Coffee is the lifeblood of academia. When global warming wipes out the coffee belt (google it, it’s happening), I wouldn’t be surprised if, as a direct consequence, institutions of higher learning ceased to exist and law and order became determined via the Thunderdome. Being a scientist and casual coffee enthusiast, I am very interested in what goes into making the perfect cup of coffee. With this in mind I decided to attend the Toronto Aeropress Coffee Championships hosted at Hale Coffee.
This is Aeropress. It’s a very elegant way of brewing coffee at home. At its most basic, you simply drop some coffee grounds in the tube, add water, then push it through the filter. The process makes for a very good cup of coffee, and it’s extremely easy. But the competitors don’t want good, they want to brew something that sets them apart.
The Toronto competition saw 27 competitors attempt to take the title. Competitors were broken up into heats of 3 people, each of which brewed their cup and submitted it to tasting by the judges. The winner of the heat then progresses to the next round. Luckily 27 is divisible by 3, so the first 9 heats paired down into 3 semi-final heats, which paired down to the final 3 competitors.
Competitors are challenged to make their best cup of coffee from the same batch of beans within a limited amount of time. Other than that, most other variables are up to you: How much ground coffee do you add? How fine should the grind be? When do you add the water? How hot should the water be? Do you stir? How long do you let the brewed coffee sit? When do you press the coffee? How hard do you press it? At what temperature should you consume the coffee?
At its core, coffee is a solution of “coffee stuff” dissolved in water. The “coffee stuff” is, generally speaking, caffeine, volatile oils, organic acids, proteins and sugars. A typical cup of coffee will be about 1-2 percent “coffee stuff” by mass, while an espresso shot will be closer to 8 percent by mass. It therefore stands to reason that one of the most important variables is water taste. As for the “coffee stuff”, well, it gets complicated.
All of the molecules that make up coffee have different sizes and solubility, meaning they will dissolve at different rates and saturate at different levels. Caffeine is tiny and very soluble, so it is typically pulled from the bean fastest. In general, the oils are where the good flavors are and luckily they are usually the second easiest to extract. Somewhere in the mix then, are the organic acids. These – you guessed it, add a certain sourness to the brew. As for the proteins, well, some proteins react with the natural sugars in the bean to make caramel-y flavors, some are also extracted on their own and make for bitterness. In extremely broad strokes, we can say that the sour flavors are extracted quicker than the bitter ones. Of course this is going to be highly dependent on the type of bean, where it was grown, how it was processed and how it was roasted. While these things are all determined before you buy the beans, there are a lot of variables one can play with during the brewing process to control extraction. As competitor, you want to understanding how these variables affect extraction and what you can do to control them.
Being the skeptic that I am, I went into this wondering “how different could these brews be? Can the judges even discern a difference between the cups?” Interestingly, I observed that the frequency with which a competitor won a heat by a unanimous decision was anomalously high. If one were to be cynical and claim that all the cups taste identical and the judges pick at random, there are only 3 ways a cup can be unanimously chosen. Now, 3 judges all have 3 cups that can choose from, so the total number of ways judges can pick cups is 3^3 = 27. That means if judges choose cups randomly we would expect a unanimous decision once out of every 9 heats (3/27). There were a total of 14 heats over the evening, so naively we would expect a heat to be decided unanimously once or twice. While I didn’t see every round, I did witness 4 unanimous decisions.
One of those 4 times was in the finals, and the cup belonged to Yadi. By winning the Toronto Competition, qualified for the National Competition at Dogwood Coffee in Winnipeg.
Yadi has been brewing coffee for about 5 years and is the owner of FIKA Cafe in Kensington Market in Toronto, Ontario. I met with Yadi at his shop to talk coffee and get a few tips on home brewing.
Before we talk about the competition, I have to know. Where do you go for coffee?
I have a few favorite spots: Arvo, Neo Coffee Bar, Boxcar Riverside, Smalls Coffee… I like visiting different cafes to meet different people. I feel coffee tastes better when someone else is making it for you.
What’s the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had? You can say your own, you are a champion.
Saint Frank Coffee in San Francisco. Great ambiance and great beans from Honduras (can’t remember the farm). Executed properly as an espresso, tasted it on its own, then I mixed it with tonic water, blew my mind. You can have the best beans but if the person behind the bar does not care enough to execute the drink properly then you will be disappointed!
Aside: What in the heck, how come I never heard of this tonic water thing!?!
So you are an Aeropress champion. How do you feel the Aeropress design compares to other coffee making devices (typical espresso machines, French press, etc…)?
The Aeropress is so accessible, you don’t need any fancy equipment, just an interest to learn and brew good tasting coffee. Definitely each device has its own merits. I had been using the Hario V60 for my daily morning routine….. but the recent competition forced me to take out my Aeropress from the cabinet and start pressing! Which is great as it forces me to learn and appreciate its versatility once more.
I am impressed with the attention to detail and exactness with which you and your competitors executed, but at the end of the day the coffee is ranked qualitatively by judges. Do you have any special strategies when you compete? How variable is the finished cup?
Yes, just a loose strategy…with Aeropress there are so many variables that are beyond your control…missing a few seconds [of brew time] or grams [of coffee or water] here and there doesn’t really matter. Temperature is important, but as long as it is not too hot during tasting then it is ok.
How did you get to your current recipe?
It is a long tedious process. I deal with the variables one by one (water, temp, grind size, agitation, filter medium, time) until I get what I like. Took me a few days. Every morning before work I just brewed 2-3 times, and keep tasting and take notes. The first few days were frustrating as the coffee is a very complex blend! That’s why they chose it.
So are you going to change anything in your recipe before your next competition?
We are going to receive a new coffee from Winnipeg so the recipe will definitely change!
So… can I have the recipe you used in Toronto?
Yes! Sharing is important, plus a recipe is just that, a recipe. Everyone will still brew it differently.
Yadi’s Toronto Aeropress Championship Winning Recipe
Begin with aeropress inverted (plunger on table, chamber filter-side up)
Add 17 g medium-fine ground coffee
Add 80 g water, stir gentley, bloom for 30 seconds (water at 82 o C)
At 1 minute, add water until you hit 240 g, stir 15 times
Press with even pressure, finishing at 2:30
Aerate and cool as needed – a cooler temperature allows more tasting.
Note on blooming: Essentially, roasting a bean will cause the bean to degrade, creating carbon dioxide – a particularly unappealing molecule. It’s what gives carbonated water its taste. The carbon dioxide will be slowly released from the beans as they age, but adding heat (brewing) will make this happen very quickly. By blooming, we add a little bit of water to begin the release of carbon dioxide, and after we are satisfied that enough carbon dioxide has been release, we add the rest of the water. Here is an article on coffee bloom.
It looked like you didn’t pay too much attention to temperature (I have uploaded a video of Yadi making his winning cup on Instagram) – do you just have a good sense of temperature from experience? I noticed other competitors seemed very concerned with temperature, measuring it all throughout the brewing process.
For this competition I just try not to stress out myself, so I kept the routine as simple as possible. But the Nationals may be a different scenario. Temperature is important.
Another guy brought his own water. ‘sup with that?
I brought my own water too! Basically, use what’s familiar. Water’s mineral content differs everywhere, and it’ll affect how the coffee tastes. So I am still trying to figure out my water strategy for Winnipeg.
Ok, final and most important question. Do you like Tim Horton’s new dark roast?
I still prefer the original blend. I drink my Timmy’s in a medium with one cream.
After our chat, Yadi and I got together at FIKA for some hands-on brewing. We tried several varieties of beans and he gave me some more tips throughout the night. We spent about 3 hours after the shop was closed brewing and tasting. While I learned a lot, I I haven’t even scratched the surface. If I want to brew the best cup of coffee, I have a lot more to learn.
Thanks again to Yadi for talking to me. If you want to try a coffee from the champ, check out FIKA coffee in Kensington in Toronto. You can also follow Yadi on Instagram. Say hi, tell him I sent you.