Split Key Coffee
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Split Key Coffee

Brandon’s Coffee Journey Guide

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Coffee plays a large role in my life and has for quite some time. My first real exposure to coffee happened to be that of the specialty grade––I know, lucky me. My quest evolved into learning about different brewing methods to the importance of water and then transitioned into the bean itself with roasting and speaking with those involved in the trade.

I’ve put this guide together as a resource to help others who want to delve more into coffee. I am commonly asked by friends and others in my network where to start and it always depends where they are on their journey. Below, I outline the different stages of coffee from my view and what it means to be at that stage. No matter where you are in your journey, there’s always an opportunity to learn more!

Who are you?

In speaking with friends, family and those on the Internet, I have identified 5 different types of coffee people. Naturally, there’s some overlap and not everyone falls cleanly within a single category, but this is a good summary. I view coffee as a journey, so don’t worry, you have time to work your way up the ranks, pending you care, but hey, that’s why you’re here!

  1. The On-the-Go Drinker: Starbucks is my choice, can I do better?
  2. The Dabbler: I am willing to invest a bit in coffee.
  3. The Half-Way Hipster: Living life on the coffee edge.
  4. The Artisan: I’ve seen the light, now what?
  5. The Addict: Take me all the way down the rabbit hole!

The On-the-Go Drinker: Starbucks is my choice, can I do better?

If you fall within this category, coffee is more of a caffeine vehicle to you and less about the “experience”. In fact, your taste is tainted, as Starbucks––and most other commercial companies––burn their beans, giving it a charred flavor. Any nuance or unique qualities within the bean are lost as you move more towards producing charcoal.

It goes without saying, you can totally do better. Next time you’re out and about, consider visiting a speciality coffee shop. These used to be tough to find, but almost every major city has at least 2–3 good shops within walking distance of a major chain. Search for “specialty coffee” or “coffee roaster” to help you identify a location.

When you get there, regardless of your typical drink order, go for a black coffee––it can be drip, a pour-over, french press or whatever other fancy method. Aim for a single origin, ignore the price and take a seat. Enjoy the coffee. Savor the flavors and if the cashier hasn’t already told you what to expect, ask them about the profile of the cup.

My work here is done, you’re welcome.

The Dabbler: I am willing to invest a bit in coffee.

The journey has begun. Maybe you experienced great coffee out in the wild, or you’re finally ready to up your game at home. Whatever the reason, welcome. I tend to find most of my friends and family land within this category.

Coffee drinkers here recognize their home setup could be better, but it’s not clear where to make investments. The dabbler range could best be described as the “tipping point” in which you’ll go deeper into the journey, or you will settle into “good enough”. Either is fine, but this is the defining stage––time and money dictate your next move.

When you get coffee to go at your local shop or roaster, you want freshly roasted, whole bean coffee. Regardless of your machine setup and brewing method, the first step to better coffee at home is getting yourself a burr grinder––I’d explain the value here, but a quick Google search will yield tons of results. Trust me, go with burrs. Entry level items like the Baratza Encore, Capresso Infinity Plus or Kitchen Aid Grinder are all fine choices.

Using fresh (2–3 weeks past roast date) beans and grinding just before brewing is going to change your coffee experience. If you’re not measuring your coffee, consider doing that too. A good ratio would be 15 parts water to 1 part coffee (e.g. 20 grams of grounds should yield 300 grams of coffee).

The Half-Way Hipster: Living life on the coffee edge.

You’re drinking speciality on the go and at home. Hell, you may be actively converting your latte-loving friends. At this stage, you’re taking note of the fancy coffee shop gear and wondering how the hell you ever drank from a Keurig machine––don’t worry, we’ve all done it. It’s now time to select your brewing method of choice.

Standard Drip––If you’re needing multiple cups of coffee per day or servicing a small army, you may want to stick with the standard drip method. I’ve heard good things about Moccamaster products and experienced them at a few shops. This should be my knee-jerk go-to option for batch coffee.

French Press––Easy, versatile and convenient. Add some grounds, pour in some water, wait a few minutes and plunge. Pretty hard to mess up this method and it’s a cheap way to make 1–3 cups without having to devote too much time to the coffee gods. You can find a French Press anywhere.

Pour-over––Those looking to introduce a bit more theater into their brewing or simply want to filter out the coffee oils will want the pour-over. Chemex or V60 are good options here. I personally prefer a manual approach, but automation has crept onto the scene and I’ve heard good things.

Aeropress––Initially intimidating, but beautifully simple. This is a cheap way to brew coffee and it doubles as a good travel device. The nature of the press forces you to experiment with ratios, but that’s part of the fun.

Espresso––The ultimate. Be weary of diving deep in espresso as all options lead to thousands of dollars. Sure, you can find plenty of options under $2,000, but to do the coffee justice, you need to spend a lot more. If you’re hell-bent on milk drinks, go for it. Otherwise, grab espressos at the local shop and brew larger cups at home.

There’s a few other methods to brew coffee out there, but the above are the most popular. Find the one––or many––that best suite your schedule and tastebuds you rebel, you.

The Artisan: I’ve seen the light, now what?

You’re buying beans from the local shops and not even ordering a cup of coffee as your home setup is just as good. You’ve experimented with a few brewing methods and have started to understand the tasting notes printed on the designer coffee bags. Coffee is to be respected.

If you’ve reached this stage in the journey, congratulations. Prior to this point, changes you’ve made to your process would net big gains in quality––those days are mostly over. From now on, you will spend cash on gear that refine your process, but don’t always translate into easily identified gains in the cup. None of that matters though because you’re an artisan. You will perfect all the things.

Scales––If you aren’t in double-digit weight precision, it’s time to fix that. Acaia is the Apple of coffee scales––they look good, function well and are expensive. You should be weighing your beans and your output every single time you brew, no excuses.

Boilers––Maybe you used a pot of water or you’re already leveraging an electric kettle. Chances are you haven’t thought about pour-rates and flow. Don’t worry though, there’s products for that. In the past, I’ve used the Bonavita Gooseneck Kettle, but after 3 of them dying on me, I went with the Stagg EKG.

Grinders––Whatever grinder you had before this was “okay”, but it’s time to consider an upgrade. Consistency and expense go hand-in-hand when it comes to coffee, so expect to shell out some more coin here. I use a Nuova Simonelli Grinta Grinder for my daily brews and a Compak E5 OD for espresso. What you ultimately choose will depend on whether or not you plan to go full addict or you stay artisan. If espresso is important, consider a price tag of $600 and up. If it’s not, under $400 will get you a great daily grinder.

Vessels––You put all this cash into your brewing, why stop there? In all seriousness, getting nice glasses or ceramic cups add to the coffee experience. No specific recommendations here, but it’s one of the few areas where you can inject some style and some of your own personality. Have fun with it.

Miscellaneous––There are tons of other items you can buy. A few items I own that do not fit easily within a category would be storage (where you keep your coffee), brushes (for cleaning), travel grinder, dosing vessels (for distributing grounds), tampers, ground distributors, and tasting charts.

And you thought you had it all figured out! Like I said, none of the above––sans the grinder––are going to make an extreme difference in coffee output, but it does add to the experience.

The Addict: Take me all the way down the rabbit hole!

If I’ve brought you this far, sorry, not sorry. I assume at this point you are doing all of the above and are contemplating one of the three options.

  1. Espresso. How the hell do I produce the god shot?

To answer directly, consistency. Espresso is an extremely violent process and a lot needs to be done correctly to produce a great shot. You need to be thinking about every single stage of the coffee.

Beans. Where are they from? When were they roasted? What stage of roasting did they get to? How fresh are they? Water. Is the water the right temperature? Does the group head stay hot? Is the pressure correct? Is the water balanced? Grind. Is the grind consistent? Is it too fine or too coarse? Is the coffee stale? How many grams were weighed? When was the grinder last cleaned? Tamping. How much pressure was applied? Were the grounds evenly distributed? Is the tamp even and level? Brew. Is the machine able to produce enough pressure? Is the machine too hot? How long has the machine been on? Is the filter obstructed?

To find answers, you need to experiment, do your research and spend some cash, that’s it. Good luck!

2. Roasting. This appears key, how do I control it?

You are correct in noting that roasting is a critical step in the coffee process. Roasting is where the true characteristics of the coffee are created or killed––under-roasted beans lead to a grassy, bitter cup and over-roasted beans kill any nuance and tastes like charcoal.

Bringing this process to your home is possible through a number of small home roasters, but the return is not quite what you’d expect. If you like to learn, have some cash to spend and enjoy coffee as a hobby, then home roasting is for you. I would not encourage someone to do home roasting as a means to save on spend or because you think your quality will be better than a local shop.

If you fall into the home roasting camp, I’d say to check out a Hottop Roaster. It’s cheap enough that you can eventually net even on the expense, has built-in controls for roasting without the need for a computer, and has a USB-interface which lets you read/control the roaster through other software. If you’re like me, you may even opt to write your own roasting software.

For green beans, Sweet Marias is a great resource and offers a wide range of coffees from multiple origins. The prices are reasonable and the service is great.

As mentioned above, home roasting quality may not be better than your local shop. Much like espresso, roasting is heavily reliant on consistency––airflow, heat, time. Smaller home solutions have all these elements, but because of their size and lower price, you will not get the same tools that you would in a commercial grade roaster. As a result, coffee from a home roaster is more likely to be less consistent and thus may hide or bury some of the unique elements of the coffee you purchase. All that said, it’s still possible to produce great coffee.

3. Farming: Can I grow my own coffee?

No. Go visit a farm and support those who’ve made coffee their life.

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Interested in highlighting great coffee, baristas, shops and roasts. Always seeking to learn more about the craft. 🗝️ ☕️

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Brandon Dixon

Brandon Dixon

Founder of @BlockadeIO, PDF X-RAY, and @PassiveTotal. Partner and developer for @TheNinjaJobs. VP of Strategy for @RiskIQ. Roaster at @SplitKeyCoffee.

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