Coffee Duel 1

June 14, 2009

For the last 6 months or so, a certain Blueharv and I have been in the grips of the vacuum-brewed siphon coffee obsession.  In November the good people at the Blue Bottle siphon bar turned me on to the well-designed Hario coffee siphon and its silky-perfect nectar.  Since then it’s been nothing but a whirlwind caffeinated frenzy.  At last, in my own kitchen I had everything necessary to extract a perfect cup of coffee, and it was far easier than I’d imagined.

Knowing my pal Blueharv’s penchant for well-brewed coffee and his hardwarehacker instincts, I had to share the gift.  Amazon helped me drop-ship a Hario TCA-3 siphon to his address and I followed that with the url of the fine CoffeeGeek Siphon Guide.   Fish to water; 2 siphons per day since.

So it was only natural that we’d pit our scrappy kung fu against each other to find out who was the grand coffeebong master (and compare some notes in the process).  Blueharv loaded up the Vespa and crossed town to the streets of Lower Haight.

Unpacking his gear we noted a few equipment differences:

1.  Grinder:  Blueharv’s Capresso vs. my Krup (both measured-dose conical burr grinders)

2.  Filter Cloth:  Blueharv’s well stained with 6 months of use; mine bright white and freshly replaced

3.  Siphon Bulb Stand:  Conspicuously absent… oops… didn’t make it into the Vespa.  We share.

Comparison of Equipment

Comparison of Equipment

Aside from that, today we’re working with the same butane burners, same preheated water source (Russel Hobbs electric kettle), and probably most important:

The Same Coffee Beans:  Ritual Roasters’ Sumatran “Sidikalang”

Blueharv went first (after a quick scoff at the way my electric kettle brought the water to a full boil before switching off… poppycock).  Hot water goes into the bulb, and then he blazed the burner to full-flame under the bulb.  It started bubbling in seconds, and here’s where we have our first departure of methods:

While I place grounds into the brew cylinder before attaching it to the bulb, Blueharv attaches the *empty* brew cylinder to the bulb just after the water starts to bubble.  Then at the point where water starts creeping into the brew cylinder, he adjusts the flame down and starts the grinder (preset for grind level and portion).


Water beginning its creep up the siphon... note how the soiled filter has discolored the brew water

This seems like a good way to do things, but it requires split-second timing.  On the plus side, it minimizes the time between grinding and water contact (less oxidation of coffee oils).  On the minus side (I think), the longer the water hangs out in the upper cylinder the hotter the water gets, and if either the grinder takes a long time or you can’t transfer the grounds from the grinder bin into the brew cylinder quickly, you’re at best not gaining anything, and at worst you’re giving the grounds different contact times.

In any case, the Capresso grinder wins here:  It grinds the full dose in a matter of seconds, and the output bin’s small curved shape allows you to dump straight into the brew cylinder.  In fact, this all went by so fast that I barely caught a picture of the operation.  Here, the grounds have just hit the water (which has subsequently filled the brew cylinder), and Blueharv’s hand is recoiling with the empty grinder bin.

Dumping the grounds into brew cylinder

Dumping the grounds into brew cylinder

From here, Blueharv stirs vigorously and lets the grounds dwell for a good 90-120 seconds.  I noted at this point that he’s using a very fine grind — no large grains sticking to the stirring rod.  I don’t use a grind this fine, fearing that the grounds bed could get overly compacted at the filter, preventing a quick kickdown of the coffee into the bulb… but we’ll see that this doesn’t cause a problem.

A vigorous stir

A vigorous stir

At dwell’s end, the grounds get a vigorous stir to establish the vortex that pulls the grounds into a nice tight mound.  Here is another difference:  Blueharv has no qualms about stirring the crap outta the brewing coffee, while my careful restraint allows no more than 15 turns of the stirring rod, achieving just enough speed to create the mound.

To my surprise, the coffee kicks down into the bulb without issue, quickly and without the need for a cooling towel at the bulb, leaving behind a perfectly-formed mound of dessicated grounds:


And now the true test:  How does it taste?

Finished product

Finished product

Answer:  DELICIOUS.  For all the prattle amongst roasting snobs about “tasting the fruit” in the coffee beans, this cup has a wide and even taste profile with lovely light fruity acids.  Not heavy yuzu nor cloying lychee, but just a light lemongrass riding above light treacle maple-syrup flavors mingling with the tarry toasty coffee oils.  This is a brilliant and unblemished cup of coffee:  While I worried about Blueharv’s  vigorous stirring, long dwell time and possibly overheated water, this cup has no burn or bitterness in it.  If anything it’s on the powdery side of things.  This will be hard to beat.

From here, Blueharv demonstrates his brew cylinder emptying technique:  invert over the compost bin, release the filter spring hook, and tap the bottom with hand in place to catch the filter on its way out.  Voila.

I then went through the brewing process using my methods.  It’s amazing:  We both learned the process from similar sources, but ended up with a remarkable amount of differences in the way we do things.  Here’s a few:

Grind:  My grind level is a good 2-3 stops higher, yielding discrete grains of about 0.8mm.

Stirring:  At the point where water meets grounds I lightly duck the grounds below the water’s surface with just enough movement to get the grounds underwater and lumps broken up.  From there I don’t dare touch it for fear of… bruising the coffee?  Hmm.

Dwell time:  A strict 30 seconds from grounds ducked underwater to the beginning of the 15-turn vortex stir.

Two aspects of the Krups grinder have caused me to allow a lot of time and trouble at the transfer of grounds into the brew cylinder:  The shape of the grounds bin (wide and squarish) prevents a simple dump — a careful pour with scrapes from a spoon is necessary.  Additionally, something about this grinder puts a ridiculous amount of static charge on the finished grounds (fast-spinning ceramic burrs, passing through an all-plastic path…  recipe for stripped ions).  This means very careful handling and touch with a metal spoon is required, otherwise the grounds just leap out of the bin and spread out across the counter.  If someone else has encountered this and found a solution, please let me know.  While a metal lining of the grounds bin might help this, I can’t think of many ways to make this work well.  The chief drawback of this is it’s caused me to transfer the grounds with the brew cylinder in its stand, losing valuable seconds with the grounds oxidizing all the while.

The coarser grind, minimal handling and shorter brew time I’ve been using (30 seconds) may actually have backfired somewhere along the way.  It could have been an exhausted palate, but I’d swear my coffee was more sour, bitter and burned than Blueharv’s.

This will not be the last coffee duel…


4 Responses to “Coffee Duel 1”

  1. blueharv said

    That’s a pretty comprehensive write-up. I’ve since swapped out the filter for one that’s very fresh and clean. When shall we reconvene for the next challenge?

    • Mark said

      Oh, have you now? And I’ve got a fresh bag of Intelligentsia’s “La Tortuga” from Honduras. How’s your Wednesday looking?

  2. Mark, the site is looking great and I love the article!

  3. Lee said

    Making coffee is elaborate and delicate. Cool.

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