Most of you that are interested will have already read my piece in the second issue of Caffeine or downloaded the app and read it there, and if not, why not? It was my first, and hopefully not my last, piece in actual, real life, old school print and I’m more than a little proud of it. Now that issue no. 3 is on the way I thought I’d pop it on here too, in all it’s un-edited and un-tidied gory detail.
I was in Boston when issue 2 was distributed and, bleary eyed, straight off the red eye flight and back out to work with not a minute of sleep, it was the first thing I hunted out. Treating myself to an espresso to attempt to jolt me into the land of the living, I was treated to that rare moment of seeing my face peering back at me (missing the credit that I asked to be added, sorry Paul) from the pages of a magazine I admire, in my local Fee and Brown. It’s a funny feeling and one I enjoyed more than I expected to. I hope you’re enjoying the magazine as much as I am, and I hope you don’t mind that I’ve been asked to write some more features for it.
“You have fresh beans. You have a grinder. You have scales. You have your chosen brew method; be that a dripper, aeropress or french press. You’re all set to be a home coffee brewing maestro; tasty coffee in minutes, any time you fancy. Now I don’t want to rain on your parade, but have you tasted London’s tap water recently? It tastes bad right? It will follow through then that even the most illustrious and expensive coffee beans will taste equally bad when this is used to make your cup of coffee.
I attended a cupping held by James Hoffman, owner of Square Mile and 2007 World Barista Champion, where he illustrates this point with all of the clarity our London water lacks; a range of interesting coffees are cupped in the usual way, we slurp and make informed comments. At the end we’re encouraged to share our thoughts on the different beans with James finally bringing our attention to the last two bowls. What do we think? We unanimously enthuse of one, delight in notes of caramel and toffee with a little burst of lemony citrus, muse on the individual clarity of flavour notes. The other? Dull, mucky tasting, flat and lifeless. The difference? Exactly the same beans, brewed in exactly the same way. One using bottled water, the other with common or garden tap. The difference astonishing.
We’re talking purely taste here, but rest assured it does equally filthy things to your equipment. London tap water is hard as nails and will scale up expensive state of the art machines in the time it takes to say reverse osmosis filtration system. When water is around 98% of your cup of coffee, as you might imagine, coffee shops take the matter of filtration very seriously indeed. There’s no point beating about the bush here, as James states in a recent blog post titled What To Do About Water, a reverse osmosis filtration system (RO) is essential “In a commercial environment I now consider these to be absolutely essential, and you’re opening or operating a coffee bar in London without one then I strongly suggest getting one installed as soon as possible”.
An RO washes away all the minerals from your mains water supply leaving very soft water. However pure RO, or very soft water, does not make nice coffee, you’ll find it’s acidic, harsh and too bright; almost extracting too much of the coffee’s character, in the similar way that conversely having too many minerals, or a high TDS (total dissolved solids), doesn’t allow enough space for the coffees flavours to shine through, resulting in a flat and dirty tasting brew. The genius of RO’s aimed at the coffee industry is that a small amount of tap water is blended back into the stripped back water to a desired level; that ideal range is around 80-120 TDS, this is the point at which a balance is achieved where coffee is extracted to an optimal taste level, but also low enough to prevent scaling up those pieces of art we call espresso machines. This is trying to explain things very simply, but essentially an RO changes the makeup of your water in a way that a Brita style filter cannot, these merely remove bad flavour and odour but do not significantly reduce TDS levels.
Sadly, an RO system is not really a realistic option for home use, you’d have to be seriously into your coffee to have one installed, irrespective of cost – and they’re not cheap, it requires full on plumbing. The other issue is environmental; as you’re effectively washing your water, depending on the system, you could be flushing away almost three times the amount of water that you use.
What are the options then?
One option, and it’s an excellent one if we’re talking purely flavour, is bottled water. Many relatively cheap, own brand bottled waters will produce a really good cup of coffee; the mineral and hardness levels aligning perfectly. The main downside being the negative impact to the environment – so quite a big one then, and I’ll admit I find the idea of buying pre-packaged water frankly abhorrent. However, when you’re spending all that money on wonderful beans, sourced responsibly, roasted to perfection and brewed using equipment purchased to enhance them, it suddenly becomes an issue you might turn a blind eye to, and pretty much everyone I know that’s serious about coffee swears by it as a solution.
I asked a number people whom I chat to on twitter, who I know also make coffee at home using bottled water, their preference (thanks @joecoelho7 @comminsooncoffee @leegazeprophets). Tesco’s Ashbeck unanimously came out in first place, with Volvic coming in a close second, both being good all round options, for consistency and price as well as being readily available. I spoke to brewers cup champion James Bailey, currently working in a quality control position for Workshop Coffee and he recomended slightly pricier Duchy Originals and Voss for exceptional flavour and clarity. The rule of thumb generally though is to check the dry residue value at 180%; you’re looking for a TDS level of around 80-120 and a fairly neutral PH level, so around 7.
James Hoffman brought up an interesting idea in the same blog post I mentioned earlier, suggesting that cafe’s might offer their RO water to customers. Certainly, I use RO water where I work and transport it home for when I’m there. It’s a nice idea and could be thought of as a sort of aftercare service in the same way that I’ve seen shops grind beans for customers that don’t yet have a grinder. If you’ve ever spoken to your barista about coffee you’ll watch as they come alive, for many it’s not just a job, but something they’re genuinely passionate about and if you’re buying your coffee beans from them, I think I can safely say that not one will be happy for you to destroy them with bad water.
Could the solution be for shops to sell branded bottles that could be refilled for a minimal charge?
I asked Gwilym Davies, 2009 World Barista Champion and owner of Prufrock what he thought. He told me it made him very uncomfortable that beans sold by him, after careful husbandry and roasting were being misrepresented simply due to bad water, especially when results are so dramatically different with good water. When I asked him if it might be viable for shops to offer their own RO water, he told me that he is already working on a solution, a way of selling it for a small charge.
This is exciting news for the future of home coffee brewing, and where Prufrock leads, hopefully more will follow. In the meantime, when you next buy your beans, why not take a plastic bottle with you and ask nicely if you might have some of your local independent coffee shops water. Chances are that they’ll be delighted the coffee beans they’re selling will be allowed to reach their full potential.
If I haven’t lost you yet, and assuming you were using tap or brita filtered before, I have some excellent news; be prepared for the coffee you’re making at home to taste dramatically better.”