Math + Science = Great Coffee

Numbers have never been my thing. As a student I used to break out into a cold sweat during math class and to this day I can’t do simple addition and subtraction in my head with confidence. I’ve learned to make peace with it though. After all, my phone has a calculator if I need it. And I married a man to whom numbers are a first language. In fact, I practically wrote into our marriage vows: “I promise to handle the words in our life if you handle the numbers.” So imagine my surprise when I learned recently that the secret to a great cup of coffee is not the beans or the grind or the water (although all of those things are important). The single most important thing to improve the taste of any coffee is a ratio of coffee to water. As someone who only recently came to understand and appreciate the ART that is coffee roasting, I was shocked that it was the SCIENCE of brewing that had the final and arguably biggest impact on the cup. This was the first and most important lesson that my husband Tim and I learned in a recent training session at Fernwood Coffee Company in Victoria, BC. We had a rare weekend away from the kids and decided to take a short flight and a little getaway to Vancouver Island in search of some warm ocean air. Of course, what we found was below average temperatures and snow. A quick Google search for Victoria’s best coffee house introduced us to Fernwood Coffee Company, a small batch roaster and local café as renowned for its fresh beans as it is for training barista champions. After a brief email exchange, owner Ben Cram agreed to bring Tim and me in from the rain for a private training session with one of Fernwood’s top baristas. I should have known that I was out of my wordy realm when Rek Feldman introduced himself as a mechanical engineering student who had been working in the coffee world for ten years. My first calculation of the afternoon was estimating Rek’s age and realizing that I had probably been drinking coffee for almost as long as he’s been alive. Sigh. Rek has spent the last decade as a barista in various coffeehouses across Canada and the U.S., as a competitor and judge in the world of barista championships, and even did a stint as a program developer for the Canadian Barista & Coffee Academy. But today on Rek’s agenda: teaching a couple in their 40’s from small town Alberta the basics of espresso brewing, steaming milk and latte art. Lucky duck. Rek started by purposefully making us two bad shots of espresso. One was under extracted and tasted face-twistingly sour and the other was over-extracted and tasted bitter. But he explained that there is an easy way to brew better instantly. And this is where my life changed with a ratio and a kitchen scale. If you’re making brewed coffee, to every one gram of coffee, you need 17 grams of water. (1:17) If you’re making espresso, for every 1 gram of coffee, you need 1.5 g of water. It’s that simple. (1:1.5) And then we tried it. At first this procedure requires some patience and that quick math mind that I don’t have, but thankfully Tim does. You need to cancel out the weight of the filter and the weight of the espresso cup or the coffee pot so you’re truly only looking at the weight of the coffee and the liquid. But when you hit that sweet spot the difference in taste will amaze you. It’s not sour. It’s not bitter. It’s smooth and has depth and you can taste the entire range of flavours found in that blend. To infuse it with cream or sugar would be a disgrace. Rek went on to teach us other things that afternoon. He regaled us with useful and enlightening information about heat, pressure, time, steaming milk, and liquid viscosity that will all likely find themselves the subjects of future blog posts. But for you, the at-home coffee lover, this one thing can blow your mind with just your chosen coffee and a scale. I know because we came home and tried it with our home brewer and improved our coffee tenfold. No, not tenfold. We improved it 17:1 and you can too. Try it and let me know what you think. _______________________ Fernwood Coffee Company can be found at 1115 North Park Street, Victoria, BC We purchased their 1936 Espresso to use at home and it is amazing. We’d also highly recommend one of their training sessions if you’re ever in Victoria on a rainy day (or even a sunny one). Our two hour session for two people cost $120 and was worth every penny in terms of fun and education.