I’m talking about my parents, of course, and how they make coffee. No method is too labor intense, no device too archaic. And, not suprisingly, the apple has not fallen far from the tree.
We visited the folks at the Pennsylvania farmstead in between Christmas and New Year’s, as those of you who
placed orders that week now fully realize; of course, I needed to bring coffee. So as I was getting ready to turn out the lights in the roastery Christmas eve, I assembled a couple boxes and gathered up every roasted bean I could find in the shop to give away to my family. All the Friends & Family trimmings that the walk-in customers have come to love (walk in and buy a couple pounds, and I throw in a bag of trimmings for free!). All the unsold bulk coffees. All the retail finished goods. Everything. All told, I boxed up about 35 pounds of coffee (mind you, I had been concentrating on depleting the inventory for about a week at that point). I was determined to start 2009 with absolutely no inventory – a gesture that my accountant loves.
Upon arrival, my brothers descended on the boxes like a pack of ravenous wolves. Still, my parents were left with a pretty amazing array of coffees. And we drank a lot of them over the week. And as interesting as all those coffees were, it’s how they were brewed that was more interesting. All those who think you need fancy new technology to make great coffee, prepare to be amazed.
Those who know me know that I have a hard time starting the day without a simple, straight espresso. Mom and Dad have no fancy espresso machine. Nor do they want one – no space in their kitchen. So we went old school: moka pot. For the uninitiated, a moka is how most Italians in Italy make their coffee at home (at least the ones I know). The device is simple, just three pieces. A bottom vessel to contain the water, a filter basket shaped like a funnel, and a pot to catch the finished coffee. The principal of operation is simple, too. Fill the bottom vessel up to the pressure relief valve. Fill the basket with finely ground coffee, in this case our Classic Italian Espresso, strike it level, do not tamp. Assemble the pot. Place onto a heat source. As the water heats, the air above it heats. As the air heats, it expands, pushing on the water. The only place for the water to go (path of least resistance) is up the funnel, through the coffee, into the pot. It makes a really good, stiff coffee. You don’t get the same oil emulsification (crema) that happens at 9 bars of pressure, but it’s still damn good. And cheap, and simple, and easy to store in the cabinet.
Still, a little tedious if you have a crowd, which we did at times. In that case, we drag out the old vacuum pot. Yeah, we could have used the percolator, but as I established in a post last summer, that one actually takes some skill to use well.
Vac pots date back to the mid 1800’s, purportedly invented by a guy named Napier, a maritime engineer. Principle of operation is the same as the moka – bottom vessel for water, top vessel shaped like a funnel, with funnel rod extending to bottom of water vessel. In between there is a filter of some sort. Water heats, air heats, air pushes on water, water follows path of least resistance up funnel and mixes with ground coffee in that vessel. Only difference in this case is that you keep it on the heat as long as you want the coffee to steep. Then remove it from the heat. As the bottom vessel cools, it creates a vacuum (this is, basically, how a canning jar works, too). The vacuum sucks the brewed coffee through the filter and into the pot. Done.
Vac pots were hugely popular before WWII. Restaurants had huge gangs of them. They were in every household, in numerous brands – Cory, Nicro, Sunbeam, and more. All types of filter mechanisms. At one time I had a collection of them, but I try not to pack rat and sold them all except one or two. Even today, they are available if not popular. Bodum makes the most mainstream of them, the Santos. The device in the movie The Bucket List was a vacuum pot (the Royal), a different configuration but same principle.
My favorite coffee of the week was the Mexico Organic Dry-Process Nayarit. I’m a sucker for a good natural.
Even if you don’t use these methods every day, it’s fun to experiment with them and inexpensive to buy the equipment – look on eBay to get what you need. They work great, they give you infinite control, and you’ll feel good about mastering a new technique.
WWJD (What Would Jim Drink today?): I’m working on a couple new blends for a potential new coffee shop customer. The dark house blend is a variation on the Christmas Blend theme. I’ll keep you posted.