Saturday, November 21, 2009

Summer and the Brown Menace

OK, so I know that my legions of regular readers have been missing my contributions to this blog, so I wholeheartedly apologise to both of them.

There are a few things that I should probably talk about here, like meeting Geoff Watts and the lovely speech he gave at St Ali recently (it doesn't take a genius to predict that a bunch of people are going to try to pass off crap bought through brokers as "direct trade" over the next six months), the opening of ten million nice cafes around the place, the great performance of the usual suspects (need more links) at this week's Bolivian COE Auction and, let's not forget, the amazing work of Aida Battle's fincas Mauritania and Kilimanjaro being showcased by Square Mile ... but I'm not going to.

We're unfortunately entering that time of year that is traditionally a wasteland for good coffee. The heat just kills coffee so quickly. Some dudes have come up with some really cool ideas - no pun intended - to address the problem. Andrew at the Maling Room came up with a great idea after we got sick and tired of having a window of two days to use our deliveries at Maltitude and Maling Room; wine fridges. Nolan has put some in at Proud Mary and I'm guessing that they will become more popular. Nim came up with the great idea of using a tiny esky at home. Whilst Rio Coffee was supplying Mecca, Tony shipped coffee to them in polystyrene boxes. I have a few at home from orders from Tony and I'm using them to store wine. Surprisingly, when the ambient temperature was about 24.5C, it was about 6C lower inside the box. Not bad for a "cellar" that cost me ... nothing, and therefore possibly a feasible solution for cafe owners whose space and budget won't allow the extravagance of a wine fridge.

The effect of heat is magnified with those unsealed brown paper bags that seem to be really popular now. Sealing coffee in the gases that it gives off after roasting seems to me to make a real difference in preserving flavour and, of course, brown paper bags don't really do a good job of sealing it in ... really, the only thing that's worse is buying coffee from an open basket. Valve bags seem to do a better job, but we need to remember that those valves apparently fail quite a lot. In any case, I wonder if the plastic is permeable - at Coffeelab, the oxygen meter showed that these bags seem to vary. If we're talking about 250g, vacuum packing it in valveless bags after roasting would probably be an affordable and sensible option, but I imagine that you'd feel like a moron selling prepackaged coffee bags that had puffed up like a football. Not to mention that for some reason vacuum packaging seems to have developed a bad reputation, possibly because it is associated with stale coffee in many people's minds.

I have had great success with brown paper bags by adaptin a technique from Mr Wolff; once I buy coffee in a brown paper bag, that brown paper bag lives inside a cheap 750mL takeaway container, which seems to be the ideal size for storing 250g bags of coffee. At $12 for 50 at a restaurant supply store, they won't break the bank and it's surprisingly convenient to have that many containers with lid. Presumably they aren't airtight, but I think they certainly make a difference in the shelf life of the coffee. Now before you go saying that they run contrary to any sort of environmental reason for using paper, these containers are dishwasher safe and recyclable. The only downside is that the edges can crack.

Deadman blend; not dead coffee! Speaking of which, this coffee is absolutely delightful; one of my favourites of the past six months. A shining example of the convergence of clever blending and clever sourcing of truly spectacular green coffee. It also runs contrary to the idea that blends hide the farmer: you can clearly taste the acidity and berry of the kenyan element, the more fermenty berry of the Aricha, the body of the El Sal and the sweetness of the Colombian element. Buy it!

Finally, with filter brewing on the rise, this post seems like a good place to vent my hatred of brown filter paper, too. Most of the brown papers that I have used have been garbage - heaps of rinsing required to get a cup that tastes like coffee and not like paper. If you're opposed to bleached paper for environmental reasons, spare a thought for the litre of water that you might need to throw away in the middle of this drought ... oxygen bleached paper might well be more environmentally friendly. That said, Chemex paper is bleached and seems to be pretty unimpressive - see the Hoff on the subject. Fortunately, the bleached Hario paper and the bleached stuff with MCM's filters seems to be pretty good.



At 9:34 AM, Blogger jmc79 said...

Luca, Those take away containers are not airtight and will not stop air transfer. In fact the plastic itself allows air to pass through.In food packaging use the standard dip tubs don't increase shelf life at all( same plastic ) This is why you won't find tubs of Dips which are vacuum packed in these containers.(I've been making and selling sealing machines for plastic tubs for nearly 20 tears now).
Have you tried freezing ?

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Luca said...

Hi John,

Good to see you the other day.

I understand that the plastic is not impermeable and that the seals are not airtight. Nonetheless, they seem to increase the shelf life of coffee beyond just keeping it in a paper bag, so it seems to me that they at least inhibit air flow. Maybe the effect is nothing more than you would get if you put a paper bag inside another paper bag. I'm more than happy to try some with and without and admit it if I'm wrong.

I have tried freezing a little, but not really methodically. I should give it a bit more of a try.

I have also tried refrigeration, though, again, not methodically. I refrigerate my decaf at work and I get at least two weeks out of it. I have tried refrigeration with non-decaf and it did strike me that some aroma and flavour was lost. With decaf, that doesn't strike me as that relevant an issue, seeing as I tend to extract it like a vegemitey shorter shot as a base for milk drinks, which is not a method of consumption conducive to discerning fine nuances.



At 11:07 AM, Blogger ACog said...


I've taken to buying a bunch of 500gm valve bags and putting the 250gm paper bag inside that. They can also be reused. No coffee oils are transferred to the bag, so they don't carry any odours from the previous batch.

While paper might be more environmentally friendly, I see it as a little counter productive. Many coffee roasters go to great lengths to buy high quality greens, cupping them regularly to track their shelf life, dialing in the roast profile, only to put them in paper bags which really reduces the life of the roasted coffee.

Using an esky sounds like a great idea I intend on trying out.

At 12:32 AM, Blogger Ant said...

We've also been recommending the inside of an empty esky to people when storing their coffee. The genesis of this idea was also Tony's styrofoam boxes back when I used to work for Cibo.

At 7:48 PM, Blogger Josh said...

I agree with not liking the unsealed brown bags, I think the point at which you open the bag is more important than the roast date sometimes.

people are reading, keep writing

At 5:28 AM, Blogger bathmate said...

I understand that the plastic is not impermeable and that the seals are not airtight. Nonetheless, they seem to increase the shelf life of coffee beyond just keeping it in a paper bag, so it seems to me that they at least inhibit air flow. Thanks for your lovely posting. I really enjoyed reading it.

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