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My obsession with cups

November 1, 2010

Recently, something I have been very much obsessed with is how different cups will influence a coffee’s flavor. This thought was originally inspired by a post that Jame’s Hoffmann wrote. It is unbelievably frustrating; there is very little research out there concerning how cups will affect taste and aromatics. Compare this against the wine or beer industry. There are specific glasses for just about everything. If I served an imperial stout in a pilsner glass, people would think I was crazy. With coffee, cups seem to be more about visual appearance than anything else. This isn’t about trying to creating rules, it’s about maximizing enjoyment.

All that being said, I’ve begun to conduct personal research and mad science experiments. What I’ve concluded, is the brewing method should determine what kind of cup should be used. This is because of the vast differences in oil content for different brewing methods.

Why oil content? Most aromatic compounds are oil soluble, meaning that they dissolve in oil. Thus, if a coffee has more oils, the aroma is stronger, while if there are less, the aroma is more delicate. Also, oils are insoluble in water, meaning that they will not dissolve into the brew water. Therefore, with more oils, a coffee will feel fuller bodied, and with less oils the body is lighter.

Ok. Now for the excitement. Brew methods can be split into two main categories: pour-over and full-immersion. Pour over techniques are ones that involve gradually pouring water through the coffee. Good examples of this are methods like Chemex and Hario. Usually these methods will pass through a filter, which will reduce the amount of oils in the cup. Full-Immersion methods are ones where all the water is with all the coffee for the entire brew period. Good examples of this are methods like a French Press or a Vacuum Brewer. These methods will have a higher oil content.

For pour-overs, I’ve found that glasses that are taller and narrower present much better. This helps collect the delicate aromatics so you can really get the depth of flavor when you drink it.

Narrow vessel helps collect aromatics

For full-immersion, I’ve found that glasses that are shallower and wider tend to present nicer. This lets the aroma open up a bit more, so you can get some more subtle flavors without feeling like you’re being hit with a sledge-hammer. This discovery has answered a lot for me. I’ve often been frustrated while drinking a french press and feeling like all I can taste is “coffee”. Or not getting anything besides “chocolaty” and “nutty” characteristics.

Wider vessels help aromatics to open up

Based on this approach, it becomes necessary to match your coffee to a brew method that you think will present it well. Coffees will taste completely different when brewed with a chemex than it would french pressed, or vacuum brewed. As a very basic and over generalized rule of thumb, more delicate coffees will pair better with a pour-over. Heavier coffees will pair more with a full-immersion. Again, that is just a basic rule of thumb, remember to always experiment with your coffees!

In addition to basic shape, think about the weight and feel of a cup. Do you want it to be light and delicate, or solid and heavy? Do you want to feel the lip when you drink it, or would you prefer to not notice the cup as much? Glass is also very interesting to serve in; it has a very clean character to it. Great for something delicate and floral.

We are having cups custom-made for us by Vicki Hartman. She has some terrific work, and I am very excited to see what she will make for us. We will be using her vessels to present some of our coffees at the tasting bar and hope to sell some of the cups as well.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Yoon Hwang permalink
    November 1, 2010 9:58 pm

    In addition to this article, I think that it varies by what kind of filter use, rather than what method. Manual brewing usually uses paper filter, and french press uses metal or silicon like stuff. Paper absorb oil, like use in to recover oil spill. Some brewing filters are Swiss Gold Filter that made out of metal, and vacuum brewer also varies which filter material you are using, such as paper or flannel.

    • November 2, 2010 1:44 pm

      That’s a good point. The oil difference between something like a hario and then a chemex is significant. I think the amount of turbulence, and especially pressure generated in immersion methods will really influence the lipid content as well. Hence, a french press or a glass-rod vacuum would have more oils than something like an eva solo.

      • Yoon Hwang permalink
        November 3, 2010 5:42 pm

        I definitely agree about pressure generating difference. The hard part of manual brewing is that it is hard to keep consistency. Everyone uses different method to brew, so I guess it really depends on people, and even though green beans are from same bag it will be differ by roasting. How you roast will also affect on extraction of oil content.

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