Coffee – From Cuba to Chemex

coffee on camp fire

This week I grind medium roast beans fine but not too fine, I get the water the exact right temperature, and I use one of the many coffee brewing techniques to try to make the perfect cup of coffee.

The Smell of Coffee

To me, the most important part of coffee is its smell. I think it’s everyone’s first introduction to it.

Being Iranian, my family is a tea drinking family so I didn’t grow up around the smell. When we immigrated to Canada, I smelled it for the first time. It was in the hallway of the first school I attended. To this day, I associate the smell with schools and teachers. Knowing what I know about teaching and the energy it takes, it’s an accurate association.

The smell and school setting immediately connected the feeling of comfort and safety with coffee.

Unfortunately, the taste of coffee took a lot longer to form a positive connection.

I started drinking it semi-regularly in my early 20s when I saw the majority of my University classes filled with to-go cups. It took a lot of cream and sugar, or what we call a double-double, for me to tolerate it.

I would buy coffee, or more accurately drinks that contained coffee and a lot of other things, when someone I was with ordered it. It was very much a social thing.

This changed when I went to Cuba.

The Real Taste of Coffee

As a Canadian, going to an all-inclusive for a week in Cuba should be a condition of citizenship. Since Cuba is the rare Canadian vacation destination where there are no Americans, we have a mix of ownership, pride, and cost-effective opportunities for travel.

Cuba is characterized by a few things:

  1. It’s fantastic weather and crystal clear, calm beaches.
  2. Cuban hospitality
  3. The food and it’s “funny” taste

The food is the main criticism you’ll find on Trip Advisor.

Cuba is somewhat of a closed economy since it doesn’t have access to a lot the products we’re used to, including off-the-shelf foods, animal feed, and agriculture. What this means is that you won’t find foods that are difficult to grow or that aren’t popular with locals, like ketchup or peanut butter. If that’s important to you and you cannot enjoy yourself for a week without it, you can pack your own.

If you’re interested in what food can taste like if it’s not factory farmed and without homogenized agriculture, you’re in for a treat.

Cuban Coffee

It is in Cuba, I feel that I tasted coffee for the first time. Drinking coffee with every meal is a part of Cuban culture so when we travelled there, we did as Cubans do and had more coffee than we usually did. Rum is also a big part of their social culture but that’s a different episode.

Coffee is so important to Cuban culture, it’s part of their monthly rations along with beans and rice.

Cuban Coffee is known to be dark, rich, and sweet. Because milk is in short supply, it’s not typically part of their coffee. Sugar, specifically from sugar canes, is.

It’s not a surprise the most popular coffee drink in Cuba is a form of espresso with sugar in the pull, not put in afterwards.

While it was still sweet like the double-doubles I was used to, without the milk the taste of the beans had a chance to stand out. And they did.

Couple the taste with the smell of the beans and the smoke from the camp fires where the pots of coffee were brewed, I was sold and was hooked on coffee.

Coffee experimentation

When I came home, I started experimenting with coffee. It continually tasted burnt so I had to use cream or milk to take the edge off.

I slowly reduced the amount of milk and cream over time and types of pre-ground beans till I got a brew I could drink black, or what I considered “real coffee”.

Equipment wise, I used and still use a popular Cuisinart drip coffee maker that we go for free though a credit card reward program.

Then came the French press. Another free coffee machine, this time a free gift given to attendees of a wedding show.

French Press

The French press was invented in the mid 1800s but really became popular in the last 60 years after its use in a Michael Caine movie and with the rise of the Danish kitchenware company, Bodum. In fact, the French press we were given was a bright orange Bodum French press.

The French press is very simple: you add coffee grounds to the bottom, pour over hot water, let it sit for a few minutes, and then press a plunger down trapping the grounds at the bottom.

This kicked started my journey for the best, pure cup of coffee. By pure, I mean using minimalist equipment like I had seen in Cuba.

Once I started researching how to use a French press, I was lead to grinding my own beans. The grind is probably the most important aspect to a good cup of a coffee. A good cup of coffee is somewhat subjective but consistency is a common metric. If the grounds are not a consistent size, the flavour of your coffee will be unpredictable.

For consistent grounds, you need a burr grinder. A burr grinder cut beans rather than smashing beans like a blade grinder. So I got a Caspresso burr grinder from Costco and got to grinding.

Grinding your beans yourself has another advantage – because it takes more effort to make, each cup of coffee is more satisfying. It has the same fulfillment as making other things by hand, like pasta or baking. For me, I got to enjoy the smell longer and then there’s the anticipation of freshly ground and brewed coffee.

Soon, I was grinding my own beans daily and carrying around a french press at the office.

Pour over coffee

Like with racing cars with autocross and meditation breakthroughs through isolation tanks, a gift for my wife took this hobby to a new level – she bought me a Bodum pour over coffee pot, or Chemex.

The Chemex was invented in 1941 in the States and has been called “one of the best designed products of modern times”. It’s included in a collection at the Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, in New York City.

The Chemex has an hour glass shape and is made of glass. It usually has a heatproof wooden collar in the middle bound by a leather strap. It is perfectly modern and organic looking. It can be spotted in pop culture, including Ian Flemming’s 1957 James Bond book, “From Russia with Love”, to the 1968 movie, “Rosemary’s Baby”, to the show “Friends”, and, obviously, Don Draper’s kitchen in “Mad Men”.

It has a proprietary, thicker filter that sits on the top and is said to capture more of the oils to produce a “cleaner” coffee with more caffeine and that is less bitter.

The grounds are coarse like kosher salt. Hot water is slowly pour over the grounds, hence the name, and the coffee sits in the bottom half of the pot. There is a spout to allow air to escape.

There are all sorts of tips and tricks, including “blooming” the grounds by pouring just a little at first and allowing the grounds to “open up”.

Using a pour over coffee maker is a lot less passive than a French Press. While you still have to grind beans and heat water for the French Press, you don’t just dump water in and wait. With the pour over maker, you bloom the grounds, you wait and watch, you slowly pour the rest of water so you don’t overflow the funnel, you wait and watch some more. From start to finish, it can easily take 15 minutes to make one cup of coffee.

The process of making coffee this way is half the joy. You experiment with grind size, blooming time, and water temperature. Throw in different bean types, you have yourself somewhat complex hobby.

I haven’t even gotten into the world of espressos and everything that entails.

What’s not to love about coffee

As you can tell, I love coffee. I drink coffee out of habit, when I need energy to make it through some days, when I want to reward myself, and when I feel like taking my time to make something a little special.

I love all the different types of coffee brewing techniques – I brew a pot traditionally in the morning, I use the French Press and leave it on my desk when I know I’ll need a bigger than normal supply of coffee, and I use the pour over pot on weekends when I know the coffee will have my full attention.

It’s also an accessible hobby with plenty of YouTube videos and communities of coffee lovers, and like some other hobbies, coffee snobs.

Coffee as a hobby is also one where your friends and family can reap the benefits.

I also love the simplicity of this hobby – neither the French Press nor the pour over pot cost a lot, and I won’t feel guilty when I buy the Aeropress or stovetop Mika coffee maker. Hint hint, wife.