How Coffee Brewing Help Me to Become a Better Human — in Work and in Life

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

My madness descent into coffee started around seven years back when I purchased the original Aeropress. I usually do french press at home, but its just too much effort for me to clean. So, nothing wrong with giving the infamous Aeropress a try — its relatively cheap, the review says it makes good coffee, and most importantly easy to clean. The day it arrived at my house, I don’t really bother that much because I don’t want to learn a new way of making coffee. A couple of weeks past and I decided to try Aeropress over the weekend.

Oh boy, how surprised I am with this little device. I’m literally shocked to taste something new in my regular cup of coffee — you know, the feeling when you buy a new set of headphones and you can hear that new instrument in an old song.

Photo by Goran Ivos on Unsplash

“How can this little plastic thing make such a different cup compared to the french press? Why? How? How??”

So like most average people, I embark on a journey to search the holy God of Internet for the answer. After some few hours of searching in my most productive times — 2AM in the morning — I found some answers. Aeropress uses paper filter, which blocks the fine coffee residue and the oils from entering the cup, thus makes the taste cleaner and brighter. Coffee oil if not filtered makes the cup bolder and heavier, some people prefer that, but for me, I like a cleaner cup to be able to taste the exciting subtle flavors of the coffee itself. Additionally, using the Aeropress will only take somewhere around 2:00–2:30 minutes of brewing time, which limits the coffee contact with water, therefore not over extracting the coffee beans. This will limit the chemicals in the coffee like quinic acid and furfuryl alcohol from getting extracted which makes the coffee bitter. It turns out, its never as simple as coffee + water = cup of coffee.

Aeropress with pre-ground coffee is just the beginning — it makes a nice good consistent cup of coffee. So now, armed with a good hand grinder and the will power to hand-ground my coffee every time, the next few years is experimenting with various brewing methods — V60, Wave Dripper, Moka Pot, Chemex, Turkish, etc. With all the tools that I had, I started to do weekend experiments on brewing coffee. Essentially, coffee brewers need to find the right extraction point — where the water extract the right amount of complex flavor compounds in the coffee. Under-extracting will create a bland and sour taste, while over-extracting will create just a bitter and boring cup with no complex flavors.

Over time, I have a fondness for V60 pour-over method since I can control every aspect of the brewing process. Depending on the pouring method, the result can be very different. The same beans, same grind, same water temperature, with a different pouring method, can create a different taste. If we break it down, brewing with V60 has 5 measurable variables:

  1. Coffee beans: Pretty self-explanatory. Depending on the freshness and origin of the beans, the coffee will taste different. Good coffee beans can have a nutty, flowery, and fruity taste when fully extracted.
  2. Grind size: In a pour-over, this essentially will be determining how long the water is in contact with the coffee. A coarser ground will make the water flow faster while a finer ground will be the opposite. Grind size also affects the extraction rate, finer ground will increase the overall surface area and creating a higher extraction rate. The theory is that the higher the extraction rate, the less time it needs for the water to be in contact with the coffee.
  3. Water temperature: The hotter the water, the faster coffee will extract. For a lighter roast, we use a hotter temperature to speed up the extraction process. For a darker roast, its the opposite.
  4. Coffee ratio: This is very important to achieve a well-extracted coffee. Too much coffee will lead to an under-extraction. The golden ratio for pour-over is usually somewhere around 1:16 grams coffee to water ratio, give or take 10% depending on the preference.
  5. Pouring method: Now this alone has many variables inside. How fast you pour the water, when you pour the water, how you bloom (the process of releasing the carbon dioxide gas in the coffee when you first pour in the water), how you agitate, and so on.

From there, we can try to play around with the variables to get a great cup of coffee. If you are curious enough, try to under or over-extract the coffee a bit. Try to do it the wrong way, so you can appreciate it more if it is done the right way. When you try to play around with it, you will get a sense of how a great coffee should be like (I’ll post my go-to method down below).

When you can brew a great cup of coffee, next would be how to improve it further. So then, I purchased some higher-end tools: a more accurate coffee scale, more stable kettle, a more consistent grinder, and many coffee gears to improve my brew. I spent quite some time in trying to improve or just to see what more can I get out of my coffee. Somehow, despite many upgrades, the coffee quality doesn’t really improve that much — certainly not as much as what I spent. This is the point where I stop investing more in trying to make a better cup of coffee and be satisfied with what I have. In fact, I sold some of it and only keep the basic ones.

So what do I learn?

Just like making a better coffee, when we want to improve on anything, we need to be strategic with the steps that we take. We cannot expect to improve by doing the same thing over and over again. So here is what I learn by making coffee:

  1. Create a framework and identify the variables
    Before approaching any problem that you want to solve, you need to identify the variables affecting it. Having this will structurize your way of thinking and how you approach it. It will make your thinking more tactical in the sense that you will expect the outcome to change only when you change the variables. Having some kind of scoring system works too. For example, if you want to buy something, try to identify what features are important, what are nice to have, and give some scoring or weighing into it— try to also answers ‘why’ is it important or not.
  2. When problem solving, focus on one variable at a time
    Now when we already identify the variables that are at play, we can create experiments to see how it affects the outcome. Changing only one variable at a time will allow us to know exactly the quantum of that variable change. Throughout my working experience, I encountered people doing testing and changing multiple variables at a time. When there is an obvious effect on the outcome, we don’t know which variable causes it and by how much. In the end, we need to redo the testing.
  3. Timing is everything
    Just like brewing coffee, time is very essential in work and life. Time is a finite resource and you need to prioritize how much time you should spend on something. Spending too little time is not good, but being stuck on something is also not good either. I always ask myself, do spending time in this satisfy my personal value? Does it bring me closer to my goal? You need to know when to invest in time and when to stop and move on.
  4. You can’t please everyone
    Coffee is a matter of preference. We can taste the difference between good and great coffee, but improvements from there will be depending on individual preference. I have a small community with people that love coffee and we often review and exchange coffee beans. We can all appreciate high quality beans that have a great taste profile, but it's hard for us to agree on which one we like the most. No matter how exotic the beans or how it is carefully roasted, in the end, it all depends on preference. So when developing something, we have to focus on our target market and do the best for them — we can’t please everyone, and that’s okay. This reminds me of a trip to Kyoto and visited the Kurasu cafe (a world champion brewer). To my surprise, the coffee they make is somehow not my favorite. I mean, it’s still a great cup, even better than great, but somehow not my favorite.
  5. Do what you love
    I like brewing coffee in V60 or Kalita, it makes a great cup. But when I’m traveling, I stick with my Aeropress with pre-ground coffee for the sake of simplicity — it still makes a consistently good cup, in fact still better from most generic coffee shops. Even with my love for coffee, making a great one is not everything. There are things that you personally value that you prioritize more — simplicity in traveling for example (yes, I really hate to travel heavy that much). There will be people saying that I spend too much time and money on coffee, there will also be people saying that I will not produce a consistent coffee with the tools that I have. No matter what you do, there will be people judging and criticizing. Don’t let that get into you and keep doing what you think is best. Only you know your priority in life.

So there you go. Brewing coffee changed the way I look into my work and my personal life. It might be the caffeine speaking, but I feel that brewing coffee teach me valuable life lessons more than I could expect.

Easy V60 Recipe:

15 grams medium-fine grind coffee, 250 grams water, 92–95C water (or around 30 seconds off the boil)

Steps:

  1. Rinse paper filter and fill the V60 with coffee ground
  2. Pour 30 grams of water in 15 seconds, then swirl
  3. Let it bloom for 30 seconds
  4. Pour 120 grams of water in 30 seconds — your V60 should be about full at this stage
  5. Gently swirl to knock off the grounds from the side.
  6. Pour 100 grams of water in 30 seconds
  7. Aim to finish by around 75 seconds +/- 15 seconds
  8. Total brew time is around 3 minutes
  9. Adjust grind size if brew time is not within 3 minutes mark

Financial services product manager // Simplifying complicated stuffs

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