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Coffee Trends: The Weight

The Weight


March 31, 2008
By Brian Martell

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If ever there was a renaissance in the coffee industry, it would have
been started with weight. The ratio of coffee-to-water has always ebbed
and flowed throughout the 500-year history of humans drinking coffee.
But the Dark Ages for the industry had to be between 1985 and 1995.
During that period, we were witness to unspeakable degradation of
quality in blend, roast, grind and weight.

If ever there was a renaissance in the coffee industry, it would have been started with weight. The ratio of coffee-to-water has always ebbed and flowed throughout the 500-year history of humans drinking coffee. But the Dark Ages for the industry had to be between 1985 and 1995. During that period, we were witness to unspeakable degradation of quality in blend, roast, grind and weight.

It seemed the more important game was not how to make coffee taste better, but how to make it the cheapest. Consequently, lower grade coffees were commonplace – ground too fine with darker roasts to (try to) make up for the fact that the throw was only 1.25 oz.

In all fairness to the 1.25 crowd, there was a product brought out by a large American roaster who shall remain nameless in its Cincinnati head office who packaged a 0.9-oz. product to be used for a full 64-oz. pot. In comparison today, we currently package in-room coffee for four-cup machines that weigh more than that. Not surprisingly, consumption suffered.

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As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it, “all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed” and that point in this case was manifested by people turning off coffee. Not only did consumption suffer in overall pounds consumed but also in the number of cups people actually drank per day.

And just as there were beacons of light during the Dark Ages that protected the ancient teachings of the enlightened leading ultimately to the renaissance, so too was there coffee purveyors who held true to what good coffee should be and how to prepare it. On a retail level, these were known as gourmet coffee shops – those places where people were passionate about good coffee and were willing to pay a little extra to get a whole lot more.

So who were the barbarians at the gates that caused the collapse of civilized coffee?  Indeed, there were two tribes: frost and drought. Both of these had the impact of driving up prices to insane levels, which left the industry reeling. Contracts were reneged, panic set in and vain attempts to hold the price counter to market effects were tried. The hallmark of these vain attempts was of course to cheapen the product. Had the industry and the consuming public accepted the increase in price the way Adam Smith would have championed, then there may have been less coffee consumed, but the quality of the coffee would have been better. Instead, we had a long-term effect of less coffee being consumed anyway, despite the efforts of price control, but also a bad reputation of coffee being little more than dreck served out of the kitchen sink after the dishes were done.

If there was something good to say about low weights, it was that the quality of the coffee in the bag was so horrible that mercifully not much was used. In essence, the industry was not attacked by the Huns; we invited them in and asked them to run the place.

  Fast forward to 2007. Coffee services have almost all but relegated their 1.5-oz. products to the history pages; the amount of the “other” botanical varietal is used less and less, now mostly visible in national retail brands as opposed to foodservice; and the idea of high yield is all but forgotten. Using good weights in brewing coffee is so critical that some brewers have been modified to accept more coffee, not less. Single-cup cartridges have also been beefed up to accommodate more coffee per cup to respond to customer demands of a better brew. And some major foodservice coffee outlets now use as much as 4.3-oz. of fresh ground per half-gallon brew.

The weight of the coffee used in the brew cycle requires there to be enough coffee to get good extraction (too little coffee will over-extract), which will have a positive impact on those four characteristics we look for in a good cup: body, acidity, aroma and taste.

So are we immune to further attacks?  Absolutely not. We need to understand that the act of degrading the quality of coffee as a response to rising prices will always fail in the not-so-long run and exacerbate any recovery. The proper weight of coffee per brew is essential to good quality and should not be taken lightly. And the consistent application of a specific weight is also critical to meeting customer expectations of what the coffee should taste like.

Questions or comments?  E-mail Brian at Brian@heritage-coffee.com.


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