The Expert: What I Know About … Coffee

Everything you wanted to know about the drink that gets you moving in the morning.

Who: Josh Hockin

Age: 27

Job: Director of Quality Control, Transcend Coffee

Experience: He went from part-time Starbucks employee to champion barista almost by accident. While sipping an espresso at Transcend Coffee one weekend in 2008, his curiosity about the cafe’s brewing methods got him a job offer, and, with owner Poul Mark’s mentorship, he mastered the art of coffee. Hockin competed in the Canadian National Barista Championships for three consecutive years without winning, until October 2011, when he took first place after impressing judges by preparing 12 espresso-based drinks, including four from his own recipes, in just 15 minutes. Last year, he toured coffee plantations in Rwanda and Burundi, before returning to the University of Alberta to study math. He’s taking this semester off to concentrate on preparing for the World Barista Championship taking place in Vienna this June.

  • Alot of people take for granted that coffee is something you pull off a supermarket shelf. It’s more involved than that because it’s the seed of an agricultural product, which itself has a finite, usable life. And then you roast it with all these compounds within it and they’re very aromatic, very flavourful, but also very volatile – it’s a very complicated chemistry. So, fresh coffee is important. The beans shouldn’t be more than a month old.
  • Coffee shouldn’t smell flat. If it does, it’s probably stale. There’s a smell of rancid oil if it’s been out for a long time… It should be fruity; it should be sweet, should be intense.
  • You want to use 60 grams of coffee for every litre of water you’re making it with. The water should be at about 200F [93C]. Pay attention to how long it takes – if it takes more than six or seven minutes to make, you’ll probably want to grind the beans a little coarser. If it’s too strong, too bitter, try keeping the ratio the same, but make the grind coarser. If it’s watery or weak, then make your grind a little finer.
  • You don’t want to use water that’s been distilled or that uses reverse osmosis. Edmonton tap water is fantastic except it’s a little hard [because of the presence of alkali substances and minerals] and we fluoridate it. But if you have a water filter, it works great.
  • When you’re making espresso, your goal is again to have a uniform extraction. The best way to do this is to take the coffee that’s in your basket and spread it evenly so it’s not going to fracture or break apart when the high pressure comes into contact with it.
  • Coffee beans are actually the seeds from a type of cherry. There are different ways to remove the seeds. Sometimes they use these recently invented machines that have spinning blades – as the coffee gets pushed out, all the fruit is stripped off. You can also leave the cherry out in the sun until the fruit starts to rot, and then run it through mills to remove everything. Or you can use crude de-pulping devices that strip off some of the fruit and then you soak off the rest.
  • Quite often, coffee beans are graded by density or size – so when they’re still green they’ll put them on these slanted, shaky tables, and the heavier beans will sort of fall down through channels at the end of the table that drop the heavy stuff. The heavier seeds are better because the density is a sign of slow cherry maturation, creating a high build-up of sugars and organic acids.
  • Coffee is grown on incredibly steep land and picked by hand by people who bust their backs to do it. It’s easy to just want to get it over with in one shot, but they have to do it over a week or two because the cherries ripen at different times.

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