I recently walked in to a great looking local café and laid down 3 or 4 bucks for a pour over brewed with freshly roasted beans. The “barista” asked if I would mind waiting, as it would be 15 minutes. I looked around, there were only a handful of people in the café and I was the only one in line, but I said sure. My Dad always told me “good things come to those who wait” and “patience is a virtue”? With 15 minutes, I was sure I was going to get a great cup of coffee.

I took a seat, waited and watched. Over the course of the next 15 minutes, two “baristas” tended to my coffee, made some espresso drinks, served a handful of other customers, and filled some food orders. The pour over kettle of hot water sat and cooled, periodically getting poured over the grounds, and eventually producing a cup of “coffee”. My name was called and I was handed a luke warm, weak brown liquid, vaguely resembling coffee. The only thing redeeming was it wasn’t in a to-go cup as I had intended to drink it there. I took a sip, walked to a window seat and poured the coffee on a plant. I returned the cup to the counter and left. I doubt anyone noticed. I keep wanting to give this place a chance. It’s new and maybe these are just growing pains. But, I’ve chatted with the baristas and I’ve come to believe that they just don’t know how to make coffee, or aren’t allowed to make good coffee. That’s too bad.

I admit to having become a bit of a coffee snob lately, but good cafes with properly trained staff, more concerned with the customer experience than the bottom line, will spoil you.

What blows me away is that it’s not that hard to make good coffee, and we’ve known how to do it for over 50 years. Way back in 1952, the National Coffee Association in affiliation with the Pan American Coffee Bureau, created the Coffee Brewing Institute (CBI). The institute under the guidance of Dr. Earl E. Lockhart, the CBIs first director, marked a new focus on industry research and customer preferences for coffee in the United States. The CBI asked a lot of coffee drinkers (10s of thousands) in the States what they considered to be good coffee. There was some commonality to their answers. (The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) repeated the survey at an annual conference in the 1990s and found our preferences hadn't changed).

Lockhart’s research, work by the CBI and later the Coffee Brewing Centre (CBC) led to the creation of the Coffee Brewing Control Chart shown below. The chart shows the relationship between strength, extraction, and brewing formula, and gave a quantifiable approach to verifying the consistency of the brewing process, and the means to never make a bad cup of coffee again. Americans (and by extension Canadians) like coffee that is in the gold box - neither too weak nor too strong, neither bitter nor sour; the IDEAL, Optimum Balance.

In basic brewing terminology - strength, extraction and brew formula or ratio work together to create great smelling, great tasting coffee with great body. Here is how the chart works (it’s a little geeky, but bear with me)

Strength – this is how much of the coffee beverage is actually coffee. 1.25 on the vertical scale up the left means that 1.25% of what you're drinking are coffee solids dissolved in the water.

Extraction - This means how much of the original dry ground coffee, presented as a percentage of the grounds you started with, dissolved in the hot water and ended up in your cup. For example, if you started with 100 g of ground coffee, and 20 g dissolves during brewing, then the extraction is 20/100 or 20%

Brew formula or ratio– The red diagonal lines show how much ground coffee you started with. This chart assumes the amounts are used with 1 L of water.

To use the chart, good cafes with properly trained staff, will use coffee strength (measured with a refractometer – I’m a geek, I have one) and brew formula (all they need is a scale) to figure out extraction. They use this to create their coffee recipes. Their goal is to land in the gold box. This is the foundation of all the training programs offered to baristas by the SCAA. Problem is, few cafes that pay minimum wage are so invested in their staff as to provide training (just ask next time you are chatting while you wait).

This may look complicated, but for those of us brewing at home, with the proper tools (good water, good grinder, kitchen scale, good coffee (Contrabean.ca)), the chart can help us make better coffee than you get in many cafes. Here's what you do:

Start with the 55g red line. This line goes right through the middle of the gold box. 55g and 1L (remember 1L = 1000g) is a ratio of 1:18. If you use 1g of coffee to 18 g of water, you’ve got a good chance of landing in the box. Using slightly more coffee (1g : 15 g , the 65 g red line)) keeps you in the gold box and so does slightly less (1g : 20 (the 50g red line). Fine tuning the extraction (taste) is largely a function of grind (which we will talk about in the next blog entry).

But for now, start with 1g of coffee for 18g of water (the SCAA calls this the Gold Cup Ratio). If your coffee tastes bitter, grind a bit coarser. If your coffee tastes sour, grind a bit finer. FYI, you taste sour on the sides of your tongue, near the front and bitter on the top of your tongue at the back.

Go for gold.

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