More than 500 hundred years after it was discovered and cultivated in Ethiopia, coffee continues to exact a hold over us. It’s the world’s most traded tropical agricultural commodity, with a booming trade worth some US$15.4 billion (S$19.4 billion) in 2009/2010. In those years, we drank a staggering 133.9 million bags of beans, each weighing 60kg.
But there is coffee, and then there’s the real good stuff . It’s a great divide between the thin, instant hogwash and the aromatic, almost creamy nectar that is a perfect espresso. Fortunately, coming to the fore across coffee-chugging cities are small, artisanal outfits that serve quality coffee, brewed from roasted high-grade beans in small batches to ensure freshness and maximum flavour.
Called the Third Wave in coffee (after the First Wave of instant coffee, and the Second Wave of big coffee chains), many of these new-generation baristas think, breathe and speak of coffee as a sommelier does wine – in terms of the terroir, the flavour profile of a single-estate bean, its acidity et al. But, unlike wine, there’s not just one way to have your coffee. Third Wave enthusiasts handpull their shots, brew it in a siphon, drip it through manual coffeemaker Chemex or Hario V60, filter it using an old-fashioned woodneck, and even cold brew it – by dripping iced water one drop a minute on fresh grounds. The aim? “To extract different complexions from the same coffee,” explains Pauline Tan of Liberty Coffee, one of the few speciality roasters in Singapore.
And, while newfangled creations like the caffeine-packed cold brews with its thick liqueur-like body may not be everyone’s cup of coffee, there’s no doubt that a buzzing coffee culture is in full bloom.
ZEN AND THE ART OF ESPRESSO
It’s a dainty cup of beverage that’s typically downed in seconds. But, as Pamela Chng from Bettr Barista points out, plenty of effort goes into pulling the perfect shot of espresso. “A good barista must understand the bean so that he can bring out the best flavours that are inherent.”
It’s got to be just right. Anything above 95 deg C will burn the beans and cause the coffee to be bitter. But nudge the temperature under 91 deg C, and the coffee will be under-extracted and too acidic.
For unadulterated flavours, use filtered water – read: pH-neutral with no chlorine and no sediment.
If the grind is too coarse, the espresso will be under-extracted, watery, diluted and sour. Too fine and it will be bitter, burnt and over-extracted. The balance of flavours – acidity, sweetness and bitterness – is very important.
It is important to “tamp”, or pack the grounds, evenly. Traditionally, 7g of beans are required for a single shot, 14g for double, but this varies according to the espresso machine used.
This varies between 20 and 30 seconds. There is no perfect recipe. It all depends on factors such as the machine, time of day and humidity. For example, coffee absorbs moisture and that affects the extraction.
ALL IN THE BEANS
A good joe starts with the right beans. All things being equal, where they come from will determine the flavour, body and complexity of your drink. Those used for brewing come from two varieties of plant – Arabica and Robusta.
ARABICA is the more common of the two and yields a smooth brew. It is indigenous to Ethiopia, although it is now grown throughout Latin America, Africa, India and even Indonesia. One of the most famous type of Arabica beans is the Blue Mountain that’s grown in Kenya and Jamaica. Jamaican Blue Mountain beans, in particular, are renowned for their smooth mild flavour, and are highly sought after. Speciality grades are mostly Arabica.
ROBUSTA, as its name suggests, serves up a far more robust, full and bitter-tasting brew, thanks to its higher concentration of caffeine (more than double). Unlike the flat Arabica beans, Robusta coffee beans are oval, smaller and generally of a lower grade. They are widely grown in Africa along the Ivory Coast and throughout South-east Asia, especially in Vietnam. Kopitiam coffee and Vietnamese coffee are mostly brewed from Robusta beans.
SINGLE-ORIGIN BEANS are grown within a single region, be it a farm or country, and offer distinctive flavours that reflect their terroir.
ROASTER For many in the coffee business, the roasting of raw beans is an art in itself, as well as a science. “The roaster interprets the coffee,” says Tan. The same ingredient, roasted differently, results in varied flavour profiles.
ARTISANAL COFFEE SHOPS
This tiny cafe in Tiong Bahru probably counts as one of the game changers on the local coffee scene. Forty Hands is one of the earliest champions of Third Wave coffee on the island and set the benchmark when it opened in 2010.
#01-12, 78 Yong Siak Street.
Although it is a wholesale coffee roaster, Liberty has made a name for itself with its pop-up coffee shop open to retail customers only once a week, announced via Facebook. Each time it is open to public, it offers at least three different single-origin beans for tasting.
131 Rangoon Road.
Opened just this year, this spot is already making a name for itself. Here, you can create your own blend from single-origin beans sourced from around the world and roasted daily at the cafe. It is also where you can get a sip of the world’s most expensive coffee.
#02-01/02, 273 Holland Avenue.
CHYE SENG HUAT HARDWARE CAFE
It may sound more like a neighbourhood hardware shop than a trendy coffee joint, but java is king at Chye Seng Huat. The cafe shares space with a coffee school, a roaster and a private tasting room. Check out the excellent cold brews – of coffee, not beer – here.
150 Tyrwhitt Road.
KNOW YOUR BREWS
There are numerous ways to brew coffee, aside from the common drip method. If you get them right, all roads will hopefully lead to coffee heaven.
Also known as a coffee plunger, this is probably one of the most popular ways to brew the drink, thanks to its relative
convenience and portability. Use a coarser grind to prevent getting grounds in your cuppa.
Also called vac pots, the elegant siphon works on the simple principle that water expands by turning into steam when heated, and steam contracts (by returning to its original form) when cooled. Made by heat and not boiled water, the coffee is clean, smooth and very delicate.
Versatile and extremely handy when travelling. You can determine the grind, amount of water and extraction time, although the syringe-like device comes with recommended amount, grind and time.
This is done by steeping coarse grounds at room temperatures. As there is little heat involved, the extraction takes longer than that by traditional methods, at times more than 12 hours. Done properly, cold-pressed brews are sweeter and less astringent than regular coffee.
An iconic stove-top coffeemaker favoured by the Italians. The resulting coffee is pretty strong and flavourful, a close approximation to an espresso without having to use a machine.