There were mechanical scales. There were temperature gauges. There was a whole host of terrifying apparatus that I didn’t know what to do with; had I stumbled across someone’s coffee themed sex toy collection?! No, this wasn’t an Anne Summer’s party at a secondary school science teachers’ conference: this was a Foundry Coffee Roasters Brewing Class.
Science exam flashback one: finding your seat
After arriving to the party a few (fashionable) minutes late, I was greeted by our ever lovely hosts Becky and Julie at Birdhouse Tea Company, and the equally lovely Lee from FCR. Now for the first test: where to sit? The attendees all looked like they knew a lot about coffee. They had the expertly waxed moustaches, multicoloured hair, and caffeine glow of alertness (although this could just be an Instagram filter…), that says ‘I know my way around an AeroPress bitches’. I know – or should I say knew, past tense – relatively little about the mighty caffeinated bean so I had to plan my social interaction carefully as a dirty tea lover. Luckily, the wonderful Georgina and her husband who looked a lot like Gareth from How 2, took me under their wings and offered me a seat. (Sorry I can’t remember your actual name Gareth from How 2 – you were a fab AeroPresser though!)
Lee then started the session with the words that instill dread, horror and dehabilitating fear in adults at any social or work gathering: ‘introduce yourselves to the group’. I couldn’t believe Lee was serious about this…he wanted me to publicly admit that I think (thought) coffee tastes like the skid marks on a whore’s knickers (I imagine…); that I know more about quantum physics than I do coffee roasting as I once tried to make one by pouring hot water directly onto beans (#fail); AND that I would actually rather drink the contents of a rugby player’s jock strap at the end of a match than a mug of this devil’s liquor?! AND HE WANTED ME TO GO FIRST?! What was I to say? I went for: ‘Umm hello. I’m Laura. I’m also known as The Tea Witch. I know nothing.’ If in doubt, channel Manwell.
Reassuringly, I was not the only one who knew very little about coffee; Gareth from How 2 even admitted to drinking a supermarket’s basic instant coffee. In coffee circles, this is tantamount to admitting that you regularly smear your own excrement into a cup, urinate onto it and then drink it from a toilet. Thank you for taking the heat off me, noble hero that you are Gareth from How 2.
Science exam flashback two: understanding the bloody syllabus
Once the introductions were out of the way, including a lady that claimed the strength of her coffee could ‘easily kill a fully grown man’, Lee guided us through the science of the perfect coffee brew. My inner teacher’s pet yearned to get out my notepad to record all of his tips so I could be top of the class, and I surreptitiously sized up the brewing competition. I resisted the notepad urge though, I was already the weirdo who: fanatically liked tea, tried to slip in beverage related puns at every opportunity, and insisted on being called a witch. To get out a homemade and irritating Cath Kidston-esque note pad and quill would have been one Kirstie Allsop step too far.
With the patience of a saint and the expertise of a coffee Yoda (better skin though), Lee took us through the two components that make up the taste of a coffee: strength and extraction. Strength relates to the amount of coffee you actually put into a brew i.e X grams of coffee beans. Extraction refers to the amount of coffee from the beans that is transferred to the water that you brew it in. So, you can have a strong coffee that has low extraction, and even a weak coffee with high extraction. Lee then went on to a revelation that was almost on a par with my mom revealing that Father Christmas was a vicious fabrication (still reeling-I was 22 at the time): strength has absolutely nothing to do with the flavour of a coffee. Strength is just a personal preference; it’s the level of extraction that makes a coffee taste bitter (too much) or sour (too little). W-TEA-F?! The secret to the world, the universe and the perfect coffee then is finding the tea-spot when you bump and grind to release the flavour of the bean. This is brewing a coffee to just the right strength – using the right amount of beans – and grinding it to the right granule size to ensure a perfect level of extraction (between 25-27% of the coffee you put in).
Sounds simple right? WRONG. I got an A* in Science don’t you know, and trying to understand this in practice was more difficult than undoing a bra in the dark…whilst your hands are tied behind your back and you are simultaneously trying to dodge AK-47 bullets. See, the thing is, brewing a coffee and keeping this equation in balance is affected by so many different variables. When Lee said variables, all of us did an intake of breath; this really did conjure up harrowing images of GCSE Science revision, chain eating Haribo and smacking text books off our heads in a desperate attempt to impart the syllabus through osmosis. Oh sorry…that was just me, everyone else listened attentively whilst I text my therapist.
Back to variables. Coffee extraction and thus flavour then are affected by variables like what method you use to brew the coffee, of which there are four: boiling, so your standard ‘whack coffee into a mug and slosh water on it like the lazy peasant you are’ method; infusion/immersion, or cafetière and aeropress; gravitationally, AKA drip brewing; and finally through pressurised percolation like an espresso machine. I know-I almost believe that I know what I’m talking about too.
Other variables include the length of time you brew your coffee for, how fine your beans are ground (sounds painful), the amount of times you stir it, how hot the water is when you pour it, and whether you decide to read it eighteenth century sonnets in a last ditch attempt to seduce it into releasing its gorgeous flavour, without breaking your caffeine thirsty heart and making you brew it all over again. I jest…coffee is actually partial to Ed Sheeran ditties.
Science flashback three: the practical assessment
So once Lee had beautifully explained the science behind why my coffees had previously tasted like a hippo’s arsehole, he set us to experimenting with our newfound knowledge by putting it into practice. He even made adorable handout instructions, that didn’t quieten my suspicions that this actually was a science teacher swingers’ conference.
We were put into teams and set to brewing our own coffees. I clung on to Georgina and Gareth from How 2 for dear life – I felt I could contribute to ‘Team Instant Coffee Abusers’ as a blasphemous pros-tea-tute. We were presented with a multitude of paraphernalia that wouldn’t go amiss in Dr Evil’s lair: scales, a bean measurer, a temperature controlled kettle, Pyrex beakers, an AeroPress, a stopwatch, some Foundry Tanzanian coffee, the obligatory mug, and even sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads. Lee then took it into overdrive and revealed an industrial coffee grinder, complete with a motor, grind settings and dangerous looking nozzle. Right that was it; I was getting the notepad out. At least I could use it as a makeshift shield against projectile coffee beans.
Following Dr Evil’s – *ahem* – I mean Lee’s meticulous instructions, Team Instant Coffee Abusers got to work, entering into a democratic division of labour from the off. I settled with the role I knew best; asking for the instructions to be repeated fifteen times, screaming at Lee to draw me a diagram so it all made sense in pretty picture form, and pouring water into the jug at the right time like a du-tea-ful Geisha girl with none of the poise. G&G were fantastic though; they ground, pressed and lovingly crafted our way to three pretty respectable brews. The difficulty was finding that extraction sweet spot and understanding the strength/extraction equation in practice.
For instance, we liked the flavour of coffee number one, but wanted it a bit stronger. Like a smug barista, I exclaimed: ‘Bingo, just add more coffee duuuuhhh!’ BUT NO! Lee rightfully wiped that ‘I’m successfully using a coffee filter thus I know everything’ smile off my face; he explained that if we add more coffee, there is less water for a percentage of that coffee to extract into. Hence (oh god, this is a science coursework write up!), extraction will be lower, changing the flavour of the coffee. This means then that we had to change the grind size of the bean to a more fine granularity, increasing its surface area so that there was more coffee exposed to and thus able to extract into the water. That way, we would increase the coffee strength whilst retaining the flavour I.e extraction that we wanted.
SHIT me, that was hard to wrap your head around. I needed a cup of tea, a lot lower maintenance than this new needy coffee girlfriend whose juices were making my face feel numb. Read that how you want, you smutty lot.
Science flashback four: the test results
However, after explanation, multicoloured diagrams and a few tears, Team Instant Coffee Abusers cracked it. We found the extraction g-spot after enthusiastically but unsuccessfully fumbling about for an hour. Tasting our final magical brew was what I imagine seeing your new born baby for the first time is like – life changing. In that moment, our 17g, 40 grind setting child brewed for 1min 30secs changed everything I had judged coffee for previously. This sweet Tanzanian nectar from FCR had that unmistakable coffee flavour yes, but I could also taste a sumptuous rhubarby undertone, a delicate fruity sweetness and an indulgent, creamy full bodied mouthfeel. I had to sit down…I was actually enjoying a coffee. I wasn’t even thinking about tea. This must be what cheating on your other half feels like…and I wanted to book a seedy hotel, buy some new lingerie and do it all again.
Even Lee thought it was a decent brew, and whipped out his pipette (I’m sure he really has a weighty test tube at home) to test it using Quantum Leap Al’s micro computer. This Doctor Who screwdriver measured the extraction level of our coffee in TDS units (Total Dissolved Solids, nothing that some Immodium couldn’t sort out), or the ratio of coffee grounds to water. The ideal is between 1.2-1.55; our caffeine sprog scored 1.6 which we were quite proud of – a solid B+. I was so emboldened that I even used the Dr Evil grinder and unleashed my coffee grind face on the world. Go Team Instant Coffee Abusers!
The final science flashback: applying the knowledge
Joking aside, Foundry’s brewing class was fantastic. Lee’s passion for coffee was infectious, and the way he imparted his knowledge was clear, accessible and enjoyable to understand. The fact that we got to have a go ourselves under his tutelage was incredibly helpful, and as a self confessed coffee ignorant, I not only left more enlightened but also with a newfound love and respect (and bag of FCR Tanzanian!) for the humble bean. No mean feat hommies as a massive tea mother cuppa.
Finally, the best thing about Lee’s session was that I was now equipped with the skills to give birth to that little coffee child at home, in my own cafetière (although I now want a grinder with a laser beam on its head). And in fact I did the morning after; it wasn’t quite the #coffeegasm I had the night before, but it was certainly better than any coffee climax I had reached on my own prior to the class. Plus, I also knew all the variables I needed to adjust to #multiplecoffeegasm next time. Boom!
So tea lovers, I will say this: there ain’t nothing wrong with a bit of bean and grind.
Have I convinced any of you pros-tea-tutes to give the dark side a try?