Call me a cliche, but as a PhD student part of me thinks I should at least know how to make a good coffee.
As someone who enjoys drinking coffee, and who is in the demographic of people who usually end up as career baristas due to sad statistics concerning postgraduate employment, it seems pertinent to at least learn the basics.
So, I started learning how to make coffee as an amateur.
It really started when I developed an obsession for tea making at around the age of 18, learning the different types of leaf and brewing times. What temperature was ideal for Oolong versus Genmaicha, and so on. I made my own pandan blend, learned how to mix my own ‘house black tea’ for visitors, and subsequently got bored. Making the leap to coffee wasn’t that different considering the similar process involved.
I began with the usual plunge (French Press) style coffee and a bag of pre-ground beans sourced from a shop that makes pretty good coffee. Through trial and error, I learned what amount of ground coffee was appropriate, what spices did and did not mix during the brewing process, and what temperature to keep the water. I picked up some tips along the way such as warming the plunger before adding the coffee itself so no flavour was lost in the process, and keeping my coffee in a cool, dry place instead of the freezer.
So now I’m ready to upgrade. What’s next, you might ask? Since I’m not quite at liberty to drop a few hundred (or thousand!) dollars on an espresso machine, I’m opting for a slower, more skillful approach.
Pour-over, also referred to as ‘filter coffee’ depending on where you go, is Australia’s premium barista brew. Charging customers an extra $3 for the privilege of having your coffee grounds slowly drip through paper instead of being jet-steamed into a cup seems a little rich to me – yet it’s becoming more and more a test of a barista’s skill. If your local barista can use one of these, they’re in the money;
The typical Melbourne past time of ordering this somewhat needlessly expensive coffee, watching a barista flourish their way to the needlessly expensive contraption, and wait an extra 3 minutes for what is usually a so-so brew, is often beyond my patience. If their espresso tastes like opportunities crushed under the heel of indifference, then their filter coffee won’t be much better.
However when you find a good barista, who actually improves their coffee by expertly utilizing the drip-filter method, you write down that person’s name and keep them on speed-dial.
The last such person I met was a Ukrainian migrant by the name of Stefan, who is so far the only person who can make a long black that I (and my husband) can stand. He applied his Master’s in chemical engineering to brewing the perfect cup and honestly… I don’t know where he is now but I know for certain that every single customer of his is alert, and happy.
Back to the point – since I’m a pragmatist and also coincidentally a student on many levels, I’ve decided to give filter coffee a go myself. The inspiration for this endeavor stems directly from a performance at a cafe in Shuri, Okinawa, when I ordered their ‘normal’ coffee and got a ten-minute piece of performance art that concluded with a coffee that was both delicious and kept me buzzing far longer than normal. Google Maps isn’t kind enough to let me link you directions to this hidden gem, but I assure you that as of 2017 it was one of the best parts of my visit to Okinawa. Catch the monorail to Shuri station, take the exit on the left side of the road towards Shuri castle, and it’s a small store with a tiny shipping container out front. Go inside. Order the single origin coffee. Drink it black.
The barista’s skill, and the beauty of their brewing implements, made me motivated to do the same at home. So I quickly googled ‘Osaka Brewing stand’ and was surprised at the price. So I googled cheaper appliances on ebay, such as a jug with a thermometer to control the temperature of the water, a filter stand, a pyrex jug for the coffee itself, and of course the filter. It would be quite an investment from the outset, but I maintain that once I perfect the skill of brewing excellent home coffee I’ll never need to spend $9 on a single cup ever again. The average cost for a home-made coffee is around 15c per cup, which perfectly suits my budget sentiments.
I could MacGyver my way through it and follow the precedent that grinding beans without a grinder sets; if I’m crushing my coffee beans with a hammer every morning then what’s the point of making the rest of the process over-complicated? Such kludges would delight my husband (and perhaps our future children) so I’ll give it some thought.
After all, if going to cafes has taught me anything, it’s that half the fun of having coffee made is staring at the barista like some half-baked zombie until you’re caffeinated…marvelling at how they’re making you pay close to $10 for some hot beans in water, and the fact that you’ll probably be back tomorrow regardless.