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To grind or not to grind... fine, that is.


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I recently spent a day visiting an online espresso buddy, Steve Doxsie, owner of Olympic Coffee in Bremerton WA. I'm gradually testing the waters and researching in anticipation of a possible career shift into the coffee business.

Steve was kind enough to spend most of a day mentoring me, sharing ideas and discussing many apsects of the business including roasting, brewing and espresso production. I have long had the impression that the reason Starbucks coffee is so frequently bitter is due primarily to their using a greater weight/quantity of coffee per ounce of water than their competition. If I recall correctly, I read this in an article several years back in Consumer Reports magazine. They assessed the coffee offerings from Peet's, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and a few other chains. Their contention was that Starbucks uses more coffee per ounce of water than anyone else. Part of the supporting evidence they cited (which may well be the only evidence they had) was a higher caffiene level per ounce.

Okay.... I know the 'bucks roasts way too dark and I won't digress on what the probable reasons for that are (but they're easy to figure out). I have had Starbucks coffee in people's homes using whole beans that were freshly ground and brewed. The SCAA standard coffee measure (two level tablespoons of ground coffee per six ounces of water) was used. The resulting coffee was far smoother and more drinkable than any coffee I've ever consumed in a Starbucks Cafe.

Long story longer.... my friend Steve contends that they grind their coffee finer than is appropriate for drip coffee and actually use less than the standard recommended amount of grounds per ounce of water. This yields coffee that costs less to make but is "strong". Have any of you experimented at home or in your business with different grind levels in a drip maker? Care to share the results?

The theory (which I suspect is supported by verifiable facts) is that particles of an excessive fineness have too much surface area exposed to the brewing water and allow too many of the bitter alkaloids to be released during the brewing process (relative to coffee that is ground more coarsely). The higher caffiene level of Starbucks Cafe coffee makes sense under this scenario - more surface area would mean more caffiene extracted in the same brewing time.

I do know from experience that espresso which is ground too fine will yield more bitter shots, regardless of tamping pressure. So.... what of the possibility that we can get better brewed coffee by grinding a bit coarser than normally recommended but using a slightly larger amount of coffee? What do you think?

I do believe that it's reasonable to assume that consistent results suitable for doing A/B comparisons can only be easily done with a good quality grinder that yields consistent particle size (i.e. the grinder itself is too much of a variable if a whirly blade or cheap burr grinder is used).

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in anticipation of a possible career shift into the coffee business.

I know it's completely off-topic and it's also rather a personal question, but I'm interested to hear some more about it. Of course, you need not answer this personal question if you do not want to. :biggrin:

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  • 2 weeks later...

...Have any of you experimented at home or in your business with different grind levels in a drip maker?  Care to share the results?

The theory (which I suspect is supported by verifiable facts)  is that particles of an excessive fineness have too much surface area exposed to the brewing water and allow too many of the bitter alkaloids to be released during the brewing process (relative to coffee that is ground more coarsely).  ...

I do know from experience that espresso which is ground too fine will yield more bitter shots, regardless of tamping pressure. So....  what of the possibility that we can get better brewed coffee by grinding a bit coarser than normally recommended but using a slightly larger amount of coffee? What do you think?...

I think it may depend upon what you make coffee in.

I make drip coffee in a chemex (filter) coffeemaker. Note that I tend not to like very strong coffee, definitely not bitter coffee. So everyone has to adjust the measure to their taste. I grind the beans very fine and use about a heaping tsp per cup (probably measures at about 2/3 Tbs). I think the filter captures any bitterness from very fine grinding. I routinely use filtered water heated to 195-200.

If I am making a single cup in the press, I dont grind it as fine as it will steep longer than in the chemex and not be filtered.

"Half of cooking is thinking about cooking." ---Michael Roberts

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my friend Steve contends that they grind their coffee finer than is appropriate for drip coffee and actually use less than the standard recommended amount of grounds per ounce of water. This yields coffee that costs less to make but is "strong".

That certainly sounds like a recipe for overextraction to me.

So....  what of the possibility that we can get better brewed coffee by grinding a bit coarser than normally recommended but using a slightly larger amount of coffee? What do you think?

If the grounds are coarser, you'll get weaker coffee, since the water will flow through faster. My guess would be that adding more coffee will not compensate for that sufficiently. Or you'd end up using more coffee to get the same taste you'd get from normally ground and brewed coffee, which would just be a waste.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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Glad you guys brought this up.

As you might know, I don't have a kitchen currently. I have a wreck. One of the many culinary consequences of this disaster has been that I am drinking coffee out of a steam blower machine (cheap espresso maker), a French Press (6 cup B, very nice, works great, etc) or my vacuum pot (which is cool, but kind of a pain so I don't usually set it up when I am on the run). BUT-what is the proper grind for a French Press? I think that I might be going a bit fine, but who knows. Can a coffee expert help me out here?

Thanks,

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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I'm hardly one to know what the optimum grain size should be, but I do know that as one grinds the beans more and more oils are realesed. There's probably a point when too much of a good thing occurs.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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Most folks grind slightly coarser for French Press than they would for drip coffee that's going through a paper filter. It's all about the sludge factor. Finer grind = more sludge in the bottom of the cup when sing a French Press. Some people are okay with the sludge and others don't care for it.

Pertinient to this is consistency of grind. If using a whirly blade grinder there will be less consistency to particle size - some little chunks mixed in with powder - some sludge is inevitable. Using a good quality burr grinder (e.g. Rancilio Rocky or its equivalent) will yield consistent particle size and lessen the problem.

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BUT-what is the proper grind for a French Press?

The general rule of thumb is that the "proper" grind depends on how long the grounds will be in contact with the water -- the longer the time, the coarser the grind. (Gee, I'm a poet and didn't know it.) Since they're steeped in the French press, the grind should be more coarse. Beans for espresso are ground fine because the water is forced through quickly. And, as Owen said, the coarser grind for the press helps keep the sludge from coming through the screen... I cannot stand the feeling of grounds in my mouth -- which makes cupping a real adventure! :blink:

Amy in Michigan
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