What we do

How we brew

posted on Sunday, April 20, 2014 - 2:45pm by Michael Harwood


Rorschach Ink Blot Card V

What do you want to perceive when you taste espresso? "Big bodied, bittersweet, and rich" is an oft-heard refrain, but do many of us say that because those qualities are what we actually like best or are we simply conditioned by what has come before? What if I told you that espresso could be something different, even something more? There's nothing wrong with the aforementioned profile, but the current prevailing thought is that only a more developed roast is appropriate for pulling shots. With the popularity of milk-based coffee beverages, it comes as no surprise that we stick to roasts offering heavier bodies and deeper flavors. But what about those folks who don't drink milk-based coffee beverages or those who simply want a sweeter and livelier espresso? I believe it's just as important to satisfy those customers. So that raises some interesting thoughts. If we take more of an interest in our non-dairy customers and the flavor of the espresso on its own, should we roast the same for espresso extraction? Further, would we see the same sales breakdown of milk versus non-milk drinks? And importantly, would that increased focus on and sales of non-milk espresso beverages be a good thing for all parties involved?

With these questions in mind, we set about pulling shots of our filter roasts and were mostly delighted by what we found (not every coffee works). Imagine the sweetest, cleanest shot you've ever had, then crank it up. We love more developed roasts for what they offer, but you can't escape the bitter, roasty flavors they leave behind. This roast pungency hangs around in your cup (smell your used demitasse next time) and on your palate like a guest who has overstayed their welcome. In comparison, an empty demitasse from a filter profile espresso smells sweet, clean, and pleasantly aromatic. You'll find the aftertaste exhibits the same sweet, clean quality. The reason is fairly simple - high quality green coffee seeds (read: ripe harvest, meticulous sorting, very few or no defects) are packed with sucrose. The further we take our roasts, the more we convert those sweet sugars into bitter compounds. This is what makes lighter, filter roasts literally sweeter. If you like sweetness, lighter roast espressos may be for you.

Rorschach Espresso

During our espresso tests, our Bolivia Apolo stood out for its exceptional sweetness. As a pour-over, Apolo delivers a delightful profile of nougat, honey, Nutella, and pear (check it here: http://store.ceremonycoffee.com/coffees/bolivia_apolo.html). With the same filter roast profile, an espresso extraction brings out a sweet bouquet of nougat, pear, and tropical fruit. We were very excited about these flavors, but wanted to see what would happen if we mixed a bit of the filter profile with an equal part espresso profile. The results were pretty mind blowing. We got the best of both worlds - some of the body, moderate sugar browning, and flavor depth you might expect from espresso, mixed with the high sweetness, liveliness, and clarity you find with a filter profile. When we found it pairing well with milk, we knew we were onto something.

This is how our Rorschach Espresso Project came to be as a blend of Bolivia Apolo Filter & Espresso Roasts. We're excited to offer this exceptional coffee experience as a roast mélange, something you don't see everyday. A "mélange" in coffee vernacular is simply a blend of different roast levels of the same coffee. We use blending to find greater balance and complexity. In this case, we are interested in striking a balance between conventional expectations (an espresso should taste like...) and imagination (an espresso can taste like...). When blending these different profiles near 50:50, this balance is attained, making this espresso both familiar and exciting.

To read more about why we blend, here's a blog post flashback: http://goo.gl/lf7Y99

But isn't lighter roast coffee really sour as espresso? One of the main tricks to extracting pretty much any coffee of any roast level is to understand the ratio of how much coffee to how much water you should use. Upping your water dose generally equals more extraction. A good rule of thumb is that the lighter the roast, the more water you'll need to extract the right balance of flavors from the coffee. The darker the roast is, the less water you'll need. Let's put some numbers to it:

For a Dark Roast (like a French Roast) - 1:1 dose weight to beverage weight ratio, about 1 fluid ounce, called Ristretto
For a Medium Roast (like our Destroyer and Mass Appeal) - 1:2 dose weight to beverage weight ratio, about 2 fluid ounces, called Normale
For a Light Roast (like our filter roast coffees) - 1:3 dose weight to beverage weight ratio, about 3 fluid ounces, called Lungo

See our Espresso Recipes chart for more reference:
Espresso Recipes

Imagine you're dosing 20 grams into your portafilter basket. For that dark roast, you'd extract 20 grams of beverage weight, which gives us our 1:1 weight ratio. For a medium roast, it's 1:2, so that 20 gram dose should yield 40 grams of beverage weight. A light roast would need to yield 60 grams. Does this oversimplify things a bit, given variation in seed density and other factors? Absolutely, but it is useful to start with these roast-based ratios to help you get in the ballpark. For a relevant comparison, we extract Destroyer and Mass Appeal to a 1:1.8 - 1-1.65, depending on the age off-roast. This falls between Normale and Ristretto. We like to call that recipe our Golden Ratio.

The reason why we use different amounts of water for different roast levels comes down to a few factors. For one, darker roasts are more porous, due to the expansion of the seed matrix during roasting. Water has better access to the core of the grounds with a more porous coffee. Since water has better access, it takes less water to get the job done. Two, darker roasts have a low percentage of bright and sweet flavors and a high percentage of bitter flavors. Medium roasts are fairly balanced between bright, sweet, and bitter flavors. Lighter roasts have a high percentage of bright and sweet flavors and a low percentage of bitter flavors. If we go back to the aromatic semicircle on the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, we can see that bright flavors extract first, sweet flavors second, and bitter flavors third. If we understand the order of different compounds in extraction and we understand the flavor palette a given coffee has to offer (as dictated by terroir, process, and roast - lots of brightness? lots of bitter?) , then we can see that it is better to extract a lighter roast to higher yields and darker roasts to lower yields. This helps lighter roasts get out of the bright flavors and into the sweet. A lower yield helps darker roasts from running into bitter flavors too quickly. No matter if this all sounds confusing or like a lot of fun, we'd love to have you over for our Introduction to Espresso and Bar Flow class to work with this concept more. Sign up here: http://ceremonycoffee.com/events

SCAA Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel

Now that we have extraction covered, here's a recipe we found to work really well with our Rorschach espresso:

Bolivia Apolo Mélange
50% filter profile/50% espresso profile
Ideal Off-Roast Dates: Filter - 3 weeks off; Espresso - 1 week off
Recipe: A 1:2.2 to 1:2.4 weight ratio, about 2.2 - 2.4 fl. oz., we might call this Normale Plus
Dose: However much fits comfortably in your basket (fill it up and level it off without settling to find out), we use 21 grams
Beverage Weight: If a 21 gram dose at the 1:2.2 - 1:2.4 range of weight ratios, then extract 46 - 50g grams beverage weight
Extraction Time: 40 - 45 seconds total extraction time
Brew Temperature: 201 F

We're running this project with a brilliant coffee from Bolivia, but nothing is stopping you from throwing any of our filter profile coffees in your espresso hopper. Is that filter bag on the shelf getting old? Pop it in the espresso hopper around three weeks off roast. When you do, simply remember that you'll likely need more water than you've previously used, probably around the Lungo (1:3) ratio. Dial-in for the recipe (probably 40 - 45 second brew time), then use your grind adjustment to dial up and down in time. Higher time heads towards sharp, dry, and bitter flavors. Shorter time heads towards softer and brighter flavors. Shoot for sweetness and balance in the middle between the two poles. The most important thing to understand is that you don't need an espresso roast to brew a delicious espresso. All you need is an open mind and a receptive palate. Happy tasting!

posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - 2:45pm by Caleb Podhaczky

As the plane docked at our Dulles departure gate, my mind began racing with excitement, nerves, and expectations. I clutched my ticket to Mexico as I thought through the list of tasks to accomplish while there. This was just my first trip ever to grade, select, and possibly purchase coffee. No pressure!

Chiapas Drying Patio

Thankfully, after a quick and easy trip, I arrived safely in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, located in southern Mexico. There I met a small team of roasters, green bean buyers, and the Café Imports crew (CI are one of our favorite importers). After much hand shaking, cheek kissing, and scrambling to remember names, we were all starving, and were ready to chow down. When in Mexico, do as the locals do and eat tacos! Our time getting to dinner became interesting when the taxi driver decided to take us the “scenic route”. Even with five guys crammed like clowns into a very tiny car, the driver still felt it necessary to hit 75mph down crowded streets. The nerve-wracking ride was ultimately worth it once we were eating. Tacos quickly became my favorite travel companion. Each night, we hunted down a place to consume our weight in pork, beef, tripe, and even cow face tacos. Sometimes, it felt like we had to pray that we wouldn’t have to pay for it later that night. We were told that hot sauce and tequila help ward off a sick gut, which was okay by me!

Aside from the delicious tacos and tequila, I was there for another important reason - to find some amazing coffees. So we traveled from Tuxtla to Jaltenango, Chiapas to visit a number of coffee producers. While there, we judged two competitions between these producers. Other than Cup of Excellence, these were the first twp competitions in Mexico to reward cup quality. By the time we arrived, the multitude of coffee samples for the first competition at AMSA (United Agro-Industrialists of Mexico) had been vetted. It was now up to our group to score and judge which coffees would make the top thirty. The winning farmer would not only receive a great price for their delicious crop, but also a year’s worth of technical support from AMSA and two-hundred coffee seedlings! What an incredible opportunity for these producers!

AMSA is an organization that buys green coffee still in its parchment form (known in Mexico as pergamino) from individual producers and co-ops alike, both organic and conventional. There is a pricing board at the weigh-in station for the coffees that producers bring in. Organic, conventional, and different varieties of coffee all receive a certain price. Everything is open and up-front. It was great to see that AMSA is a socially responsible company. They seem to care about the producers they work with and the people of Jaltenango. AMSA offers producers what is called SMS – sustainable management services, which provides them support. These services run the gamut from loans to helping producers in the fight against the ever-growing problem of Roya (coffee leaf rust), which is ruining crops and livelihoods. AMSA also offer technical support and advice, and even opened up their warehouse as a refuge for people affected by landslides caused by Tropical Storm Matthew in 2010.

There were some truly beautiful coffees cupped on the day of the competition. One of the standouts was a coffee produced by Juan Jose Miguel from Finca Nueva Linda. Not only was the coffee delicious, Nueva Linda is right on the edge of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, a beautiful, immaculate, and very progressive farm and protected habitat. Juan Jose walked us through his different lots, various varietals, and how they process their coffee, all the way from pulping to fermentation to drying. Keep your eyes peeled for some exciting coffees coming from this farm.

Next was the producer competition held at the CESMACH (Campesinos Ecologicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas) dry mill. CESMACH is involved in many environmental protection and social development projects in the area around the El Triunfo Biosphere. In 2008, CESMACH and three other cooperatives used the premiums earned from selling Fair Trade coffee to buy land and build the dry mill where the competition was held. With cupping spoon, spit cup, and score sheets in hand, we cupped and discussed, then cupped and discussed some more, for almost 7 hours. Again, there were some standouts on the table. Producers from Comon Yaj Noptic took places 1st through 9th. It became obvious that these small scale farmers from this co-operative were doing something right. Ninety-three percent of the 147 members are organic certified and the remaining seven percent are in the process of becoming certified. Exciting times!

Muddy Sprouts

This action and taco-packed trip was over in the blink of an eye, but the fact that I’m back to reality (eating poor imitations of tacos) means we are that much closer to seeing some of these coffees hit our shelves for you to enjoy. I’m hopeful this trip was the start of some fruitful, lasting relationships between Ceremony Coffee Roasters and these talented, hard-working producers from Chiapas.

posted on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 6:15pm by Michael Harwood

New York City. Home of the Bronx Bombers, yellow taxis, and 8.337 million people. Ceremony Coffee added nine more souls to the City that Never Sleeps at this year’s Eastern Regional Coffee Fest, one of the world’s preeminent coffee and tea trade shows.

Over three non-stop days, we brewed through pounds of an exciting range of espressos and filters, microfoamed our way through gallons of milk, connected with a small village of friends new and old, competed in and won America’s Best Espresso, competed in the Latte Art Championship, showed off beautiful Synesso espresso machines and Compak espresso grinders, and ate so much amazing food that we nearly burst.

Ceremony at Coffee Fest

We warmed up each day by running Morning Coffee (an espresso and pour over bar) for the hundreds of people passing through the Coffee Fest gate at the Javits Center. Despite what you may think, it can be pretty difficult to find delicious coffee at coffee events! In light of this, folks were very excited and grateful to taste what we were serving. Some of the crowd favorites were the Ethiopia Wazzala for its lively apricot flavor and Destroyer Espresso for its sweet balance. The Rwanda Gitesi was probably the most challenging coffee we served. Seeing people’s eyes light up from having a first-time experience with such special, complex coffee is pretty amazing. I love my training and QA job, but sometimes I miss being on bar for moments like that. Having the opportunity to serve such beautiful coffees to most-appreciative and sometimes surprised guests is one of the most rewarding experiences I can imagine.

After Morning Coffee, we hustled back to our booth and got the coffee flowing there. It was a pleasure to share a workspace with my fellow Ceremony baristas, roasters, and co-workers. Their talent and knowledge is evident, but I could tell that folks were even more impressed with their commitment to being friendly, present, and polite with everyone who approached our booth (kudos to all my co-workers for running a tight, well-guided ship at Coffee Fest).

America's Best Espresso bracket

As last year’s winner, Ceremony was invited to compete in the America’s Best Espresso competition. In this event, a bracket of baristas pull shots head-to-head. In each round, two baristas must each serve three shots of espresso to a panel composed of three judges in either 7 minutes (1st round) or 10 minutes (all rounds thereafter). The judges assess both competitors’ shots, tally up their scores based on flavor complexity, mouthfeel & appeal, and aftertaste, then announce their vote. To advance, you have to earn at least two out of three votes. Our entry was an espresso roast profile of the Panama Santa Teresa Honey Geisha.

America's Best Espresso plate

To prepare, I dialed-in the Santa Teresa on the Nuova Simonelli Aurelia II on Friday morning during practice time. I then competed twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday, using the same recipe set during practice with only slight changes in extraction time. Aside from the Santa Teresa being an incredibly sweet, round, and flavorful coffee, there were a few methods I used that helped us succeed. These aren’t big secrets, so I don’t mind sharing! The first is to keep a clean machine. This seems obvious, but I noticed that the portafilters and groupheads smelled of old coffee oils before both rounds on Saturday (Sunday smelled cleaner). Doing a quick clear-water backflush, wiping out under the portafilter basket, then pulling a seasoning shot helped our coffee taste much sweeter and cleaner. The other method was to let my shots rest a minute or two before delivery. Giving the shots time to cool opened up their flavors for the judges. Beverage temperatures closer to your temperature allows the human palate to observe more flavor, but this is a double-edged sword. If your shot has dirty or defective flavors, you’d probably want to consume it while it was hot, precisely because you don’t want to taste those off-notes. I would never hold a shot back during cafe service, but in an artificial setting where flavor is being critically appraised, cooling down my shots gave me an advantage. In the end, sourcing an incredible coffee and roasting it for peak sweetness and liveliness produced an espresso that didn’t lose a single vote! We are proud to have won America’s Best Espresso and look forward to representing the East in the Nationals this October. Wish us luck! In the meantime, we encourage you to try the Panama Santa Teresa Honey Geisha SOE for yourself.


If pour over or press pot is more your speed, our filter profile Geisha can't be beat either! http://store.ceremonycoffee.com/coffees/santa_teresa_geisha.html

As I was hustling back to Port Authority to catch my bus on Sunday evening, I thought about the teamwork that went into making our weekend such a success. Maybe it was the exhaustion or maybe it was just New York street grit, but for some reason, my eyes watered up a bit. I’ve thought it before, but our Coffee Fest weekend reiterated to me that I am so proud to be part of this team.

Midtown NYC

posted on Monday, February 3, 2014 - 4:30pm by Michael Harwood

Brewers Cup judges at Big Easter

What exactly is the point of a barista competition? Is it a positive force that motivates us to better our craft and ourselves, or is it perhaps a distraction from the practical experience of cafe work? Having competed in the SCAA’s United States Barista Championship circuit for the past four years, I believe they’re a little bit of both: though barista competitions are in many ways artificial, they can also be a force for individual career and craft growth, and one that encourages the competitor to bring those skills and ideas back to the real-world cafe or roastery.

This year’s regional competition in Durham, NC was titled the Big Eastern; for the first time, it united the Northeast and Southeast regions. Over thirty competitors, as well as dozens of judges, volunteers, coaches, and supporters journeyed from Maine to Miami to attend. For me, it’s the act of gathering that makes these programs unmissable. These three or four days are a time to connect, to taste the cutting edge of specialty coffee, and to be inspired by a group of talented and highly motivated coffee professionals.

Michael Sammartino at Big Eastern

There are two events that take place at a regional. The Barista Competition is a single-round, fifteen minute, twelve drink presentation of a barista’s ability to make four high-quality espressos, cappuccinos, and signature beverages, all the while guiding the four-person judging panel through a positive sensory experience. What are the flavors? How does the coffee’s journey influence what you will smell and taste? Why does any of this matter? If a barista can efficiently craft harmoniously balanced drinks and guide the judges through a positive, cohesive, and inspiring experience, then that competitor should score high marks. This is easier said than done, as it takes a high degree of control, hospitality, and knowledge. Becoming effective in competition can’t help but make you a better barista: if I can quickly guide you to the correct coffee or dial-in my espresso more consistently in less time, I am doing my workaday barista job that much better.

The somewhat newer competition is the Brewers Cup, which requires the barista to produce three cups of drip-strength coffee using only manual brew methods, like the Beehouse dripper or press pot. There are two different rounds. In the first, each barista receives a bag of the same coffee, which levels the playing field. They have a period of time to practice with this coffee before they must step up to the stage to anonymously brew three cups for three judges in seven minutes. The top six brewers make it through to the ten minute final round, where the competitor brews three cups of a coffee they brought with them. Typically, the barista spends several weeks or months dialing-in this coffee with their brewing device. These six finalists must also verbally present their coffee in much the same way the barista competitor does. And clearly, learning to speak about a coffee knowledgeably and being able to produce multiple craft brews efficiently and consistently are crucial to the successful operation of a cafe.

Brewers Cup at NWRBC

At the end of the long weekend, only one barista from each region is crowned champion, but I’ve found that developing yourself as a competitor is the primary reward, win or lose. By putting yourself through the ringer of competition, through hours of practice and study, not only will you be a better barista, but you’ll often find yourself a more informed, well-rounded person as well. I’ll admit that getting up in front of a large group of peers and being scored isn’t my cup of tea (or coffee), but competing has pushed me to understand everything I do on bar at a much higher level. Being judged by an experienced panel of supportive judges taught me great lessons about customer service, efficiency, tidiness, how to be verbally succinct and informative, and how to dial-in for a harmonious balance of sweet, acidic, and bitter.

I bombed my first year of competing, but hearing what the judges had to say about their experience helped me more than just about anything I’ve done in coffee. It was uncomfortable to receive truly terrible scores that year, but they showed me exactly how I needed to improve in order to become the best competitor I could be. And the best part was coming back to the cafe and putting those heightened skills to good use. Whether it’s knowing how to execute a milk share so that I can make two cappuccinos more quickly, or understanding how to be a guide rather than a gatekeeper of coffee knowledge, competing helped me grow into the coffee professional I wanted to become. I’m also pretty sure my customers didn’t mind that I was nicer and better at what I did, either!

Judges Training Day

At this year’s Big Eastern, I sat on the other side of the table for the first time. As a new sensory judge, I experienced nerves that I hadn’t expected. When you screw up as a competitor, it’s mostly on you. When you screw up as a judge, you’re messing with someone else’s hard work. I felt this acutely as a former competitor, so I did my best to stay attentive, provide detailed notes, and to assess the coffees in an unbiased, objectively-as-humanly-possible way. Although the barista is serving drinks to four sensory judges, a head judge tastes each drink, and is there to help calibrate the sensory panel to what is true. This deliberation session after each performance gave me great faith in the judging process. There was no room for, “I like..” It was all, “This is what I tasted and smelled. This is what they said.” During my time judging, I was privileged to score both first-timers and seasoned pros alike. Both groups taught me something about our craft and service, both through positive and negative points. I also learned some valuable quality control protocols for evaluating espressos and cappuccinos. I hope you’ll join me in an Espresso or Milk Class to see these protocols in action.

Competition is far from the only path to growth, but James Hoffmann put it best at a Barista Guild of America Camp when he said one of the most important things he ever did was to venture outside of his bubble. Only then did the future World Barista Champion realize how much there was he didn’t know. So whether it’s an SCAA competition, BGA Barista Camp, Roasters Guild Retreat, an informal latte art throwdown, or just a random industry meetup, we as coffee professionals should be excited to be there, because we know there’s still so much to learn.

Until next time, when I might be back in the competition ring and feeling like these guys below. Gulp!

Final 3 at NWRBC

posted on Monday, January 13, 2014 - 8:30pm by Michael Harwood

At its purest, water is simply dihydrogen monoxide, better known as H₂0. But water is rarely found in its purest form; an effective solvent, water picks up baggage on its journey to brewing your coffee. So what amount and type of baggage is appropriate for brewing? The answer is that there are many waters that can help you get your brew where you want it to be; it largely depends on what coffee you’re using and what result you’d like to attain.

This is a little abstract. So where do we go for a concrete start, and what exactly are we looking for? Thanks to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a solid set of water standards exists, which you can see here.

Odor - Clean / Fresh, Odor free
Color - Clear color
Total Chlorine - O mg/L
TDS - Target: 150 mg/L; Acceptable Range: 75 - 250 mg/L
Calcium Hardness - Target: 4 grains or 68 mg/L; Acceptable Range: 1-5 grain or 17-85 mg/L
Total Alkalinity - Target: 40 mg/L; Acceptable Range: At or near 40 mg/L
pH - Target: 7.0; Acceptable Range: 6.5 to 7.5
Sodium - Target: 10 mg/L; Acceptable Range: At or near 10 mg/L

If your water falls within these ranges, it is probably doing a pretty good job brewing your coffee. If you’d like your water to take your coffee to the next level, you’ll want to explore a bit more. Let’s touch on what these standards are and how we might think of them.

Odor - Smell your water. Does it smell clean, fresh, and odor free? Some waters smell metallic, soapy, chemically, rotten egg-like, sewage-like, medicinal, musty, moldy, or earthy. If you smell them in your water, you may be able to perceive these odors in your brew.

Color - Look at your water in a clean glass. Is it clear, ruddy, or cloudy? Cloudy water might just be air bubbles in cold, wintry water (let it sit for a minute or so to see if it clears), or it could be dirty. Ruddy water indicates rust and negatively influences how your coffee extracts and tastes/smells.

Total Chlorine - Discerned through aroma (does it smell like a pool?) or by a test kit, chlorine, chloramines, and others are disinfectants used to treat municipal water. With distinctive chemical aromas, it is a good idea to filter out these disinfectants.

TDS - Use a TDS Meter to take a reading. Total Dissolved Solids reflect the amount and nature of solids dissolved in water. Low TDS waters tends to overextract coffee. High TDS waters often have high mineral contents and tend to underextract coffee.

Calcium Hardness - Use a test kit to take a reading. Calcium Hardness is the presence of positively-charged calcium ions in water. There is also Total Hardness, which is a measure of positively-charged calcium and magnesium ions, among others, in water. High Hardness waters tend to underextract coffee and reduce acidity. Low Hardness waters tend to overextract coffee, raise acidity, and slow pour-overs drawdowns. Although some mineral content is critical to extracting oils from the coffee grounds, minerals do build up on boiler surfaces over time, causing a functional problem known as “scale”. Harder water creates scale more quickly, so cafes often have multiple carbon filtered lines with a softener built-in on the line to the espresso machine.

Total Alkalinity - Use a test kit to take a reading. Total Alkalinity measures the concentration of negative ions, which indicates the water’s ability to neutralize acidity. Think of Alkalinity as a buffer of acidity. To help me understand this concept, I like to imagine a leaky ceiling dripping into a bucket. The bucket is alkalinity and keeps the floor from getting wet for a while. Once the dripping (added acidity) is too much and the bucket overflows, the floor gets wet, changing its dampness (pH). High Total Alkalinity tends to subdue a coffee’s acidity. Low Total Alkalinity tends to promote a coffee’s acidity.

pH - Use a test kit or strip to take a reading. pH measures the concentration of H+ and OH- in a solution. The pH scale goes from 0 (most acidic, like battery acid) to 14 (most basic, like lye). 7.0 is neutral. An acidic pH tends to produce a more overextracted, acidic coffee. A basic pH tends to produce an underextracted, less acidic coffee that may feel flat.

Sodium - Use a test kit to take a reading. Sodium levels change the way we perceive tastes, so high levels should be avoided. Water softeners may raise sodium levels slightly.

Once you have taken the appropriate readings, you can develop the ideal filtration (keeping in mind that your water might change in composition at least once a year). At home, it’s hard to beat the ease and convenience of a simple carbon filter like the oft-used Brita pitcher. If you live in an area where the water is quite hard, your best bet may be to source water from a nearby cafe, roastery, or grocer. In a commercial cafe setting, there are several options depending on your water needs. For harder water, a Reverse Osmosis system with blend capability or a water softener with a carbon filter may be in order. For cafes with soft to moderately hard water, a basic carbon or activated carbon filter may work well.

To help understand hardness/TDS in a different way, I have an analogy: Imagine a bellhop as you pull up to a hotel with your family and all of your bags. The distilled bellhop (Almost zero TDS/Hardness/Alkalinity) has no hands and can only take away one bag under their arm, thus underextracting your coffee. The Low TDS/Hardness/Alkalinity bellhop is underworked and overenthusiastic. This bellhop grabs all of your bags at once and even snags your baby under their arm. This leads to overextraction. A third, SCAA standard bellhop is attentive, but not desperate. They pick up just the right number of bags from your taxi to keep everything organized and well-extracted. Then there’s the stinky bellhop, who may have been drinking chlorine this morning. They may get your bags to the right room, but your extraction may smell funny afterwards. Finally, there’s the bellhop who is overworked and already has their hands full (High TDS/Hardness/Alkalinity). This bellhop tries to pick up your luggage anyway, but is only able to grab one or two pieces, leaving your brew underextracted.

If you are in the market for bottled water, do your best to avoid deionized, distilled, and harder spring/mineral waters, as these will not extract your coffee well. Although it is a little soft, Gerber Pure Water satisfies many of the SCAA Water Standards and has a high level of transparency. I am told that a certain former Ceremony Head Roaster and two-time United States Brewer Cup Champion favored Deer Park, which seems to have a wide range of possible attributes as it comes from multiple sources. Another Ceremony patron expressed a preference for Walgreens’ Nice brand. Some spring waters are too hard, so do a little online research on their latest water quality report before you hit the grocery.

Depending on where you live and the condition of your building’s pipes, you may even be able to get away with unfiltered tap for pour-over brewing. I’d almost always recommend carbon filtration, but in the water tasting and brewing experiment we did recently, the unfiltered tap water from our roastery held up quite well to the other filtered options. It smelled of chlorine by itself, but that odor barely registered in the brew. Unfortunately, I don’t feel quite as positively about the unfiltered tap water from my apartment in Washington D.C. Just like with real estate, water quality is all about location, location, location.

This past Friday, we invited the public in for a water-based cupping. The idea was to taste five different waters, then to brew two different coffees with each of the waters to observe their extraction and in-cup characteristics. Here’s what we found:

TYPE OF WATER Distilled Soft (RO with Minerals) Filtered Annapolis Tap Unfiltered Annapolis Tap Hard Spring
ODOR None None None Chlorine None
COLOR Clear Clear Clear Clear Clear
TOTAL CHLORINE 0 ppm 0 ppm 0 ppm 0.75 ppm 0 ppm
TDS *Approx. 0 ppm 30 ppm 150 ppm 160 ppm 300 ppm
CALCIUM HARDNESS 0 ppm 10 ppm 70 ppm 70 ppm 150 ppm
TOTAL ALKALINITY 10 ppm 70 ppm 50 ppm 50 ppm 160 ppm
pH 7.5 9.5 8 8 8
Sodium 0 ppm 18 ppm 3.48 ppm 3.48 ppm 20 ppm
Distilled Soft (RO with Minerals) Filtered Annapolis Tap Unfiltered Annapolis Tap Hard Spring
Brazil Cerrado medium acid, thin body, under extracted low acid, medium body, soft mouthfeel sweet, rounder, best flavor, full body sweet, rounder, good flavor, fullest body low acid, low sweetness, muddled, heavy
Kenya Kabare high acidity, some sweetness, thin body, under extracted low acid, thin body, soft mouthfeel, slightly bitter, good flavor juicy, sweet, best flavor & balance, full body juicy, sweet, fullest mouthfeel, good flavor low acid, low sweetness, muddled, heavy

As you can see, we found the best results with the 3M carbon filtered tap water from our Training Lab. Coming in a close second was the unfiltered tap water straight from our roastery sink. Not bad, Annapolis! The RO water with trace added minerals did have a nice, soft mouthfeel, but overall, the experience wasn’t complete. Most articles we’ve read say to never use distilled water for brewing, so we were surprised that it didn’t make for the worst brew. That said, I wouldn’t recommend distilled water unless you were in a bind. Our least favorite was the harder Spring Water, which didn’t develop the coffees’ flavors and was very muddled.

The differences in how the waters affected the two coffees was fascinating. One of the main varying characteristics was acidity. We found acid-subduing waters (higher hardness, pH, alkalinity, and TDS) seem to do better with coffees that are lower acid to start with. For example, we found that the deeper Brazil Cerrado was more enjoyable with soft RO water than the brighter Kenya Kabare was. We suppose this is because the Brazil had less acidity to lose than the Kenya did. Since we’re looking for acidity in our Kenya, we were disappointed that the RO water did not bring it out. However, if you are looking to subdue acidity, you may want to look for these higher attributes in the water you use.

The bottom line is that having water within the SCAA acceptable range is important to bring the best out of your coffees. Within that range and even on its fringes, don’t be afraid to experiment to see what you can bring out in your coffee. If you find a great water for brewing, please let us know!

One of the big takeaways from our experiments is that even with different waters, if you start out with well-sourced, well-roasted coffees that are freshly roasted, ground, and brewed, you will end up with a brew that is better than most coffee out there. This is only to say, don’t get so wrapped up in water chemistry that you forget the most important variable of all, the coffee itself.

Until next time, happy brewing!


Upcoming Public Events

Weekly Coffee Break: Cancelled - WASHINGTON, DC

Our Washington, DC coffee break has been cancelled, please join us for our Baltimore coffee break Saturdays at 12PM!

Upcoming Wholesale Labs

*FULL!* - Intro Barista: Essential Espresso Bar - WASHINGTON, DC

This session of Intro Barista is full, check back soon for our May schedule!