Monday, June 4, 2012

Buying & Brewing Good Coffee at Lake Chapala

For many from the U.S. and Canada, living in Mexico is their first experience of life in a coffee-growing country. Familiar brands from home are hard to find, but Mexican coffee is everywhere, in a wide range of quality and price. Lake Chapala is at an elevation of 5000 feet, and here as everywhere in Mexico water for drinking and coffee making is invariably bottled or specially filtered. All of these factors have important effects on the flavor of your morning cup. In this post I'll discuss what's available, and how to make the most of it.

Mexican Growing Regions

Your degree of satisfaction with Mexican coffee depends on what you're used to in terms of origin, roast and freshness. Having worked in coffee for many years I naturally compare Mexican coffee with top-quality beans from every other origin country, and by that standard the very best Mexican coffee is pretty good, but not great. This isn't to say it can't be delicious, but if you're looking for Sumatra-style creamy earthiness, the citrusy blackcurrant zing of a top Kenya or the lemony perfume of Ethiopian Yergacheffe, you'd better get online and buy your beans from a top U.S. mail order roaster. 

I should also say that while there are some superb Mexican coffees, they are exported to Europe (especially Germany) and the U.S. specialty market. Mexico is not unique in this regard: every producing country except Ethiopia (coffee's motherland) exports all its best coffee and keeps the dregs (or, if you're lucky, Nescafé) for domestic consumption. This reflects the colonial nature of the crop. In Mexico coffee has only been cultivated for about 200 years, as an export crop only, and its flavors and uses have nothing to do with the indigenous peoples who do the lion's share of the backbreaking work involved in its cultivation.

While coffee is grown in many parts of Mexico there are two growing areas that produce all of the top coffees: Chiapas and Oaxaca. High-grown (altura and estrictamente altura) coffees from Chiapas have good acidity and tangy milk chocolate flavor notes when the heirloom bourbon and typica cultivars are used. Some old farms in this state founded by pioneering German growers also grow quantities of a giant bean called maragogype, which must be lightly and carefully roasted and has a subtle flavor. Oaxacan coffee is similar to Chiapas but milder and more subtle. Veracruz is another important growing region, but at its best this is blending coffee, not something to drink straight. 

Both Oaxaca and Chiapas produce large quantities of coffee that is certified organic and/or fair trade. There is much to say about these certifications, and I've written extensively about them elsewhere. Certainly the intentions behind the creation of these programs (which are charitable aid programs, not market-driven economic initiatives) is noble, but while "certified organic shade grown fair trade" makes a great sound bite and assuages a lot of liberal guilt, such certifications have nothing to do with the flavor or quality of the coffee, nor do they guarantee a sustainable situation for farm workers or farms. I mention this not to discourage buying such coffees but rather to point out that very often equally good or better coffees come from farms with long histories of success based on the inherent deliciousness of their coffee. In the U.S. "direct trade" or "relationship" buying from such farms, rather than purchase of certified commodity-grade coffees, is now the norm among top craft roasters.

Where to Buy

At Lakeside proper you can buy decent quality organic coffee from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz at Café Grano Café in Ajijic, as well as "direct trade" Jalisco beans from The Coffee Tree in Chapala. Quality is much higher and there's more choice of origin and roast degree at Grano, with their "medium roast Chiapas" (still plenty dark) a personal favorite and my recommendation for best overall coffee available in this area.

Labeled "medium roast" but actually a bit darker is the whole bean Mexican coffee from Costco, which at around 200 pesos for an entire kilo of expertly-sourced, freshly-roasted beans is without a doubt the best value too for those who venture into Guadalajara regularly and have enough room in their freezers to store the excess beans once the valve bag is opened.

Another brand of coffee well worth knowing about is the Mexico City roaster Café Punto de Cielo, which roasts excellent quality coffee and - uniquely in México as far as I know - packages it in Illycaffe-style pressurized cans which keep it fresh for extended periods. You can find several of their blends at Wal Mart here; most are preground but a very good whole bean Chiapas is also part of the lineup. The company has a retail store and café at the Guadalajara airport and others throughout the country and is well worth supporting as a home-grown beacon of quality.

El Arbol de Café/The Coffee Tree in Chapala offers roasts range from very dark to pitch black. The beans themselves are truly local Jalisco-grown ones that don't compare qualitatively to those from Chiapas or Oaxaca but are serviceable for dark roasting, the whole point of which is to mask inherent flavors with roastiness.  The coffee here is roaster fresh (a term that means within one week of roasting, but in their case more likely means within hours or perhaps a day) , and this is vitally important - and very different from, say, supermarket whole bean coffee, much of which is staler than the preground stuff in cans. Prices are less than half what you'd pay for coffee of such quality NOB, and the service is invariably friendly as well. Good breakfasts too. 

Unfortunately I can't recommend the Veracruz coffee sold off the back of a truck on the carretera and at the Wednesday Ajijic tianguis. Freshness is the biggest but by no means the only reason: unprotected (non valve-bagged) whole bean coffee stays fresh for only a week from roasting and pre-ground is stale within 24 hours, so coffee from these otherwise admirable and certainly hard-working vendors doesn't compare to either Costco's carfully vacuum-packed valve bags or just-roasted coffee from Grano or Coffee Tree.

Grano sells their coffee at Super Lake as well but freshness isn't guaranteed. Better by far to buy the whole bean coffee from Cafe Punto del Cielo sold at Wal Mart or the preground, valve-bagged Cafe Garat brand sold in most supermarkets and at Costco in a pinch.

An aside: French Roast

A further word or three on degree of roast:  there is no standardized roast terminology, so one roaster's "French" might equal another's "Italian."  In the U.S. and, to a lesser extent Canada, Starbucks and its many imitators have done a good job of conditioning people to associate high quality - or, at the very least, a high price - with incinerated beans buried in steamed milk, but professional tasters like yours truly have no interest in dark roasts, which taste like process, not product (a really dark "West Coast" French roast is about 20% carbon).

French Roast is bitter but light in body, and though many consumers think of it as strong coffee, it's actually lower in caffeine than lighter roasts that have more soluble solids remaining in them.  The good news if you're a French Roast fan is that you can be very happy drinking Mexican coffee, much of which is very darkly roasted for the simple reason that such roasts mask the flavor defects typical of lower quality beans.

Whatever your preferred degree of roast, please be aware that even if you are a French Roast aficianado that's not the roast to be using to brew espresso.  Espresso machines are unique in that they use pressure rather than gravity to brew, and that extraction greatly amplifies both acity and bitterness.  Classic espresso roasts (even at Starbucks and Peets) are no more than a deep medium chestnut brown.

Storage and Grinding

With freshly-roasted beans so readily available here at Lakeside the best habit to get into is to buy your coffee fresh each week, keeping it in whole bean form in the bag it comes in on our counter or in a cool place away from spices, grinding it fresh each morning.  If it's imperative to store coffee longer, transfer it to an airtight container and keep it in the freezer for up to a couple of months, grinding the frozen beans (never thaw and refreeze) as needed.  (This is a Mexico-specific recommendation:  freezing of beans from other origins with more fragile and complex aromatics isn't recommended.)

Assuming that you buy truly roaster-fresh coffee, the two other factors that will make the biggest difference in the quality of the coffee you enjoy are grinding just before brewing and using the correct coffee:water ratio (see below).  Burr grinders that actually cut the beans are best, but an inexpensive blade grinder works just fine for any brewing method except espresso.  The reason why this is important is very simple:  oxygen is coffee's biggest enemy, and whole beans expose very little surface area to air compared to ground coffee.  At room temperature, it's a difference between staying fresh for a week or being stale in 24 hours.

Finding a grinder in Mexico can sometimes be a hassle, but it can be done. At Lakeside look at the "everything" store (housewares of every description) on the south side of the Ajijic plaza and its sister store in Chapala on Madero (the main drag) about a block north of the plaza.  Also check Wal Mart, and if all else fails a trip to Liverpool in Guadalajara or a quick perusal of Mercado Libre (Mexican eBay) or Amazon Mexico is sure to yield results. 

Grind size is a function of brewing time.  The faster the brewing method, the finer the grind, and vice versa, in order to extract just the desirable "heart" of the coffee without wateriness (too coarse a grind) or bitterness (too fine a grind and/or too little coffee).  For the most popular brewing methods, here are approximate grind times in a blade grinder:

French Press (plunger pot) and "open pot" or cowboy coffee (including cafe de olla - see recipe elsewhere in this blog):  10 seconds - coarse grind

Manual or electric drip, vacuum pot:  15 seconds, medium grind

Finer grinds than drip are only appropriate for commercial espresso machines, which in order to function properly require a specially designed doser-grinder capable of very fine gradations in particle size.  Using finely ("espresso") ground coffee in a drip brewer (a classic error called "grind finer, use less") results in bitter, over-extracted coffee every time.

Water Type and Temperature

The best water for brewing coffee or tea is fresh spring water free from off tastes and odors with a low mineral content (around 3 grains of hardness).  At Lakeside what's commonly available is bottled water that has been through carbon filtration, ultraviolet (UV) radiation to kill bacteria, and reverse osmosis or, less commonly, water from sink-mounted or whole house systems that use carbon and UV only.

Commercial bottled water here varies quite a bit depending on how frequently the company changes its filters, but it's generally flat-tasting and very low in minerals (RO essentially takes out everything, including the modicum of mineral needed for good flavor).  If bottled water is your mainstay, try pouring the required quantity back and forth between two pitchers a few times to oxygenate it (greatly improves the flavor).

If you have a sink or whole-house UV system your water probably tastes good thanks to all the minerals in it, but it's way too hard (high in minerals) to brew good coffee.  For coffee making purposes you'll want to mix it with 1/2 to 2/3 bottled (garrafon) water.

For all brewing methods except espresso optimal brewing temperature is 195-205 degrees F. (90-96 C.).  At Lakeside we're at 5000 feet, and the boiling temperature of water decreases 2 degrees F. for every 1000 feet of altitude gain, meaning that a full rolling boil here is 202, not 212 as at sea level.

Typical home electric drip brewers (including costly designer brands like Krups, Braun and Cuisinart) don't get the water nearly hot enough to brew good coffee - at sea level. Up here, they're a disaster. For most people the most dramatic improvement in their coffee will happen just from ditching the electric drip maker,  boiling water in a kettle on the stove and using a basic pour-over manual drip pot. I should also mention that when brewing by hand the contact time between grounds and water is also optimal: 4-6 minutes. Any longer than that (the average home electric maker takes 11 minutes or more to brew a full pot) and the result is bitterness from over-extraction. While all commercial coffee makers meet the required temp. and time standards without difficulty, but only a handful of home units do - and none of them are available in México.

Otherwise, save yourself a ton of money and hassle by brewing by hand in a Melitta cone, using a French Press (plunger pot), or, best of all, an Aeropress, Clever Dripper or Behmor Brazen Plus (see below).


How much coffee do I use?  For any method other than espresso, optimum flavor is achieved at 60-70 grams per liter (about two dry weight ounces per quart). Weighing is by far the best method, but the volumetric equivalent is one heaping standard coffee measure (2 heaping Tbs) of beans or grounds for every 6 fl. oz. of water (a coffee "cup" is based on a fine china cup - half the size of a typical American mug).

Cup markings on home drip brewer carafes vary greatly, so in order to calculate the dose for your particular brewer it's necessary to fill the container with water, pour it out into a measuring cup and divide the fluid ounce total by 6. Another rule of thumb that may help is that a full blade grinder's worth of beans is about 2 ounces by weight - enough coffee to brew a liter (quart).

Freshly roasted coffee releases a minimum of 3 times its volume in CO2 gas, which accounts for the large amount of frothing and foaming in the brew basket you'll notice if you switch to roaster fresh coffee. This can really wreak havoc in typical home brewers, which are, naturally, designed to work with small amounts of stale coffee. Using a pourover drip brewer where you can watch the proceedings, or a plunger pot where they can be contained, solves this problem; otherwise, try grinding the night before.

Many newcomers to great coffee (and some cheapskate old timers, too) are used to using a couple of teaspoons or maybe a tablespoon of coffee per cup, often very finely ground, which results in a very bitter, over-extracted brew. Coffee brewed at the upper end of the recommended ratios above and then diluted to taste with hot water to whatever strength is preferred is smooth as silk.

Recommended Home Brewing Methods

For more information on all of these brewing methods head to the single best source of coffee information of all kinds on the web, the wonderful Sweet Maria's site. While they primarily cater to home roasters (something that's unfortunately not worth doing in Mexico) they also have the most carefully curated selection of home brewing devices of all kinds with fabulous information on each.

I'll list these brewing methods in order of preference based on both cup quality and appropriateness for use at Lakeside, factoring in the altitude, durability (anything glass is destined to break on its first encounter with a Mexican tile floor) and local water situation.

The Aeropress

1. The Aeropress: this compact, ultra-portable $30 device is a unique hybrid of manual drip and French Press brewing and it makes the best cup of coffee of any home brewing device. It is also incredibly versatile, able to make both espresso-strength "shots" for homemade cappuccinos and caffè lattes and the best drip-strength coffee you'll ever taste.

The 32 oz. Espro Press French Press

2. The Espro Press French Press: Sweet Maria's carries the "mug" (12 fl. oz) size for travel and you can get the gorgeous 1 liter size from both Amazon and Williams Sonoma. This is truly the only plunger pot/French Press to buy anymore, as its construction makes traditional glass plunger pots into  fragile anachronisms. The double-wall stainless steel construction will last for a lifetime, the coffee stays piping hot for hours, and best of all no grounds or grit and virtually no sediment due to the patented filter mechanism.

The Clever Dripper

3. The Clever Dripper: A great invention that like the Aeropress combines the best of French Press and drip brewing but in a more familiar way. It's basically a Melitta filter holder with a trap door on the bottom. You insert a #4 Melitta filter, pre-wet it, boil your water, put the grounds in the filter and then infuse the grounds and water on your counter top for 4 minutes. You then place the Clever on a sturdy mug or thermos and the trap door opens, allowing the coffee to finish brewing in under two minutes.

Behmor Brazen Plus

4. The Behmor Brazen: this is the only home electric drip brewer that will work properly at our high altitude. A beautiful rig but schlepping one down to Lakeside will mean devoting a good part of a checked bag to the brewer and additional paper filters.

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