May Coffee

If you are still in school like me, then May probably means the end of regular scheduled classes. To me, it also means I get to start having my morning coffee on the outside balcony which is my favorite thing.


This month I get to share three coffees with you that paired exceptionally well with early mornings and my balcony. Two of the varieties are from Costa Rica but taste very different from one another, while the third is a surprisingly chocolatey and non-acidic Kenyan. I was very surprised that none of these beans exhibited the flavors I have come to expect from their regions. It was pretty neat!

The first Costa Rican variety comes from ROSSO in Calgary. I don’t know if this goes for all methods, but I had better immersion-brewed results (in particular, this new french press method I’ve been trying) than I had with pour-over. I didn’t taste much of the advertised tangerine, but I did get the stone fruit and sweetness.


Next up was the other Costa Rican from Phil & Sebastian in Calgary. Again, this one seemed to come out better in my french press where it was a light, nutty and tea-like experience. In the aeropress, I got a lot more of a harsh grape flavor.


Finally, my personal favorite this month was an unusually chocolatey Kenyan from Monogram in Cambridge. More specifically a sweeter milk chocolate than say, cacao nibs. These were very easy to brew, I liked it however I did it. I think that might have to do with the double-washed processing… Anyway, I really think you’ll like it.


And that’s a wrap for May! You should be seeing your packages arriving any day now with the newly minted membership cards (stickers are still being printed, but they’re coming). This month you’re also getting a bonus card to guide you through our first bit of homework. There are no marks awarded for this bonus activity, but hopefully it will give you something to think about when you are refining your french press method. For those who aren’t in the club yet but want to join in, a description of the techniques are in this article. And if you’d like to get on the list for June, head over to the Patreon!

Cupping with a french press?

Cupping for clarity

Cupping is the way the coffee industry grades coffee… and it’s hilarious. Not that it’s not  important or that it’s done in a stupid way, it just looks silly. Here is an abridged version of the Specialty Coffee Association protocol;

Cupping Glasses

  • Cupping vessels shall be of tempered glass or ceramic material. They shall be between 7 and 9 fluid ounces (207 ml to 266 ml), with a top diameter of between 3 and 3.5 inches (76 – 89 mm). All cups used shall be of identical volume, dimensions and material of manufacture, and have lids.

Determining Measurements

  • The optimum ratio is 8.25 grams of coffee per 150 ml of water, as this conforms to the mid-point of the optimum balance recipes for the Golden Cup.
  • Determine the volume of water in the selected cupping glass and adjust weight of coffee to this ratio within +/- .25 grams


  • Water used for cupping should be clean and odor free, but not distilled or softened. Ideal Total Dissolve Solids are 125-175 ppm, but should not be less than 100 ppm or more than 250 ppm.
  • The water should be freshly drawn and brought to approximately 200º F (93ºC) at the time it is poured onto the ground coffee. Temperature needs to be adjusted to elevation
  • The hot water should be poured directly onto the measured grounds to the rim of the cup, making sure to wet all of the grounds. The grounds to steep undisturbed for a period of 3-5 minutes before evaluation.

Evaluation Procedure Samples should first be visually inspected for roast color. This is marked on the sheet and may be used as a reference during the rating of specific flavor attributes. The sequence of rating each attribute is based on the flavor perception changes caused by decreasing temperature of the coffee as it cools:

  • Step #1 – Fragrance/Aroma
    • Within 15 minutes after samples have been ground, the dry fragrance of the samples should be evaluated by lifting the lid and sniffing the dry grounds.
    • After infusing with water, the crust is left unbroken for at least 3 minutes but not more than 5 minutes. Breaking of the crust is done by stirring 3 times, then allowing the foam to run down the back of the spoon while gently sniffing. The Fragrance/Aroma score is then marked on the basis of dry and wet evaluation.
  • Step #2 – Flavor, Aftertaste, Acidity, Body, and Balance
    • When the sample has cooled to 160º F (71º C), in about 8-10 minutes from infusion, evaluation of the liquor should begin. The liquor is aspirated into the mouth in such a way as to cover as much area as possible, especially the tongue and upper palate.Because the retro nasal vapors are at their maximum intensity at these elevated temperatures, Flavor and Aftertaste are rated at this point.
    • As the coffee continues to cool (160º F – 140º F), the Acidity, Body and Balance are rated next. Balance is the cupper’s assessment of how well the Flavor, Aftertaste, Acidity, and Body fit together in a synergistic combination.
    • As the coffee continues to cool (160º F – 140º F), the Acidity, Body and Balance are rated next. Balance is the cupper’s assessment of how well the Flavor, Aftertaste, Acidity, and Body fit together in a synergistic combination.
  • Step #3 – Sweetness, Uniformity, and Cleanliness
    • As the brew approaches room temperature (below 100º F) Sweetness, Uniformity, and Clean Cup are evaluated. For these attributes, the cupper makes a judgment on each individual cup, awarding 2 points per cup per attribute (10 points maximum score).
    • Evaluation of the liquor should cease when the sample reaches 70º F (21º C) and the Overall score is determined by the cupper and given to the sample as “Cupper’s Points” based on ALL of the combined attributes.
  • Step #4 – Scoring
    • After evaluating the samples, all the scores are added as describe in the “Scoring” section below and the Final Score is written in the upper right hand box.


A cupping session can appear painfully serious, yet includes adults slurping and sucking out of spoons dipped into community cups. Lol

But this is the way coffee grading is done, and determines the price of a coffee (commodity coffee costs somewhere around 1 USD per pound, while highly sought after coffee can go for hundreds of dollars per pound at auction). Coffee pros claim that cupping results in the cleanest and best representation of what a coffee tastes like, which is why so much rides on a cupping session.

Ok, so I’m not saying that we should all be cupping at home. What I’m getting at is that the cupping protocol is a refined process with an explicit purpose – total appreciation of the coffee being tasted. So, shouldn’t we be trying to simulate the brewing process of a cupping session when we make coffee at home?


Simulate a cupping with french press

This was exactly the question posed by James Hoffmann on his blog JimSeven. Something you may have noticed; the brew method used during a cupping is a full immersion method. This is where coffee is steeped in water, rather than letting the water percolate through. This is the same thing that happens in a french press, so maybe we can simulate the cupping experience with a french press!

The major difference, though, comes in separating the brewed coffee from the grounds. In a cupping, the floating grinds and oils are scooped out, and coffee is slurped from the top surface. With a french press, the floating grinds are pushed to the bottom of the vessel. No matter how carefully you do this, the press inevitably agitates and forces a final percolation in the beans. It’s this step that James attempts to avoid. Below is a quote from Jame’s original post where he outlines a little experiment he performed to compare his regular french press technique to the kind of brew you’d get at a cupping:

So today I did a little experiment. I brewed two press pots:

The first was brewed as I usually do: 60g/l (in this case it was 24g/400g water), 4 minutes, break and clean (see cupping protocol), press and then after a minute or so I served/decanted. The grind was a little coarser than cupping (2 steps on our VTA6).

The second I treated like a cupping bowl. Cupping grind, 4 minutes, break and clean (see cupping protocol) and then I left it sitting there for 10 minutes (around the time a cupping bowl starts to get really tasty). When it was time to pour I put the strainer in but didn’t plunge – I just poured it through the mesh.

James Hoffmann, on


I have been playing around with this technique for the last month. Typically I am a pour-over or aeropress guy but I gotta say, I’ve been really enjoying my french press a lot more. I might be converted to using the french press for my everyday coffee.

Go ahead, give it a shot! If you are a Level 3 subscriber, you have a perfect A/B test set-up. Just follow both of Jame’s recipes, one bag per recipe from a single variety. Otherwise, try it out with your regular coffee. If you do, let me know what you think in the Patreon comments!

For current subscribers, you will be receiving a printed summary with your package that you can take to the kitchen. It looks something like this:

Screenshot 2019-05-04 at 12.40.48.png

DIY coffee roasting [Part two: roaster designs]

Coffee roasting; how complicated could that be? Just heat some beans until they turn brown, and you’re good to go. I recently found some local green coffee suppliers and realized I can buy small quantities for a fairly reasonable price. So I decided I would build my own coffee roasting setup. This is my journal.

While it was appealing to build my own roaster, if a company had a low-priced, good looking unit I figured it might not be worth going through all the effort designing something…

Retail roasters

There are many home roasting options, but in general I thought they were either expensive and not good quality, or extremely expensive and of very good quality. Common recommendations are the FreshRoast series, the Behmor 1600, or a Hottop; I’ve listed them below with a few comments:

Screenshot 2019-04-05 at 10.22.08
The FreshRoast series appears to be a glorified popcorn popper, with a roast size of just a few hundred grams. The price on is much higher than you typically see. A used one should run you about $200 CAD
Screenshot 2019-04-05 at 10.21.24
The Behmor 1600 is a drum roaster and comes with fairly good reviews from amateur roasters. It can typically roast close to a pound at a time, but is difficult to achieve reproducible results (reviews state this, I’m not totally sure why). This seems like a good option, except the price listed above is in USD and is a big initial investment.
Screenshot 2019-04-05 at 10.19.02
The Hottop seems to be the holy grail of home roasting equipment. It allows for extremely reproducible results, has a cooling tray, and offers a lot of control etc. Clearly $1-2 k is out of the question, but if home roasting became a very serious thing, I would consider jumping directly to this and skipping the Behmor-level gear.

Essentially what I found was that no commercially available roaster fit my needs and budget. Apparently there is a significant number of people who feel the same way. So many, that there is a subReddit almost exclusively for us.

DIY roasters

The r/roasting page is full of people who, like me, want to roast beans at home but not spend too much money. The most common solutions are “popcorn air popper” (so smart!) and to a lesser extent, bread machine + heat gun (uh-oh…)

The air popper solution is kind of perfect; the device gets to the proper temperature, and the fan agitates the beans, just like a fluid bed roaster. The major problem that people run into though, is controlling the temperature or batch size. As far as control, most air poppers don’t even have a temperature reading let alone temperature control. People on Reddit seem, for the most part, to be satisfied with letting the popper reach whatever temperature it reaches, and listening for the cracks.

I like the idea of the air popper, but the idea of having such little control over the process sounds terrible. Lucky for me, Mark Sanders already put together directions for adding a thermocouple and temperature control to any existing popcorn popper. Using a Raspberry Pi microcomputer and a few external components, he built a device that, based on the temperature reading from the thermocouple, will turn the heater on or off. He also wrote a program (in Python) that lets you record the temperature as a function of time save your roast profiles, and repeat profiles you liked. Effectively, this will turn your popcorn air popper into a FreshRoast SR500. Sign me up!Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 16.30.09

This got me so excited that I went ahead and ordered all the parts I was going to need including green beans, and picked over Value Village for a popper. From what I read, most popcorn poppers will work, though in some cases a popper may have trouble reaching a high enough temperature. Typically the older poppers will work better. I ended up finding a beautifully age-yellowed popper that was conspicuously clean and oil-free for a measly $5.00

This is going to be so much fun…

April Coffee

In March I visited Boston for a meeting of the American Physical Society. The conference hosted roughly 10,000 physicists for 5 days, talking about new and exciting research. When I wasn’t steeping myself in science, I percolated through the city to find great coffee.

Mar19_GHow_front-01.jpegMy favorite this month has got to be the Kenyan from George Howell. On top of having a really impressive shop (more on this in my Boston review), they have been roasting and innovating in the specialty coffee world for a long time. This is their “flagship” coffee, and I can see why. I mostly drank this as a pour-over (15 g coffee to 270 g water, medium-fine grind), but had great experiences making some pretty potent Aeropress shots (30 g coffee to 250 g water, very fine grind and short time until press). The pour-over really brought out the darker berry flavors while the high concentration, short-time Aeropress recipe emphasized its citrus notes. I wish I had more of this coffee…

hdr_00073_0-01Gracenote cafe was one of the better places I stopped in Boston. The coffee I had at their tiny service counter was fruity and delicious, and I planned on taking that taste home when I picked up these beans. I must have grabbed the wrong bag though, because these tasted much darker and spicier than what I had at the shop. What a delightful mistake! Not to say that these are dark roast, but they definitely fall on the less citrus and fruity side. I loved these as a strong pour-over (15 g coffee to 200 g water, medium-fine grind), and they ended up being my preferred “first coffee of the morning” bean. The mouthfeel and mildness made for a satisfying, gulp-able brew.

The third sample this month doesn’t come from Boston, but rather Toronto. I got a little unlucky with the other cafes I tried in Boston. I ended up running out of time to explore and I didn’t want to bring back beans I thought were just “ok”. I hope that’s alright.

hdr_00071_0-01I finally got around to visiting Library Coffee near the Ontario College of Art and Design in downtown Toronto after being urged by friends for some time. I had an excellent long black and decided to bring back some slightly more challenging beans. These are a honey processed Ethiopians, and when done right there is a really nice fruit-tea flavor in there. I found them to be a bit sensitive, so be careful over-extracting. The result is still nice, but going a bit lighter on the extraction really lets the delicate flavors shine through.

As always, I hope you enjoy these coffees as much as I enjoyed picking them. While the window to get this batch is closed, there is still plenty of time to get on the list for May!

DIY coffee roasting [Part one: Louis-Camille Maillard]

Coffee roasting; how complicated could that be? Just heat some beans until they turn brown, and you’re good to go. I recently found some local green coffee suppliers and realized I can buy small quantities for a fairly reasonable price. So I decided I would build my own coffee roasting setup. This is my journal.

I understand coffee roasting on a superficial level. Beans come dried and unroasted (“green”). By heating the beans, they undergo some sort of browning reaction that makes them delicious. Along the way, the beans “crack”, a lot like popcorn would. There are two cracks that happen, and passing through the “second crack” results in an oily dark roast.

With a bit of research I learned the browning process is due to a specific chemical process called the Maillard reaction. Louis-Camille Maillard was a French scientist who first characterized the process while attempting to reproduce biological protein synthesis. In essence, this is a heat-initiated reaction between amino acids and sugars and is ubiquitous throughout cooking. The browning on steak? Maillard. Brown crust on bread? Maillard. And most importantly, roasted coffee; Maillard.

Clearly the resulting compounds of the Maillard reaction are not identical in all of the above examples. During the reaction, a cascade of molecules are created which depend on the specific amino acids present. The resulting molecules are what give these foods their distinct flavors and aromas, however, the exact collection of molecules that are created are very hard to predict and control. For this reason, I am going to assume most coffee roasting discussion will be more of an “art” than a “science”.

[Is “art” what happens when the science is too complicated? The art of coffee roasting, the art of winemaking, cooking as an art; there are countless examples. Is this admitting that heuristic approaches are required because a process is too hard to fully control? By simplifying details, making approximations, and losing exactness, are we admitting science has failed to describe the process? No. What science has allowed us to do is make informed decisions about how and what to simplify to create a working description that matches the tools we have to enact the process.]

From what I have read, coffee gets tasty between 150-230 C (300-450 F). Along the way there are chemical events that happen at specific temperatures. For right now, those details are unimportant. What is important is that the roaster can reach temperatures up to 230 C (450 F), and will provide even heating to all of the beans. Most commercial solutions seem to involve either a rotating drum which agitates the beans as they heat, or blowing hot air such that the air agitates the beans.

I wonder if I can do better…

Further reading and sources:

[1] The first place you should go (Wiki)

[2] Coffee and the Maillard reaction

[3] Coffee roasting and equipment


March Coffee


I’ve been travelling a lot in the last month, which means the March coffee club review is coming a bit late. But this also means I’ve managed to source some nice coffee along the way!

In February I visited New Orleans, which from what I’ve read, doesn’t have the biggest specialty coffee scene. This couldn’t be further from the truth! …with a small caveat. It’s likely a visitor is going to stay closer to the tourist areas around the French Quarter, and aside from Spitfire Coffee, I had a hard time finding anything that great. However, if you are interested in exploring the neighborhoods surrounding the small pocket that is the French Quarter, there are plenty of great spots to check out.


This month I’m bringing back beans from Mojo, HEY! and Stumptown (which I know is not a native NOLA roaster), and by subscriber request, they skew to the more traditional, dark-and-chocolaty flavors.

The Stumptown is a sweet and syrupy Ecuador with a bit of a grape or plum. I’ve really enjoyed this as a pour-over. I found it hard to over-extract, so would recommend 17 g of a-bit-finer-than-usual grind with about 300 g of water. For me, this took a little longer to percolate than usual, but I was happy with the results.


I brought back some Mexican beans from HEY! and this was the darkest, heaviest of the bunch. It’s toasty and chocolaty, but easy to overdo it (maybe because it’s a natural wash). I had the best luck with a coarse grind in my French press. As long as you don’t leave it too long (start around 3 minutes), 15 g beans to 250 g water seemed good.


Feb19_mojofront-01Finally, Mojo had a nice Uganda available. It reminded me a lot of the HEY! beans, but a lot easier to get right, and a lot smoother. While the HEY! beans were heavy on the chocolate (or maybe cacao to be a little more specific), the Mojo had a bit more spice to it. I was happy with my typical pour-over recipe of 15 g coffee (medium-fine grind), with 250 g water.

I hope you enjoy tasting these coffees as much as I enjoyed finding them! While the shipping period for these ones is now closed, there is still some time to sign up for April. This month I went to Boston for a physics conference and just so happened to taste some of the best coffee I have ever had.

If you are interested in the coffee scene around New Orleans, I will be posting a bit of a travel report (including some breweries and veggie restaurants) in the next couple weeks.

PS. You might be wondering what that yellow bag is in the back. Apparently The South traditionally likes to add chicory to their coffee, so I figured I ought to try it. I can say definitively, that I do not like to add chicory to my coffee, so I won’t be sending any of that out. In the spirit of scientific discovery, even a failed experiment can be a learning experience. So before I give up on the chicory, the roaster recommends trying it as a cold-brew. Results to follow…

Travel Mugs

Life is full of choices. As in all things, what may be right for you may not be right for some. With this in mind, we will take the good, take the bad, and then we’ll have…  A guide that breaks down the things to consider when buying a reusable coffee mug.

Note: The following links bring you to the Canadian Amazon, and by purchasing items through the links, I get a small cut. To be clear, I’ve tried to find the best offers available on Amazon, the cut comes out of Jeff Bezos’ pocket, and it helps support the site. However, if you’d like to support the site directly, consider joining our Coffee Club over on Patreon and letting us send you some great coffee.

Summary / Best in class

I hate when pages force you to scroll through a bunch of crap to get to the one summary you are looking for. In the following sections I will elaborate and justify below, but here is your summary!

Lingering Taste

Ceramic // glass + non-rubber lid

Insulation and leak-proof

Double-walled stainless steel or ceramic


Ceramic body, screw-on lid with flip-mouth. Nice.

The Details

Lingering Taste

Unfortunately, your coffee is going to have to be in contact with the cup. My experiences lead me to believe that glass/ceramic are best, stainless steel is ok, plastic is bad, rubberized parts are horrible.

Screenshot 2019-02-25 at 18.33.53
A ceramic-lined travel mug I would recommend.

This kind of makes sense. Plastic and rubbers, no matter how good, will leach a bit of material into your drink – at least at first (trust me, I am a polymer physicist). This, however, is a small effect compared to plastic and rubber’s ability to hold on to flavors. I have a bunch of travel mugs I would love to use, but no matter how much I wash them, I can’t get the taste of stale coffee out of them. Coffee is composed of many different molecules, including some pretty difficult to remove oils. If you reuse Ziplocks and Tupperware, you are likely familiar with the anguish of washing an oily bag.

While keeping plastic out of the body of the cup is most important, the lid also plays a roll. Keeping plastic out of the lid, though, is very difficult, so you may have to bite the bullet. On the other hand, my lovely sister managed to find a cup with a bamboo lid (with minimal rubber, only for the gaskets). I have been very impressed with this type of lid so far, and would consider it your best bet.

Screenshot 2019-02-25 at 18.06.29
Glass walls will minimize taste retention. This is your best choice.

As far as body material goes, stainless steel is better than plastic, but only by a bit. The majority of cups will be made of stainless steel and these will range in prices greatly. The flavor retention, however, will not. If you end up going with steel, it is very important that you rinse your cup (or better yet, wash with soap) as soon as you are done with your coffee.


While the flavor retention of a cup is absolutely critical, the importance of insulation will depend from person to person.

The best insulation will come from a double-walled cup, and the best material here will be ceramic. That said, I’ve used some extremely impressive stainless-steel cups that keep your coffee hot for hours, and the glass/wood cup I recommended above will stay warm for a good hour or so. That’s more than enough for me, since I finish my drinks fairly quickly.

Screenshot 2019-02-25 at 18.30.40
Great for insulation, not so great for lingering taste.

As with the above discussion, body is the most important, but the lid will also play a roll. This almost completely rules out glass since the only lids you tend to see with these are friction-fit, gasket varieties. These are fine, but you will lose a lot of heat here. If insulation is critical, you will want to look at screw-on lids. If insulation is the most important thing to you, I would highly recommend the Contigo double-walled stainless steel.


The best lid is a lid with no holes at all. But if you plan to drink through the lid, you will have to accept the possibility of leaks. Fortunately, most cups have reasonable lids for basic-use situations. Where it gets dicey is when you want to throw the cup in a backpack or purse. The above guideline for insulation also doubles for leaky lids. Friction-fit lids are going to be the least reliable, since they only need to be pulled at to be removed. Your best option will be a screw-on lid with rubber gaskets.


A flip lid is a nice compromise between leak-proof and cleanability

The mouth of the lid will also be important here, and again, this is where the Contigo (see above) does a great job. It has a “vacuum sealed” button valve that lets you drink from the top. Unfortunately, these can be difficult to clean. Other options (like the ceramic mug) will have a slide-mouth. This is going to be the worst option for leaking, since you are now introducing more moving, sliding parts that can easily open with an accidental bump. A nice compromise is the snap-on, flip-style opening. It will be both fairly secure and very easy to clean.



Like most things, your choice of cup will come down to what you value most. In this guide I’ve tried to direct you to the best, most cost-effective options available. There are a lot of other options that you can choose from, and those might be the correct choice for you. I encourage you to use this guide as, well, a guide, and predominately a tool for identifying what qualities to look for in a cup that suits you best.