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How to avoid the sip of death.

It's a beautiful morning greeting you as you wake up. It doesn't matter how the weather is outside, it's a great day because it's your day to sleep in and have a nice leisurely breakfast. You start the coffee pot before preparing your favorite breakfast. The air is filled with the smell of bacon frying and coffee brewing. You pour yourself a cup and bring everything to the table. Your breakfast is delicious and the coffee goes along with it beautifully.


You finish your breakfast, but there's still half a cup of coffee left in your mug. You decide to take it with you to the other room where you hope to relax with a good book. The lip of the mug touches your mouth and your face does this:

This phenomenon is known as the Sip of Death...


With all foods and beverages there's something that can truly turn a person off from ever having something again.

  • Pin bones in fish

  • Dirt in your salad

  • Pink chicken

  • Black spot on your banana

  • Bruise on your apple

  • A lukewarm cup of coffee


Lukewarm coffee is probably one of the biggest reasons people don't drink coffee, that and coffee tasting bitter. Oh sure, you can reheat it in the microwave. After all, coffee is the single most microwaved item in the world. Of course you can just add a few ice cubes and make iced coffee, that's all iced coffee really is right? The problem is, once you've experienced the sip of death, it's too late to fix things. The damage is done and you just want to forget about the whole thing.


This is something everyone who drinks coffee and serves coffee has to deal with, both personally and commercially. Restaurants that sell coffee end up facing this in the form of dissatisfied customers, which can be quite costly. As a coffee shop owner, it breaks my heart to hear people complaining about the coffee in other local places. I don't care if people complain about Dunkin' or Starbucks, but locally owned cafes all have a special place in my heart.


Now, before you go running off buying Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, which averages about $25/pound unroasted (meaning you'd probably have to pay closer to $30-40/pound) ask yourself this question:


Why does this happen?


There are a number of factors:

  • The quality level of the coffee beans.

  • The roast level of the beans.

  • The method of brewing.

  • Time and temperature, both for brewing and holding.


Quality Level

The quality level of the coffee beans is only first on the list because it's the first critical control point of the coffee-making process. There's not much more to be said about this point because if the coffee's a poor quality, it's just gonna taste terrible. No matter what the roast level is, the method of brewing or the time and temperature, if the coffee's bad, it's bad.


How do we go about better quality coffee?

  • Get a coffee grinder for yourself, that's the single best investment in improving your coffee. If the only improvement you make in your coffee life is grinding your own coffee, you're already doing much better than before.

  • Only grind as much as you need each time you're ready to brew, just be courteous to everyone in your house who isn't a morning person. In other words, if you have a loud grinder, don't wake everyone up to the sound of it. Wake them up to the smell of coffee brewing instead!

  • Try to stick with local fresh-roasted coffee. Coffee quality is at its peak for the first 2 weeks after roasting. Grocery store coffee beans will generally sit on the shelf for months after spending months in the coffee warehouse. That means your coffee might be up to a year old by the time you grind your first cup. Coffee roasters produce smaller amounts that won't sit on the shelf too long.


Roasting Level

The roast level of the beans plays an important factor as well. Lighter roast coffees naturally have a higher acidity to them, which can be unpleasant when it cools. The process of the coffee beans can potentially play a role in being unpleasant. For instance, a dry process coffee might be super fruity or have that extra fermented flavor to it, which doesn't sound enjoyable cold.


What sort of roast level makes a good sit n' sip coffee?


To be fair, this is purely a matter of opinion and preference, but there are 2 factors that allow a cup of coffee to remain pleasant longer: Sugar and oils. There are naturally occurring sugars in coffee beans as well as oils, though the amounts differ depending on the bean. The key is figuring out how to draw them out properly. Too light and the sugar doesn't caramelize and the oil doesn't get activated. Too dark and the sugar gets burnt and the oil overpowers everything. Way too dark and the oil will actually rancidify from being broken down, that's why some super dark coffees have a fishy odor about them sometimes. In my opinion, the best way to draw out the oils and sugar without losing the integrity of the coffee bean is a medium to medium-dark roast. (Insert shameless plug here!)


Brewing Method

How you brew your coffee can make a difference, but if each method is done right, the difference is less noticeable. Assuming you're doing every method correctly with the proper ratio of grounds to water and the proper temperature of brewing, an automatic drip coffee might be a little weaker in body than a French Press, espresso or pourover. But that point is moot if you're not even brewing it correctly. (Learn more about brewing methods here!)

  • Do you have enough grounds for the amount of coffee you want? If the coffee is too weak, it won't last long in the cup. The best way to get consistent ratios of grounds to water is to weigh your beans before grinding them. Darker roasts get lighter and the beans get larger, which means you need to increase the volume of grounds for a darker roast than something lighter. Weighing the coffee guarantees consistency. After all, which is heavier: A pound of lead or a pound of feathers?

  • Are you grinding the beans properly? In my opinion, this is less serious of an issue as the grinding level is purely based on individual taste. However, keep in mind that different grinding levels affect the way the coffee brews. Course grind the water passes through quickly, not leaving enough time to extract the flavors, leaving sour coffee. Too fine and the coffee will extract too much and leave you with a burnt tasting coffee.


Time and temperature of brewing and holding.

There are people out there who measure the temperature to the precise degree they believe makes the perfect cup of coffee and foam at the mouth when anyone questions the validity of it. It is important to be mindful of temperature when brewing coffee. There are chemical compounds that are released above 180 degrees, these compounds taste burnt, like someone doused a cigarette in your coffee. This is why Starbucks is famous for having coffee that taste burnt. There's no way for anything to actually burn given the way everything is brewed and held, but they brew at 200 degrees and actively hold hot at 180 degrees, so it's no wonder why this happens.


What do we do about it then?


I generally brew my coffee at about 165-175 degrees, depending on the method of brewing. I do automatic drip at 175 and pourovers at 165. I will confess though that I don't generally measure the temperature every time I brew. The machine takes care of temperature by itself, so no need to worry about it and for pourovers I bring a kettle to a boil and wait for the bubbles to stop. Bubbles generally begin forming around 160 degrees, so there's my frame of reference.


As far as holding, I don't recommend using the hot plate with the coffee pot unless you intend to be done in under 20 minutes. For your own personal coffee, just keep your pourover covered and your French press closed. Most pourovers come with a cover and French presses you can generally twist the top to close the spout. However you hold it, the ideal drinking temperature for hot coffee is between 150-165 degrees. The human body begins registering heat as being hot at 140, therefore, you have plenty of wiggle room for temperature that way.


Conclusion:

Not all coffee is bad, most is simply misunderstood. If you find yourself facing the Sip of Death, don't automatically assume you need to buy more expensive coffee. Also don't assume you need a fancy piece of machinery, you can make a lot of these adjustments without overhauling your coffee routine.

In the meantime, I'm always happy to help out with whatever anyone needs in terms of coffee. What I call "coffee consultations" are always free of charge and I'm delighted to do them!




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