go away. In the meantime, knowing how to make beer is improving my coffee.


  1. Your auto-stop feature must seal up better than mine. I've tried that a while back and had a mess on my hands.

    My understanding is that an automatic drip machine isn't going to get the water as hot as it is when you pour into the french press (especially for small batches). That temperature difference is probably what makes the biggest difference in flavor.

    You could probably test that by pouring hot water over the grounds instead of having the machine do it.

    I haven't used the french press since I bought a Clever Coffee Dripper from Sweet Maria's. The concept is basically the same.

  2. Like the direction you're taking with this site, Joe! Sounds like a pseudo-pour over method to brewing coffee. Johnson Public House serves a delicious cup this way (and makes me feel better about my OCD tendencies!). Have you heard of a Clever coffee dripper? They're around $15, but pretty much do the same thing you're doing with your drip basket (and maybe higher capacity?). Regarding french press, near the end of steep (3.5-4 min), and before the plunge, I've been taking 2 spoons, and in one motion, scooping out the grinds near the top. You still get some grit, but I think it yields a cup that dampens some of the roughness you get with french press. Ever tried roasting beans in a popcorn air popper???

  3. I knew there were coffee-geeks watching this blog!

    I second Ryan's comment about the seal on the drip-stop brewers - they tend to leak too much for regular use. The CCD from Sweet Marias looks good for a single cup brewer - it may be a good gift for my brother.

    For brewing coffee at home I found one of these second hand and use it as a pour-over.
    I heat water in an electric kettle and pour into the upper chamber; there is a thermal valve to control the water flow into the filter basket; and it brews into the pitcher. works great for me; water heats as I grind the coffee and it takes about 5-7 minutes to brew.
    I also home-roast coffee (outside) during the summer (it's a bit too aromatic for roasting in the house). Poppery II is the machine of choice with the thermal control bypassed so I can get darker roasts.

    JPH does have some of the best coffee in Madison and it's great for a relaxing cup, but since I don't always have that much time....not so convenient for me.

  4. I tried pouring hot water over the grounds a while back and it didn't make much of a difference, but I was grinding finer and steeping for less time than I do now. Definitely worth another shot.

    The problem with my French press is that it has a bulky plastic attachment on the bottom of the plunger that screws up the alignment and allows grounds to flow out with the coffee. Without the plastic piece, the knob at the bottom of the plunger (which exists solely to hold the crappy plastic piece) prevents me from pushing it down all the way.

    I've never roasted my own beans, but I may one day. For now, though, being a geeky beer brewer is fairly all-consuming.


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