Sunday, 13 April 2014

The ThinJetty Coffee Subscription Review Method

Looking at my coffee subscription test method, and thinking about not excluding people from premium coffee, just because they don't do it, just this way or that.

When I started seriously writing I thought it would be a great prompt to keep me doing things to keep having things to write about.  In fact it has launched lots of great things that I need no excuse to keep doing and instead am struggling to write about them and have a backlog.  One of those things has been going through reviews of some subscription services each over a 3 bag test.  The first of these on Pact was both fun, prompted a lovely reaction from the company, and had a good online response.  Since then I've been carrying on and completed a Hasbean test which is waiting writing up and am about half way through a TwoDayCoffee cycle.

So far I haven't bought a similar sort of bag of coffee (by variety or region) twice even from different vendors and have hence had a lot of fun with a very wide variety of coffee.  But that wasn't going to let me, and never was it my intention to, review the coffee as though  "this was the best coffee buy this".  Coffee is generally a hugely personal thing, and people should be able to enjoy it, and have fun making it, without worrying someone is looking down on them.  Fundamentally what I am looking for is a major step up from supermarket both in the coffee and in the buying experience.

So I thought it would be good to define what I was exactly reviewing, and what I've established as my review areas and method:


Purchasing experience 
Generally does it make it easy to order at short notice?  (I always run out) especially does it work on desktop and mobile.
What is the end to end purchasing experience - am I excited to get that coffee?
Does it arrive when it says it is going to, and what sort of state is it in when it arrives?
What was the company like to deal with?
Complexity of the product and accessibility - how hard was the coffee to understand and what to do
I'll also try and give the company chance to reach out and make contact with me through the buying process - is this service adding to the overall coffee community.

Coffee Quality
If given a recommendation with the beans, I'll generally try and follow the advice closely to get a good idea how the vendor sees the coffee.  (often this advice is very good)  But left to my own devices if I am excited about the coffee I'll try and make it in the following 5 ways (and often in this order) before determining my favourite finishing the bag mainly with that method and writing up.  I'm pretty determined not to throw any coffee away and so far haven't had to because I haven't liked it.  Finishing each bag slows down the review process a bit, but I think lends a better result, is more realistic to what a customer will be doing.

1) Very short style Ristretto style espresso using an over-fine griund
2) Full double 60ml style esperesso using a dialed back coarser grind
3) Cappuccino
4) Chemex drip black
5) White with sugar (either Americano or drip)

Why bother?  Surely espresso is the ultimate!, and what on earth am I doing adding milk and sugar...

Well in my experience most people drink coffee with sugar and milk - some studies (here is a nice infographic) say only about 35% drink black. Starbucks are massively successful with their handcrafted, blended drinks and appeal to a very wide audience.  The coffee scene can be incredibly snobby, and by stating that because this is the "best way" to make coffee, that it is the only way (and anyone who does differently is wrong) I think we alienate people that otherwise would embrace discovering something new, and start on a journey that led them to really lovely new coffee.

Different styles of coffee have a time and a place, and part of that fitting into and around life, is one of the things I really like about coffee.

So nailing my colors to the mast how do I drink my coffee?  Well running through the above.

1) Ristretto
I mainly do this because I find it easiest to dial the grind very fine, and then work it back to where works with my machine and the new coffee beans.  Ordering a lot of very random bags I always seem to need to redo this each time, and just accepting it and making a very short shot has become my default way of proceeding.  I find it also gives a really good initial impression of what the major flavour notes of the coffee are going to be separately from the overall acidity and espresso balance.  Generally this is not the way I drink my coffee, and I would not pretend that with my fairly modest Gaggia Classic I can do an artisan Ristretto, but I do think it's very informative on what has arrived in the bag.

2) Espresso
As it's the foundation for all the milk drinks it's then time with the new bag to get the espresso right.  I normally drink espresso when travelling, or after a meal, or in anywhere where you can stand and drink coffee at a bar.  Somehow, it's not a sitting down with people drink for me.  It gives the widest platform for the coffee to perform, leaving oils and all the other complex bits unfiltered.

3) Cappuccino
I like cappuccino in the evening or on slow days like a Sunday and some coffees just make amazing cappuccino, almost more like a dessert than a drink, or how espresso is drunk as a digestive.  I'll often swap a cappuccino with a biscuit for a pudding, and if it was particularly good still go for an Espresso afterwards.  A bit weird, but I can highly recommend it.  Especially with coffees with acidity notess I'm not keen on, seeing if they work with milk is a key stage for me.

4) Black 
If I'm really going to concentrate on my coffee, or have it whilst concentrating hard on another task, I typically like it black.   Americano, V60, Chemex or Areopress all done duties.  Currently the really clean, soft taste that lets the background notes of the coffee come through from the Chemex is my favourite.  It's also the most unlike espresso of the methods and gives the biggest comparison and sometimes something that doesn't work for me at all in Espresso will really shine here.  My only criticism with black drip from the Chemex is that I find it goes stale in the cup (or the warmer) really quickly, I haven't worked out why, but I find not something to leave on the side whilst you are doing jobs.

5) White with sugar.
When ending up buying a random highstreet coffee or when offered at a none coffee friends house more often than not this is how I end up having a coffee I haven't planned for myself.  When I get up in the morning, and I need a cup of coffee, in order to actually be able to make myself coffee, this is how I drink it. Now I'm not going to have an instant, or a Nespresso but I'm also not going to feel bad, about only just being able to work out how to grind the beans, making it quickly with espresso, adding water, milk and sugar, waking up and then working out what actually the day will hold: coffee or otherwise.  Whilst it's not the way to really "appreciate" a specialist coffee, I think that if a premium coffee still doesn't manage to add some value here above supermarket then it's not really worth the extra or going to be applicable to that many people.

If I get through all of the above, and didn't manage to make a coffee that was substantially better than what I would get with buying a tin of Illy from a supermarket, I'll call it a failure as a premium coffee, (or I've messed up somewhere).  Nothing has so far failed to meet that bar, and I've gone back recently and bought a fresh Illy tin and re-baselined just to make sure I've got that firm point set in my head.  For me Illy was the most reliable I could buy in the supermarket, and where I came into coffee seriously so to invest in something more expensive it has to beat this mark.



Re-baselining was really interesting.  The smell when I open an Illy tin is still amazing - it smells how I think amazing coffee should try to taste (sic) I wonder if Illy inject some air or something in at packaging or do something to intensify that moment or if it is just the quality of the tin seal.  I find Illy reliably a good coffee, but after about 2 days of opening, it doesn't really hold my interest.  All of the bags ordered so far have exceeded this bar.

Cost
Specialist coffee will be more than volume beans.  But even within mail order coffees there are some pretty big premiums asked for specialist within specialist types - is that extra investment really making a difference? How much more expensive than a supermarket bag is it

Currently then this is how I've been going about it and current plans are to write up the Hasbean review, which has been a good experience.  The twodaycoffee review (half way through, good so far), and then take stock and see what the common themes and threads are across the 3 completed.

But for anyone who got right to the bottom of this, and wants to know across the 13 bags of beans tested so far what the outright "Best" were (or at least my two favourites)

Drip:  Hasbean provided this done in the Chemex was really interesting, really nice faint but intriguing citrus notes.  Much more muted than done espresso, but still really engaging.

Espresso:  Twoday provided this and just made a really great, really reliable, fresh espresso.  Nothing shocking or new, just really solid.

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