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  Coffee: Articles: The Art of The Shortcut

You don't have to be obsessive to make great coffee, but it helps.
Let me just get this over with right up front... I have a natural tendency towards laziness. [This comes as no surprise to those who know me well.] I view this not so much as the stuff of the seven deadly sins [for the record, that would be sloth, not laziness] but instead as an entirely human tendency to seek out a way that's easier than what's generally prescribed. Call it ease engineering--the art of the shortcut.

It's only natural, then, that I would apply my best engineering efforts to my love of coffee. Natural though it may be, it just doesn't work. Every attempt I've made to shortcut any part of my coffee production--from roasting to brewing--has resulted in failure. Not catastrophic failure, mind you. The house hasn't imploded, and the dog doesn't slink away in shame... but the simple fact is that shortcuts lead only to an inferior cup. Here's a sampling of shortcuts that just don't pay

Shortcut #1: Rushing from roaster to brewer.
To rest, or not to rest... it's a question that's debated still by some of the most knowledgeable folks in the coffee trade. It's a pretty safe bet that nearly *any* coffee benefits from a brief rest period after roasting. Brewed too soon, the coffee's outgassing CO2 can disrupt coffee extraction, and can even create carbonic acid [yuck] in your brew. My tastebuds say, too, that resting definitely improves the flavor of the cup, particularly dark-roasted and blended coffees.

Shortcut #2: Cupping? But I know it's good!
Commercial coffee roasters cup their coffees for a number of reasons... to determine which coffees they want to buy, and again to ensure that the coffee they received is of the same quality as what they paid for. A roaster also cups to determine the best roast profile for a given bean, to create the best possible coffee blends, and to ensure consistency. In general terms a home coffee roaster is less concerned with that first round of quality cupping--I've yet to receive anything less than excellent coffees. But in failing to cup to figure out how best to roast a given bean, I've later discovered a new roast that really popped. And once--taking advantage of a coffee dealer's closeout--I snagged ten pounds of Sumatra that I intended to use for blending. Five pounds later I discovered that my closeout special was a far better origin cup than another Indonesian I'd bought at three times the price!

Shortcut #3: Defects? What defects?
Even the best coffee has defects. Black beans are shriveled and dark--they fell dead from the coffee tree. Quakers [or blights or floaters] are beans that were never fully developed on the tree. They only show their true colors after roasting--they're pale, yellowish or tan, and they taste like a #2 pencil. Pitch 'em! [Roasting a wild Ethiopian or the like? Leave those lighter beans alone.. they add part of this coffee's character.] Finally, while you're poking around your just-roasted beans, keep an eye out for pebbles and stones, particularly in dry-processed coffees. Your grinder won't care for them much.

Shortcut #4: Hey! It's clean, already!
Roasting, grinding and brewing coffee can be a dirty business... and dirty equipment can ruin your cup in ways that you might not have thought about. Frustrated with increasingly inconsistent roasts, I recently found a build-up of coffee oils and dust in my roaster's chaff collector. While almost invisible, it had partially choked the roaster's exhaust, changed the temperature in the roast chamber and caused my darker roasts to stall. Now I use a stiff nylon brush to clean my chaff collector after each roasting session... it's easier to clean while it's still a bit warm.

Great coffee doesn't require obsession... just attention to the details. For real obsession, we could talk about espresso....