It turns out that keeping your coffee excellent, as opposed to just good, is very much like what we do as cooks—attention to detail is the key.
At times I have been reluctant to get involved in the coffee. It is a server thing, a bartender thing, a manager thing. The pro kitchen has a good many things already. But take a look at your end of month inventory spread sheet and there it is—coffee. It’s sold as food.
That alone was not enough to motivate me, because the profit margin on coffee is just fine. No, what really got my interest is that I drink coffee, and a fair bit of it. I like coffee and I especially like it when it’s really good. Even as a young cook in San Francisco, I would spend a bit of my meager funds each day on a pre-shift espresso in North Beach, from one of the many little shops with their fabulous, brassy imported machines.
The coffee curve is a little bit like the wine curve. You have to start somewhere, and somewhere is usually easy, soft, friendly, mild—horrible really—Dunkin Donuts or the like, the coffee version of a bad merlot. It goes right down. Then you try something bold and hard hitting, probably at a Starbucks. Dark roast. It’s heavy handed and one dimensional, but you say, man, now I feel alive! It’s the coffee version of that first gum bleeder cab that you chased down with big bites of a New York strip.
Finally, you start dropping into little artisan coffee shops and chatting with some furry, funky, cranky barista dude, who seems far too knowledgeable about beans, roasting times, origins, seasonal cycles, nearby vegetation and its effect on flavor. You think to yourself, gosh it’s a crop after all. It grows and it varies. You become comfortable with terms like medium roast, and you understand that when the beans are not roasted quite so dark, more of their subtleties come through. And yet you know it’s not even as simple as all of that.
You walk into your operation, several years ago for me, and see these little silver bags of pre-ground coffee, and handy dandy espresso pods. You look at them and think where are these beans from? When were they harvested? What about the importance of grinding to order? You open a bag, smell it, and think, this is cardboard! We cannot serve cardboard. And so it begins.
I got involved in our coffee.
It happens in the world of coffee that the purveyor sometimes provides the machines. This is done, of course, so that the road to change will be a real pain in the butt. Even if the new purveyor provides machines, they may be different sizes, the plumbing may not line up, shelves may have to be moved, and worst of all, the new machines might need a 220 socket. Espresso machines are rarely provided. They start at $3,000-$4,000 and they go up well into the twenties.
We did all of these things at our club a few years ago. We spent some money and bought our own machines so we would feel free to make choices. We started buying from a local roaster who did tastings for our management team. We started making espressos correctly, grinding frequently, if not to order, pressing the coffee in with force and admiring the crema.
The product has been quite good and well north of embarrassing, but recently we started to feel like it could be better. Our F&B team tries to stay ahead of problems, by noticing things internally before they become issues that come to us from the membership. We began to feel like our coffee was one such item. Is it hot enough? Is it bitter? Is it the right blend? Why does our roaster’s coffee taste better at our roaster’s shop than it does here? Should we do individual French press for regular coffee?
By chance, we had a well regarded roaster whom we do not use drop by to do a sales pitch. He looked at our set up and offered a lot of good thoughts—mostly ones that supported change toward his company. I was skeptical, as he has a horse in the race, but he did address some good technical issues. We wanted a neutral opinion, so we had a friend who owns a downtown Providence coffee shop come in to do a brief evaluation.
It turns out that keeping your coffee excellent, as opposed to just good, is very much like what we do as cooks—attention to detail is the key. There was confusion over the grind quantity setting on one machine and the water quantity setting on another machine. So, at times we were using way too much coffee, resulting in bitterness in the final product. Keeping a digital scale nearby to spot check your recipe is the answer. Our daily cleaning was good, but our medium and long-term maintenance was not. Using specified products to run through the espresso grinder and coffee grinder and to backflow the espresso water feed is essential to eliminating the build up of oils from the very oily beans. You wouldn’t let oil build up on your rondeau, would you?
Another factor was as simple as setting a timer when you brew and determining an acceptable length of time before dumping the coffee out. An hour is a little too long. Thirty or forty-five minutes is good. That may mean brewing smaller batches to reduce waste.
Lastly, you hear baristas saying it’s important to seal your coffee bag tight and grind the beans when you are ready to use them. We did some of that, but any beans sitting in the grinder, if unsold, might remain there a day or two. Until I heard why we should seal the beans, it did not seem to matter. The very good quality, freshly roasted beans we buy are loaded with CO2. The CO2 and any of the gases in there with the beans are part of the flavor of the brew. Those beans we bought years ago from some national coffee giant had no gases left. If you find it hard to believe, you can brew a batch that was just roasted and just ground. (Your roaster actually should not sell you beans that are “too fresh.”) There is so much gas that the grounds will bubble up over the filter. That is one reason why the drip coffee machine is set to spritz the grounds a bit first, so they are weighed down and the gases are trapped.
We are now all tuned up, wide awake and ready. Let the java flow!