Most people who love their coffee go to great lengths to get exquisite beans, a capable burr grinder, and an expensive device for brewing.
For some reason, however, they never seem to give the water a second thought. The truth is that water constitutes more than 98 percent of the final drink. Perhaps we ought to see it as the most crucial ingredient in a cup of coffee.
I had been a coffee geek for years before I realized the importance of water. Once I finally understood the role of water in coffee extraction it changed my brewing for good.
Water chemistry can get pretty complicated, so this is my attempt to boil the most important aspects down to some actionable advice, so you can also brew better coffee at home.
Water is more than H2O
Water is water. It’s everywhere in our daily life, and we never give it a second thought. Sure, you can get some fancy mineral water in the supermarket, but that’s just marketing. Right? Well, it probably often is, but there’s also some truth to it. Water is a lot more than just H2O when you study it carefully. It usually contains minerals, salts, and some impurities.
Depending on where you are in the world the water composition will be somewhat different. Rainwater percolates into the underground where it will go through layers of limestone and chalk. This process makes the water harder as it picks up minerals on the way.
You probably never thought about it, but it’s not uncommon that a single liter of water contains enough minerals that it equates to the size of a headache pill.
People who live in areas with much calcium in the water, however, already know this since they have to descale their electric kettle and bathroom tiles regularly.
One of the things that has become apparent in the specialty coffee community in recent years is that water isn’t just an ingredient in coffee.
The water – or rather the minerals in it – also acts as an extraction agent that pulls the delicious compounds from the coffee beans and into the cup.
The British barista champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood and chemist Christopher Hendon did a research project a few years ago that shed some light on the process.
It turns out that magnesium and calcium are the two most important minerals when it comes to coffee extraction. Especially, magnesium is vital if you want to be able to taste the fruity and lively flavors of light roasted coffees.
It could be tempting to think that more minerals equate better coffee but that isn’t the case, argued Hendon and Colonna-Dashwood in their research paper. Instead, there is a sweet spot where minerals and a buffer are balanced to create the ideal water.
When their book, ‘Water for Coffee,’ was published it made headlines within the specialty coffee community.
However, beer brewers had been aware of the importance of water for centuries. In fact, that’s the reason why beers from London, Prague, and Brussels historically had their own style.
Test your water
So how do we boil all this science down to some actionable advice? Well, luckily you don’t have to study water chemistry to start making better coffee.
One thing you can do today is to stop using hard water for brewing coffee if you live in an affected area. You should be able to obtain this information from your local water station easily. Otherwise, you can buy a cheap TDS pen online (I recommend the Xiaomi brand) and measure it yourself. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans have hard water in their taps.
To find out if a certain water is right, you can check the label and see what the amount of total dissolved solids (TDS) is. If it’s between 50 and 150, the water will most likely be great.
However, if the water has a TDS score from 0 to 20 – which is typically the case with reverse osmosis water – it will not be ideal for brewing. The flavor compounds of the beans need some minerals to adhere to in order to be extracted properly. The taste will be astringent and somehow artificial.
Soft water is better.
What if you have soft water in the area where you live? Then you’re one of the lucky ones.
You can probably get away with using a filter pitcher such as Brita. If you can find specific cartridges that convert calcium to magnesium, you should go for that.
It may sound like a lot of trouble to go through, but using the right kind of water makes a huge difference when brewing manually. If you’re still unsure whether it’s worth the effort, I’d encourage you to test it at home. Just brew a cup of coffee with tap water and bottled water and taste them next to each other. The difference should be obvious.
If you already care about buying freshly roasted coffee and have the right equipment, this last step will take your cup from good to great.
About the Author: Asser Christensen is a Danish journalist. These days he mostly writes about coffee. He is a certified Q Arabica Grader with the Coffee Quality Institute. His work has been published in a range of newspapers and magazines in his native country, Denmark, as well as internationally. You can follow his coffee journey at his personal blog: ‘The Coffee Chronicler.’ If you already care about buying freshly roasted coffee and have the right equipment, this last step will take your cup from good to great.
Village guitar groups and women’s choirs sing to stress the transformative impact of Fair Trade prices and to encourage their neighbors to join the coffee cooperative. Accompanied with xylophone, drums, and other traditional instruments, these farmers sing of the benefits of interfaith cooperation and, through music, teach new cooperative members how to produce great coffee.
J. J. Keki, the founder of the cooperative, says: “Use whatever you have to create peace! If you have music, use your music to create peace. For us, we have coffee. We are using coffee to bring peace to the world.”
I was at my desk, it was late afternoon. The phone rang… “Hello, my name is Laura Wetzler” came the voice from the other end. That was the beginning of my and Thanksgiving Coffee Company’s involvement in this fascinating experience that has just begun to unfold.
It was 2004. The sky was blue but the sun was well on its way down over the Pacific creating that eerie orange glow when late afternoon begins to turn into early evening. It was “magic time,” or time for magic.
It turned out that Laura Wetzler was, and still is, the Ugandan Coordinator for an all volunteer Jewish NGO called Kulanu in Washington DC. She called to ask me if I would buy five sacks of coffee from a cooperative she was working with. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Another starry-eyed idealist who went to a poor country to build a school, discovered coffee in the midst of poverty and decided that it was the answer to all the community’s woes.”
I remember the first full day of our initial trip to Uganda in October 2006 to produce a documentary about Mirembe Kawomera (“Delicious Peace”) Coffee Co-op. After three days of travel (one from NY to Europe, the second from there to Entebbe Airport, and the third by car up to the Mbale region), we enthusiastically showed up at the entrance of the coffee co-op’s clay-constructed storefront. We were eager to meet the legendary farmers who had formed a collective to bridge interfaith differences and generate economic development through a Fair Trade partnership with California-based buyer, roaster and seller Thanksgiving Coffee Company. Since we had been in touch via email for several months and the executive board had invited us to come, we were ready to break out the cameras following the handshakes and dive into work. Instead, the farmers asked that we sit down for a four-hour meeting that began with the question: “Why should we let you do this?”
At that moment, Curt looked at me and said, “You are the attorney. You can negotiate this. I’m going outside to take pictures. They may be the last ones we get!”
Now here it is, six and a half years after that meeting and three years after the premiere screening of Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean, and we are returning for our fifth trip, this time (as the last) with a group of friends in tow. Dual goals motivate this journey: (1) adding an extra 15-20 minutes of footage for a one-hour TV release focused on co-op updates and the impact of climate change on the farmers’ crops, and (2) introducing more American consumers to the work of the Mirembe Kawomera co-op, helping to spread awareness about their truly delicious coffee and the myriad families whose lives orbit around it.
In many respects, the first aim parallels corporate video production shoots we do around the world for many clients. We have done our homework and know what we want to record, all the necessary equipment is packed and ready to go, a basic schedule is in place, and we have the contact information for folks who will be crucial data-providers.
This assignment, however, comes with advance bonuses. We already have established friendships with farmers in the co-op, who are excited to help with the new phase of the project by devoting days of time when we are present to providing assistance; they understand and appreciate our role in helping to publicize their messages. And – New Yorkers — you know that excited feeling of being with out-of-towners who arrive in New York for the first time and stand in transcendental wonderment upon their initial ascent out of the subway? We will have the opportunity to experience that feeling through the eyes of our trip participants, multiple-fold, beginning with the moment our friend/tourguide Samson drives our group out of the airport onto the streets of Entebbe.
In response to the farmers’ initial question in 2006, I promised a long-term, mutual partnership in which success would be shared. I promised we would produce, complete, and screen the documentary. I said this would be an important avenue to spread the message of the work they are doing to bridge interfaith differences and educate coffee consumers about the hard work of farmers dedicated to specialty coffee production so that purchasing decisions reflect that knowledge. I told them that a successful documentary will trigger interest in their coffee. I told them that we have always established long-term friendships with the people who are the subjects of documentaries we undertake – as we have often done with our corporate video production clients.
Almost seven years later, the documentary has screened (and continues to do so) at over 35 international film festivals with a TV debut in the near future. We have partnered with a distributor committed to creating local educational “Peace Party” screenings around the country. Countless people have watched the program and learned about the important work of the farmers – many are busy talking about it on social media avenues everyday. And we are going back again to visit our friends and continue to develop the informational base.
We’re grateful the farmers took a leap of faith with us and proud to have earned their trust. T-5 days until we are off to Uganda!
Purchase coffees from the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative and support their livelihoods:
We are happy to announce that our partners at the Peace Kawomera Cooperative have just received notice that their climate change adaptation project has been approved for funding by the Dutch NGO Progreso! This exciting news comes on the heels of three years of hard work developing a community-based plan to protect coffee production, and ensure sustainable livelihoods through the diversification of income, restoration of the local ecosystem, and increasing levels of food security. With deep gratitude for the support of Progreso, the leadership of Peace Kawomera, and the support from our loyal customers, Thanksgiving Coffee would like to raise a toast to what it means to live in a world where we are all connected, and where we invest in and enjoy the rewards of shared responsibility and mutual benefit.
Please read below for a description of the project, written by Peace Kawomera’s Chief Agronomist John Bosco Birenge.
Peace Kawomera is a coffee farmer cooperative located on one of the slopes of Mt. Elgon in eastern Uganda, near the city of Mbale. It is farmer owned and run by the management staff and Board of Directors. It started in 2004 dealing mainly in coffee production while selling it to their sole buyer in the USA Thanksgiving Coffee Company.
Since then, coffee production has been increasing alongside farmgate prices to cooperative members. The cooperative has begun to diversify to other cash crops like vanilla and cocoa, all of which grow as intercrops within the main coffee plantings. The farmers are now grouped into 25-member Farmer Field Groups, totaling 63 farmer groups in all.
“We thank you for purchasing our coffee. The price you pay enables us to send our children to school.” — Mrs. Florence Namaja Wabire.
Though farmers have been growing these crops, they seemed not to realize the negative effects of their other activities on the environment. In 2010 coffee production plummeted, as did food production. There is also growing awareness of the negative impacts of climate change which include increasingly unpredictable differentiation between wet and dry season, increasingly intense rains and flooding, longer and prolonged dry periods, as well as subsequent changes in the local ecosystem. Additionally, there is a growing awareness of the more localized negative impacts caused by farmers’ activities such as:
Deforestation for cooking/charcoal production
Brick making and firing
Poor disposal of wastes i.e. in water streams and bodies.
The above few mentioned activities have affected not only cash crop production but also have a huge and significant negative impact on food crops. Specifically these activities have lead to deterioration in soil fertility, and have affected water quality in the area’s watershed.
It is expected that the impacts of climate change will continue to disrupt local weather patterns, both extending dry periods and intensifying wet periods. The impact of these erratic changes in weather will make it difficult for farmers to plan and manage their farms, and it will increase the likelihood of losses due to drought, flooding and landslides, and disruptions in the normal crop cycle of coffee.
Farmers Eias Hasalube and Hakim Aziz beneath the canopy of Mr. Aziz’s restored coffee farm.
Given the above, the farmers are searching for strategies they can employ to adapt to these changes without sacrificing their livelihoods. This is happening at the time when farmers are anxious to reap a lot out of their coffee due to its regaining reputation on the international scene, increasing market price and increasing differential and quality premium through the specialty coffee market and the good price from US-based Thanksgiving Coffee Company, a buyer since 2004.
The above-mentioned activities of environmental degradation are mainly driven by economic need arising from high rates of unemployment locally. Therefore, this project seeks a two-pronged strategy to increase the value and production of shade grown coffee, and interventions to fortify the ecosystem against the impacts of shifting weather by planting valuable grasses in swale formation, increasing the intercropping of strategically important shade trees in coffee plantations, and reforestation of hill tops and ridges to create a conducive micro climate for coffee. This fortified ecosystem will be better able to protect coffee from severe rains because of increased canopy cover, and will be able to reduce erosion by controlling runoff. Additionally, through the selection of appropriate shade trees, the project will increase the production of high-mulching organic matter which will improve soil quality, a critical step towards improved coffee quality and production, as well creating habitat for the biological control agents here referred to as natural enemies of the pests.
Agro forestry provides additional sources of income especially from sales of fruits from the planted trees, sale of harvested grasses from swales, sale of firewood and of seedlings from the nurseries to other communities.
Agronomist and project leader JB Birenge demonstrates simple construction of living barriers used to control erosion.
This will also reduce the gap of unemployment and improve on food security for the area’s farmers by increasing the diversity of foods immediately available to farming families. Protecting and restoring the environment will reduce the impacts of climate change, enhance biodiversity, and improve on ecological systems which are all aimed at improving coffee production and food security.
The project will be built around a package of incentives designed to facilitate and inspire quick uptake in action by individual farmers. The methodology will be driven by the established network and practice of the Farmer Field Schools. Led by the project manager, a team will create local seedling nurseries and begin the process of educating individual farmers through the FFS groups. After an 6 month period, the leading farmer in each FFS group (determined by objective pre-established criteria around tree planting, swale construction, soil and water conservation) will be given a female goat. These goats produce manure which is high in nitrogen which can be incorporated back into the fields for improved soil fertility. After an additional 6 months the next leading farmer in each FFS Group will be rewarded a goat based upon the established criteria. These goats will be expected to reproduce so as time goes on, the kids will be given out to other members who come second, i.e. responsibility will be upon farmers to know that if such a farmer`s goat kids, the offspring will be expected to be designated by the project to the next recipient farmer. This process of review and award will be conducted 4 times (6, 12, 18, and 24 months. It is estimated that the project will need to purchase 252 female goats (63 FFS Groupsx4 cycles) to get the inventive program off the ground and to a point of self-sustainability.
Nathan Watadena points to land that is targeted for reforestation and restoration.
PROBLEM STATEMENT AND GOALS
Peace Kawomera’s livelihood is coffee produced on the slopes of Mt. Elgon between 1300 – 1700 meters above sea level. They are farmers whose staple foods are cereal crops but also keep some livestock they have diversified to vanilla and of recent though faint cocoa plants. But in amidst all these, farmers have realized the effects of climate change and how it is affecting their first crop which is coffee.
A survey conducted with 12 farmer groups noted that rains come late, and are now more erratic where by the rainy and dry seasons are harsher than ever, this has made it difficult for them to cope with the increased un employment rate which has led to youths making mud bricks for money, stone quarrying, cutting trees for timber and firewood to burn bricks all these leaving coffee plants in the bare environment. Therefore, this project must protect the farmer’s livelihood. This will ensure sustainability of coffee production, food security and better understanding of the ecosystems that work hand in hand.
1 Ensure long term sustainability of coffee farming with focus on quality production.
2 Improve biodiversity
3 Improve on food security.
4 Improve on water quality (water sheds).
5 Improve on soil quality.
6 To create a sense of responsibility towards environment.
7 Educate farmers on positive and negative impact of various economic activities
Diversify economic activity and income generation through promotion of environmentally preferable activities