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Let’s Talk about Strong Coffee
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HAPPY INTERNATIONAL COFFEE DAY, October 1st, 2020!
Do you like coffee or do you prefer tea? Do you like strong coffee or tea? Whichever one you like and how you like it, both share some things in common. But here, this is primarily about coffee and particularly, “strong coffee”.
Note: After further review on this post, I decided to insert this about “strong” coffee. I probably should have begun with this. The ‘grind’ of coffee may well be the first to consider whether the coffee is strong or not. Most grinders have settings from coarse to fine. My personal preference is 1-2 notches from medium towards the fine grind side. Fine grind is what I use for espresso. I mention this because, recently I tried out a new method of cleaning my grinder of debris, oils and to sharpen the blades. This I did with about a cup of whole grain, uncooked white rice. It works beautifully and there are no need for chemicals. But I forgot to reset my grinder, back to medium. This resulted in “stronger” coffee than I like. I figured this out after about 4 pots of coffee. 😂 It’s all good now! 👍
We all like what we like. Our likes may be conditional on howe we were brought up or what we are used to. I’m not about to try and dissuade anyone from liking what they like. But in addition to our preferences, our personal choices for liking what we like, there are reasons. Once you understand those reasons, I’m just trying to get you to consider alternatives. Maybe there is a better way, a more enjoyable way to like what we like and how we like it.
What do the words “strong coffee” mean? Perhaps other adjectives could be bold, an eye-opener, to put hair on your chest, Wake-The-F up, black coffee or just dark? Maybe strong coffee is a super-charged highly caffeinated beverage? Then again, it could be strong and have a lot of caffeine in it. But why?
Coffee or tea all begins with the bean or the leaf.
It all starts with the beans or the tea leaves. It’s in the beans. What is? Acid.
Yes, by their very nature, some coffee beans or tea leaves are more acidic than others. As a general rule, the higher the altitude the coffee plants grow, the more acidic the coffee beans are. Some may attribute the more acidic the coffee is, the “stronger” it is, where others must add or add more cream and/or sugar to balance out the the acid in the coffee and hopefully, prevent stomach upset and discomfort.
It all starts with the beans or the tea leaves. It’s in the beans. What is?
Caffeine. Yes, by their very nature, some coffee beans or tea leaves contain more caffeine (the jolt, the buzz), the stimulant, most people expect from their morning wake-up, afternoon pick-up or their anytime stay-up. But here is a fact about coffee roasting. Beginning with the green bean there, is where most of the caffeine resides. Yes, caffeine is in the beans. The longer the beans are roasted, the more the caffeine is released.
The lighter the roast, the more caffeine remains!
What is the most popular roast today? Dark roast. Remember this, the darker the roast, the more the sugars (the caramels), are roasted as well. “Burnt Caramel” is an actual marketing term, attempting to make burnt sugar appealing. The key word to this term is “burnt” like charcoal and it is perceived as “strong” coffee. Remember also, the longer the roast, the less caffeine there will be in the beans. Oh, there are degrees of “burnt” or a point when roasting exceeds dark-roast and the beans are actually or really “burnt” and useless. Not only have the sugars been burnt, but the whole bean has as well. To be clear, dark roasted coffee is truly only acceptable, for espresso, not regular coffee!
When the tea leaves are dried or the coffee is roasted, hot water is added to extract the properties of the bean or the leaves. The longer the beans sits on a burner after brewing or the longer the tea leaves steep, the “stronger” will be the result.
Beginning with the green bean, each roast from light, to medium and dark, will bring out stronger flavors in the coffee. There is sugar in coffee. The longer you roast, these sugars (caramel), appear as oil. The longer you roast, the more oil appears on the beans.
There are two kinds of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans are generally grown at higher altitude (often more caffeine and more acidic), are more fragile and generally cost more to produce and sell at a higher price than Robusta. Robusta beans are generally grown at lower altitudes, contain less caffeine, less acid, are a heartier bean and cost less. Much of the world’s supply of Robusta beans, often come from Vietnam. To control an end result and reduce costs, many coffee roasters blend Arabica and Robusta beans together. This is often done on purpose to produce what we may know of as: “signature blends”, “specialty blends” or “house blends”. Blends are primarily made for the following reasons:
1. To make a consistent and quality controlled product (what we come to expect from our favorite brands)
2. Reduce the costs while maintaining profit margins
3. To mask or hide undesirable properties from roasting/tasting i.e. bitterness
Remember, the longer the beans are roasted the less caffeine remains!
Percolator Coffee Pot
When I was growing up, this was a familiar coffee pot. It was a percolator. You fill the pot with water, add coffee to the basket on top that sat upon a long thin hollow stem, which rested on the bottom, placed the lid on top of the basket, covered the pot with its glass topped lid and sat this on a burner of your stove. Then, as the water heated, it came up the stem, made that nice “perking” sound and you would see the water change from clear to brown at the glass top, as it was filtered through the basket containing the coffee. When finished, it stopped “perking”, coffee was ready and you would pour your morning or anytime brew into your favorite cup or mug. Later, an electric percolator became available.
There were markings on the pot for ‘fill levels’, for how much water to add at the beginning. There were (are— percolators still available), “line levels” on the brew basket, for how much coffee to add. How much coffee was needed? For a long time, the two most popular coffee brands were Folders and Maxwell House. On the back of their sealed cans (sealed with nitrogen to preserve freshness), was the ratio of coffee to water.
L to R – Folders and Maxwell House brands of coffee
Both brands used a ratio of one (1) tablespoon (Tbsp), of coffee for every six (6) ounces of water. And this makes one cup of coffee? I thought 1 cup is equal to 8 ounces? It is. So how did a cup of coffee come to mean 6 ounces? This is because, an average teacup holds about six ounces of liquid. Most people had teacups, which they also used as their coffee cups.
Bunn ‘Drip Coffee Maker’ Home use about 1970’s
In 1957, Bunn released the ‘drip coffee maker’. It was used commercially. Restaurants had them, diners and such. It’s appeal was the water was pre-heated to a certain temperature and replaced each time you made a pot of coffee with fresh cold water. The pre-heated water would be activated by pouring in the cold water and the cold water later heated. The hot water would pour through a tip with pre-designed holes and at a certain speed, over the ground coffee in a paper filter or a stainless steel filter in the brew basket. To repeat, you discarded the grinds and filter or sicarded the grinds from the stainless still filter and rinsed it. Then you add another paper filter or clean stainless steel filter, more coffee and another container of cold water. This process was very quick and efficient (about 2 minutes from the start of the brewing cycle until it ended). Most of these Bunn ‘drip coffee makers’ were one unit, but could accommodate making two, 12 cup pots of coffee each, at the same time. Depending on use and needs, some locations had more than one unit.
In 1971, Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker at Seattle’s Pike Place (Seattle, Washington), founded what we know today as ‘Starbucks’. They started selling coffee by the pound, roasted by ‘Peet’s Coffee’ and sold this to the public at their one location in Seattle. They introduced their coffee by giving away ‘Free’ cups to sell their coffee by the pound, at first ground then later as whole beans. They expanded locally and then during the 1980s, they sold the company to Howard Schultz who – after a business trip to Milan, Italy – decided to make the coffee bean store a coffeeshop, serving espresso-based drinks. More people wanted more than just espresso (dark roasted beans), and ‘sweets N eats’ to go along with their coffee. But espresso or not, their coffee was and still is, dark roasted.
In 1975, ‘Mr. Coffee’ was first to release their version of a ‘Home’ ‘drip coffee maker’ to the public. Bunn and other brands later released their versions. This was still years away from the entering in of Starbucks.
Home espresso, latte and cappuccino machines were still expensive and not quite in vogue yet.
But somewhere along the way, people started to want their coffee as fresh as possible. They started to op for whole beans and to grind their own as needed. If you think about canned coffee, the coffee in it could have been roasted or baked (yes baked on conveyor fed ovens), months before you bought the can at the store. To preserve its freshness, the cans were sealed with nitrogen, displacing the oxygen. When you first opened the can, the coffee smelled fresh and then it was all downhill (degrading in freshness), as the nitrogen was displaced with oxygen.
All coffee after roasting (allowing the roasted beans to rest, to displace off gases, for a period of 24-48 hours before grinding and roasting), peaks and falls in about 7-10 days from the time it was first roasted. Although grinding your own coffee beans does indeed result in fresher tasting coffee, ALL coffee should be ground, brewed and consumed, within 7-10 days from when it was first roasted.
When Starbucks locations spread throughout the united States, they also spread to other parts of the world. Today, many recognize them as the leader, for amounts of coffee by the cup, sold retail. Since their beginning, they have continued to do several things:
1. They dark roast their coffee (to achieve a certain taste profile and quality control)
2. They advertise as using only Arabica beans (more acidic, higher altitude grown and more caffeine), and not using Robusta or blends.
Starbucks is known as the highest caffeinated beverage in the retail world of coffee. Remember, the longer the beans are roasted, the less caffeine is in the final product. To make their beverages more caffeinated than others, they do one more thing. Remember the ratio of coffee to water that has been used for many years before, Starbucks? It was 1 tablespoon of coffee for every 6 ounces of water. What does Starbucks do? Their secret is:
2 Tablespoons of coffee to every 6 ounces of water
Scarchucks and now, most other roasters; coffee shops copy the leader
So, they use twice as much coffee as most have been used to for many years, to achieve that jolt, the buzz and the wake-up juice! And on top of that, there are those that want an extra shot or 2 of espresso (about 1.5 ounces each), to be added to their already dark-roasted diluted espresso coffee. To each their own, but for many people, this is a recipe for over-roasted, burnt caramel, highly acidic, and overly caffeinated something, that may be “strong”, upset stomachs and give the “jitters” to the uninitiated”, the novices, the uniformed, the non-real-men or non-real-women; the babies that don’t have a cast iron stomachs, but this aint’ coffee!!!! Call it it charred, over-roasted, maybe double caffeinated, diluted espresso with a couple of undiluted shots of espresso thrown in, but it’s still not coffee. But hey, if you like this, you like what you like and know why you like it and call it something else besides coffee because it’s not.
If you want to drink real coffee, try a like roast as it retains all its flavor profiles and most of its caffeine, it will likely be like drinking tea, but it’s coffee. For myself and most coffee snobs and connoisseurs, medium roast it the best and sometimes, depending on the variety, medium-dark, but never, ever dark roasted unless, you are roasting espresso.
Unfortunately, in following the the leader, most roasters and coffee shops follow the same recipe as what I call Scarchucks does. And well, twice as much coffee per 6 ounce cup sells more coffee and that’s good for business!
In many taste tests, even Dunkin Donuts which is medium roasted coffee, is preferred over Scarchucks and all the others that over-roast their coffees. To be fair, Dunkin Donuts now offers a dark roast. Again, the longer it roasts, the less caffeine is going to be left. But their regular medium roast coffee, right on the bag says:
“One heaping tablespoon per six ounces of water”
I suppose if you really need more caffeine, for either the medium roast and especially their dark roast, just add more coffee per 6 ounce cup of water.
For consistency and price, I used to to drink regular medium roast Dunkin Donuts coffee (whole beans), most of the time. Occasionally, I would purchase other single origin coffees (mostly organic), at a higher price than Dunkin Donuts from local roasters because, we here at ‘The Gathering Place’, like variety.
Then, I began to roast my own coffee at home. It is very simple. It takes me about one hour to roast two different coffees medium roast from start to finish (including clean-up). I enjoy this. I can control my roast. It costs me about half as much as I used to pay. I don’t include my labor because, it’s not work (labor), unless you want to call it a “labor of love”. It’s just fun to me. Two pounds a coffee will last us for a week (we or I, drink a lot of coffee pretty much 24/7). My wife, usually only consumes around two cups per day and only in the morning. We alternate. We go back and forth from one roasted coffee to the other (we like variety). The following week, it will likely be two different single origin (mostly organic), coffees. Variety gives our taste buds something to look forward to and are greatly enhanced when we do return to our favorite or favorites. Using different varieties and origins, is like having insurance against some political upheaval or civil unrest in some country where your coffee comes from. WOW, I can’t imagine not being able to get my coffee if, I was stuck on one kind and it suddenly was not available!
Besides the cost savings, no one (no local roaster), can compete with me for freshness, unless I know that the day I picked it up was the first day they made it available to purchase after roasting, 24-48 hours earlier. I cannot say it is! It could have been siting in a bin (non-vacuumed container; not sealing out the oxygen), for over a week or longer. We drink our home roasted coffee in 7 days, 1-2 days after roasting, week after week!
I concede that I am neither a professional roaster or an expert at roasting coffee, but I roast to my satisfaction and there are generally, no complaints. I had a few 1/2 pounds sent as gifts. It was a Peruvian coffee because, that’s what they liked at the time. Mine was medium-roasted and their usual brand was likely, dark-roasted. To be honest, I did not like this particular variety of Peruvian coffee, switched to another and have had no additional complaints coming from me, my wife or any others that have had it here.
I do not roast as expertly as other local roasters with professional roasting equipment. All I use (believe it or not), is a old-time, hand-cranked lidded popcorn popper, over an open flame or a cast-iron skillet over an open flame, stirring and turning the beans with a wood spoon. By “open flame” I mean, outside on my propane tank, gas flame barbecue grill— spring, summer, fall and winter. But like I said afore, I roast to my satisfaction and as a former chef with a sensitive nose and a trained palate, I have no problem serving my coffee to anyone!
As it happens, this is about one year ago when my brother and his wife visited us for two weeks. My brother is a fan of that other place, that world retail coffee shop. Our coffee pot holds 10 cups full. I always add only enough water for 8 cups. One scoop of coffee is equal to 2 tablespoons. I usually add four scoops which is 1 tablespoon of coffee, per 6 ounces of water. For my brother, I added an extra scoop of coffee (for a total of 10 tablespoons). For his normal brand of dark-roasted coffee, they would have used 8 scoops for 8 cups of coffee (6 ounces of water per cup). I refused to do that. Maybe six, but certainly not 8. I started with 5 scoops of my medium-roast coffee and he drank this for two whole weeks. There were no complaints. It was “stronger” coffee than my wife and I usually drink. By “stronger” I mean it had more caffeine in it, but we could still tolerate it. My wife however, instead of her normal 2 cups in the morning, only drank one.
Well, now almost two weeks ago, I tripped, skipped and skated on an unseen little tricycle left in the wrong place by one of our grandsons and took a hard fall on both knees, ripped my left toenail (even though I had on shoes and socks), and landed on my left shoulder, HARD! I’m doing better every day, but slowly and I am grateful that nothing was broken or torn. I have tendinitis and the soreness, tenderness and loss of strength in my left arm has made it impossible to roast coffee, for about two weeks. So, I had to get some coffee from a familiar local roaster. I chose two kinds, Bolivian and Papua New Guinea, hoping this would get us through until I could roast again.
I brought these home, opened the bags and poured the beans into two separate vacuum-sealed containers to preserve their freshness. It was then that I noticed that they did smell great and were familiar, but each were dark-roasted (almost black), and covered with oil. I brewed some of one kind and the next time, the other. I used our regular 4 scoops (8 tablespoons or 1 tablespoon per 6 ounces of coffee). Both are “strong” to both my wife and I. After maybe two days of this, my stomach could not handle either, any more. Then it was back to Dunkin Donuts, to get their coffee, that I can drink! Hopefully, I will be able to roast my own again, real soon. As the adage goes, “you don’t realize how much you miss something, until it’s gone!”
No matter what your “thing” is (acidic, dark and a lot of caffeine), I highly recommend learning to roast your own coffee! But you should know that what you may think is “strong” coffee is “strong” because, it is what you have likely been taught to expect:
dark-roasted (burnt caramel, charred, charcoal-like tasting), highly acidic, heavily caffeinated and even though much of the caffeine is actually removed the longer it is roasted and to compensate for this, overly caffeinated by using twice as much coffee
Call this what you like, I call this scarchucks and it aint’ coffee!! Maybe, maybe, its suitable for espresso, but this is not coffee! At least you know why it cost so much per cup $2-5 dollars each at the coffee (so-called) shops. And you could be roasting a whole pound yourself (for many pots and many, many cups), for around $6-7 per pound of premium single origin green coffee beans that is fresher than you can likely get from the store or your local roaster! Want/Need more caffeine? Add more scoops of coffee or roast your own espresso and add your own 1-2 shots.
By the way, there is more caffeine in a 16 ounce bottle of your favorite cola or Pepsi’s ‘Mountain Dew’, than in regular coffee.
Enjoy your coffee or other burnt, dark, caffeinated beverage as you like, but at least know what coffee is! ☕ And…
HAPPY INTERNATIONAL COFFEE DAY! ☕
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.The Gathering Place Coffee Roasters Blog