What I’m Drinking: Cold Brew

Sep 05

One of the downsides to brewing your own hot coffee in the morning is that it requires measuring, filling, and operating equipment before you’ve had your coffee. This leads to all kinds of bleary-eyed brewing mishaps, like forgetting to put the espresso in the machine before brewing a shot (guilty), forgetting to put water in the machine (guilty), forgetting to put something under the spout to catch the coffee (oh so guilty) … it’s a recipe for disaster.

Well, have no fear because there is a delicious solution to this problem, and it’s called cold brew.

The deliciousness just radiates through your screen. Stainless steel press optional.

The deliciousness just radiates through your screen. Cat bed on the table is optional. (photo courtesy of my wife)

Now, this is not the same thing as iced coffee, which is generally brewed hot like regular coffee and then cooled down. Cold-brewed coffee doesn’t involve heat at all! And in fact, in some ways it’s easier to make than traditional coffee.

Here’s the basics: you mix ground coffee and room-temperature or cold water, you let it sit overnight in your fridge (or on your counter, depending on the temperature), and in the morning you just need to filter out the coffee grounds and your coffee is ready to drink! It’s the sun tea of the coffee world. It comes out just as strong, and even a little less bitter because the interaction between the coffee and the ground beans is different when no heat is involved.

If you Google up some instructions on cold brewing, you’ll find there’s a bunch of different ways to get the ground coffee out of your cold brew. But to me, this is a no-brainer. There’s already a piece of equipment perfectly suited for brewing and filtering coffee: a French press!

Here’s how I brew my coffee every day now. It’s adapted from this recipe on The Cooking of Joy — Joy deserves the credit for all the inspirational deliciousness.

 

You need:

  • a 32-ish ounce French press
  • 3/4 cup coarse-ground coffee beans (get decent stuff, and if someone else is grinding it for you tell them it’s for a French press)
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar (optional)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
  • 3 cups water

Instructions:

  1. Put the coffee beans, brown sugar and cinnamon (if you’re adding them) in your French press and stir to combine.
  2. Add 3 cups water and stir well.
  3. Give it a minute or two — a lot of the coffee will float to the surface — then stir well again.
  4. If the shelves on your fridge are tall enough, place the lid on the French press with the plunger juuuust resting against the top of the coffee. Otherwise, cover the press with plastic wrap or something.
  5. Put it in the fridge and leave it overnight. 8 hours minimum, 12 may be better, try not to let it go 24.
  6. In the morning take the press out, put the lid on if you haven’t already, and slowly push the plunger down as far as it will go.
  7. Pour your coffee, add ice and/or some kind of cream if you want, and drink! Makes enough for 2 or 3 glasses.

Not only is this straight-up delicious, but the bulk of the work is done the night before, when you’re not groggy and caffeine-deprived. All you have to do to get your fix in the morning is push the plunger and pour!

If it’s too much for you to drink in one morning, no worries — you can keep the brewed coffee in your fridge for a couple of days. Just make sure to pour it out of the French press so the brewing process stops. And for heaven’s sake empty the grounds out of your press and rinse it right away. Coffee grounds grow mold like whoa if you let them.

So go ahead and give this a try. If you’re anything like me, it’ll soon become a daily part of your morning routine.

 

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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: Equipment

Sep 28

One thing people ask me frequently is how to make their favorite coffee shop drinks at home. A lot of drinks are surprisingly easy to make, especially if you have the right things on hand. In this part of what will hopefully be an ongoing series of posts, I’ll give a quick introduction to the equipment you’d need to create most of these delicious concoctions in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Note: The items linked below are for example purposes only and do not consitute an endorsement or advertisement. Even the machine I have at home is a matter of personal preference.
Note 2: I’m going out of my way to avoid mentioning any trademarked drink names from any particular establishment. I don’t really want to be seen as encouraging people not to shop anywhere. Hopefully the generic, public-domain drink descriptions will suffice.

What you need will depend on what drink you’re trying to make. I’ll break it down by drink type.

Brewed coffee/cafe au lait: The proper brewing of regular coffee will be the subject of a whole ‘nother post. Suffice to say that for these, all you’ll need is a way to make plain old coffee. Options range from inexpensive French presses and regular coffee machines to more expensive brewing methods like Chemex, Keurig K-cups, and expensive machines that even grind the beans for you. If you just want a cup of joe, that’s all you need. If you’re making a cafe au lait, you’ll want a way to heat up the milk, so check the “Hot Espresso Drinks” section below.

Espresso drinks: This includes lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas, con pannas, affogatos, Americanos, and plain espresso shots. For these you’ll need something that makes espresso, which is not the same as regular brewed coffee. Espresso is more concentrated, and requires forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans.

Like with regular brewed coffee, there’s a wide price range of espresso brewers available. You can get something as simple and inexpensive as a stovetop espresso maker, something a little handier like a low- to mid-range countertop espresso machine (this is what I use), or something with all the bells and whistles like a super-automatic espresso machine. All of these will be significantly smaller and simpler than the machines the baristas use at your local coffee shop – after all, the average person making drinks at home is going to be serving at most a house full of guests, whereas a coffee shop needs to be able to quickly serve drinks to a constant stream of customers. Your machine will not need to be hooked up to your plumbing, nor will it need its own circuit breaker, and you’re not likely to have to call a specialized technician to come fix it if it breaks.

Which espresso maker is right for you will depend on a few things: How often you plan to use it, how much espresso you want to make at once, how much space you have in your kitchen, what your budget is, and whether you want steamed milk for your drinks. If you’re making cold drinks (“on the rocks” i.e. on ice), if you’re planning to put the espresso over ice cream (affogato) or whipped cream (con panna), or if you’re making plain espresso or Americanos, all you need is something that makes espresso. If you want, say, a nice hot latte, then the next section is relevant to your interests …

Hot espresso drinks: Lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas. If you want to make one of these, and you want it toasty hot, you will need a way to heat up the milk of your choice.

To get closest to what you get at a coffee shop, you’ll want an espresso machine with a milk steaming wand. This heats the milk by forcing hot steam through it, and is also how you make that nice foam for the top of the drinks. Using a steam wand is a little loud, and can take a bit of practice to perfect, but the results are worth it in my opinion. This is how I make lattes at home.

Not everyone has the budget, room, or desire for an espresso machine with a steam wand, however, so there’s a couple other options. You can heat the milk in a pan on the stove, or in the microwave. Or, I suppose, in a slow cooker, rice maker, or any other device made to safely heat up liquid for human consumption.

This will get you the hot milk, but not the foam. If you want foam (which is an integral part of cappuccinos, for example), there are inexpensive “milk frothers” available at most kitchen supply stores, or even Ikea. These basically whisk the top of your milk into a froth that is similar to the foam created by the espresso machine. I haven’t done a head-to-head test of the two methods, but a cheap frother is probably good enough for most people.

Blended drinks: Any beverage that looks like a milk shake. I’ll be honest with you, your results may vary on these. Most commercial blended beverages include some kind of thickening agent that gives the drink its thick, shake-like consistency. On the equipment side of things, however, all you really need is a blender and a source of ice. Whatever plain ol’ stand blender fits your kitchen and your budget is probably fine.

Shaken drinks: These are shaken like an alcoholic drink, so any drink shaker will do. These are available at kitchen supply stores and anywhere that sells booze supplies.

Tea drinks: Anything that’s not made from a premixed tea base (some green tea lattes and sweetened chai are usually made from mixes) is usually brewed with tea bags, so no special brewing equipment is needed. However, if you want a better tea experience, look into brewing with loose tea leaves – either with an infuser or a machine.

And there you have a quick rundown on the kind of equipment you’ll need to make your favorite coffee shop drinks at home. Tune in next time when I cover the “ingredients” part of the equation.

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Mini-Review: Verismo espresso machine (Starbucks)

May 31

First off, the important info: I’m calling this a “mini” review because I don’t actually own a Verismo, nor am I high enough in Google rankings that I can get free stuff or loaners for reviews. This is based on my research and on a demo I got at my local Starbucks.

So, if you’ve been in a Starbucks this year you might have noticed the prominent advertising and display of the Verismo espresso machine. The ad copy says it’s Starbucks quality beverages in the comfort of your own home, super quick and easy. But what is it and how does it work?

The basics: This is a home espresso machine similar to a Keurig “K-Cup” machine — meaning, it takes handy little “pods” and makes drinks out of them, one at a time. What makes it different from a Keurig is that it makes espresso (I’ll admit, I’m not 100% sure whether it really fits the definition of espresso or whether it just brews super-strong coffee from the pods) as well as milk-based drinks like lattes. To make a latte, you put a coffee pod and a milk pod in the machine, push a button, and very soon after you’re sipping a small latte.

The coffee pods are available in several popular Starbucks coffee varieties, and the milk pods are, as far as I can tell, plain 2% powdered milk. There’s some packages that contain both coffee pods and milk pods, so you don’t have to buy them separately.

How does it taste? Not bad at all. My expectations were low — I mean come on, reconstituted milk in a latte? — but the latte itself was fairly tasty. I’ve been served worse by coffee shops with actual espresso machines. This is not a vending machine latte but a decently brewed drink.

The pros:

  • Very easy to use
  • Very easy to clean up (just throw the pods away)
  • Makes pretty good drinks
  • Pods are available in different Starbucks roasts
  • Makes a single serving with no wasted coffee or milk
  • Looks nice on your countertop
  • Not too loud
  • Cheaper than buying the same drinks at Starbucks

The cons:

  • Throwing away used pods creates extra waste
  • You have to buy the pods from Starbucks, and you only get so many per package (compare this to buying a pound of coffee for a regular espresso machine)
  • If the pods become scarce or are discontinued, your machine is a paperweight
  • Not much variety in milk choices and little control over how the milk turns out (no extra-dry soy cappuccinos!)
  • Not the cheapest machine on the market

Should I buy one? It depends on your needs. This could be a very useful machine for situations in which you’d use a Keurig K-cup machine — in an office, for example, where having a full espresso machine with steaming pitcher and pounds of coffee is not very practical. It might also be useful for people with limited hand strength or mobility, who would like to make espresso drinks at home but can’t always wrangle the equipment necessary. Or if you just want a super-simple, fast, no-fuss way to get a nice drink.

Personally, I passed on it. The idea of having to buy the pods, and then throw the used pods away, wasn’t very appealing — especially at that price point. For all the hype I was expecting something a little more akin to the machines Starbucks itself uses, which automatically grind beans and pull shots. I’m sticking with my simple, inexpensive Delonghi espresso machine and the occasional … okay, more than occasional trip to Starbucks.

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