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  • Writer's pictureRick

Self-Brew Coffee: A Beginner's Journey in Brewing Coffee at Home

My travel blog is mostly about travel and coffee (and my iOS apps). Since I started, coffee posts are mostly about interesting coffee-related stuffs that I came across during my travels, such as coffee murals, special coffees and great cafes. With this post, I'm starting a new chapter in coffee brewing. I will share things that I learnt in the process and also how I travel around to find coffee beans, visit interesting cafes and try more specialty coffees.

I have been drinking instant coffees and traditional kopi-O at home for many years due to the ease of making a cup of coffee any time. The thought of brewing my own coffee has never came across my mind. It was not until I came across August Drip Coffee, a roastery-cum-cafe in Johor Bahru, that aroused the interest to brew coffee myself. It was not love at first sight though.

August Drip Coffee's staff are enthusiastic to share their knowledge on brewing coffees, especially with someone like me who knows nothing at all. After visiting the cafe a few times to have pour-overs to try their roasted coffee beans, I started nursing the idea to try self-brewing at home — not to mention that pour-overs are much more expensive than buying roasted beans home to self-brew. It seems pretty simple when I watch how they brew coffees with different types of Hario V60 and Origami drippers.

I also joined August Drip Coffee's membership programme to enjoy discounts on pour-overs and specialty coffee beans.

In the Beginning...

The first pack of specialty coffee I bought from August Drip Coffee to try brewing at home was the Ethiopia Sidamo (medium roast).

Having read online that some drippers, such as Kalita, etc, are more "forgiving" with mistakes made during the brewing process and is friendlier for beginners, I bought a flatbed dripper and a pack of fan-shaped filter papers for 1~2 cups from Daiso for just RM5.90 per item. The dripper has 3 holes at the bottom — I thought it's a Kalita, but it's not (I will call it Daiso dripper in this post).

The dripper has straight rips and a slightly wider base than Kalita and the filter paper is not able to fit properly in it. But, it can still brew cups of strong coffee as a result of longer brewing time due to restricted water flow. I was not brewing properly since I could not measure the amount of water in each pour without a coffee scale, which I had yet to acquire then.

Before starting to brew coffee, I need to discuss 3 general aspects:

  1. Fresh roasted coffee beans

  2. Coffee wares

  3. Brewing techniques

Fresh Roasted Coffee Beans

Roasted beans are usually packed in resealable bags with a one-way valve (with several holes) on it. That valve allows carbon dioxide (CO2), a by-product of roasting coffee beans, to escape from the bag and stop outside air from entering.

In the few days immediately after roasting (known as the resting period), the roasted beans need to degas most of the CO2 before they can be brewed. However, there will still be CO2 trapped inside the beans, which is why the blooming phase is important when brewing coffee.

As mentioned earlier, the first pack of specialty coffee I bought was the Ethiopia Sidamo (medium roast), after degased for about 5 days. Coffee are best stored in beans form to retain its freshness, but since I did not have a coffee grinder then, I requested for the coffee beans to be ground before bringing it home. As such, I was advised to brew with 85°C water for a start and to increase the temperature to 92°C to increase extraction when the aroma of the coffee ground begins to fade — and it did after more than a week.

Freshly-roasted coffee beans stay fresh for about 2~3 weeks after roasting — light roasts tend to stay fresh longer and darker roasts have shorter freshness period. But the first few days to a week is used for degassing. That gives about 1~2 weeks of freshness before the fading aroma becomes obvious. For this reason, it will be better to buy roasted coffee beans in small bags of 150 / 200 /250 grams, not in bulk.

If 15 grams of coffee beans are used per brew, a 200-gram bag will be about 13 cups of coffee. That will last for about a week for 2 cups of coffee a day or 2 weeks for just 1 cup of coffee a day.

One more thing, after opening the bag to pour out some beans for brewing, reseal the bag and squeeze out the air inside it as oxygen will have gotten in and start the oxidation process (degradation) in the beans.

Specialty coffees are expensive. So it will be better to get the cheaper beans when learning how to brew coffee and not forgetting about diminishing freshness. However, do not use low-quality coffee beans as they can affect brew results.

I have 2 ways to get roasted coffee beans (and expendable V60 filter papers) at cheaper prices:

1. Go over the border to Johor to get them from cafes or coffee factories. Due to the exchange rates, buying in Malaysia is cheaper than in Singapore. For brewing with drippers, I will prefer to visit cafes to have pour-overs to try the tastes of the coffee before buying. For espresso, which use medium or dark roasted coffee grounds, I will go to the coffee factories. V60 filter papers can also be acquired from some cafes that serve pour-overs.

2. Shop online. I will search for a list of roasted coffees that I wish to try, add them to the shopping cart and use it as a watchlist. When discounts are offered for any of the coffee beans, I will buy a pack when my coffee beans are running low. Do get from sellers that can deliver the beans within few days after roasting. The only downside is I won't be able to try the coffees before buying.

I ordered a pack of heavily-discounted Guatemala Geisha (200g) on Black Friday. Geisha coffee beans are in the most expensive range of specialty coffees so it will be best to make use of discounts. The most expensive Panama Geisha (around $60 for 100g) is too expensive for me even after discounts — an opportunity to go for it will come some days.

Coffee Wares

Before I can brew properly, say, using V60 technique, I need to gather the necessary hardware:

  • Hario V60 dripper (plastic is cheap and better thermal stability)

  • Hario V60 brown filter papers (no bleached papers for me)

  • Digital coffee scale with 0.1 gram accuracy

  • Gooseneck pouring pot (alternative to gooseneck kettle)

  • Coffee grinder (manual)

I was quite hesitant to get the coffee wares initially due to limited space on my kitchen countertop. Things started moving after I acquired a new rack to reorganise the stuffs on the countertop.

From just one cup and one teaspoon to make my cup of instant joe everyday, there are now more coffee wares. My initial investment works out to be around S$68, excluding the new rack for the gears and array of coffee beans and instant coffees. Apart from coffee beans / grounds, the expendable filter papers incur running cost too.

The only hardware not in the list above is an electric kettle with temperature control. First, I have a still-functioning kettle and I don't need 2 kettles. Second, I have no space for another bulky item on my countertop. Third, electric gooseneck kettle with temperature control is expensive. Lastly, maintaining constant water temperature throughout the brewing process is not crucial to me.

According to the video below, I do not have to get a constant-temperature kettle specifically for brewing coffee. A normal kettle will do nicely. I just have to maintain consistency in the brewing process from the point the water is boiled.

I prefer coffee beans of medium roast that have lower acidity, lower bitterness and fuller body. So, by using about 30 seconds to rinse the paper filter and pre-heat the dripper after the water is boiled and through heat losses in the metal pouring pot, the plastic V60 cone, the surrounding air, etc, my brewing temperature should be around 94°C during extraction and even lower at the drawdown phase — I will explain further in another post.

Learning the V60 Technique

For V60 coffee brewing techniques, I learnt from two champions on YouTube:

1. James Hoffmann, an English barista, YouTuber, entrepreneur, coffee consultant and author, who won the World Barista Championship in 2007 (Wikipedia). He has tonnes of videos about coffees on YouTube, including experiments that he conducted to address coffee-related myths.

James Hoffmann's V60 Technique:

2. Tetsu Kasuya, a Japanese barista, who won the world Brewers Cup of 2016 and is the first world champion in Asia.

Tetsu Kasuya's 4:6 Method:

From all the videos (and several others that are not mentioned) in this post, I listed down most, if not all, of the factors that can affect a brew:

  1. Type of coffee bean (characteristics, type of roast, rest period, etc)

  2. Grind size of coffee ground

  3. Type of dripper (construction, material, etc)

  4. Type of filter (paper, cloth or metal)

  5. Coffee beans to water ratio

  6. Water (temperature, mineral contents, etc)

  7. Brewing time (pour intervals)

  8. Number of pours

  9. Amount of water for each pour

  10. Pouring technique (pour height, pour speed, etc)

That's 10 factors minimally! And it's just the surface of it. For example, "Coffee beans to water ratio" alone consists of 2 variables: amount of coffee beans and amount of total water to use.

With 2 variables, there will be at least 4 sets of varying conditions that may result in more than 4 possible outcomes. With 10 or more variables, there will be more than 100 possible outcomes. And that is terrifying! I will rather give up brewing coffee than to brew over 100 cups of coffee to find the best brewing combination for any coffee beans — and I will definitely forget the taste of the first cup after 10 cups of coffee.

As such, we should keep majority of the factors either constant or consistent and vary just one or two variables at a time. James Hoffmann proposes to adjust grind size of coffee ground to taste. Tetsu Kasuya recommends adjusting the amount of water for the first 2 pours to balance acidity and sweetness and number of pours to adjust the strength of the brew.

In the two videos that demonstrated Tetsu Kasuya's 4:6 Method, the first video uses a standard V60 dripper whereas the second one uses a "V60 Kasuya model" where the rips near the bottom of the cone are removed. Tetsu Kasuya modified the dripper to stall the flow of water. This shows that the rips on drippers can affect brews too.

So far, my results using the V60 techniques have been quite satisfactory, but still not good enough as I tend to make mistakes here and there — trying to perform mental sums first thing in the morning before coffee can be error-prone. It is easier to write down the timings and amount of water after each pour and refer to it while brewing.

To make my life easier, I created a little app called "Brew Coffee" to help me manage my recipes and narrate tasks to me, with ticking timers, while I focus on brewing my coffee. No more little pieces of paper that keep diverting my attention away from the tasks on hand.

I just want a cup of delicious self-brew coffee everyday, not trying to become a barista, so what I need is a technique that gives me what I want and is easy for me to apply — ideally. In reality, different flavours of coffee beans and diminishing freshness will call for adjustments to the brewing method for reasonable extraction according to personal taste preference. So, good understanding of whichever technique used is key to having great coffee every day.

The Kalita Technique

Since I already owned the Kalita-lookalike Daiso dripper and filter papers, I will not waste them. Using a Kalita brewing recipe that I found on YouTube, I tried the technique a few times, with some adjustments, after getting a coffee scale. The coffee tasted so much better than before, especially with slightly coarser grind size.

I will use this method to brew coffee for greater strength or when I intend to add milk to it for different experience. As time goes by, I will also adjust the technique to suit my preference. Perhaps, I should try using the dripper with V60 techniques to see what kind of results I will get — should be interesting!

Making Espresso Myself

I have a Nescafe Dolce Gusto coffee maker, but I stopped using it about 2 years ago because of its pricey coffee capsules. I came across some reusable / refillable capsules online and acquired 3 of them to use with the coffee maker instead of investing in another expensive espresso machine, not to mention I need to find a space for it.

The new "toys" allow me to make espresso from any coffee grounds of my choice, which is another reason I go for medium roasts so I can use the same coffee beans / grounds for brewing filter coffee or espresso. I have also use dark-roasted Liberica, Excelsa or mixtures of both in different proportions to make cups of espresso and lungo, they have different taste profiles and aromas.

Furthermore, I used to add hot espresso to different flavours of ice-cream / gelato to find a combination for affogato (an Italian coffee-based dessert) that I like best, and I will do that again some day — I'm still not convinced that vanilla gelato is the best for affogato.

Vietnamese Phin Drip Coffee

Apart from the espresso coffee maker, the new Daiso dripper and Hario V60 dripper, I also have a Vietnamese Phin coffee dripper for almost 10 years as a souvenir from Vietnam. I seldom use it to brew coffee as fine grains of coffee grounds tend to get into the beverage. With new enthusiasm in self-brewing coffee, I started experimenting with the dripper again. The new coffee grinder also helps to create coarser grounds that reduce the amount of fine residue in the coffee.

The stainless steel dripper brews very strong and intense coffee that has more flavours and fuller body due to the absence of filter papers that remove the coffee oils. I will add a few ice cubes and cold fresh milk (not sweetened condensed milk) to it to make my own style of Vietnamese iced coffee — too much ice can dilute the coffee and it gets blander as time passed.

Rescuing Poor Brews

During the learning phase or when carrying out some experiments, I will standby some sugar and table salt — they are easily available in the kitchen — in case I botch a brewing process that results in a cup of coffee that is either too sour or too bitter. I will add in some sugar to reduce the acidity or a few drops of salt solution to mitigate the bitterness so as not to waste the cup of coffee.

For botched brews that are under-extracted, I will add instant coffee to create "blends" with mixed flavours. For over-extracted brews, I will add milk to subdue the tastes. I try to avoid adding sugar unless I am going for some workout after coffee.

One More Thing

As a novice to coffee-brewing, there are still a lot of things that I have yet to discover. I am keeping this post alive, which I do for most of my posts actually, and continue to update here as I progress through the learning phase. For lengthy topics, I will start new posts under the "Self-Brew Coffee" series and add links here.

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