Coffee is Not a Bean
I once had a mock debate with a tea-loving friend of mine about the superiority of either coffee or tea. Their central argument was essentially that ‘leaf water’ (aka tea) was far more appealing to the rational individual than ‘bean water’ (aka coffee). Though all was in jest, her point reveals a common and widespread misunderstanding about coffee.
Coffee is not a bean. There, I said it. And if that comes as a surprise, you are in good company. The term ‘coffee bean’ is an understandable mix-up between plant species, one that perhaps stems from a culture and society that has long imported coffee from distant places rather than see it grow on their own home soil.
So if it is not a bean, then what is it? Well, coffee is a flowering plant belonging to the genus Coffea, of which only a few produce what we would roast and brew as coffee. The coffee ‘beans’ are in fact the seeds of the plant which are encased in a fleshy fruit which the industry calls the 'coffee cherry'. And if you’re wondering, by chance, if coffee is a cherry, it’s not: that is yet another misnomer!
One delightful benefit of this knowledge is the awareness of another delectable treat produced by the coffee tree which is cascara, the flesh of the coffee cherry. Though tart, somewhat akin in flavor to a cranberry, it makes for a delicious beverage or snack. If that has piqued your interest, try out a refreshing cascara iced tea at Level Ground Coffee in Saanich or pick up a bag of cascara tea from Drumroaster Coffee in Duncan.
I am left to wonder why our terminology developed to be so strangely inaccurate. I would hazard a guess that it was a potent cocktail of selective histories, mis-translations over international borders, and enthusiastic marketing agencies getting carried away with ideas that were not wholly accurate. Nevertheless, sip your next cup of coffee confident that it isn’t ‘bean water’ in your cup, but fruit water!
Scandinavian Coffee Culture
Over the past six hundred years, coffee has traveled the globe, earning accolades and creating addicts in every corner of the planet. More than perhaps any other drink, coffee is never simply absorbed by a culture; it is brewed into the fabric of society, with unique cultural customs sprouting up around it as drinking practices reflect each culture’s core values.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Scandinavia. The irony, of course, is that few places on earth might be considered more hostile to the coffee plant itself; yet the people of this region have taken up coffee drinking with a fervor unrivaled anywhere else, with Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark topping the list of annual coffee consumption per capita. For example, the average Finn drinks a whopping 26 lbs of coffee per year and it is legally mandated in Finland that all workers must be given two ten-minute coffee breaks. Now that’s some legislation I could get behind.
Of course, coffee’s popularity in the Scandinavian countries has inspired a distinct coffee roasting culture. While French and Italian coffees are generally roasted dark, Scandinavians have developed a unique profile of lighter roast coffees known more broadly as Nordic style. Early critics scoffed at what they considered to be ‘underdeveloped’ flavor profiles but the test of time and years of fine-tuning have produced a truly memorable coffee-tasting experience.
Bjørnar Hafslund, founder of Brattestø Roastery in Norway, postulates that Norwegians, as well as other Scandinavians, are more attuned to the sharper, acidic flavors of lighter roasts because of the food sources available in that climate; brined fish and tart berries made up much of the locally foraged diet for hundreds of years and still serve as important components of local cuisine. In fact, Norway’s ready supply of fish was traded directly for quality coffee beans from Brazil, again contributing to the development of their unique coffee culture. I personally find it fascinating that the Nordic style tasting profile is reminiscent of the traditional local diet!
It might be said that Scandinavian culture is in the limelight currently, with cultural concepts such as Denmark’s hygge and Norway’s koselig permeating our concept of home design and healthy living. While certain Vancouver Island roasters, such as Drumroaster Coffee in Cobble Hill, have Scandinavian family ties, one may also sample coffees directly from Lykke Coffee Roasters in Sweden and Norlo Coffee Roasters from the UK thanks to Sara and Dan, owners of the newly-opened lifestyle shop Hoxton Home. Located in Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter, Hoxton Home provides not only imported Scandinavian coffee but a wide array of stylish home decor, including some fantastic coffee brewing hardware and coffee tableware to impress your Scandinavian friends.
Stop by Hoxton Home to pick up a bag of Scandinavian coffee and open yourself to the world of Nordic roasts! As always, travel safe and brew on.
What's the Deal with Decaf?
Coffee has long been celebrated for its stimulating effects due to caffeine. In fact, the original Arabic term قَهْوَة (qahwa) alludes to it being a ‘stealer of sleep’ as coffee was popularly used to maintain alertness during late-night religious ceremonies conducted by Sufi mystics. Throughout history, it gained popularity in both Islamic and Christian cultures over alcohol because of its stimulating, rather than inhibitory, effects. However, not all coffee drinkers see this well-known side effect as beneficial; in fact, some may avoid coffee altogether because of its impact on their sleep.
Is Decaf 'Real' Coffee?
Decaf coffee, or decaffeinated coffee, is a controversial subject within some coffee-loving circles. Many might think it isn’t ‘real coffee’ while others might wonder if it is a special genetic modification of coffee, somewhat akin to seedless watermelons. Both of these ideas are wrong. Decaffeinated coffee is actual coffee and all modern decaffeination processes are performed on naturally caffeinated green beans after harvesting and before roasting
So how does it work?
Caffeine as a chemical compound is very water soluble, similar to sugar or salt. The general idea of any decaffeination process is to dissolve the caffeine out into a liquid solvent then remove the solvent or use another intermediate substance to absorb the caffeine. This also means, as with any chemical process, the reaction is not complete; in other words, there will always still be some caffeine, typically ranging from 2-5% of the original amount remaining. In that sense, decaffeinated coffee is actually very low caffeine and not exactly caffeine free.
Talk of ‘chemical processes’ may put some health-minded coffee drinkers ill at ease; however, the most common method of decaffeination, known as water processing, uses all natural substances including water (which acts as a solvent) and charcoal (which captures the caffeine).
Unfortunately, charcoal captures all kinds of chemical compounds from the beans which may impact flavor. Caffeine-targeted solvents such methylene chloride are used in the direct solvent method where caffeine is extracted by the solvent itself with no intermediate required. Most dramatic and exciting is perhaps the supercritical carbon dioxide method which forces carbon dioxide into a liquid-like state at pressures hundreds of times greater than atmospheric pressure so it can act as a highly effective caffeine solvent.
To dive into the nitty-gritty details of these processes, check out this article from Scientific American. And don’t be too put off by talk of ‘chemical processes’ - remember, the act of brewing itself is a chemical process!
Potential Benefits of Decaf
Decaffeinated coffee also has potential flavor benefits. Caffeine itself is very bitter and contributes this to the flavor profile. By removing the caffeine, one effectively removes a major bitter component. Of course, proper brewing techniques can help reduce bitterness overall, and some might view caffeine’s contribution as an essential part of the flavor. However, for those who like the smell of coffee but not the taste, a quality origin decaf roasted by your local coffee roaster might be worth a try!
As always, if you're looking for quality decaf, or any finely roasted coffee, check out your local coffee roaster using the Van. Island Coffee Tour Map. Travel safe and brew on!
Tyler Hagan is the founder of Commonly Coffee and in this expert feature article, originally published on Commonly Coffee (affiliate links included), he offers insights into brewing with the iconic Chemex. Check out Tyler's blog on Commonly Coffee and follow him on Instagram for more stellar coffee content.
The Chemex: Iconic multi-cup coffee brewer...or glorified flower vase?
There is no other coffee brewer that I feel is more polarizing in the specialty coffee community than the Chemex. I cannot even remember how many conversations I have had with friends who fall into one camp or the other.
Say what you will, but the Chemex doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, it's already been immortalized in culture with its place in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
The Chemex traces its origins back to the early 1940's where it was invented by German Chemist, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm in 1941. This eccentric inventor has filed for over 300 patents in his time. Schlumbohm set out to not just make a simple-to-use coffee brewer, but also something that would be visually appealing. What is truly remarkable is that it has remained essentially unchanged for almost 80 years! It a culture where trends come and go sometimes in weeks if not years...the Chemex continues to be found in homes and specialty coffee shops across the globe. The next time you find yourself binge-watching your favourite show or a watching movie you'll likely see a Chemex on the kitchen counter...it has that "look" that continues to be appealing to absolutely everybody. It's been featured on F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the Mary Tyler Moore show and even 007 James Bond has brewed coffee with it.
The Chemex corporation is family owned with their headquarters located in Chicopee, Massachusetts. It is there that they manufacture the Chemex Coffeemakers, filters, Chemex Chettle, and other accessories.
The Chemex were originally all entirely hand-blown pieces, whereas now many are moulded-glass designs. You can still find hand-blown versions but they will cost more than their moulded-glass counterparts. Whichever one you choose, what is unique about the Chemex is that it is your brewer & server all-in-one...all contained within the gorgeous borosilicate hourglass uni-body shape. A pouring spout is molded into the top half to accurately channel your freshly brewed coffee into your cup. Each traditional Chemex is finished with a wood collar along with a leather tie and wood bead. The wood collar acts like an insulated handle to ensure your hands stay cool as you pour your freshly brewed coffee. An updated version of the Chemex is available with a glass handle along the side of the body. While perhaps a bit more functional, I feel it lacks that iconic look again of the Chemex.
Chemex Coffee makers come in a variety of sizes, most commonly in three, six, eight and ten cup options...but go as high as 13 cups (plenty to share with friends!) One of the most confusing things I have to clarify with people is "cups" when they seek to purchase a Chemex.
On their website they say "Coffeemakers are measured using 5 oz. as 1 cup." If you do the math 5oz only equals .625 of a US cup. Normal volume would dictate that 8oz is one US cup. So when you purchase say an 8cup Chemex like I own that's actually only going to yield you roughly 40oz of coffee where you might assume that 8 "cups" would equal 64oz of coffee. Not a big deal, but something to be aware of.
The only other item you need with a Chemex is a filter. Chemex filters are also quite unique in their own right. The first thing you'll notice with these filters is that they paper is quite thick. These bonded-paper filters are specifically designed to remove greater amounts of sediment and to give you a smooth cup with greater clarity.
Another option when it comes to filters with the Chemex are reusable metal filters called Kone, made by a company called Able Brewing. These are a great way to reduce paper-waste if that is something you are looking to do. I have owned one of these for a number of years and thoroughly enjoy using it.
When it comes to brewing on a Chemex I tend to use a 16:1 ratio, but the beauty of brewing coffee is that in the end do what tastes good to you. A general rule of thumb thought is to stick to the 1:15 to 1:17 range. So if I were brewing a 16:1 ratio in a Chemex for every 1 gram of coffee I would add 16 grams of water.
When I do brew on my 8cup Chemex I am typically brewing a larger volume of coffee to share with friends (or all for myself) since sometimes that's what’s necessary for survival! So in this instance I would brew using 40g of coffee which would yield 640g of total volume. Now the best thing with a larger Chemex is that you can brew less. You could brew using 25g, 30g etc...which is one of the advantages of not purchasing a smaller vessel. But that's totally up to you.
What many find with the Chemex is that it is a forgiving coffee brewer. Whereas some brewers require more attention to the many variables that go into brewing coffee, the Chemex allows the person brewing to achieve results they can be happy with without feeling overwhelmed in the process.
Like I said at the beginning, the Chemex coffee brewer is loved by many, and yet for others seems to be reserved for holding flowers instead of brewing coffee. I love my Chemex. And I am fairly sure that you will too.
Thanks to Tyler for sharing his passion and expertise!
Find more coffee reviews, expert advice, and coffee know-how
at CommonlyCoffee.com and be sure to follow Tyler on Instagram.
What is Espresso?
Espresso. Not EX-presso. ES-presso. Yes, that’s the stuff.
Any coffee drinker who frequents cafes will be familiar with the rumble of grinding beans, the gurgle of trickling shots, and the hiss of steam as milk is foamed. Espresso is a staple in cafes, inseparable from our modern coffee culture though not antiquated as you might think. It is essential in creating popular beverages such as cappuccinos, lattes, and cortados, to name a few. However, despite its ubiquity, many coffee drinkers may understandably still ask the question: What is espresso?
First and foremost, it must be understood that espresso is a brewing method, not a type of coffee. Other brewing methods include the French Press, various pour-over methods such as the Hario V60, immersion devices such as the Aeropress, and even old-school drip coffee machines. Coffee roasters create specific taste profiles for espresso, but technically you could use any type of coffee bean for the espresso brewing method.
Espresso brewing involves hot pressurized water shot through very finely ground beans packed into the long-handled portafilter which locks into the espresso machine; the resulting highly-concentrated liquid is caught in a small cup called a demitasse. Officially speaking, espresso is defined by pressure, temperature, and time. Pressure must be 9 bars (roughly nine times normal atmospheric pressure), the temperature must be around 93 °C (200 °F), and the shot must be drawn in 25-30 seconds. In fact, the parameters and methods of brewing espresso are so specialized that they have their own terminology. With other methods one would say they ‘brewed a cup’; with espresso, one will ‘pull a shot’.
Now, the extremely observant coffee drinker will notice that espresso shots are not always pulled to match the parameters described above. Espresso, perhaps more than anything else, is a marker of quality and experience in a coffee establishment. Anyone who has worked at a cafe will relate to the struggles of wrestling the espresso machine into producing a well-balanced shot.
Painting in very broad strokes, inexperience behind the bar or a poorly-tuned espresso machine will result in an underextracted or overextracted shot. Underextracted shots (not enough pressure, heat, or time) tend to taste acidic or sour. Overextracted shots (too much pressure, heat, or time) tend to taste bitter or burnt. Well-balanced shots highlight the full flavour profile of the coffee and are marked by a light-brown aromatic foam that floats on the surface known as crema. If you want to fall further down the espresso rabbit hole then check out Matt Giovanisci’s article on Roasty Coffee.
So the sad news is that you cannot recreate the cappuccino experience using an old drip coffee maker; for that you will need to visit your favorite local cafe, unless you are ready to invest in an espresso machine of your own. Cheaper models start around $150, with professional grade espresso machines easily running up to $7500 or more. While espresso can be endlessly fascinating to explore and experiment with, proper maintenance and repair for these machines is costly and time consuming. As a final tip, do not buy beans pre-ground for espresso unless you have an espresso machine; espresso is meant to be extremely fine and all other brewing methods will benefit from a coarser grind.
As part of the Van. Isle Coffee Tour, Drumroaster Coffee in Cobble Hill features not only amazing locally roasted coffee but also a free display of rare and antique espresso machines! In fact, Drumroaster patriarch Geir Oglend entered Vancouver Island's coffee scene in the 1970s as a cafe owner famed for his expertise in fixing these rebellious devices. Check out Geir's collection the next time you head up or down the island and, wherever your journey takes you, travel safe and brew on!
Nothing says West Coast living like waking up at the edge of the Pacific Rainforest looking out over a rocky beach to a rumbling swell. And what better compliment to that view than a finely brewed cup of coffee?
From adventures to Nels Bight near Cape Scott, Mystic Beach on the Juan de Fuca trail, or Beale Cove on Texada Island, morning coffee on the beach always tops my highlight list. Admittedly, I do get a bit of side-eye from friends and fellow campers when I pull out my Aeropress, my Hario hand grinder, and my JetBoil; however, the offer of a finely brewed cup of coffee as the sun rises over the waves never fails to win them over.
Many backpackers forgo their usual brewing methods on the trail, opting for instant coffee or tea to satisfy their caffeine fix. However, there are some very light and portable brewing options for adventurous nature lovers across the island and beyond. I'll give a quick highlight here of three ways to brew better coffee on the beach as you explore Vancouver Island.
Ah, the Aeropress: simple, yet effective. This brewing device is light and portable, using both immersion and pressure to maximize extraction. The small, circular paper filters are easy to pack as long as you can keep them dry, ensuring a crystal clear brew with sharp flavors and next to no sediment. In terms of technique, the Aeropress is “low floor, high ceiling”, producing excellent brews even for novice coffee makers with room to expand and experiment. Calgary roasters Phil & Sebastian can get you started with some Aeropress basics.
This Japanese-designed pour-over coffee device won the coveted Good Design Award in 2007. The Hario V60 is named for the sixty degree angle of the conical sides which helps to optimize water flow during percolation. The portability of this device is attractive to many, though it demands much more in terms of technique. Brews are clean and full of flavor but highly susceptible to issues such as channeling, grind overflow, or errors in pouring technique. With patience and practice, you can wield the V60 like a pro with a little help from the experts at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.
Ok, ok, hear me out. Old fashioned brew methods such as Cowboy Coffee, a descendent of more traditional preparations such as Turkish coffee, are often frowned upon by those who consider themselves coffee connoisseurs. However, in terms of measurable extraction, veterans at Barista Hustle believe there may be no better option than these traditional coffee brewing practices. What may appeal to hardcore and ultralight hikers about this technique is that it requires no extra equipment. Learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of Cowboy Coffee brewing techniques from Driftaway Coffee.
No matter how far or how wide you wander across Vancouver Island or up the strait, no beach is too remote for a good cup of coffee. If you can spare the weight, it is well worth it. Pair that with locally roasted beans using the Vancouver Island Coffee Tour Map and you're all set for a transcendent coffee experience on the beach. Travel safe and brew on!
In Praise of Better Coffee
The sad fact is that most people drink terrible coffee.
Stale beans, burnt roasts, and poor brewing methods produce a bitter flavor; this bitterness stimulates stomach acid production which then leads to an unpleasant assortment of digestive discomforts affectionately termed ‘gut rot’ by the coffee community. Some bury the bitterness in cream and sugar; others stubbornly drink it black to prove their mettle.
Despite all this, many still enjoy coffee as a beverage. Whether because of emotional associations, cultural customs, or an acquired caffeine dependency, coffee is intricately stitched into our daily life. The good news is this: coffee does not have to taste terrible, nor does it have to make your stomach feel upset. Though the art of brewing requires a lifetime to master, I believe there are three basic coffee concepts that will spur novice coffee drinkers on to intrepid amateurs.
Coffee Concept #1: You cannot extract a high quality cup of coffee from a low quality bean.
Mass market coffee blends, pre-ground and sold in large tins at the grocery store, are problematic for several reasons, most prominently because they are sourced from so many locations. Some farms may have good crops, some poor, but inevitably the coffee quality falls to the lowest batch in the bin. Without getting too technical, high quality coffees are graded using a Q score; this standard, set out by the Coffee Quality Institute, is a grade out of 100 points. Any coffee rated 80 or above is considered specialty with a guaranteed baseline quality. Local and small batch roasters usually source their specialty coffee beans from a single origin; this means they can be confident of the quality of the whole batch because they bought their coffee from a specific farm. Therefore, it is important to purchase beans from a source that guarantees quality from the start. In most cases, your local coffee roaster is your best bet.
Concept #2: Even high quality coffee beans can be ruined with a poor roast.
Local coffee roasters are artisans of the highest degree and are constantly roasting fresh batches of coffee. The smaller scale of their operations actually allows them to hone the roast to perfection, whereas industrial roasting methods for mass market beans typically err on the side of being overdone or even burnt. Worse, fine grinds and long stretches of time spent in transit and sitting on the grocery store shelf exacerbates staleness. Local cafes can grind whole beans for you which should be brewed within two months of the roast date for optimal freshness. Explore local light, medium, and dark roasts to discover your preferred flavor profile.
Concept #3: Your brewing method either maximizes or minimizes a coffee’s potential.
Extraction is the process of dissolving the wide array of delicious flavor components out of the coffee bean and into water as it brews. Poorly extracted coffee is a tragedy; the excellent flavor and craftmanship of the perfectly roasted bean is left in the grinds as the taster gets a paltry shadow of what the coffee could truly be. Many modern brewing techniques help optimize extraction (a subject for future articles). If you’ve never heard of an Aeropress, the Japanese-designed Hario V60, or the Moka Pot, you might be surprised at the reasonable price-point for these options designed to optimize your extraction. Each requires a bit of practice and specific types of grinds, but the flavor difference is well worth the investment of time.
Coffee is a part of our culture, a daily ritual for some and a social rite for others. No matter when you drink your coffee, consider enriching your experience by employing these three essential coffee concepts. As always, travel safe and brew on!
For some, brewing and drinking coffee is a sacred solo ritual; for others, it is an essential element in the act of gathering. In either case the coffee experience is an intrinsic opening of the soul, like a prism bending light into its full spectrum of colours. Where we drink it, when we drink it, why we drink it all reflect who we are at our core. It offers a sense of place, grounding us as we greet the glow of dawn, as we face another turbulent hour, or as we ponder our day in the calm of dusk.
I truly believe that living local starts with coffee. More acutely, local coffee roasters and the cafes that grind, brew, and serve their coffee offer a vivid slice of local life unlike any other. The intensity of authentic experience at these community hubs is akin to a perfect shot of espresso, a shot that could not be drawn so perfectly any other place but there. Yet too many, whether long-time locals or welcome visitors, settle for stale coffee, sloppy brews, and generic coffee experiences identically replicated across the country like cheap plastic souvenirs. Coffee can be so much more.
The Vancouver Island Coffee Tour is a treasure map of sorts, a self-guided quest for seekers of flavour and meaning. Here you may discover cups of bliss in your local community that you never knew existed. Take it with you on your journeys up the wild coast or while island hopping through the Strait of Georgia. Support local roasters, share your experiences here, and rekindle a feeling of human connection with both your local community and those you visit. Most importantly, don’t settle for bad coffee; to do so is only to cheat yourself of all that the communities across this incredible island have to offer. Until our next meeting, travel safe and brew on.
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About the Curator
Joshua Gillingham is an author, board game designer, and coffee lover from Vancouver Island. He curates the Vancouver Island Coffee Tour. For questions or comments about VICT, map updates, or roaster openings and closures, send him a note via the community contact form.