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Coffee is a tasty tool in many a creative’s arsenal. Whether it’s a morning kick-start or a (very) late night boost, coffee seems to detonate creativity and push productivity. But how to make the perfect – I mean, really perfect – brew?
I love coffee. No. I really love coffee. Moving next to Monmouth Coffee’s roastery in Bermondsey a few years ago, I’d walk to work amongst the arches every morning with the chocolaty smells of freshly roasted coffee beans wafting through the air. Tempting. I’d always thought coffee was bitter as standard, but after hunting down and sampling a few of London’s finest coffees (flat whites from Flat White, slow brew filter from Nude), I was a full-on coffee convert.
I’m not alone. Coffee is, for the vast majority of my friends – and probably for a lot of you – a tasty tool in their creative arsenal. Whether it’s a morning kick-start or a (very) late night boost, coffee detonates their creativity, pushes their productivity. Some of the most creative human beings on Earth were also some of the most coffee-reliant. Beethoven, Honoré de Balzac, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gustav Mahler – these men were all slaves to coffee. (Technically Balzac crushed coffee beans and ate the powder – at his peak he consumed the equivalent of 50 cups of coffee a day. He died aged 51.)
And although a pretty much horrifying review of recent research by Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker states that your coffee addiction could actually be killing your creativity (“creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated,” she writes), Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work – which details the caffeine addiction of the artists mentioned above – suggests otherwise.
As part of a daily routine, home brewing your coffee can support your creative thinking. Sure, the caffeine itself gives a narrow, single-minded focus – not ideal for meandering, unfocussed thinking. But the ritual of making your coffee? Grind beans. Brew. Plunge. Pour into a cup. Sip. It’s comforting, repetitive, long enough to let your mind wander. It’s also a reason to step away from your desk and take some time out – also conducive to off-tangent thinking.
So, with a growing interest in coffee and an AeroPress for Christmas, I went down to the Brew House in Porthleven last Thursday to build on my home brewing knowledge. Run by Origin as its flagship coffee bar, the Brew House is a showcase for the Cornish coffee roaster’s signature, speciality blends. And with head barista Will Pitts at the helm, I was in for a completely nerdy, totally fascinating single filter cup master class – using a V60, an AeroPress, and some of Origin’s freshest Ethiopian, Kenyan and Brazilian beans.
Lesson number 1
The coarseness of your coffee bean grind matters. Grind too fine, and too much coffee is extracted, resulting in burnt flavours. Grind too course, and the water goes through too quickly, resulting in a bland, flavourless cup of Joe. You want a medium coarseness. And if you can, grind your beans fresh at home; pre-ground beans lose their flavour quickly.
Lesson number 2
Let your coffee ‘bloom’. Carbon dioxide lurks in coffee – due to the reactions that take place during the roasting process. Before you pour in the measure of hot water you’re going to use, pour in just enough to cover the grounds and leave it to ‘bloom’ for 30 seconds. Releasing the carbon dioxide allows the grounds more exposure to the water, meaning you end up with more flavour.
Lesson number 3
Precision is everything. Showing us how to brew a single filter cup, Will used his personal recipe – and the scales were a crucial bit of gear. For the AeroPress, his recipe included 17 grams of coffee (medium grind), 200 grams of water, two minutes brewing time and a 30-second plunge. Using a Brazilian bean, it was full of flavour: chocolaty, nutty, with a hint of honey. When I made it, I used 18 grams of coffee (what difference is a single gram going to make?), and brewed it for a few seconds longer. It was, well, awful. The other guys tasted it and agreed – although very politely.
Lesson number 4
Forget the rules. Coffee, like food or any other beverage, is subjective. People like different things. And with so many variables, you can get creative and manipulate your brew any number of ways to suit your personal tastes. I personally preferred the delicate, crisp taste that the V60 pour-over method created – you might want a more full-bodied, deeper coffee for your daily cup (or five).
This all barely scratches the surface. We talked about other variables like the type of bean you use (natural, pulped natural, washed), the temperature of the water, how advanced palates can detect subtle aromas from coffee beans (like onion and garlic, seriously) – as well as touching on espresso. I left the Brew House twitching after two hours of steady caffeine intake, the length of my home brewing ritual doubled. More time for mind wandering, then.