Don’t stress your coffee


Don’t get me wrong, I love espresso, the intensity, the colour, the aroma, everything about it. But nowadays it’s not my favourite medium, nowadays I like pour over coffee.

Pour over is a fancier version of filter drip coffee, basically you take a Chemex style carafe or a V60 funnel (look it up! Information is power…) use a paper or cloth filter and pour hot water over your coffee and the magical java juice comes out of the bottom. Simple right?

When I first heard about this, I dismissed it as I would any other hipster-craft marketing strategy. How was it different from the old filter coffee machine? Why do we have to do it ourselves? Why can’t we just utilize machines as our servants while we still can?

Well I was wrong, utterly and undeniably wrong…

Everything became clear to me almost 3 years ago after a trip to Ethiopia. Story goes like this…

We were working on updating the basic coffee blend at La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie. So, Chef Izu and I went on a research trip to the Ethiopian southern highlands with Boon Coffee founder, Orit Mohamed. It was during this trip that I met and fell in love with Sidamo (the coffee variety and also the name of the region, that is the southern highlands of Ethiopia).

When I first tasted the coffee at Sidamo it was a fresh, crisp light taste that also possessed strong body and no bitterness or acidity, just a light floral aftertaste. My connection with Sidamo was so strong that during a tasting session at a coffee processing plant, I picked out Sidamo out of 4 different coffees, I just knew Downtowners would love it as much as I did.

Back in Dubai, Orit got the coffee in, roasted it in different intensities and rested it for our blind tasting. We were trying all sorts of varieties of blends and single origins, but I was impatiently waiting for the Sidamo, (yes, it was a blind tasting but I knew my Sidamo had not been served up yet).

But the moment I smelled that familiar aroma, I giggled like a little girl, and Orit started mocking me, which made me realize that there was a subtle difference…..It was Sidamo all right, but when I tasted it, it somehow rushed to me with all that body and overpowered my taste buds like a steamroller, and there was none of that wonderful crisp aftertaste.

When we discussed it in detail later, Orit explained to us that espresso and the pour over we tried in Ethiopia would never be the same (before you judge, of course I didn’t assume a forced extraction would be the same as brewing, but I assumed that although the intensities were different, the base flavour would be the same, and guess what, it wasn’t).

So we started working on our blend to cut it with other origins to get that smooth but strong coffee that Downtowners like very much. And we tried the pour over Sidamo in a Chemex, and there she was, this elegant beauty in all her glory, I had three cups while contemplating what just happened.

In theory an Americano should have given us the same result because we are basically diluting the espresso extraction, but it didn’t. Also, a regular filter coffee machine should give the same result but it doesn’t, instead an alkali bitter intensity comes out (I tried it of course).

So what was happening?

Well the comparison to the filter machine was simple: temperature!

Every Barista manual we prepared mentioned that the ideal brewing temperature for coffee was 92 to 96 degrees Celsius. After doing a little research it was clear that some of the enzymes that were in the coffee bean were disintegrating above 96 degrees, thus leaving us with only the burnt taste of the roasting process. A filter machine is basically a syphon; when the water is boiling, the expansion forces it to go on the coffee and when does water boil kids? You’re right at 100 degrees, well above the sweet spot.

And the espresso machine? The machine was keeping the temperature right at that sweet spot, and the issue wasn’t bitterness it was the intensity.

The answer was right in front of me, just visualize how the espresso shot is extracted: the ground coffee is in the port-a-filter, it is compressed, then pressured water is pushed through that compacted ground coffee. Imagine that? The stress put upon the coffee was just like our days, the process of containment, pressure, maximization; the extraction of flavour, down to the very last drop.

Whereas, the pour over was just gravity doing its thing and getting the perfect temperature water through free standing coffee and picking up all the good stuff along the way and delivering them to your taste buds.

One reminds me of the daily hustle and bustle of whichever city I scrape by, the other makes me remember that lazy afternoon in the rainforests of Yirgalem on the highlands of the Ethiopian South, where life is just relaxed like the coffee…