Wednesday, 4 February 2015

"Third wave" coffee: sour, unpleasant, and trendy

I thought it was due to lack of training and skill. I found that there were lots of rather attractive coffee bars springing up around Brick Lane and Shoreditch, with inviting interiors, serving a range of single origin coffees. Most dispensed coffee from espresso machines, but some also served filtered and cold brew coffee. But then I found that in the majority the coffee was sour. Sometimes the addition of milk made it just about drinkable, but not always. And the phenomenon was found elsewhere too, always in high end or specialist establishments. Interestingly, never in chains like Costa.

I did a bit of online research recently and discovered quite a lot of discussion about sour coffee, clearly a problem for some home brewers who have invested in expensive espresso machines. It turns out that an unpleasant sourness (as distinct from brightness or pleasant acidity) can result from over-extraction of tannic acid as a result of inappropriate temperature or pressure in the espresso machine, and sometimes related to the fineness of the grind.

Then another thread became apparent. It turns out that there are people who actually try to make their coffee taste like this. This is the so called "third wave" of coffee, where coffee is treated as a complex artisanal product, roasted lightly and brewed to bring out the flavour and complexity of the fruit. It's true that coffee is a fruit, but the beans which are roasted to make the drink are the seed (not the flesh), so this seems like a strange thing to aspire to. The resultant products are described as having elements of things like tangerine, root beer, bergamot, grapefruit, and so on, just like in the wine trade.

To each his own. I'm sure there are some people who genuinely like their coffee done this way. I've tried the stuff on quite a few occasions, and I can taste the elements they described, but to me it's mouth-puckeringly sour and nasty.

I'm sure that here are people who don't like this third wave stuff, but think that it's the way gourmet coffee is meant to taste. In some circles in the US, it appears that a preference for dark coffee is regarded as unsophisticated.

For my part, I have tried it enough times to know that I dislike it. I have learnt to approach trendy coffee bars with caution, and to avoid those that describe their brew as "fruity". In fact, I can't help thinking that the coffee emperor has no clothes, and furthermore is abusing a plant which is on the verge of being endangered due to climate change .

The perfect antidote to this hipster third wave coffee? Traditional Singapore and Malaysian coffee, or "kopi". A rich, dark brew made from beans roasted in sugar and butter until they are dark and glossy. It is prepared in the time honoured way in coffee shops throughout the region, strained through a sock-like filter. The result is a dark, black, richly-flavoured drink with moderate bitterness, almost no acidity, and a luscious mouthfeel. It's served by default with condensed milk, or black with sugar (kopi-o), black without sugar (kopi-o kosong), and in numerous other variants. As far as I am aware, it's unobtainable in the UK, but I think it would be a great business opportunity.

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