Coffee follies - a moka misadventure

The goal: make some good coffee using a moka pot

The result: a pot full of steam and not much else (story below)

For those who enjoy drinking strong coffee (espresso, anyone?), if you want something stronger than brewed coffee but don’t have the money to spend on a high-quality home espresso machine, the moka pot makes a reasonable substitute. A moka pot is sometimes called a stovetop espresso maker, even though it does not make real espresso. Although it uses steam to brew coffee, the steam is not pressed through the grounds at high enough pressure to emulsify the oils inside the coffee, a key part of the espresso-making process. Nonetheless, the coffee that comes out is very strong, which is how I prefer to drink it.

The apparatus has three parts—a water chamber on the bottom, a coffee carafe on top, and a filter pot where the coffee grounds are held, sandwiched in between. As water from the bottom chamber heats up and boils, steam pushes up through the grounds and brews the coffee, filling the upper part of the coffee maker.

Back when we lived in Boston, we used a moka pot regularly. We weren’t as aware of coffee quality in those days, but we were generally pleased with the coffee it made. Last night, we broke out our new (used) moka pot to see if we could make some good late-evening coffee. It turned out to be harder than it should have been.

Start with good coffee

No matter what method you use to make coffee, the most important thing is to start with is good coffee. We had that. Batdorf and Bronson, a coffee roaster based in Olympia, Washington, just sent me two freshly-roasted coffees to try—a single-origin from Papua New Guinea and also the company’s Holiday Blend. Our plan was to brew some of the Papua New Guinea coffee with the moka pot.

Add water

We looked to Stumptown’s online brewing guide for some tips on how to best use the moka pot. The most important tip was to fill the water chamber with hot water instead of cold. When you do this, the heat from the burner does not cook the grounds before the water gets hot. We were also advised to pull the pot from the heat when the coffee coming out the tower was about the color of honey. That seemed easy enough, so we set to work making the coffee. Shayna ground the beans and filled the carafe with hot water. She set the pot  on the stove (medium heat)with the lid open, so we could watch the coffee as it brewed. If the smell of the fresh grounds was any indication, the coffee was going to be tasty.

Ready to brew

Our gustatory pleasure was not forthcoming, however.

And wait….

As we sat there watching the pot with anticipation, the coffee seemed in no hurry to come out. Since the water was hot when we put it in, the pot should have begun bubbling out coffee pretty quickly. The water did boil (we could hear it gurgling in the chamber beneath the grounds) but nothing happened. No coffee came up the spout.

Maybe it just needs a little more time, we thought. We waited another minute or two to see what would happen. Still nothing.

Maybe it needs just a little more heat. We turned the burner up to high and waited some more. Same result.

Where's the coffee?

Maybe next time

By this time, the kitchen was filling up with the smell of singed coffee, sweet and burnt. The heavy odor nearly pushed us out of the kitchen, and soon we conceded we were not going to get any coffee, pulling the pot off the burner.

Not much there

It took a while to figure out why the pot didn’t work, and I’m still not 100% sure. The spout where the coffee should have come out was worn, but that should not have prevented the coffee from brewing. A little online investigation led us to the conclusion that the seal between the water chamber and the top half of the pot was probably the culprit. Even though it looked okay, it must have been letting steam escape out the sides of the pot instead of pushing up through the grounds.

Evidence of a tired coffee maker. It looks like a lot of coffee has passed through there.

Not to be denied

Thwarted in our effort to make moka coffee but still craving something to sip, we broke out the French press and brewed a batch. The coffee was a bit fruity, with some walnut flavors too. It had a full mouthfeel and was evenly balanced. The flavors were vibrant and it was obvious the coffee was high quality.

While we enjoyed the coffee, it was a shame that we could not try it with the moka pot too. I’ll have to get a new seal and try again.

Our lesson for the evening was that “you get what you pay for.” We had bought the moka pot at Goodwill for a couple dollars and all we got was a couple drips of burned coffee. Oh well, next time…

Espresso or Pourover? (answer: both!)

Saturday morning, after an hour spent chasing kids around OMSI, we stopped by Coava coffee. Writing a blog about coffee, I feel it is my duty to stop by Portland’s best cafés as often as possible (it’s a tough gig). My wife had not been to Coava’s industrial-styled shop before, so it was also an opportunity for her to share my world for a few minutes. We used the stop to further our coffee knowledge.

The café was full of people, and there were two recognizable faces behind the bar—Devin Chapman, 2010 Northwest Regional Brewer’s Cup champion, and Sam Purvis, 2010 Northwest Regional Barista champion (I do not personally know either of them—but they are celebrities in this small part of the coffee world). It was somewhat ironic that Chapman was running the espresso machine and Purvis was in charge of the pourovers, since each had earned their titles on the other method. Both are highly-skilled professionals, though, so I wasn’t worried about getting a quality cup of coffee.

Shayna ordered a pourover of the Costa Rica Finca Zarcero, and I ordered the espresso version of the same coffee. While I tried to keep the kids corralled, she listened attentively as Purvis described the mechanics of a good pourover.

My espresso came up quickly, and I drank it while it was still fresh. As an espresso, the Zarcero brought a burst of citrus. The acidity walloped my mouth, and the silkiness of the syrupy crema lingered, long after the drink was gone.

After a little pleading, Shayna let me try her coffee so that I could compare it to the espresso. It would have been wise to start with the pourover or to eat something to “reset” my taste buds after their encounter with the bold flavors of the espresso, but it was still possible to compare the two.

As you can imagine, the two versions came out very different. As a brewed coffee, the flavors were much more subtle. It had a very light mouth feel, and although it was still citrusy, the flavors packed less of a punch. Shayna described the coffee as “different from any other coffee” she had ever tried (in a good way, I think).

Trying the same coffee prepared in two different ways is a fun way to learn more about coffee and expand your own tastes. Doing it at Coava makes it even better, though you have to be careful. If you stop there too often, you might get spoiled by the quality of the coffee and the baristas (I think it’s a risk worth taking). Then again, if you are in Portland, can you really justify not being spoiled by the city’s coffee scene?

One stiff shot of cold-brew, neat, from Heart Roasters

After starting out with a shot of Heart’s Brazil Daterra espresso this morning, I went back to try some of the café’s iced coffee (‘tis the season, after all—despite the rain).

Heart uses a cold-brew process to make its iced coffee, and today’s offering was from the Kochere region of Ethiopia. Normally when you order a cold-brew, the barista takes some of the coffee concentrate and cuts it with water and ice to make it the right strength for sipping. I find that as the ice melts, you lose some of the rich chocolate notes and taste more of the acidity on the margins. For some time now, I have been planning to try the concentrate without mixing it to see if the drink holds its flavors better, and today seemed like a good time to do it.

Apparently, drinking cold brew straight up is not very common, because the barista had a hard time understanding what I was ordering. Granted, I asked for it in a clumsy manner, since there is no actual name for what I wanted to try. With a little persistence, though, we made it to the same page, and he gave me a glass of the potent concoction.

Short but strong

You would expect a drink that is normally diluted by half to be quite strong, and it was. Inhaling deeply over the glass of mahogany liquid, I could smell a sweetness similar to blackstrap molasses. The richness of the drink came through in its aroma.

When coffee brewed this way hits your tongue, the first impression it gives you is that it is going to be sour or bitter, but then it mellows out quickly into a mouthful of silkiness. The Ethiopian coffee had hints of bittersweet chocolate and pink grapefruit, with a body that lingered, filling my entire mouth with a pleasant satisfaction.

Drinking iced coffee this way is a little like drinking a shot of whiskey—strong up front, with a mellow finish. If you can figure out how to order one, you will probably want to drink it slow. It is a concentrate, so the caffeine per ounce must be pretty high.  

As an everyday drink, a cold-brew “neat” might be a little strong (knock-you-on-your-a$$ strong, really). I wouldn’t order it every time I decide to drink a cold-brewed coffee, but I do foresee ordering it from time to time when I am looking for something a little different.

How do you like your iced coffee?

It’s summertime (finally, if you live in Portland) and it is hot outside (unless you live in Portland, where it’s pleasantly warm), which means that you might be looking for a little change from the hot coffee routine. Iced coffee is a particularly hot (cold?) commodity this time of the year, and few things are more refreshing than drinking a tall, cool glass while sitting in the shade.

When you look for iced coffee, you have several options. You can buy (or make) an iced espresso drink (Americano, latte, etc.), an iced toddy* (coffee brewed at room temperature for long periods of time then poured over ice) and the traditional iced coffee (hot-brewed coffee that is quickly cooled or brewed directly over ice). Among iced coffee drinkers, there is some debate about which method makes the best cold coffee.

My favorite of the three is the iced toddy. The slow, low-temperature brewing process leaves out much of the acidity that you would find in hot-brewed coffee, making the toddy very smooth and easy to drink. The resulting beverage has a liqueur-like mouth feel, and tends to taste more chocolaty than fruity.

Not everyone thinks so highly of the toddy. I was talking with a friend today about coffee and he said that for him, the toddy is overrated. He believes that coffee needs to have the acidity, because a lot of the coffee’s flavor comes from “the acidity moving across your palate.”  Without these flavors, the coffee is flat. I countered that both are enjoyable, as long as you expect each one to be a different experience.

Since it is iced coffee season and I am curious about these kinds of things, I have two questions for you:

1. What kind of iced coffee beverages do you drink?

2. If you make it at home, how do you do it?


*The term toddy comes from the name of the person, Todd Simpson, who popularized the cold-brew method with a patented brewing system in the 1960s.

Clover-brewing at River Maiden Coffee, Vantucky, Washington

My recent search for new and improved coffee experiences took me to River Maiden Coffee in Vancouver, Washington. River Maiden is a coffee shop that plays up Vancouver’s “second city” status with its “Vantucky Strikes Back” logo on cups and shirts. It also has “The Couve Abides” cups and shirts that fans of The Big Lebowski would appreciate.

River Maiden Coffee House

In addition to having an appreciation of pop culture, River Maiden is also one of very few independent (i.e., non-Starbucks) coffee shops in the world to have the Clover brewing machine.

The Clover is a machine that combines the brewing principles of a French press and a vacuum pot. It was designed by a couple of coffee-loving Stanford engineers, who proceeded to build a company around it. Starbucks executives were so impressed by the machine that they decided to buy the whole company. These days, if you want to try some Clover coffee, you either have to go to Starbucks or find one of the indies that had one before Starbucks bought them all. [An interesting side note: When the Clovers first came out, Stumptown had several, but then sold them all when managers heard Starbucks had bought Clover. The rumor was that Stumptown did not want to have any dealings with “corporate” Starbucks.]

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