By Angela Manners
My relationship with coffee started while I was young. I gave a brief intro in my last article, Flavour Notes: Coffee Cupping with the Pros at Perk Coffee. However, in this and my next few articles, I am the novice. I want good, home-brewed coffee but without confusing myself with the mathematical formulas that become part of the process. I just want it to be simple.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an immense amount of gratitude, admiration and adoration for baristas and people who really know their stuff about making coffee. If I could, I would be just like them! And in all honesty, before kids, I was on my way. I watched documentaries, researched, read things, I knew the difference between a latte, a machiatto and a long black or Americano. I learned how to froth my own milk, down to tapping out the air bubbles.
Unfortunately now, my mental capacity is just not what it used to be! I’ll leave the chemical composition of coffee to the experts out there, the ones that I will always go to when I need that perfect cup of coffee. They are magicians, alchemists, scientists and scholars of the trade! I spend a lot of time at specialty cafés and recently, I’ve been going around and talking to some of the wonderful café owners that have made my life complete. 🙂 Read their stories here. Maybe one day I’ll be able to join their ranks.
In the meantime, I’ll be writing my Novice Guides because perhaps there are those of you out there who are like me. You love your coffee and want to be able to brew it well at home. Then the perceived intricacies – perfect temperature, grind size, weight of beans – scares the heck out of you! I was exactly the same. But I have played around a bit at home now so I’ll be trying my best to keep it simple. Hopefully by the end of this series we’ll all be making coffee, just the way we like it at home.
There is no comparison to the flavour and aroma that freshly roasted, high quality beans can give you when brewing at home.
What is instant coffee?
I suppose the next question is why wouldn’t I just chuck some instant coffee crystals into a mug and pour hot water over it? That is as easy as it comes! For the sake of this article, I did just that. I also did some research. For many years people have been telling me that instant coffee is not “real” coffee. They said it was full of chemical compounds that were bad for your health and it also contained artificial ingredients. I was surprised to learn that it’s not artificial at all. If you read the ingredients on bottle of Nescafé Classic, it reads 100% soluble coffee.
Instant coffee is actually real coffee that has been brewed and then evaporated or freeze dried to produce instant crystals. It still goes through the same process, from green coffee beans to roasting, grinding the beans and then adding water. Instead of drinking that brew right away, it is either freeze dried or sprayed out in a fine mist into super heated air which evaporates the water and leaves you with crystals.
Instant coffee smell and taste
Because of my recent coffee cupping experience, I decided to do the same procedure with my instant Nescafé. What did I find? Well in short, it was an aweful, gagging experience. Sniffing the grounds filled my nose with a plastic, chemical smell. The fragrance (dry coffee) was suffocating. The aroma (after water is added) was synthetic and smelt like machinery, oil and petrol. No wonder that people say it’s a chemical and not “real” coffee… But it is real coffee, as in from the bean! So I took a sip of the liquid without anything added to it and spat it out.
If I’m beginning to sound like a snob, I totally apologise! It’s not my intent. In all honesty, I will say that I still drink instant coffee on occasion. But I will add many, many teaspoons of sugar and a liberal splash of milk. I will also call it a “hot drink” instead of coffee, even though it is still coffee.
So if instant coffee is actually brewed coffee, just dried up, why does it smell and taste so different compared to the delicious complexities of flavour that come with an alternative brew using fresh roasted beans? I think that would come down to process. We don’t actually know how long the green beans are stored for before roasting or after roasting. It could come down to how the beans are roasted. Perhaps a little bit darker than an artisan roaster would. In addition, while it may actually taste fine when brewed the first time, one could assume that the additional step of evaporating or freeze drying the liquid would further degrade the overall flavourEven with fresh brewed coffee at home, the flavours are constantly changing as the liquid cools.
What is home-brew coffee?
I googled this and couldn’t find an exact definition (other than in relation to home-brewing beer!) so I’m just gonna say it’s the act of brewing coffee at home. Brew means to mix with water so actually, instant coffee could be considered home-brewed. Perhaps the better term, as fancy barista types would say, is alternative brewing coffee. For this, you would hopefully source the best possible beans, grind them just before drinking and then extract the full coffee flavour using hot water and one of the many, many tools available.
If this is starting to sound technical, don’t be afraid. It really is very simple. Read on and stay tuned for more of my Novice Guides. I don’t have fancy equipment but I do love my coffee gadgets, most of which have been sourced from grouphunt.sg because it was cheaper. The thing about starting to home-brew coffee, for me, was the fact that I didn’t want to outlay thousands of dollars to start with. I preferred to put the extra money into buying the better quality beans.
The tools I’ll be using in future articles will be my Mr Clever, Aeropress and Iwaki Water Drip Cold Brew coffee maker (for those of us who absolutely love cold brew coffee that is now all the rage). All of these contraptions are under $60 if you can source them online or are lucky enough to join a hunt for them on grouphunt.sg. They can also be found at many specialty coffee shops.
Alternative/homebrewed coffee smell and taste
For this, you must read our recent article Flavour Notes: Coffee Cupping with the Pros at Perk Coffee. It will detail the depth of fragrance, aroma and flavour you can achieve by homebrewing your coffee using the best beans and proper tools. We only tried three beans from Perk Coffee at our coffee cupping but they have many more – try Aramo (my current obsession) or Urbanite. There are also a multitude of great bean sources now adays. Some of your favourite cafés will offer beans for purchase. Some of our faves?
Brawn and Brains
The Hangar (check if they’ve started selling their beans and read our interview with Pav, the founder here)
Papa Palheta which can be found at Stamping Ground, Chye Seng Huat Hardware and many more locations.
Must haves for alternative brewing coffee
If you don’t have all the implements, don’t worry. You can actually get by with a few things you already have. The point of this is to make it easy and accessable for everyone to brew great coffee at home. There will be no snobbery, no judgement, no cause for anxiety here. And feel free to write in if you have any questions! I don’t know much but happy to share what I’ve tried.
The absolute basics needed:
- Good quality beans or ground coffee (depends if you have a coffee grinder already). Freshly grinding your beans just before brewing will produce a better flavour. If the coffee is pre-ground, ensure that it’s the correct grind for the type of coffee tool you are using. We’ll cover this when we go into our various gadgets.
- Hot water – kettle or add water to a pot and boil, easy!
- Some sort of vessel – a mug, cup, jug but best to try the tools below.
- If you don’t have one of the coffee brewing contraptions, you will also need something to remove the grains from the liquid – perhaps a strainer or even a spoon because most of the grounds will float to the surface.
Doesn’t sound too hard, does it?
The nice-to-have basics:
Replace #3 and #4 above with one of the following:
- French press
- V60 (those funny cone-shaped things you put on top of a mug)
- Mr Clever
- Coffee filters for some of the above.
- A digital kitchen scale because the water/coffee ratio is actually rather important.
- A thermometer to measure the temperature of the water (but you can just as easily boil the kettle and wait for 30 seconds to a minute before pouring the water on the coffee).
The trusty French press, a friend to many.
Things to have if you’re getting serious (most of these are on my lust list):
- Goose-necked kettle to control the amount and flow of water as it is being poured.
- Burr grinder – apparently the control of the grind you get is amazing and the type of grind for your coffee is also pretty important.
- The brewing process itself is actually quite easy but can differ depending on what tool you are using to brew with. I’ll describe all of this in the coming weeks with my Novice Guides on the Mr Clever, Aeropress and Iwaki Water Drip Cold Brew.
If you’re keen to make a start, check out these guides from the pros at Perk Coffee. In my view, these two (the V60 style and French press) would be the simplest tools to start with (apart from the Mr Clever, which I feel is even easier than the V60 pour over style).
The best thing is to enjoy the process and don’t get bogged down with the technicality of everything. Yes, it is true that HOW you make your coffee is just as important as the beans you use in order to get the flavours you want. But from a novice coffee-lover’s point of view, it can be as simple as adding hot water to freshly ground coffee. Stay tuned for more Novice Guides on how to perfect this process easily.
A side note. If you only drink lattés and coffee with frothed milk, invest in a simple frother (Nespresso has one) so you can do this at home. Real baristas would be aghast at this suggestion because the type of foam involved is actually very important to making a perfect flat white, latte or cappuccino. For me, at home, something simple will do. But then, I have actually switched to black coffee. No sugar, no milk, because once I got used to it, I loved the flavours from a straight, black coffee. I still have milk sometimes so it’s nice to have my handy Nespresso frother.