Making Coffee at Home: Coffee, Part IV

Welcome to the fourth instalment of my Coffee at Home sub-series looking at the coffee itself. In Part I, I looked at the concepts of direct trade and explained why knowing where your coffee comes from is important. Part II, meanwhile, was all about blends, the art of combining different coffees in order to create a specific taste profile, which neatly leads us Parts III and IV, which are all about why coffee tastes the way it does.

In previous instalment (Part III), I introduced the idea that pretty much everything has an impact on how your coffee tastes, all the way from the farm to the roaster. I also nailed a common misconception that coffee from a certain country/region tastes in a particular way. Finally, I provided some (hopefully) useful advice on tasting notes and how to read the information on coffee packaging.

In this, Part IV, I’m looking at what, for me at least, are the two biggest factors determining a coffee’s flavours. The first, which takes place at origin, is processing, while the other is the final step before the coffee gets to you/the coffee shop, namely roasting. Hopefully, I’ll be able to unpack some of the mystery!

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Making Coffee at Home: Coffee, Part III

Welcome to the third instalment of my Coffee at Home sub-series where I look at the coffee itself. In Part I, I looked at the concepts of direct trade and why knowing where your coffee comes from is important. Meanwhile, Part II was all about blends, the art of combining different coffees in order to create a specific taste profile, which neatly leads us onto this, Part III, which is all about why coffee tastes the way it does.

So, what affects the way a coffee tastes? Well, it turns out pretty much everything. The specific bean, where it’s grown, the altitude, the amount of sunshine, how its picked, how its processed, how its roasted… And that’s all before it gets to you, where how you make throws another variable into the mix.

It’s a subject that you could write books about, so I’m not going to be able to cover everything in one blog post. In fact, I’m going to write several, starting with a quick guide on tasting notes and how to read the information on coffee packaging. I’ll also nail a common misconception while I’m at it.

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The Miners Coffee and Characters, Slavíkova

The sign from outside The Miners Coffee & Characters in Prague.Today’s Coffee Spot takes us back to last summer and Prague, when I visited The Miners Coffee and Characters (to give it its full name) in Vinohrady. The first of a planned series of coffee shops, it was very new when I visited in June last year, having only been open for three months. In contrast to everywhere else I’d visited that weekend, Miners had an ultra-modern, Scandinavian feel to it, with clean, open lines, pale woods and white walls.

It also had the latest equipment, its brand-new Mark II Slayer espresso machine matched with a pair of Victoria Arduino Mythos 1 grinders. For all the high-tech espresso equipment, pour-over is still done by hand (albeit with an uber boiler, backed up with a couple of temperature-controlled kettles). The coffee is from the UK’s Colonna Coffee, although Miners has plans to roast its own, to be used in conjunction with Colonna. There are three options on espresso, including decaf, and three more on pour-over through the V60. If you’re hungry, there’s a selection of cakes, a choice of three toasted sandwiches (one vegan) and three standard weekend brunch options (two vegetarian: French toast and scrambled eggs; and one vegan: avocado toast).

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Making Coffee at Home: Moka Pot

My moka pot, a fairly cheap one that I've had for many a year.Up until now, Making Coffee at Home has focusedon brew methods which I regularly use: cafetiere, Clever Dripper, AeroPress, pour-over and espresso. Today’s post is different since I’m writing about the moka pot, something which I own, but stopped using many years ago, unhappy with the results. I moved onto other brewing methods and my moka pot has sat at the back of a shelf ever since.

My interest was initially rekindled by tweets from Phil Wain (editor of Caffeine Magazine) which got me thinking that maybe I should write about the moka pot after all. I began the Making Coffee at Home series with a desire to help people make good coffee at home, particularly people who are new to making good coffee. Although I’ve tried to take you on a journey through the various preparation methods I regularly use, I know that not everyone will have the time to invest in learning a new method. Similarly, many of you won’t want to buy new coffee equipment. However, I suspect that, like me, plenty of you have a moka pot somewhere in your kitchen. So, I got my moka pot down, dusted it off and here we are…

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak’s Full Dining Service

The black bean and corn veggie burger, from Amtrak's lunch menu, served on the California Zephyr, April 2019, en-route to Chicago.Two months ago, Amanda and I caught Amtrak’s Crescent service from New York to Atlanta. As fans of Amtrak’s dining cars, we were keen to see what the new “upgraded” dining service was like. Suffice to say we were disappointed, prompting me to write about the demise of Amtrak’s full dining service.

The good news is that this only applies to services east of the Mississippi, including the City of New Orleans, which runs between Chicago and New Orleans. Further west, Amtrak still offers its full dining service, a major plus when travelling by train. Having recently written about my journey last year from Los Angeles to San Jose on the Coast Starlight, and the trip Amanda and I took on the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago a few weeks later, I’ve been inspired to write this as a counterpoint to the demise of Amtrak’s Full Dining Service.

For now, at least, the dining car, with its full dining service, is alive and well west of the Mississippi. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us all of the joys of communal dining for now, I look forward to when I’ll be eating in the Superliner dining car again.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: California Zephyr to Chicago – Day 3

Amtrak Locomotive No. 161 at the head of the California Zephyr, eastbound for Chicago, standing at the platform at Grand Junction, Colorado, with Locomotive No. 19 behind it.Welcome to the third and final part of my bonus Travel Spot, telling the story of the journey that Amanda and I took from California to Chicago this time last year. We travelled on the California Zephyr, a daily service between Emeryville (just across the bay from San Francisco) and Chicago, with a scheduled journey-time of 51½ hours. Along the way, it crosses roughly two-thirds of North America, over two mountain ranges and through an array of amazing, contrasting landscapes.

Our first day on the train was covered in Part 1 of this Travel Spot, when we travelled across California’s Central Valley, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the Donner Pass and down into and across Nevada following the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers. The following day, covered in Part 2, saw us going to bed in Nevada and waking up almost all the way across Utah. We then followed the Colorado River through Ruby Canyon before climbing into the heart of the Rockies, through the Moffat Tunnel and down to the other side to Denver.

In this final instalment, you can follow our progress through Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers on our way to Chicago.

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Making Coffee at Home: Espresso

An espresso, in the Coffee Spot cup, pulled on my Sage Barista Express using the San Lorenzo espresso from Curve Coffee RoastersWelcome to another instalment of my Making Coffee at Home series, where I’ve left the best (hardest?) until last. After simple guides for the cafetiere,  Clever Dripper, AeroPress and (not so simple) pour-over, I’ve finally turned my attention to espresso. Just to be clear, whereas for all my other guides (including pour-over to some extent), you can get decent results with minimal outlay, this is not true for espresso. If you want good espresso, you’re going to need to spend a lot of money on both a good espresso machine and a high-quality grinder (I’d say a minimum of £500).

Now that’s not to say that you can’t made short, strong black coffee at home. You can. The AeroPressVietnamese cup-top filter,  ibrik/cezve, moka pot and capsule machines can all make good short, strong black coffee. It’s just not going to be espresso. That said, if you’re hankering after something approaching your favourite flat white/cappuccino/latte, then you can do a reasonable job with a variety of common coffee-making equipment (see, for example, this excellent video from James Hoffman). However, what this post is all about is espresso of the sort you’d get in a good speciality coffee shop.

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Meet the Roaster: Surrey Hills Coffee

The 10 kg Toper roaster in the Roastery Shack, Surrey Hills Coffee's bespoke roastery.I first came across Surrey Hills Coffee in early 2016 at what was then Turn Fit Deli on Chapel Street in my hometown, Guildford. Although starting out as a deli, it quickly morphed into a coffee shop, supplied by Surrey Hills, which had started roasting in 2014, although Chris and Monika, the Swedish couple behind Surrey Hills, have a much longer involvement with coffee than that. In April 2016, Turn Fit decided to concentrate on its fitness business, and while Chris and Monika hadn’t planned on becoming coffee shop owners, they saw the opportunity and took over the lease to run the coffee shop themselves.

One thing led to another and by 2018, the original shop had moved to much bigger premises in Jeffries Passage. That same year, Surrey Hills opened its second coffee shop, The Pod at London Square, as well as growing a thriving, local wholesale business, supplying other cafes and retailers. Although the current COVID-19 pandemic has put the coffee shops on hold, this has, ironically, given Chris and Monika a chance to catch their breath and re-focus on the heart of their business, the roastery, which I learnt more about when we caught up last weekend.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: California Zephyr to Chicago – Day 2

Amtrak Locomotive No. 161 at the head of the California Zephyr, eastbound for Chicago, standing at the platform at Grand Junction, Colorado, with Locomotive No. 19 behind it.Welcome to the second instalment of my bonus Travel Spot. Just over a year ago, Amanda and I left Emeryville Station onboard Amtrak Train No. 6, the California Zephyr. A daily service between Emeryville (just across the bay from San Francisco) and Chicago, the California Zephyr has a scheduled journey-time of 51½ hours as it makes its way west-to-east across roughly two-thirds of North America. The first part of this Travel Spot covered our first day on the train, travelling across California’s Central Valley, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the Donner Pass and down into and across Nevada following the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers.

In this instalment, we pick up our journey with our first of two nights on the train, which saw us going to bed in Nevada and waking up almost all the way across Utah. We followed the Colorado River for most of the day, crossing into Colorado along to 40 km long Ruby Canyon before climbing up through the Rockies, descending again into Denver as night fell. You can read about the third day of our journey, from Denver to Chicago, in the third and final instalment of this Travel Spot.

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Making Coffee at Home: Pour-over

My handmade ceramic filter from Vietnam midway through the top-up pour on my Osaka stand.Welcome to another instalment of my Making Coffee at Home series. After a brief diversion to look at coffee itself, I’ve returned to coffee-making techniques. So far, I’ve written simple guides for the cafetiere, Clever Dripper and AeroPress. In contrast, today’s Making Coffee at Home isn’t focused on a single method. Instead, I’m looking at the broad category of pour-over filters, any device where you pour water over coffee grounds and it filters through the bottom.

There are many filter devices out there, made from various materials (plastic, glass, ceramic and metal) with a wide variety of designs. Pour-over is also one of the oldest coffee-making methods: the Melitta Filter, for example, was patented in 1908, making it older than the cafetiere (1929). These days, probably the most commonly recognised are the Chemex (invented in 1941) and the much more recent Hario V60 (2004).

One of the reasons I’ve left pour-over until now is that, after espresso, it’s the method I’ve struggled with the most, giving up on it for long periods. Although you can get away with making pour-over using just a kettle, filter and filter papers, this is one method where having the extra kit really pays off.

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