Army National Guard veteran Merri Lade tries to roast green coffee beans over a campfire like Civil War soldiers might have done. (Courtesy of Merri Lade)
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Notes on perfect cup
On shore duty in the 1970s, now-Navy veteran-turned-coffee roaster Bob Mastin rejected the government-issued coffee outright. His notes on the simple science behind brewing the perfect cup:
Start with good-quality, freshly roasted beans. Look local. Regional roasters could be your best bet for the freshest roast. “The freshness of the roast is critical, and coffee is at its peak flavor two to 14 days after roasting. ... The main enemy of freshness is oxygen so keep your beans in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.”
Use filtered or bottled water. “Brewed coffee is mostly water, so you want to make sure it tastes good. A good filtration system is recommended for most municipal water supplies. Or use good bottled water. Distilled water is not recommended as it has no flavor at all.”
Hotplates kill good coffee fast. “Avoid brewing into a glass carafe that sits on a hotplate unless you plan to consume the coffee immediately or transfer it to an insulated pot or carafe. Otherwise, the brewed coffee will get ‘cooked’ and will be ruined fairly quickly.”
Don’t skimp on grounds. To mitigate coffee’s bitter flavors — use more coffee. “We use more grounds in each brew because the result is a richer flavor, not stronger. Bitterness is actually caused by overextraction: too much water in relation to grounds.”
The best taste brews first. Coffee’s best flavors are the first to be extracted. “With a French press, it will be better to use more grounds and a shorter steep time than going in the opposite direction.”
Cold brew for a kick. Caffeine’s water solubility means the longer it steeps, the greater the potency. “The least caffeine is in espresso, where the water is pushed through in 30 seconds or less. … The most caffeine is in cold-brew coffee that is steeped for up to 24 hours.”
Bob Mastin’s new Veteran Coffee Roasters brand — including the Bosun’s Blend and Recon Roast coffees, among others — gives $1 to the Wounded Warrior Project for every pound sold. Mastin graduated from the Naval Academy in 1972 and served as a surface warfare officer in Vietnam, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa. He founded Custom House Coffee in 2002 in Middletown, Rhode Island, to raise the profile of one of his commercial properties. “I have always loved good coffee and didn’t know how good it could be until I roasted some quality green beans at home on a simple hot-air roaster. I was blown away with the flavor and never settled for stale beans after that. I knew when I opened my coffeehouse that roasting would have to be a big part of it.
Desert Shield veteran Merri Lade was a military police specialist in the Army National Guard. She started working at Mastin’s shop part-time, “unaware that I would become so passionate about coffee production and consumption!”
Fredric C. Lynch is a council member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in Ohio. His essay is the source for the Civil War references in this article.
Coffee rations were a mainstay for many Civil War troops by the time a young Sgt. William McKinley of Ohio performed his famous coffee service on the battlefield at Antietam in 1862.
“The battle began at daylight,” wrote then-Col. Rutherford B. Hayes. “Before daylight men were in the ranks and preparing for it. Without breakfast, without coffee, they went into the fight.”
“Famished and thirsty” by afternoon, they were “to some extent broken in spirit.” McKinley supervised the brigade’s “commissary department” and “from his hands every man in the regiment was served with hot coffee and warm meats. … He passed under fire and delivered, with his own hands, these things, so essential for the men for whom he was laboring.”
Coffee’s popularity had grown among U.S. troops since it replaced whiskey in soldiers’ daily rations in 1837, writes military historian Fredric C. Lynch in his essay “Civil War soldiers made coffee America’s drink.”
Civil War troops on the march would have brewed what today is known as “cowboy coffee,” that no-filter, in-cup potion you drink with the grounds (theoretically) resting on the bottom.
And believe it or not, their method isn’t far off from what two veterans-turned-coffee roasters — and self-proclaimed coffee geeks — say you should do to brew the perfect cup:
In the barracks
Save space by skipping the drip coffeemaker with the hotplate, advises Bob Mastin, a Vietnam-era Navy officer who runs his own coffee-roasting company and coffee shop in Rhode Island.
He and his staff like the simpler methods.
“If there is a way to make hot water, there is a way to make a perfect cup of coffee,” says Merri Lade, a former military police specialist in the Army National Guard who now works as a barista in Mastin’s shop.
Provided you’re able to heat water in a microwave, today’s big-box stores, Internet mega-retailers and coffee connoisseur websites all sell small coffee presses and one-cup, pour-over brewing devices that don’t take up outlet space.
Lade scouted Wal-Mart and found an all-in-one version in which you brew your coffee right in the cup (about $20, check the camping section).
If your water boils while zapping, let it sit in the microwave for a bit, Mastin says. The temperature will drop, more or less quickly depending on your container, ideally to about 205-206 degrees.
“You want it plenty hot but not boiling.”
Iced-coffee lovers — or anyone with a caffeine tooth — will want to check out the cold-brew techniques on this page.
At the office
Bring in the Renuzits and banish your workplace’s burnt-coffee smell for good.
You’ll get better coffee anyway if you all band together, buy good beans and brew directly into a Thermos-like “airpot” rather than a glass carafe that sits on a hotplate, Mastin says.
But an airpot setup won’t cure bad water — or just plain bad coffee.
“Our mess sergeant used to make coffee in 32-gallon corrugated cans — you know, the big silver garbage cans,” Lade says.
“He’d fill the can with water and heat it with a big immersion heater. He then opened and dumped cans of some god-awful generic coffee into the bucket. And it would sit — while he did other things. No specific timeframe.
“But at some point the immersion heater would come out and the can of ‘coffee’ allowed to cool some, which would cause the grinds to sink (supposedly) and then we’d all dip our cups in as we went through the mess line.”
To make the opposite impression on the troops around you, learn the simple techniques for bringing out coffee’s best flavors. Use filtered or bottled water, and be generous with the grounds. For a 64-ounce airpot or carafe, Mastin recommends 3.5 ounces to 4 ounces of coffee.
In the field
If your daily dose is dear enough that you dedicate precious pack space to brewing devices, then you’re probably drinking a pretty perfect cup.
Make it better with whole beans and a hand grinder — “or a battery-operated coffee grinder that looks like a flashlight and is really cool for $9.99 at Amazon!” Lade says.
“But if a soldier really wants to impress his friends, he could roast coffee beans over the fire.”
She both issued and accepted the challenge, procuring a cast-iron skillet and lighting an early morning campfire.
Getting the green beans to roast evenly turned out to be tough, she says.
“I have some practicing to do.”
Of course, if your goal is the perfect cup, you’ll want a professional roast. Brew it individually — in a small French press or in a camping percolator that sits atop a stove or open fire.
What about the brewing method purported to deliver the maximum caffeine kick — no heat required?
Even if you have access only to cold water, you can make “a killer cup of super-smooth, high-test, 24-hour-cold-brewed coffee,” Lade says.
Cold brew is both much more highly caffeinated — how much more depends on a number of factors, including steep time — as well as unbelievably smooth in flavor, Mastin says. Using anywhere from a 1:4 to 1:8 coffee-to-water ratio or to taste, follow the steps below.
For a crowd, Mastin’s big-batch cold-brew recipe:
■ 5-gallon bucket
■ Specialty filter bag (www.toddycafe.com) or a clean white T-shirt or similar fabric (to hold the grounds)
■ 5 pounds of auto-drip-ground coffee
■ 5 gallons of filtered or bottled water
1. Place the bagged grounds into the bucket.
2. Pour the water over the top.
3. Refrigerate and let steep for 24 hours.
4. Remove the coffee grounds, squeezing to recover all of the coffee.
5. Initial yield will be about 2 gallons. Dilute with 2 more gallons of water.
6. Heat it up or serve it iced.
Total yield: About 4 gallons