We all agree that when brewing coffee, that the ingredient you choose is very important. Â The consumer understands there is a choice, even if that choice has nothing to do with how the coffee tastes. Â The most successful here have been the ones that have told the simplest story: this one is traded fairly, or this one won an award for its taste, or this one is from a single farm.
I think coffee has done a reasonable job of communicating the importance of grinding coffee freshly. Â While grinders at home aren’t as common as we’d all like, the fact that “Fresh Ground” is still used as a heavy handed piece of advertising suggests that overall people understand that freshly ground = good.
We’ve all had fun with communicating brew methods and techniques, there have been some great videos – both entertaining and informative, and they’ve been seen by a reasonable number of people. Â While I am not going to claim that people at home all have exceptional technique, I think those interested in brewing better can be pointed somewhere simple like Brew Methods. Â It isn’t a difficult message to communicate, and most of the time they reinforce the first two issues.
Then we have water. Â Water is complicated. Water makes me depressed.
Perhaps because I live in London, where the water is so bad for coffee, I am disproportionately frustrated. Â The taste impact of London water on coffee brewing is utterly shocking to those experiencing it for the first time. Â Coffee brewed with great water can be alive, sparkly, sweet and distinctive. Â Coffee brewed with London water all just tastes…. brown. Â Juicy lots from Nyeri, floral coffees from Yirgacheffe, jammy coffees from Huila – all of these and more end up tasting pretty muchÂ the same with London water.
I am interested in people having a great experience with coffee. I am interested in people understanding that spending more money on better coffee can produce incredible and pleasingly variable experiences. Â Water is a huge hurdle and a problem.
So a simple message must be communicated: Â You should use relatively soft water, free from negative tastes and odours. Â It should have a little hardness, but not too much. Â This is already a pretty complicated message (and I’ve already massively oversimplified it). Â Even if it is understood we get a difficult question in return: Â so how do I achieve this at home?
This is where everything goes wrong, and I am still stumped for a good answer. Â The choices are the following:
– Use bottled water. Â You can look at the mineral content on the side of the bottle – presented as “Dry residue at 180Â°C”. Â You can pick up water from places like Tesco relatively cheaply. Â However, you don’t really feel good about telling people to be buying bottled water (hardly the most sustainable idea in the world) just to brew their coffee with. Â Those that do see a massive improvement and realise the value, but it doesn’t feel like a practical or scalable solution.
– Treat the water at home. Â Most people working on improving their water will use something like a Brita filter. Â These do remove unpleasant tastes and odours, but they do’t really soften the water very much, and you’ll still have a relatively high TDS. Â Not recommended for optimal results. The other option for home treatment is to install a reverse osmosis (RO) unit. Â In a commercial environment I now consider these to be absolutely essential, and you’re opening or operating a coffee bar in London without one then I strongly suggest getting one installed as soon as possible. Â You can produce great water with it ,and stellar results.
At home you need to do some semi-serious plumbing to install one. Â For many people renting this isn’t a viable option, and even if the unit is relatively cheap it is still Â similar money to starter electric burr grinder – though this won’t have great production capacity.
RO is without doubt the best commercial solution, and I will put one in my next kitchen – but I don’t know if people want to get this involved with their plumbing just for a cup of coffee.
What’s left? Â Not a lot really. Â Cafes with RO units could sell or give away the water to people (with reusable containers) if they have sold whole bean coffee to them too. Â I’d love to see cafes give some away, if only so people could taste what they could be brewing at home.
I pose this as a question about water to anyone and everyone reading, because I don’t have a good answer. Â This should be a question troubling more people. Â If you roast coffee in an environment where the water is hard, or has a high TDS, then it is likely that your customers are having very, very different experiences in their homes compared to what you’re enjoying on your cupping table. Â We need a solution for this that is practical, sustainable and affordable. Â I desperately hope we find one soon. Â All ideas are welcome…