One event of the day holds special significance when I'm on a boat. Having a great cup of coffee in the morning makes all the difference between luxurious cruising and a primal camping experience. I've been on big, expensive boats where the owners didn't seem to know or care about this daily ritual, with instant coffee in the galley or that rancid bilge water that comes from many supermarket coffees. I'm not alone, as I know many owners who can't wait to find a Starbucks at the next port and schedule their morning routine around a stroll over to enjoy a Grande Americano or latté.
Well, this story began when Starbucks sent me notice that the company was discontinuing its home delivery program, a service I've used for the last couple of decades since I moved east from Seattle in the '80s. Wherever I moved in the years since, four pounds of premium coffee eventually showed up on my doorstep every five weeks or so.
Distraught with the realization that I was now on my own, I sought counsel from Bob Lane, our West Coast editor. Bob and his wife Polly live in Anacortes, Washington, in the center of Coffee Central. The Pacific Northwest has a legendary affection for coffee and is the national center for American coffee aficionados.
When I told Bob of my plight, he unhesitatingly told me to contact his favorite coffee company, Fidalgo Bay Coffee. Located in Burlington, Washington, the company focuses entirely on specialty coffee and related products. And so began my quest for a replacement coffee so that I would not lapse into a coma of monotonous ingestion of lackluster coffee, both on Growler and at home.
I spoke with Susan Nash at Fidalgo Bay Coffee that same day. In just a few minutes of discussion, I was struck by the fact that while I enjoy a good cup of coffee, I really didn't know much about the subject or how best to maximize my coffee pleasure. In fact, I realized that I rely way too much on finding a nearby Starbucks rather than being able to produce a good cup of coffee on my own. And this lack of self-reliance is especially noteworthy as I am often on my own when anchored in a quiet cove.
So I took up the challenge to empower myself with coffee wisdom.
It didn't hurt that some employees at Fidalgo Bay Coffee are PMM readers, and that Gary Sawyer, Fidalgo Bay Coffee's founder and owner, lived aboard a 64-foot Malahide trawler for six years while attempting to enjoy retirement. It didn't last, though, as his passion for specialty coffee brought him back into business. When I got an opportunity to speak with him, his infectious enthusiasm prompted me to schedule a visit out West.
My quest for coffee knowledge had begun, as straight and true as a Tomahawk missile on a bad guy.
According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, there are five grades of coffee beans. Specialty grade is the top category, followed by premium grade, exchange grade, below standard grade and off grade. All coffee beans fall into one of these categories, and it has a lot to do with the content of a given measure of coffee beans. During the sorting process, one finds all sorts of contaminants among the whole beans: chaff, fungus-riddled and other microbially damaged beans, small sticks, immature and unripe beans, insectdamaged beans, and broken pieces of beans.
As coffee is sold by weight, many companies fold back some quantity of these contaminated bean products into the coffee that we buy. As a result we get coffee that is less than perfect. So specialty grade is what one should look for when buying whole bean coffee. It is pure and the best available, and it costs only a little extra.
Coffee comes from many sources, primarily from South America, Africa and Indonesia. All beans have their own unique characteristics, a factor of altitude, acidity of the soil and the temperature in which they grow. These unique flavors are then taken by the coffee roaster and mixed into its own signature blends.
There are three basic roasts of coffee: Northern European (the standard roast), Vienna roast (a 10 percent darker roast) and the French roast (a bolder roast that is 20 percent darker than the standard roast). All coffee beans are roasted more or less along these standards, and blends come from combinations of various roasts and unique bean flavors.
Northern European coffee can be enjoyed throughout the day, while the darker French roast is best enjoyed after a full-flavored meal or dessert, its smoky after tone and taste a perfect complement to a rich meal. (As Gary also pointed out, Americans make the mistake of having coffee before or during a meal, rather than at the end of the meal. The acidity in the coffee tends to overpower the taste of food during a meal.)
In many ways coffee is like a spice, and as we don't eat the same thing over and over, so should we think about bringing along several types of coffee when we go cruising.
The best way to keep coffee on your boat (or at home, for that matter) is in the freezer or in the fridge. Coffee stores best in whole bean form (there is less surface area). Oxygen is the no. 1 destroyer of coffee, so an airtight container is a must for storing beans. Besides the harmful effects of oxygen, coffee beans absorb aromas such as cigarette smoke and cooking odors. So it is essential to keep the beans isolated. (Avoid the local supermarket coffee bins like the plague for just this reason. There, beans are left exposed to sunlight, heat, oxygen, and food and chemical odors; new beans are added over old; and the bins are not cleaned regularly. Stay away!)
Actually, the foil bag most specialty coffee is sold in really is the best container in which to store whole beans. As you take coffee out of the bag, cut it down to size and squeeze out any air before you close the bag and return it to the freezer. Coffee will stay fresh for a year or more in a freezer without losing any of its quality. If the same bag is stored in a cool place, rather than in a freezer, it will last three or four months before you notice degradation.
So keep coffee in its original foil bag and store it in the freezer, being careful to squeeze out any air.
That is the secret to storing coffee on your boat.
THE ALL-IMPORTANT GRINDER
OK, so I learned I've been doing it wrong for all these years. Like everyone I know, we have one of those little coffee grinders with a spinning blade to grind whole beans. Gary explained that blade grinders, while commonplace, cut and chip the beans into very inconsistent particles. A much better tool is a burr grinder that actually grinds the beans into consistent, controllable particles. Also, the better burr grinders are adjustable, allowing one to regulate the coarseness of grind. This is important, as the different methods of brewing coffee require different grinds of coffee. I didn't know that.
Another error and popular misconception is that the finer you grind the coffee the better. Wrong! Again, whole bean coffee must be ground to match the chosen brewing method.
COFFEE BREWING PECKING ORDER
I've had a long-running debate with my mother-in-law about which is a better method of brewing coffee. I've used a Melitta on our boat for years, while Mommy K insists that her ancient Corning percolator makes a better cup of coffee. Turns out we are both wrong.
The best method of brewing good coffee is with a French press. Also known as a manual press or press pot, the French press maximizes the flavor of the coffee and creates a consistently wonderful pot of coffee. The glass container of most presses is admittedly vulnerable on a boat, but it is still the best. Nissan makes a nice stainless steel French press that is also an insulated thermos. (Always season stainless steel before use by brewing a pot of coffee and letting it stand overnight; then rinse it out. And be aware that stainless steel can taint the flavor of most flavored coffees.)
The French press method of brewing coffee is simple. Start with fresh, cool, filtered water and bring to just under a boil, ideally 198 to 204 degrees. Grind the whole coffee beans to a coarse grind (like coarse sand) and put it into the bottom of the press. When the water is hot, pour it into the press, making sure to cover the coffee completely, then let it stand four or five minutes. Then slowly push down the mesh screen and enjoy the coffee.
If the coffee is not going to be consumed right away, it is best to transfer the coffee to a preheated, insulated thermos or airpot. Regardless of brewing method, if left on a stove burner, coffee will turn bitter after just 20 minutes. When Gary lived aboard his Malahide, he did not like to run the ship's generator just to make coffee in the morning, so would make it the night before and store the coffee in an airpot, which kept the coffee hot and fresh for the morning watch.
It turns out the other methods of brewing coffee leave much to be desired. The Melitta and Mr. Coffee-style drip systems tend to underextract flavor from the coffee, a result of inconsistent flow of water over the ground coffee. Water passes over the coffee once, and it is a hit-or-miss form of brewing coffee. In some automatic units you'll notice that some grounds are not even wet when the filter basket is removed afterwards. As a result these systems do not generally have the fullness of flavor of the French press.
The percolator types, either electric or Mommy K's stovetop unit, do just the opposite, with water repeatedly boiled over the ground coffee. This tends to overextract the oils in the ground coffee, producing a higher level of sourness, disguised as more flavor. Many people have had to give up coffee because of this higher presence of acidity and sourness.
A DARNED GOOD IDEA
Now here's something I never heard about that might be an answer for those who have had to give up coffee because of acidity. Called a cold coffee process, it is a method of brewing coffee with cold water. As I learned from the nice folks at Fidalgo Bay Coffee, brewing coffee with cold water does not pull out the acids as hot water does, and it's great for those who have problems with acid and their stomachs. Now everyone can enjoy coffee at its fullest.
Sold under various brands, the cold process product is simplicity itself. (Fidalgo Bay sells the Toddy Maker brand of cold coffee processor.) A pound of coffee is ground very coarsely-another good case for an adjustable burr grinder-and cold water is gradually added to fill the container. It is important to not stir the mixture. The Toddy Maker is then covered and left on the galley counter for 14 to 18 hours. Refrigeration is not necessary during this step.
The resulting brew concentrate has 85 percent less acid than coffee brewed with hot water. The cold brew concentrate will store for five to six weeks in the refrigerator and can be used to make hot or cold coffee drinks as you wish. The brew is four times more concentrated than regular brewed coffee, so a small amount of the concentrate can be added to hot water to make a hot cup of fresh coffee. The taste of this cold processed coffee is outstandingly smooth, and if you have a blender aboard capable of grinding ice cubes, your cold coffee drinks will make you famous in the anchorage, especially if you add German chocolate, Jamaican rum, French vanilla or other available flavors. Who needs to tailor a cruise around the availability of Starbucks if you can do it all yourself?
And the cold coffee concentrate can be frozen as ice cubes, to be used in hot water or cold drink as desired.
GREAT DECAF DOES EXIST
I am not partial to decaffeinated coffee, but I guess it is simply because I have not had a good experience with it. Caffeine is an odorless bitter alkaloid that is a stimulant to the central nervous system. Caffeine can be removed from coffee beans before they are roasted, but 97 percent of all of the caffeine must be removed before it can be sold as decaffeinated coffee in the U.S.
Gary Sawyer explained that there are four natural methods of decaffeinating coffee that in his experience produce rich flavorful coffee that is indistinguishable from caffeinated coffee. The method used in all Fidalgo Bay Coffee decaf blends involves an environmentally friendly process done at the coffee grower's location before the beans are shipped to the coffee roaster.
In what is called the "natural process," oils are extracted from green (unroasted) coffee beans using ethyl acetate, which removes the caffeine, then the oils are blended back into the beans. Any residual traces of caffeine are burned off during the subsequent roasting at Fidalgo Bay Coffee's Washington facility.
Sawyer assured me that delightful blends of French roast, Sumatra and many blends of both Vienna and Northern European roasts are available in decaf. Decaf Roastmaster is his personal favorite.
EMPOWERMENT IS GREAT
So there you have it: You are now equipped to enjoy good coffee on your boat, even if you are miles from the nearest gourmet coffee shop. It is all about having the right tools, buying the right coffee and learning the craft of brewing quality coffee. Perhaps it's time to get out of your regular coffee routine and try doing it yourself.
The correct amount of coffee to use is personal, but you'll have more satisfaction from fuller taste. Start making your coffee a little stronger, as you can always add water, but you can't add flavor. Brew it stronger and you'll also drink less but be more satisfied.
And stay away from grinding coffee beans too fine. Keep it coarse and you'll have a better coffee experience.
Equip your trawler with the proper tools: a French press, burr grinder, steam kettle, Toddy Maker, blender and a variety of whole coffee beans, properly stored in your ship's freezer.
I really want to thank Gary Sawyer, Susan Nash and the rest of the folks at Fidalgo Bay Coffee for sharing their expertise and knowledge of coffee and its many facets. They are as passionate about their coffee and proud of their products as we are about trawlers and PMM. And my hat's off to Bob and Polly Lane for steering me in a direction that really pique my curiosity.
Next time our paths cross, stop by Growler and I'll brew you a cup of the best coffee around, as I continue to hone my skills as an empowered coffee connoisseur. Or perhaps I'll make you a yummy cold coffee drink, spiced with a little French vanilla.
This is truly living at a higher level.