How to make coffeeshop drinks: Cutting corners

Jun 01

Okay, so. I’ve written several blog entries so far describing how, in general, to make your favorite drinks at home. And through the power of the internets I can feel some of you looking at all these words words words and thinking “Are you crazy? That is way too much effort.”

You know what? It may very well be.

Hear me out here. A quick Google search will turn up page after page and video after video explaining to you how to make the perfect coffee/tea/latte/hot chocolate or whatever your drink preference is. Roast your own coffee beans, grind them with an expensive grinder and then brew them in a Chemex! Buy a specific brand of chocolate and carefully shave it into milk that’s been steamed to an exact temperature! Put your tea into water that is precisely 180 degrees and not boiling! I’ve seen everything down to instructions on precisely regulating the water temperature in your espresso machine and the grind in your grinder.

Will all of that painstaking attention to detail make a better-tasting beverage? Probably, yes.

Will it make a difference that matters to you? It might not. That’s something that varies from person to person.

I look at it this way. I make myself a latte every morning with my espresso machine. And I know a couple of things — I usually put flavored sweetener in it (currently hazelnut syrup), and I hate cleaning up coffee grinders. Because I’m drinking my espresso with milk and sweetener, I don’t care that my beans aren’t freshly-ground, or even if they were ground in the last month. What I care is that I can brew some shots with it to put in my drink, and that those shots have caffeine. So I have my beans ground when I buy them and I don’t use them all up right away.

In some circles that’s a cardinal sin. But you know what? The difference between fresh-ground beans and month-old ground beans is not something I can detect in a hazelnut latte.

What I do care about is freshly steamed milk and a decent-quality flavored syrup. So instead of microwaving the milk or using flavored non-dairy creamer or something, I pour some hazelnut into my mug and fire up the steam wand on my machine, even though those take extra time and cleaning (especially that steam wand!). That’s what matters to me, so that’s what I spend extra time on. It’s not a perfect latte, but it’s a latte I enjoy drinking as I read my morning work emails.

I’ve tried to give a general idea of what to do to recreate your favorite drinks at home, but I’ve also tried to refrain from any value judgments on shortcuts. You don’t necessarily need the most expensive ingredients or the most complicated brewing process to make a drink you enjoy. You can give them a try, especially if you have a coffeeshop or tea room nearby that will do it for you — that way you can sample a Chemex or a carefully temperature-controlled latte or perfectly-brewed loose-leaf tea without making any special investments — but if you’re content drinking something that’s easier for you to make, there’s no particular need for you to do anything else.

I can taste the difference between a carefully-crafted latte at Intelligentsia and my lazy morning latte, sure. But when I’ve just gotten out of bed and the baby needs feeding and my work emails are starting to pile up, the lazy latte is all I need.

So if there’s only one lesson you take away from all my blathering, it’s this: try things until you find what you like, not what you “should” like.

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What I’m Drinking: Clover-Brewed Verona

May 17

I’ve mentioned a number of times that I’m a latte junkie. They’re not the only thing I drink, though. And the first “real drink” I ordered a few months ago when I no longer had to restrict caffeine for baby-related reasons wasn’t a latte at all — it was a return to my favorite Starbucks beans, brewed in their most delicious form.

I haven’t done a full writeup on the Clover brewing machine yet, but let me give a quick summary: it’s the tastiest way to get a plain coffee at Starbucks. It’s a special machine that uses some kind of complex process to produce coffee with the extra flavor-packed deliciousness of a French press. Even better, they brew each coffee individually, so regardless of what they’re brewing on the regular machine when you come in (usually Pike Place Blend) you can get whatever beans you want brewed on the Clover.

They’re usually advertising rarer, more premium beans to brew on the Clover, and I’ve tried those and enjoyed them, but my all-time favorite Starbucks coffee remains Caffe Verona. This is a blend that nicely balances a dark roast with a smooth taste. It’s not as dark and charry as Italian Roast or French Roast, and the smoothness keeps it from straying into “Charbucks” territory.

Despite my years of coffee addiction, I don’t generally drink black coffee. But with a Clover coffee you don’t want to add too much or the delicious brewing process is wasted and you might as well get regular drip. So like most drinks I order, I made it a little more complicated.

Normally I don't include the cup markings, but this barista had such nice handwriting!

Normally I don’t include the cup markings, but this barista had such nice handwriting!

First off, I order a grande Clover-brewed Verona in a venti cup. This leaves plenty of room for me to add half-and-half, without needing to pour out any of this delicious goodness.

Secondly, I ask for two pumps of classic syrup. This is basically flavorless sugar water, which sweetens the drink a little without adding any extra flavors. I find it blends in better than just adding a sugar packet, and it’s half the number of pumps a grande drink would normally get so it’s not oversweetened.

The end result is a grande Clover-brewed Verona in a venti cup with two pumps of classic. A nice, smooth coffee with a little cream and sweetness but not so much it overpowers the coffee itself.

Not all Starbuckses have a Clover machine, because they take up a bunch of space and usually require a renovation to the espresso bar area. But if you find yourself in a store that’s got one, give it a shot. You can even use the Starbucks website or app to search for the nearest store with a Clover!

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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Storing and grinding beans

May 04

So, using the guide from the last post, you’ve found some coffee beans you like. Once you’ve got your package of delicious coffee, there’s two things to worry about: storing your beans and grinding them.

The actual storage of the beans is pretty simple. Keep em in an airtight container, away from light if possible. Where it gets trickier is the shelf life of the beans. For optimal coffee deliciousness, unground beans should be used within a month and ground beans should be used within a week, or a day if possible. To the average drinker, however, if your coffee sits around longer than that (within reason) you probably won’t notice. But in any case, the fresher the better.

As for grinding — ideally you should have your own coffee grinder, and grind your beans right before you brew them. I’ll ‘fess up here, I don’t even own a grinder. I get my beans ground when I purchase them, because it’s not a huge taste difference to me and the convenience is worth it. In this, as in all things, your mileage may vary.

However, the important thing is to use the right grind for your brewing method. If you’re using a French press, you need a very coarse grind — otherwise the coffee will clog up the press or sneak through the filter and make your coffee gritty. If you’re using an espresso machine, you need a much finer grind, or the pour will be way off. If you’re using a regular coffee machine with a paper filter, you’ll need a grind in the middle. Check the instructions on your equipment, or even the grinder itself — most grinders (especially the big ones in grocery stores) are labeled with the types of machine each grind is for. If you’re getting your coffee ground at Starbucks when you buy it, tell them what kind of machine it’s for.

But wait, what if you have a Keurig machine or other pre-measured single-cup coffee brewer? Then trying different types of coffee might be even easier — there’s a lot of “variety packs” available with different roasts, coffees with added flavor, etc. If you work in an office with one of these machines, give it a try or ask your coworkers to point you to what they like. These machines have the convenience of not worrying about grinding beans or brewing a whole pot when you just want a cup, but on the downside there’s a lot of waste and the premade cups are often more expensive than buying beans by the pound. These cups are super easy to store — in fact, they even make special display racks for them.

That’s the bean basics for you coffee drinkers. Tune in next week when I give some love to the tea-drinkers!

tl;dr summary:

  • Don’t let your beans gather dust
  • Use the right grind for your equipment
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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Coffee beans

Apr 27

Welcome to part 2 of my series of posts on making your own coffee/tea drinks at home. In case you missed it, the first post covered the equipment part of the equation. Today, I’m talking about coffee beans.

First things first: Choosing your beans. Now, people have varying levels of “snobbery” regarding coffee beans — ranging from “only the finest fairy-kissed beans roasted five seconds ago by a left-handed monk and ground with a mortar and pestle” to “anything nicer than ground dirt is a ripoff froufrou drink for little girls”. You, obviously, will fall between these two extremes. The only question is where the right balance of quality vs price and convenience lies.

Coffee beans come in two varieties — robusta and arabica. Whether you’re leaning toward the snob end of the scale or not, I recommend you don’t bother with robusta beans. They’re cheap because the plant is hardier and easier to grow, but the taste is nowhere as good as arabica. The good news is, by now even cheap supermarket coffee brands have switched to arabica so you’re probably set there.

After that, it’s just a matter of finding a brand and roast that you like. This is where trial and error comes in. My recommendation is to try coffee wherever you can — diners, coffee shops, friends’ houses, etc. If it tastes good, ask what kind it is and where you can get it. If it turns out to be out of your price range or not available in anything smaller than a 25-lb restaurant bag, keep tasting. Or, you can get the smallest package possible of whatever beans catch your fancy and give them a try. Try lighter roasts and darker ones, blends and single-origin, whatever you can find until something strikes your fancy.

My starting point for personal convenience is usually Starbucks. When I was a barista I got to sample all the different beans they sold at the time, so I quickly picked up on my favorite roast (Verona). To combat their reputation as “Charbucks” for the darkness of their roasts, they now have lighter “blonde” roasts. Your local Starbucks probably brews mostly Pike Place Blend, but they will sometimes have other roasts in the brewer and you can ask for a sample. Or if you want to taste something in damn near its ideal form, find a Starbucks with a Clover brewing machine and ask for a cup of whatever you’re interested in. And remember, you can always ask the barista for recommendations!

Look around you, and you’ll probably find lots of sources for coffee. Your local grocery store will probably have everything from Folgers to Starbucks right there on the shelf. In my little area of LA we’ve got a couple of local roasters with some great beans. Some stores like Trader Joe’s will have a pot of coffee brewing free samples all day. And of course the internet is a great place to comparison shop.

What about flavored coffee beans? To be honest, I’d avoid these unless you run across some that you really love. In a lot of cases, flavors are added to mask inferior beans. And even when that’s not the case, it’s much better to get plain beans and then add flavors yourself if you want them. Then you can control both the flavor and the bean quality a lot better.

As a quick aside here, there’s another category of coffee you might have seen around: instant coffee. Formerly the realm of crappy robusta nightmares, manufacturing techniques for instant coffee have improved a lot over the past decade or so. If you want the convenience of not needing brewing equipment, you can give this a try. In my experience, even Starbucks’s new line of instant coffees still have that “instant” taste to them.

That’s your quick guide to acquiring coffee for making your own drinks at home. Next time: What to do with your beans once you’ve got them!

tl;dr summary:

  • Don’t bother with robusta beans
  • Try coffee till you find what you like
  • Avoid flavored beans
  • Instant coffee still tastes instant
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Is there really a difference between all those different kinds of coffee?

Nov 05

Yes, the same way there's a difference between different types of beer or wine.

Coffee beans grown in different locations will be a little different from each other. Different growing techniques, seasons, fertilizers — all kinds of things can change the exact nature of the bean. On top of that, there are different ways of roasting the beans that have a huge impact on the final product.

These days Starbucks coffee is divvied into categories according to how “dark” the roast is. A really dark roast like Italian Roast will taste way different from a light roast like Veranda.

Baristas are required to sample the various coffees for sale. If you ask one, they can give you an idea of what you might want to try.

In case you're wondering (and you probably weren't), my personal favorite is Verona.

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