Last night I was lucky enough to be in London for a free event at Look Mum No Hands, celebrating coffee and cycling. There’s a great crossover in the Venn diagram for ‘coffee people’ and ‘cycling people’ and so it seems like a natural partnership for a series of talks. Being a geek and a fan of lectures about all subjects, the opportunity to be in a whole room of people being generally geeky about a general selection of things seemed too good to pass up. The event was hosted at Look Mum No Hands, and organised by CycleFit (my gratitude to both!).
I’m going to be woefully unfair and give far too little space to the cycling portion of the evening (this blog isn’t ‘no bicycle left behind’ after all!). The talks were given by James Hewitt and Phil Cavell, very passionate and knowledgeable people who work at CycleFit. These talks ranged from the techie – where an assistant cycled whilst the pressure on the saddle was being relayed to the projector, allowing the audience to see how different shaped saddles suit different riding styles – to the visceral: including a heated discussion with audience members about the utility (versus the sentimentality) of steel as a material for bikes. Very interesting, even for only an amateur cyclist like myself. It was so refreshing to see people with the kind of passion I have for coffee, but around a different centre (i.e. cycling).
But anyway: to the coffee! The first speech was by Stephen Leighton of Has Bean, well known for his profile in the coffee community. He gave an interesting talk about the different ways of buying coffee in from other countries. The three ways he spoke of were using an importer, using an exporter and direct trading. Commonly held is the idea that direct trade is the holy grail of coffee buying, and the other two are ‘evil’ in greater or lesser degrees. Stephen’s point was that these methods are not intrinsically good or bad, but rather they can be made good or made bad dependent on the circumstances. He gave a list of examples where each of these methods had been good for Has Bean, and also good for the farms; but also an example where the method had been bad for the farm or for Has Bean. I think his talk was accentuated too by the knowledge that last year Has Bean got seriously burned by taking the direct trade route, and so it was interesting to hear Stephen’s nuanced discussion of the pros and cons of different methods of import.
The next coffee oriented speech was by a chap called Dan Webb. He’s the owner and head roaster of Crediton Coffee in Devon. They specialise in something that is increasingly rare: in-store roasting. However, Dan explained, this had been problematic from an environmental point of view: the roaster pollutes (and not in the good coffee smell way). The clean-up of this involved installing a carbon filter and electrostatic precipitator, basically a way of filtering the air. The technology is at the forefront, and far exceeds the amount of carbon they are actually producing in case they ever need to expand. The technical nature of this talk was certainly a good level, and I learnt things about the environmental output of a roaster that I didn’t know before. It was also good to hear a roaster putting ecology first: Crediton use enviro-packaging to further limit their impact.
The final coffee talk was by James Hoffman, WBC 2007 champ and owner of Square Mile, and general ambassador for the UK speciality coffee industry. His talk ‘the Hidden World of Well-Brewed Coffee’ was well pitched: everybody could take something from it, so long as they liked drinking coffee. James enthusiastically persisted that ‘making good coffee was easy’, something I thoroughly agree with, but that we need to give consideration to the things going into the coffee. First, he asked, “who owns a pepper grinder?”. Everybody owns a pepper grinder! “Who owns a coffee grinder?” And far fewer people raised their hands. A grinder is essential for well-brewed coffee; and a burr grinder even better. Second, water forms the vast, vast majority of the coffee, and yet our tap water that we use everyday is full of impurities, and dissolved solids that can alter the flavour. Filtration in coffee shops is a huge investment, but without this investment, the espresso machine would clog up within weeks from all the impurities within the water. “Water is the enemy.” At home, a filtration system is hardly plausible, but a Brita filter is an easy way to improve your coffee. Bottled water, even better, though there are still solids that affect the coffee. Lastly, there’s the actual coffee itself, and how you’re brewing it. Only the first 20% of the coffee is tasty, after that bitter flavours start coming out. If your coffee is too bitter, it’s possible that you put too much coffee in, but, more likely, you’re getting more than the first 20% of the coffee out. To combat this, grind a little coarser, and you will extract less bad flavour from the coffee, getting you closer to that 20% mark. Similarly, if your coffee is under-extracted, just grind a little finer next time. This, James maintains, will improve your everyday experience of coffee and allow the beans of speciality roasters to taste as good as they should.