Good Quality Coffee Beans, Good Quality Equipment, What About the Water?
You’ve invested in a state of the art coffee or espresso machine. You’ve acquired high quality coffee beans from your favorite coffee growing region (perhaps the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica!) you know, the particular variety with that rich body and flawless finish that you experienced at a local coffee shop or craft roaster.
You have a burr grinder that creates those ideally shaped, spherical grounds that allow for the most efficient extraction yielding consistent flavor. You eschew sugar, creamers or any other additives that distort the bean’s authenticity. Excited, you gather your equipment, know how and beans; you begin to prepare your coffee, grinding and adding the beans, pouring in the water, adjusting your settings in anticipation of a prefect brew. Your machinery hisses and vibrates, building the anticipation. You gather your fresh brew in an espresso cup or mug, enjoy the aroma, and finally – the first taste. Voila, what a disappointment!
How is it possible that Your coffee tastes nothing like the heavenly brew you sampled? If this has ever happened to you, don’t return your machine or your beans. The two most common reasons are:
- Your coffee equipment (note, this include your grinder) needs to be cleaned and descaled
- You are using poor quality water – either from a tap, or another source – that is either too hard or too soft
We’ll cover #1 in a subsequent blog post. #2 is the key ingredient of great coffee that most people give little thought to. After all, H2O is H2O, right? In fact, not all water is equal. It comprises anywhere from 90% to 98% of the coffee that you enjoy, so it is a dominant ingredient whose contents impacts flavor in subtle yet meaningful ways. Water quality determines good coffee!
Water quality is a perennial bugbear for great tea and coffee. Hard water such as that with heavy mineral, dissolved organic solids or chlorine – does not allow for full extraction and yields coffees with weak bodies and off flavors. On the other hand, waters without any mineral content such as heavily filtered or distilled waters can have the opposite effect, with some tasting notes dialed up while others are muted. Municipal tap water is hit or miss in this regard. Although some cities do supply very high quality water, most city and town water sources will at minimum feature substantial amounts of chlorine and other byproducts of its interaction with organic substances that create off flavors or dampen the complex notes of a quality coffee. Then there is also the question of the interaction between water and deposits in your home piping or neighborhood, which will not appear on official water quality tests.
For this reason, we always recommend brewing coffee with spring water or some other non-chlorinated water source with balanced pH and mineral content. Unfortunately, filtering tap water is not enough. While it reduces most organic materials, bacteria and heavy metals, filtering will not remove all chlorine or resolve very hard water. Additionally, some tap waters may be too soft and will not allow your coffee to extract as well. We recommend purchasing bottled spring water (obviously not effervescent).
If you have a well or access to one, that may also do the trick, but keep in mind that some well water can have impurities leaching from the ground. Your best bet is to test brew coffee with your well water alongside bottled spring water, cup and compare the results. Deeper wells are likely to yield purer water with less mineral content. Our personal favorite is artesian well water.
Artesian Well Water
Incidentally, if you are local to Cafe Jose or generally live in north-eastern Massachusetts or southern New Hampshires, we highly recommend our favorite local source: “Deep Rock Water,” an artesian well drilled dozens of feet below the surface to clean, non-chlorinated water with balanced pH and mineral content. These types of artesian wells offer delicious, clean water for everyday drinking that is perfect for coffee, too. They are becoming more and more common across the United States so we recommend a quick Internet search to see if any are in your area.
A Technical Approach to Water and Coffee
Finally, if you are a barista, coffee shop owner or other coffee professional, consider purchasing the book “Water for Coffee.” The book’s findings are discussed in the helpful article, “A Practical Water Guide for Coffee Professionals (Part I),” at Daily Coffee News, by Chris Kornman. The key takeaway is to seek out or produce water that is as close to neutral (pH 7) as possible: “Keeping the water at a relatively neutral pH — some people tend to prefer slightly alkaline — and a balanced hardness will help to preserve boilers, espresso machines and other equipment. A little bit of bicarbonate alkalinity can act as a buffer against swings in pH, which is good since water can be corrosive without bicarbonate.”