Coffee lovers are as passionate about the pursuit of the perfect cup as craft brewers or wine producers are about their beverages. Coffee has more than a thousand volatile compounds and methods of bringing flavors into play than any other drink. There are literally flavors that have never been tasted because the process for preparing a cup of coffee has never been perfected.
At the Zhou B Art Center on Saturday, I was surrounded by roasters, brewers, manufacturers, and coffee enthusiasts of every level of interest. All were in pursuit of that perfect cup.
The headliner for the event was George Howell, who hosted a premium class for attendees. Howell shared his in-depth knowledge about the farming, preparation, and consumption of coffee, and then encouraged coffee-lovers taste the different flavor profiles. Over the course of two hours, we experienced how terroir, elevation, and even brew temperatures all have an impact on the outcome of a cup of coffee. I found the real value of the class was in mixing lecture with tastings to reinforce concepts.
Afterwards, I sought out the classes offered with general attendance to learn what more I could do, as an at-home brewer, to achieve perfection. There were a great mix of topics that included everything from types of coffee to water quality. I started with the grind.
A great cup of coffee requires a great grind, and brewer Charles Sarin had plenty to share on what to look for in a grinder and how to get the most out of it. Burr grinders are a must because these create the maximum surface area for brewing. Blade grinders tend to press beans and heat them up, which can cook volatile compounds. Sarin endorsed the Kitchen Aid A9, but preferred the Hobarts that pre-dated them. Most of the coffee vendors there were using or stated a preference for the Breville Conical Burr. Me? I need to upgrade.
He did note that comparing models is tricky, because there is no industry standard for grind fineness. Each manufacturer has their own measure. This can even change on the machine if the burrs are ever swapped out. Which, according to Sarin, should be done periodically or run the risk of inconsistent grinds.
The finer points of grinding beans included using a conical grinder to maximize contact and starting the grinder before adding coffee. This gives the grinder a chance to achieve its proper speed and lessens the risk of rogue beans gumming up the works. After that, experiment with length of time to achieve the desired fineness.
Different brewers require different grinding times — French Press uses a course grind, whereas Turkish coffee uses the smallest “fines” a grinder can achieve. BTW, all beans should be given two days before grinding in order to gas off the CO2, darker roasts may need up to four days. Freshness is important but too much and your coffee will foam.
Joshua Dugue, from Counter Culture Coffee, gave an in-depth session on manual brewing methods including drip cone, kalita wave, espresso press, and siphon. I walked in as he discussed the math behind how to achieve ideal brew weight (1 ounce of coffee to 16 ounces of water), and conversions between volume and weight measures. The amount of information seemed almost too much to consider for a 6AM cup. Do I consistently brew between 195 – 205 degrees every morning? I have the jitters just thinking about it.
While Dugue strives for a perfect cup and can go into excruciating detail about how to achieve it, he also made a point of offering easy and practical advice for the at-home brewer along the way. He also stressed that while the theater of a $400 siphon brewer may bring out the “clarity” in the coffee, a pour-over method would have more body. Not necessarily better, just different.
If you want to go out for a cup of coffee, it’s a great time to be in Chicago. Dugue’s recommendations included Gaslight or Ellipsis, and though you can throw a rock and hit one, Starbucks didn’t make his list because they strive for “consistency” versus a more artisanal approach.
If you want to pick his brains, Dugue offers free coffee classes and tastings for the public every Friday morning at 10AM at 177 North Ada. I recommend bringing your toughest coffee conundrums for him to solve.
The trade show also offered opportunities to see different pieces of equipment in action, try samples from area roasters, and to learn about the depth and variety of coffee in Chicago.
I was particularly taken with I Have a Bean, a company from Wheaton that emphasizes small-batch, fresh roasted coffee. Not only do they produce fantastic coffee, they also embrace a strong social mission to provide employment opportunities to former felons. I think of it as “warm + fuzzy” rolled up into a cup of coffee.
While some vendors did have chocolate or pastries, if you wanted to balance out your caffeine consumption, there were a number of food trucks in attendance in the parking lot. Tamale Spaceship and Husky Hog offered meaty menus, whereas Bridgeport Pastry had more sweets. I felt vegetarian coffee drinkers were left out a bit, which was my only complaint about the event.
The venue was great, the speakers were in-depth and knowledgeable, and I left a wee bit shaky. Thanks to CoffeeCon, I’m sure my perfect cup is on the horizon somewhere.