Defining Specialty Coffee

What is specialty coffee?

We use this phrase often, but we don’t often discuss its definition explicitly.

Surely if we use this term as frequently as we do, it would be helpful to make sure we were all talking about the same thing. As such, I think it would be helpful to discuss what we mean when we talk about specialty coffee.

Where does this phrase come from?

The term “specialty coffee” was initially coined by Erna Knutsen in 1978 to describe coffees from geographic microclimates that produce beans with unique flavour profiles, with an underlying assumption of quality and freshness from growing to brewing.

In two words: uniqueness and quality.

Every coffee has a unique history that influences its inherent potential for flavour. This flavour is primarily determined by a few key things: variety, terroir, and processing.

Variety: The species and variety of the coffee tree(s) from which the cherries were picked.

Terroir: Where the coffee was grown, the unique climate of that region, the soil in which the coffee was grown, the elevation at which it was grown, the amount of precipitation in a given season, etc.

Processing: How the coffee seed was removed from the coffee cherry, fermented, and dried.

Changing any of these factors can noticeably alter coffee’s flavour.

On top of this, each coffee’s distinct characteristics can either be preserved or lost (or potentially enhanced). To preserve the unique qualities of each coffee, care must be taken in the growth, harvesting, processing, drying, storing, shipping, roasting, packaging, and brewing of a coffee. When these steps (and potentially more) are handled well, the unique character of each coffee can be preserved.

Any practice that preserves the unique flavours of each coffee might be considered a quality practice. Quality preserves a coffee’s inherent qualities, ensuring that we experience the coffee’s unique characteristics once brewed. We often refer to this type of quality as transparency.

It is the unique sensory qualities in each coffee that makes it special. Appreciating a coffee’s unique flavours relies on transparency, which relies on quality, and therefore we can’t have specialty coffee without quality.

Any practices that hinder transparency are considered detrimental to quality. Usually these issues contribute generic flavours to a coffee. This is problematic, as generic flavours can be created in any coffee and are contrary to uniqueness. These generic flavours tend to distract from or hide a coffee’s unique flavours. The absence of quality harms transparency and therefore our ability to appreciate a given coffee.

Specialty is an approach to coffee that seeks to discover, appreciate, and enjoy the unique qualities that make each coffee special.

What Are We Trying To Achieve?
It is interesting to lay these ideas out explicitly and systematically. I doubt any of this is even slightly controversial, and I’m sure many coffee professionals would nod along in agreement with these statements.

It is important to understand what our goals are. If we define our goals clearly then we can measure how well we are achieving them. If our goal is to make specialty coffee, then defining specialty coffee can help us evaluate how well we are doing.

Do the practices in our specialty coffee service intentionally highlight the unique flavour characteristics of each coffee for our customers? Do our customers leave us having gained an appreciation of the unique flavour characteristics of the coffee they bought? Are we serving our customers something special, or just charging them more for higher quality green coffee?

I view specialty not as a grading system for quality (as seems to have become common) but as an approach or philosophy for appreciating each coffee for its unique sensory qualities. Yes, this appreciation relies on quality, and grading systems can be helpful, but specialty coffee doesn’t end at green coffee scoring. What we do with that high-scoring coffee is important and distinguishes one approach from the next.

Have we prioritized meeting baseline coffee scores over the appreciation of coffee? Do we lose the uniqueness of our coffee somewhere along the way? If we don’t appreciate each coffee’s uniqueness, then is our approach special? Is green quality enough?

Maybe it is not your goal to serve specialty coffee. That is fine! There is room in the world for many approaches to exist, and I’m sure there are markets for all sorts of approaches.

I just want to ask: what do we mean when we talk about “specialty” coffee?


Stop Selling Quality, Start Selling Specialty

As a whole, I think we in specialty coffee have hit a wall when it comes to communicating with our customers about our product.

There is an assumption in popular culture that baristas are snobby. There is a growing push-back against features of specialty coffee service, including supposedly complex menus, baristas, and “expensive” coffee.

In the specialty facet of the coffee industry, we serve a product that is, at least in its raw form, high quality. Due to the fact that a specialty-grade and, frequently, socially responsible product, bought in relatively small quantities inherently costs more than mass-produced, low-grade, exploitative commodity, in order to continue serving this product, we must convince customers that it is worth paying more for.

To convince customers to pay more we must actually explain to customers why it costs more in the first place and what they get out of it.

As far as I can tell, the answer for the past ten years or so in specialty coffee has been quality. It’s simple — you pay more for our product and you get higher quality. This is true, and it is important to communicate this to our customers.

However, there is also an unintended side-effect. By talking so much about the quality of our product, we have created a reputation for pretense — and not entirely without merit.

James Hoffmann has pointed out that it has become cool in some scenes to like bad coffee because it’s anti-snob. He states:

“By defining itself by what it wasn’t it became, inevitably, exclusive. People didn’t like that. Consumers were angry that we defined ourselves by what was wrong with what they liked.”

In another post he discusses the need to grow the market of specialty consumers and how marketing the quality hasn’t worked:

“We told them, loudly and proudly, that we served better coffee than the chains. The results of our marketing claims weren’t what we hoped. People liked the coffee they were buying from the chains, and considered us pompous and pretentious… what we perceive as our biggest asset to win and retain customers doesn’t work the way we want it to.”

Thus, we have a dilemma, because our quality-focused marketing approach has simultaneously created a small specialty-drinking market and created a large anti-specialty mindset.

However, I am convinced that for quality to continue increasing sustainably, we must communicate to our customers the merits of buying specialty coffee. In an atmosphere of push-back against “high” prices, the growing threat of climate change to sustainability, and a specialty market that often doesn’t grow when new coffee businesses open, I think it is more important than ever to continue growing the specialty consuming market.

If communicating the merits of specialty to our customers is important, and talking primarily about quality has isolated potential customers, then we must find a different way to talk about specialty coffee.

Hoffmann is certainly correct that specialty coffee has established a general reputation of pretense, and that quality is not the selling point we once thought it was. He goes on to suggest collaborative marketing between different specialty shops, or “creat[ing] opportunities for discovery”. I think he’s right. Collaboration among coffee companies can be an effective way to promote specialty coffee.

But collaboration and marketing will not change the language that has isolated potential customers. I think that we should make it a priority to shift the way we talk with customers about coffee quality. And I think we should shift the focus from quality to discovery.

Quality isn’t our only selling point. We are, after all, not just selling quality coffee. We are selling specialty coffee.

Now, the term “specialty” tends to mean different things to different people, but I think it is fair to say that most (hopefully all?) of us in specialty are searching to find the unique flavour characteristics present in a given lot of coffee and present them to our customers. In short, we are trying to show people what makes each coffee special.

This absolutely depends on quality. But if we only talk about quality, we lose out on the whole point of quality in specialty coffee — the discovery of what makes every coffee unique.

Don’t get me wrong — quality is vital. I don’t think we can have specialty coffee without quality. Quality throughout the supply chain is how we retain the characteristics that make each coffee unique. You won’t taste terroir clearly through picking under-ripes, over-fermenting, drying unevenly, allowing mould to grow, shipping in only jute, and then burning your coffee in the roaster.

But if quality is our selling point, the message can quickly go — and has gone — from “we serve great coffee” to “our coffee is better than the coffee you like”. This is a problem. Especially since (let’s be honest) many places roasting and/or serving specialty-grade coffee aren’t doing a particularly great job.

On top of this, telling people that our coffee is “better” and then giving them a bright, sweet, fruit/nut/caramel-bomb, far different from the “mellow” (flat/woody) or “bold” and “strong” (ashy/bitter) drink they know and love, will almost always create a bad customer experience, simply because we did not create accurate customer expectations.

Customers know what coffee they like, and they know how they like it. They come into our specialty cafes with these expectations. Then we tell them — explicitly or implicitly — that their coffee is bad, that we do coffee better, and often follow that up with a disappointing customer experience.

No wonder so many people view specialty coffee as snobbery.

Of course deep down most of us are not snobby. We’re mostly excited nerds who want to share what we love with the world. But I think we’ve generally done a pretty bad job expressing this.

Trying to market our coffee solely on its quality is an exclusive approach. Nobody wants to be told that their favourite thing is bad. It feels bad. It puts people on the defence. Especially when people are so emotionally and ritually attached to the coffee they like and how they consume it.

Luckily, there is more to our coffee than quality. By selling specialty, we are doing something totally different. Specialty coffee is a completely different approach from classical coffee consumption. It is not just a shift in quality, but a different philosophy.

In specialty, we look to appreciate the flavours that make each coffee unique, whereas traditional coffee consumption is simply about taking in caffeine. In specialty we seek to find and display the best that every lot of coffee has to offer — through quality practices all along the supply chain. In traditional coffee consumption, the goal is to make cheap, low-quality coffee palatable for the sake of caffeine. Where specialty is about discovery and transparency, non-specialty becomes about personal preference.

For many people, specialty is still a novel idea. It is exciting. It is fascinating. It is different. And if we do it well, it is delicious.

If we present specialty coffee as a novel, different, exciting, inclusive thing, then maybe more people will be inclined to try it. If we do a good job, customers will understand quality when they find it in the cup. It will still be important to communicate the role of quality, but we may have an easier time creating a captive audience by inviting people to discover with us.

If we sell customers on the concept of specialty — of appreciating the things that make each coffee unique — it will explain what we are trying to do, why we are different from traditional coffee consumption, and invite them to check things out from our perspective.

If we present specialty as simply a different approach to coffee, then maybe we will stop coming off as condescending.

Maybe it’s not a complete solution. But maybe a shift in language can stop us from turning people away by implicitly or explicitly criticizing their preferences. And maybe along the way people will stop viewing coffee as a caffeine delivery product and start appreciating how fascinating, complex, and delicious it is.

When approached in an inviting and engaging way, many customers will respond with excitement. Sure, maybe not everyone will care about the fact that the washed SL28 in their cup was grown at 1789MASL. But maybe they’ll start appreciating the flavours in their cup.

If we can sell our customers on specialty as an approach and back it up with quality, then maybe the rest will follow. People will value the product we sell because it is inherently special. Quality and sustainability can continue increasing. People will enjoy what we’re doing for what it is, and there will even be a place for both classical coffee consumption and contemporary. Eventually quality may even win out in popularity.

And maybe people will stop thinking we’re jerks.

Grinding Finer / CBrC 2017

This past Sunday I participated in the Canadian Brewers’ Cup in Calgary. There were some exceptional coffees being brewed, some fascinating brew methods, and a solid group of competitors. In the end I ended up placing third, which is incredibly exciting for me, especially as it was my first time competing.

Overall it was a great event. It was amazing to meet such passionate coffee professionals from around Canada.

I got to brew the Kieni from the Nyeri region in Kenya, roasted by The Coffee Collective in Copenhagen. I’m really proud of my routine and recipe, and especially proud to serve such a delicious and well-roasted coffee.

My presentation was about finding what makes specialty coffee special, but more specifically how to do this. My answer, as you may have guessed, was quality at origin, transparency in roasting, and evenness in brewing. But I approached brewing evenness in a slightly unconventional way, on top of the usual stuff.

I’d like to break this down a bit.

My routine was primarily inspired by recent analyses of coffee grinding from Matt Perger and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood. They, with others, recently published a paper analyzing how the origin and temperature of a coffee bean affects the way it grinds. They learned some very interesting things in their research, primarily the effect of origin on grinding (negligible), but there were also implications about the effect of bean temperature on grind distribution and the amount of surface area created by fines. (Let’s define fines as being 0-80 microns in size, as per the paper and this separate post from Maxwell.)

In recent days there has been hype about freezing coffee beans (as there should be), which helps increase the evenness of a grind distribution. From the discussion I’ve seen on the Internet, it seems this has been the biggest practical takeaway from the paper. However, it seems as though the bit about the amount of surface area created by fines was eclipsed by freezing coffee beans. I think that these findings about surface area have big implications.

In short, after laser diffraction particle size analysis, they found that a large majority of the surface area in a grind distribution comes from fines. With their given grind setting on the EK43, fines made up approximately 70% of the total surface area.

Now, I imagine that this number would shift, depending on your grind setting and grinder, but it also makes a lot of sense that most grinders would produce a significant amount of surface area with fines. Actually, the fewer fines a grinder creates, the more of a problem it will be, so working with the EK43 results will be a near best-case approximation, as it has been proven to create lots of fines, and the principles we discuss will be even more important when applied to grinders that produce fewer fines and less even grind distributions.

Okay, so fines make up a lot of the surface area in a grind size distribution. What does this mean?

Well, if 70% of a grind distribution’s surface area is made of fines, then a huge portion of a coffee’s flavour comes from fines. Then another portion comes from the outsides of large grinds, then an even smaller portion comes from the insides of all of the grinds. The more large grinds we have, the less flavour we have access to. It makes a lot of sense, then, that the grinder known for producing the tastiest brews (i.e. the EK43) also produces a relatively high amount of fines, as well as its tight, unimodal grind distribution.

This drives home an important point: contrary to typical understanding, an overwhelming portion of the flavour in any brewed coffee comes from the finest grinds. As Perger states in his aforementioned analysis, “Fines are our friends!” He goes on to say:

“…it becomes increasingly obvious that fines aren’t the villain; otherwise every coffee ever made would be horribly over-extracted.”

Now, if 70% of the surface area in a grind distribution comes from fines, we’ve got 30% of the surface area made up of the outside of coarse grinds.

What about all the other solubles buried inside the large grinds? They make up 0% of the surface area, but contain some large percentage of the solubles. We have plenty of solubles hidden inside large grinds — potential surface area — not immediately accessible to water¹.

This means that we begin extracting the outsides of large grinds much sooner than the insides. The further inside the grind, the harder it is for water to extract, and the less even our extraction becomes. Every individual micro-extraction would become less even the larger a coffee grind becomes, as we hide more and more solubles, or potential surface area, deeper within the grind. Imagine how much more we hide in a grinder that produces even fewer fines and more large grinds than the EK43. More large grinds mean more hidden solubles, which means less even extraction.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like a lot on an individual scale, but when you think about the number of coarse grinds, and the amount of surface area that could be created by breaking them into the size of fines, it seems a little daunting. Or for a funnier contrast, imagine brewing 20g of unground beans vs. finely ground beans. The middle of the unground beans would be pretty dry and the resulting brew would certainly lack depth of flavour.

I am convinced that large grinds inherently cause unevenness, and conversely, grinding finer increases evenness.

And this is the idea I built my Brewers’ Cup routine on.

The way I applied this idea was pretty simple: grind finer. If you grind finer, you produce fewer large grinds, you decrease the size of the modal particle in your distribution, and you produce more fines.

However, when brewing finer grinds, there is another important thing to consider: over-extraction.

Perger sums this up perfectly:

“The upper limit of tasty extraction is decided by the most-extracted particle. This is always the smallest particle. So it’s up to you to make sure no portion of the grinds ever get over-extracted”

Now, fines don’t intrinsically cause over-extraction. But they do slow flow rate in drip brewing, and they do increase evenness. If grinding finer leads to over-extraction, then perhaps it’s actually brew time, or temperature² causing over-extraction to take place. Or perhaps the coffee was already being partially over-extracted, but increased evenness has amplified these flavours.

The best solution seemed to be shortening brew time without coarsening the grind. If the grind is fine and the brew time is too long, then we have a wonderfully even and obviously over-extracted brew. Flow rate control, then, is incredibly important. I had to figure out how to speed up my flow rate.

One thing we often overlook when thinking about drip brewing flow rate is flow rate from the kettle. It is common to “pulse” the brew. The more pulses we use, the longer a brew takes. The more time passes, the more we extract. If we shorten the time it takes us to pour water, then we shorten the time it takes to pass through the grinds. I shortened my pre-saturation by 15s and poured all my water by 45s, as opposed to a typical³ final pour at ~2+ minutes. This shaved ~2.5 minutes off of my brew time, which is the difference between a delicious 4-minute brew, and a flat 6.5-minute brew.

The other variable to play with was temperature. I knew that higher temperatures could speed up flow rate, so I decided to try 212F/100C instead of my typical 204F/95.6C. This shaved about a minute off of my brew time, and I actually ended up making my grind even finer to fix my brew time at 4 minutes.

Using hotter water and pouring quickly, I was able to grind significantly finer within my target brew time.

I also want to note that my brew water composition seemed to affect flow rate. My experience was that when bicarbonate outweighed magnesium (I didn’t use any calcium), my flow rate slowed drastically. I have not done any controlled experiments with this, so take this observation with a grain of salt, perhaps Epsom.

I also used stirring during the pre-saturation to wet all grinds as close together in time as I could. I find that with the Kalita and other drip brewers if you don’t do this, then a very large portion of grinds stay dry until the end of the pre-saturation, or even later, which is a huge blow to evenness. On top of this, I poured water along the sides of the filter (*gasp*) to knock high-and-drys down, stirred above the grinds and vertically tapped the Kalita to knock them into the brew, and then stirred the grinds and again above the grinds again followed by one more tap to create a flat bed and eliminate channeling. Yes, lots of agitation.

Grinding finer and stirring helped me to increase evenness, pouring quickly and hot water helped me gain control of my brew time, and within 4 minutes I had tasty extractions, as high as 22.33% with my Porlex. My recipe was 14g coffee to 210g water with a target beverage size of 172g in a 4 minute brew time. My water had 54ppm Mg to aid in extracting complex acidic compounds and 50ppm HCO3 to help with balance. My water temperature was 98C/208.4F because that was where my kettle’s temperature maxed out in Calgary, presumably due to the high elevation causing a lower boiling point than home. I actually ended up using my Porlex for the competition because in a fixed amount of time it was able to give me notably higher extraction yields compared to the other grinders I had access to, indicating evenness.

This is how I came to my recipe. I was very happy with how the Kieni tasted, and felt my brews were very transparent. The resulting cup was tasting incredibly complex and nuanced, and the finish was clean and lingering, which I usually take as an indication of a good recipe.

I really do believe that grinding finer (and freezing beans⁴) will lead to better filter coffee. We just have to figure out ways to accommodate this in our brewing. This was one of my first attempts to do so, and surely won’t be my last. I am already thinking about next year’s routine.

If only there were machines that would pump water through very finely ground coffee at high pressures with excellent temperature stability.

Thanks once again to the organizers and sponsors of the Canadian Brewers’ Cup, congratulations to Javaid and Ben on getting first and second place, and props to everyone who competed. It was really great to meet such creative coffee professionals from around the country. I am looking forward to the future of competitive coffee in Canada.

Thanks to The Coffee Collective for supplying me with such an incredible coffee.


¹Maybe the exact amount of potential surface area could be derived by comparing the size of the smallest grinds to that of a coarse grind. We could compare how much larger a coarse grind is than a fine to figure out how much of this coarse grind would be exposed in surface area if it were broken into grinds the same size as a fine. If we subtract actual surface area of the coarse grind, we would know how much potential surface area is being hidden inside the coarse grind. I might take a stab at the math myself, but if somebody out there beats me to it, or if I’m thinking about this all wrong, I’d love to hear about it.

²Or maybe flavours we associate with over-extraction are a problem created by undiagnosed roasting flaws — but let’s stay focused on brewing for now.

³Think of a typical 30s pre-saturation, followed by pouring 1/4 of the remaining brew water every 30s.

⁴Unfortunately, I did not end up freezing my coffee before grinding, simply due to the logistics involved, although it would have helped my take evenness to another level, and is something to consider for next year.

We Made A Coffee Fair

About six months ago my friend Josh and I met for a coffee. We got talking about the local coffee scene, as we often do, and the potential there is in Hamilton for interesting coffee-related endeavours. At some point in the conversation Josh mentioned how he had been thinking about doing some sort of coffee event. I had thought about this too, although not as something I would have time for in the near future.

Then Josh decided that he was just going to go for it and host a coffee event — some kind of coffee “expo”. Apprehensively, I offered to help, if I had the time. I think in his excitement Josh may have missed the hesitation in my offer. A week later he was sending out emails to potential venues and a bit over a month later he booked a venue. At this point it went from being “yeah, maybe I can help” to “oh my God, we’re actually doing this.”

Over the next few months we reached out to local coffee shops and potential sponsors, had a few meetings, and got a small planning team together.

Last month we held the first Hamilton Coffee Fair. And it went really well.

The purpose of the event was to introduce people to basic concepts of specialty coffee in an approachable and engaging way, and in the process create new customers for the local coffee shops. We also wanted to get people into the downtown area to see that there is a lot of cool stuff going on in Hamilton.

The turnout was spectacular. We had 1000 people come through the event. People got to try free coffee, learn about specialty coffee, try pouring latte art, compete in a latte art competition, discover local coffee shops, ask local professionals questions about coffee, watch (and taste the results of) brewing demos, snag giveaways, buy gear, and meet people.

We gave out a Hamilton Coffee Map designed to help people locate coffee shops throughout the city. We sold the Hamilton Coffee Pass with which customers can get discount drinks in local coffee shops.

In short, this was an amazing opportunity for us and the local coffee businesses to share our passion for coffee with the general public. It was really cool to introduce the concept of specialty coffee to people who may not have otherwise thought about such a thing. It was amazing to see the local coffee community work together on this.

We are very excited and encouraged to see such an amazing response and so thankful to everyone who participated in making this event as fun and worthwhile as it was. We want to thank everyone who came out to the event, especially those of you who braved the chilly weather in line to hang out with us!

We had a lot of fun and we hope you did too.

Just a quick shout out to Detour Coffee Roasters, Latte 911, Eight Ounce Coffee Supply, and Finch Cafes for helping us make this event happen. And a huge thank you to Josh and Darryl for personally funding this thing.

Revisiting Hamilton’s Tap Water (For Accuracy)

Recently I have been playing with mineralizing distilled water to different GH:KH ratios to see how it affects coffee flavour using the ideal brew water chart from Water for Coffee as a guide and one of Matt Perger’s water recipes (found in the comments here) as a starting point. While doing so, I came across more up-to-date information that makes it necessary to re-examine my two previous posts. The purpose of this post is to explain the changes and then perform this quick re-examination.

My experimentation led me to a lot of math, learning about moles, dilution calculations, and summarizing things in equations. After all of this I couldn’t seem to reconcile Perger’s water recipe with the ideal brew water chart, although this recipe typically produces pleasant coffee. Perger said this recipe should lead to 100 ppm Mg and 50 ppm KH. Whichever way I did the math it added up to 24.5 ppm Mg and 62.1 ppm KH.

Since I was confident in my math at this point, I concluded that maybe Perger wasn’t trying to hit the ideal realm of the brew chart, or that he mistakenly based his math on the chart as though it were presented in ppm with [ion] as [CaCO3], and it tasted good anyway. It turns out that the second conclusion was closer to the truth. But it wasn’t Perger’s mistake.

After a bit of research and reading through coffee’s deep web, I decided to go right to the source and ended up having a short Twitter exchange with Chris Hendon. As it turns out, the ideal brew water chart presented in WFC is presented in ppm with [ion] as [CaCO3] as opposed to [ion] as [ion], despite the book’s advocacy for the use of [ion] as [ion]¹ as the standard for ppm measurement.

This means that my previous two blog posts about Hamilton’s water as it relates to coffee brewing must be re-examined. The data from those posts are correct, however the analysis of the data assumes that the brew chart is presented with ppm as [ion], which is not what we want if we are working with the ideal brew water chart from WFC.

Thus, let’s re-examine.

Testing Hamilton’s Tap Water (For Coffee)
Here is the data presented with [ion] as [CaCO3]:

Mar 17, 2016 – Mg: 65.6 ppm, Ca: 87.5 ppm, KH: 91-93.4 ppm
Mar 18, 2016 – Mg: 32.8-49.2 ppm, Ca: 87.5-92.5 ppm, KH: 93.4 ppm
Mar 19, 2016 – Mg: 65.6 ppm, Ca: 87.5 ppm, KH: 88.5 ppm
Mar 20, 2016 – Mg: 82 ppm, Ca: 93.8 ppm, KH: 91 ppm
Mar 21, 2016 – Mg: 65.6 ppm, Ca: 87.5 ppm, KH: 93.4 ppm
Mar 22, 2016 – Mg: 65.6 ppm, Ca: 81.3 ppm, KH: 93.4 ppm
Mar 23, 2016 – Mg: 82 ppm, Ca: 93.8 ppm, KH: 93.4-98.4 ppm

Average – Mg: 63.6 ppm, Ca: 88.9 ppm, KH: 92.9 ppm

Within this sample set our Mg content fluctuates notably, while Ca and HCO3 (KH) remain fairly constant. If we look at our average reading, we get a GH of 152.5 ppm and KH of 92.9 ppm. In this sample set, our GH varies +/- 30.9 ppm and our KH varies +/- 5 ppm.

In short, our GH will generally be within the ideal range of the ideal brew water chart and the KH will still be pretty far from ideal. Thus, Hamilton tap water may leave our coffee flat and chalky, which is the same conclusion as before. Ideally our water filtration would bring KH levels down to somewhere between 32.5 ppm and 75 ppm while leaving our GH levels (Mg and Ca) relatively the same.

Filtering Hamilton’s Tap Water (For Home Brewing)
The data with [ion] as [CaCO3]:

Tap water – Mg: 49.2 ppm, Ca: 81.3 ppm, KH: 91 ppm
Brita filtered tap water – Mg: 49.2 ppm, Ca: 68.8 ppm, KH: 32 ppm

The tap water in this second test is similar to some of the data from the first test. The tap water had a GH of 130.5 ppm and KH of 91 ppm. After Brita filtration the GH was 118 ppm and the KH was 32 ppm. These results actually put us right on the border of ideal and acceptable water in the ideal brew water chart.

If you brew coffee in Hamilton, the Brita filter should take your tap water from poor for brewing to acceptable or ideal for brewing, depending on the tap water that day.

¹The difference is discussed in the corrigendum to the book posted here on 10-10-15.

Filtering Hamilton’s Tap Water (For Home Brewing)

[Having discovered new information, the data from this post has been revisited here.]

Today I tested my home brewing water with my titration kit. I also tested my tap water again for comparison. I wanted to post the results online in case anyone finds them helpful.

My home brewing water is simply tap water filtered through a Brita pitcher filter. The filter is currently about a month or two old. (Ew. Gross. Yeah. Whatever.) The pitcher has been flashing the “change soon” light for a couple of days, but has not yet flashed the “change” light. (See? It’s fine.)

I used the Red Sea Pro Test titration kit. I followed the same procedure as I did here, except this time I rinsed my sample vials and sample syringe with tap water before measuring the tap water, and with Brita filtered water before measuring the Brita filtered water.

Yellow rubber gloves were worn, and titration ensued.

Here are my results:

Tap water – Mg: 8-12 ppm, Ca: 32.5 ppm, KH: 111 ppm
Brita filtered tap water – Mg: 12 ppm, Ca: 27.5 ppm, KH: 39 ppm

There are a few things I would like to point out.

Firstly, the tap water was quite consistent with the samples from my first experiment. This is good to see. Consistency = more frequently good coffee.

Secondly, the GH. GH stands for general hardness, the “G” coming from “general”, and the “H” coming from “hardness”. Brilliant. General hardness is our calcium and magnesium content combined, in ppm. According to today’s measurements, our GH is in the 39.5 ppm to 44.5 ppm range for both waters. It’s a bit low. We know from Water For Coffee that we want our GH to be 50ppm or higher for ideal extraction capabilities.

It also looks like the Brita filter may have lowered the calcium content just a little bit. I don’t want to make any major conclusions about this. However, the Brita website says that it does reduce the concentration of calcium and magnesium. And it may have put us just a bit further off from the 50 ppm GH minimum.

Thirdly, the KH – carbonate or temporary hardness. This one I am willing to give a little more weight to. This is more in line with other results I’ve had measuring Brita filtered tap water. It is also a pretty drastic shift. And it is a step in the right direction.

As I mentioned in my last post (I’m just going to keep linking you to that), we also know from Water For Coffee that too much carbonate hardness can leave coffee tasting flat and chalky. 111 ppm is probably going to be too much. At least according to Colonna-Dashwood and Hendon, the authors of the book. And they know their stuff.

Luckily, the Brita filter brings Hamilton water down to 39 ppm, a much more reasonable KH level. Reasonable, but not ideal. As consistent as it is, the water composition will vary slightly day-to-day. Today the KH happened to be at a point where it would be ideal – if the water had a higher GH, in the 50 ppm to ~65 ppm range. It’s about balance. Even if we had 50 ppm in GH, our KH might fluctuate a little bit tomorrow and put us off of ideal water composition. At these low levels of GH and KH there isn’t a lot of leeway.

However, the Brita filter does take Hamilton water from less-than-acceptable to acceptable. It’s progress. And my coffee is tasting pretty good at home. Actually, quite good, more often than not. I guess it can only get better.

I will keep experimenting with ways to have better brewing water at home. For now, the Brita filter is doing pretty well and is a definite step in the right direction for Hamilton home brewers looking to take their brew game to the next level.

I’d love to hear what people are using for their brewing water. Let me know in the comments below.

[Edit: The KH measurements in this post were originally posted in [ion] as [CaCO3]. However, since we are more interested in bicarbonate, I have converted those measurements to display ppm as HCO3.]