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coffee : Brewing the ideal cup of coffee involves carefully combining many different components to satisfy personal taste for flavor, body, aroma and acidity.

October 02, 1986|JOAN DRAKE, Times Staff Writer

Little did I know when I bought "the coffee machine to end all coffee machines" that it would practically require going back for an engineering degree to regain my reputation. Unlike the poor woman in those television commercials, people had regularly commented favorably on my coffee.

I had probably become a bit smug. But after all, I began grinding my own beans long before it was in vogue and through experimenting with various kinds had developed a signature blend.

Although I had opted for the convenience of an electric filter drip coffee maker over the purist's cone and filter, transferring the freshly brewed coffee to a thermos-style carafe kept it from continuing to heat on the warming pad. The end product was something I was proud to serve.

Then out of the blue all sorts of things began happening. I chipped the top of my coffee bean grinder. Well, so what--it still worked. Then I broke the glass pot to the coffee maker. Still unscathed, I bought another made of metal.

All this should have told me something, but the final blow came only days later when the coffee maker switch gave out completely. That was the last straw--time to buy a new machine.

It had been a while since I shopped for a coffee maker, and the sheer number available was a bit overwhelming. After perusing the displays for some time I recalled a friend had recently raved about a model that did absolutely everything--programmed the start time, ground the beans and made the coffee. It even had a built-in filter so you didn't need the paper variety. When I spied it with a sale tag, I was hooked.

Home I went and just about had to pick my spouse up off the floor when he got a look at the sales receipt. Perhaps he was in shock, but he did listen as I pointed out all the features and rationalized how much time it would save. Eventually .

The instruction book was really very clear. It was easy to follow step by step and get the digital clock working, run the first pot of water through the system and set the automatic timer. After measuring the suggested amount of coffee beans into the grinder and filling the water reservoir, I fell asleep that night believing we would wake in the morning to freshly brewed, flavorful coffee.

In truth, we woke to an unbelievably loud whirring noise. (Mind you we live in a two-story house and our bedroom is on an entirely different floor than the kitchen.) Seconds later, peace once again fell over the house, followed by the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

Off to the kitchen to pour it ceremoniously into the carafe. Triumphantly I presented coffee and two cups for the taste test. It totally failed--it was so strong--it was undrinkable. Thus began a saga to produce a satisfactory pot of coffee.

No doubt there are many who wonder why anyone would bother to go to so much trouble--after all, a cup of coffee is a cup of coffee, right? Make it from instant or buy a can of ground. Not to those of us who enjoy the subtle flavors of different beans, the aroma when they're freshly ground and the taste when it is brewed correctly. These were the goals that spurred me on.

By decreasing the amount of beans, I eventually managed to make four decent cups of coffee. But when I tried for six cups, it was back to the drawing board. It was the same story when I attempted a full pot of coffee. Apparently we enjoy our coffee milder than average, because I used less than what the manufacturer recommended in each case. It required keeping copious notes on the amount of beans used in relation to water.

All went well for awhile, until I made the mistake of taking a closer look at the grounds. They were not as fine as those produced with our previous grinder, so it seemed advisable to change the number of seconds for milling. The standard was 12; I upped it to 20.

Logic told me that grinding the coffee finer would increase the flavor extracted when the water came in contact with the ground beans. But just how fine should it be ground? Using the same amount of beans and water just determined by trial to be correct, once again the coffee turned out too strong. Was it possible to use still fewer beans for the same amount of coffee?

Realizing help was needed, I swallowed what pride was left and sought out some experts. It was many conversations and resource books later that I began to fully comprehend the many components that combine to produce good coffee. It also became evident that a lot of experimentation is the norm--actually viewed by many as a challenge.

A good place to begin the quest for a good cup of coffee is with an explanation of coffee beans. The two most common types of beans on the market are arabica and robusta. Varieties of both types are raised in a belt that extends around the world, about 20 degrees on either side of the Equator. Most coffee aficionados consider the arabica superior in quality and flavor.

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