Routine vs. Ritual: The Lost Art of Coffee, Vol. 1

Coffee is something most men enjoy (or try to enjoy) every day. As with how you choose to dress, you want to approach coffee with thoughtfulness and care with the aim of getting the most possible enjoyment out of it. Today, we're excited to have our good friend, Souhail Karram, talk about the importance of choosing the right drink to start your day. Not only is Souhail a brilliant medical student (soon to be Doctor), but he is also a connoisseur of many fine things, especially when it comes to brewing the perfect cup of coffee.

Wake up, get dressed, grab some caffeine, and get to work. Whether you use a drip machine on a timer, press a button on a Keurig, or swing by Starbucks, the routine isn’t about the coffee-- it’s about waking up. Unfortunately with convenience triumphing over flavor and enjoyment, coffee is now a lost art, replaced by a mechanical automation and flavored high fructose corn syrup. Good coffee needs no cream, sugar, caramel, or pumpkin spice-- and it’s not because you’re so manly your palate can handle the equivalent of a morning sacktap.

The truth is, good coffee is something to be savored—like 20 year old wine from your uncle’s vineyard in Italy or a single malt scotch on a balmy winter evening. It is complex and can range from fruity to floral to nutty to earthy—sometimes encompassing all of the qualities seamlessly in a single cup. Because of this, it should be evaluated similarly to wine—the aroma, the taste, the finish, and the body.

In this edition of the Lost Art of Coffee, we will start at the basics of French Press. The way french press brews is paperless—allowing the natural oils of the coffee to end up in your cup. This translates to a nicer aroma, better flavor, and a rich, velvety mouthfeel.  Admittedly it will seem like this gear is expensive, but compare it to your Starbucks bill – if you spend $3 a day on coffee, you can easily cover all of this equipment in a month or two. Over time, it will save you money, and allow you to enjoy all the beauty of a nice bottle of wine in the morning minus the inebriation and job loss.

You will need:

1.       A Grinder: I didn’t believe my cousins, who run two successful coffee shops in Vancouver, when they said I had to have a burr grinder over a blade grinder. I soon found out, after purchasing a blade grinder, how important a burr grinder would be. A blade grinder basically bludgeons the beans like a baseball bat. There is no order or accuracy, just mindless mashing until you think it’s ready. This results in unevenly size grounds and poor tasting coffee due to improper extraction. A burr grinder, however is more like a samurai sword—sharp, precise, meaningful. Since the beans pass through the grinding burrs, all you have to do is adjust the space between the burrs and the grinds come out even and equal in size. I recommend the Hario MSS-1B Mini Mill Slim Coffee Grinder, which is a hand grinder I own and travel with. It retails around $40 but it’s great for travel, camping, etc. I also own the Capresso 560.01 Infinity Burr Grinder, Black which goes for about $90. It’s a fantastic starting grinder and will give you flexibility with other brew methods, with the exception of espresso and Turkish.

2.       A French Press:  I really like Bodum's french presses, as they are beautiful and sturdy. Although the idea of a glass beaker may terrify you, I have found that they hold up much better than the competitions “unbreakable” plastic variety (which I’ve somehow managed to break two of with the help of my friends), and also cleans easier. In the photos, I am using a Bodum COLUMBIA 12-Cup, which is a metal, insulated french press, I was given as a wedding gift. It’s also much more expensive, so you don’t need it from the get go. I recommend purchasing larger than smaller--- you can always make less coffee, but you can’t make more. It’s important to know that a “french press cup” is only 4 ounces, So a 4 cup french press will only make 16 oz of coffee. Keep this in mind!

3.       A Kettle: Any rickety old kettle will do, but I like having an electric one because it heats up quickly. Costco has the one you see in the pictures for $20 bucks. If you think you’ll expand out to other brew methods eventually, I recommend buying a gooseneck electric kettle. For pour over, it allows more control as opposed to the normal spout. See: Bonavita 1.0L Electric Kettle

4.       Good Coffee: I will be using a coffee I  personally roasted in this tutorial but there are many excellent places you can order from online. I recommend ordering whole beans ONLY and grinding right before use. I have enjoyed coffees from Intelligensia, Counter Culture, Kean CoffeeStumptown, and Amaya Roasting. Read the descriptions and find something that suits you. Or check and see if you have a local roaster in your area. Whole Foods roasts their own coffee so you can easily grab a bag. The FRESHER THE BETTER. Coffee has about a two week shelf life for non-espresso methods. I like Ethiopians (which tend to be earty/fruity/floral) and Guatemalans (well-balanced). Just because Starbucks or Eight O’Clock coffee may have “single origin” beans, does not mean they are good. A nice bag may be pricier, but it is worth every penny to have it properly roasted, as Starbucks tries to burn every batch.

5.       A Scale (optional): The scale may very well be my favorite coffee gadget. The reason is that it allows me to avoid measuring things out with spoons and measuring cups while still being precise. The scale I am using is the Ozeri Touch Digital Scale. Order some CR2032 batteries along with it from Amazon, so you don’t get price gouged by RadioShack when you need new ones.

Souhail's Coffee Lab.

Fresh Sweet Maria's coffee  beans, roasted in the lab.

French Press:

Time Requirements:  <10 minutes

Step 1: Bring the water to a boil.

Step 2: Measure and grind coffee (you can either use a scale or the 7 gram scoop that comes with the french press.) You will need 7 grams of coffee to every 4 ounces of water. Since we are making 12 oz. in total (about the size of a mug) we measure out 21 grams.

Step 3: For French press, you should grind the coffee on the "coarse" setting. Since the water will be in contact with the coffee for the duration of the brew (most brew methods allow the water to just “pass through”), anything other grind settings will cause over extraction and bitterness. After your grind the coffee, pour the grounds into the press.

Step 4: After the water boils, let it rest for about a minute. Pour it evenly over the grounds, trying to saturate them completely. (12 oz. = 1 cup of coffee).

Step 5: Set a timer for 3-5 minutes. I like doing three or four minutes, but play around if you wish

Step 6: About a minute in, stir the coffee grounds.

Step 7: After the brew time is completed, “press down”, separating the liquid from the grounds. Pour into a mug and enjoy. It’s important to note that you should not leave the coffee in the french press – it will become bitter. Transfer to a mug or carafe immediately to avoid this.

Step 8: Enjoy black.

Like a proper shave with a double edged razor and shaving brush, roasting and brewing my own coffee is something I have come to enjoy as a ritual. I may have to get up ten minutes earlier, but I get to start my day with spectacular coffee that I created. As I make the coffee, I plan my day out in my head, since I’m not rushing out the door. I still get the benefits of the caffeine, but I don’t need anything else to enjoy it – no line, no barista, no artificial flavors. We live a life that is so obsessed with routine we forget to enjoy the things we can make with our own hands. The ritual may take a little longer than the routine, but the reward of crafting something truly beautiful is worth it.