We're back with an expert account from Jon Dempsey, 3rd place winner at the 2018 Canadian AeroPress Championship. In How I Got Into The KRUVE Groove, Jon talks about his coffee-brewing experience before the KRUVE sifter and how it changed the game for him at the national stage.
The act of sifting coffee grinds began as a geeky barista endeavour, using the method as a “secret weapon" to enhance competitive coffee brewing. The edge it provided baristas with was sweeter coffees and less bitterness; this almost guaranteed the coffee to have more flavour-clarity, and a cleaner finish. But what is sifting? Sifting, in most cases, means omission of the smallest coffee grinds with the most surface area. These are called “fines” and the process of removing those results in less astringency in the final brew. Given their large surface area, the fines tend to extract at the fastest rate, allowing water to easily penetrate and dissolve compounds into the cup. Brewers would sift the coffee by vigorously shaking coffee grinds in a container with a screen of some sort on the bottom to filter them through the holes in the screen, dividing the particles up between the bigger ones on top and smaller ones at the bottom. Sifting wasn’t always on the radar of most home brewers or baristas though. Initially, it was more for the more adventurous coffee geeks who would experiment with the trick themselves, allowing for better coffee made on cheap, crappy home grinders.
A famous grinder
For the longest time, cheap, poorly-made grinders were the norm for home brewers (unless one could afford commercial gear). So you either wound up with severely under-extracted cups (to avoid bitterness), or over-extracted cups (with mild bitterness), in search of sweetness and body. Often enough, home brewers would get become frustrated: “Why can’t I recreate that pour-over from my local cafe? I am using the same coffee!” Meanwhile, around 2011 “third wave” coffee began to explode in North America. Many cafes started to use the Mahlkönig EK-43 grinder, a robust German-made machine that was originally intended for grain, spice, and heavy-duty bulk milling. This grinder soon became the standard for filter brewing in cafes, allowing for extractions to surpass the norm, without any astringency or mucky flavours. That was largely in part because of the grinder’s massive vertical burrs which produced a very tight particle distribution spread. To wit, the grinds end up being more uniform and even in size, which allowed for extractions to surpass the norm, without any astringency or mucky flavours —the complete opposite of most home grinders (even today). For these reasons, when the stars aligned (i.e. high quality light to medium roasts combined with good baristas using EK-43s), many coffee enthusiasts of the early ‘10s were able to enjoy mind-blowing cups of coffee.
But even an EK-43 still produces potentially undesirable particle sizes. These offending particles are grouped as “fines” and “boulders.” Fines are particles under 300 microns (μm) in size, and boulders are particles over 1100 microns (μm). Both are unavoidable in all grinding situations, but can be eliminated via sifting, as an incremental step toward that perfect grind.
Let’s get personal, and go back in time…
Photo credits: Jon Dempsey - Instagram (@father_jon_v60)
The first time I sifted coffee around 2013 at home with an ad-hoc setup: I used a tea strainer and metal mesh colander combo. I was inspired by Matt Perger’s 2012 Brewer’s Cup routine, where sifting largely contributed to his win. The difference between Matt and I? I didn’t quite know exactly what I was doing— only that I wanted an easy fix to curtail bitter extractions. In spite of having no clue about choosing the best grind size, and how many microns the ideal range were, my coffee did end up tasting pretty good. Other times it was way under-extracted and one-dimensional, tasting very flat and grainy. The problem was that I didn’t have control— I didn’t know how many microns of fines my strainer was removing, and it would often get clogged up. Needless to say, my kitchen got messy with coffee grinds flying everywhere.
Two years later I competed in the 2015 Canadian AeroPress Championships, representing Phil & Sebastian. During my time as a barista I had pressed thousands of AeroPresses, and while I think it is a great brew method—consistent, simple, fewer variables than others—I knew I needed an edge to make my coffee shine. So I went to a supermarket and bought a fine metal mesh colander for sifting the boulders, and for the fines, I went to a specialized geological supply shop. I asked them for a 300 micron geological sieve, and returned home with some odd toys that would later confound my roommate, and cause me much grief in the following days. After a lot of trial and error, I settled on a grind setting, and with the help of Phil (of Phil & Sebastian), I tweaked my recipe at our roastery/headquarters, and determined the exact input + sifting time to get the desired output. The process was sort of silly: since geological sieves are open-ended, I had to use a small side plate from home as a lid, while aggressively shaking the grinds. The other problem was that, yet again, the fines ended up flying out everywhere— a very messy and cumbersome process for sure. During the competition, I unfortunately did not place, and got knocked out during the first round.
One of my fellow competitors, David Lalonde, flew all the way in from Montréal for the event. He also opted to sift for his recipe, and like myself, had to get creative. David told me that he purchased a metal mesh colander from a dollar store, and combined that with a fine mesh matcha sifter, sourced from a local tea shop. He told me that in order to achieve his target grind size he had to use three of the eight minutes allotted just for sifting. His efforts and creative thinking lead him to a respectable 3rd place finish.
As for first and second place, I was shocked to learn that these top two placing competitors both weren’t even baristas. One, a retired engineer who enjoyed making AeroPress coffee at home on weekends, the other, his full time job— a house-painter. This was truly a testament to the democratization of AeroPress competitions wherein anyone can have a chance at making a phenomenal, world-class cup of coffee.
Sifting gears: boulders, lessons learned, fast forward
I remember first hearing about the KRUVE sifter back in early 2016 from some barista friends. There was hype behind it and their Kickstarter/Indiegogo campaign really took off. Some of my colleagues even invested in it, but this was at a time when I was in the midst of moving across the country, so I didn't have much time to check it out. After my move from Calgary to Montreal, I got resettled, and got back into experimenting with coffee. I managed to finally get my hands on a KRUVE sifter, and began to play around with it. I remember thinking: “I wish this had existed when I competed.” It was easy to use and had far less limitations than my ad-hoc geological sifter. I began to experiment with different KRUVE sieve combinations- and began thinking more about the role of boulders in coffee.
The removal of boulders is often something that can be overlooked, as people tend to focus on fines, but they’re another component of the grind size spectrum that have their own inherent problems—or benefits—depending on how you see it. Boulders are harder to extract than fines as they’re not as soluble, though they tend to add more sweetness. Their inclusion in a brew means you will need additional smaller particles to achieve your target extraction. It’s a balancing act, and there are even some schools of thought that say boulders are the enemy, not fines. Some people believe that because they extract at a lower rate, and because they extract slower, they’re inefficient and lead to under-under-extracted coffees. For my own preferences, I tend to include boulders, and I adjust my brewing style around them, so I can still achieve 20 - 22% extraction (which is pretty much the standard desirable range). With sifting, it’s important to not get too focused on theory and numbers, and to let your taste buds guide you. Heck, sometimes I think fines are good, too. They’re not the enemy either; the real enemy is bad roasting, bad water, and bad brewing habits.
A return to the national stage
This year I was able to compete in the Canadian National AeroPress Championship again, which took place in Hamilton, Ontario. I was excited, nervous, and found myself scrambling to come up with a recipe in the weeks leading up to it. For my recipe, a major focus was water chemistry— more so than in 2015. Another big focus for me was doing brew concentrates. I noticed that a lot of the recent champions all over around the world used this style of brewing. It really was to wow judges, and I soon discovered why. Making a concentrate allowed for more control — you could decide how strong to make the final brew, and adjust it on the fly by watering it down. Typically people brew with 14 -18 grams of coffee, but in working with concentrates, some brewers use as much at 35 grams and then add about 150 grams of water to the brew, at the end.
The real enemy is bad roasting, bad water, and bad brewing habits.
But I also had to make a couple important decisions: One, decide on the “inverted method” vs. the standard, and two- to sift or not to sift. After many, many attempts, I decided to invert my AeroPress and to use the KRUVE sifter. The coffee simply didn’t taste good with the inclusion of fines— it lacked the elegance I knew judges would look for. I decided to keep the boulders (sorry Matt Perger) and opted for the 300μm screen, to remove the fines from my brewing coffee. I really think this was crucial for the coffee to have the ideal sweetness, body, and balance. The roast of the coffee was rather light, and seemed to highlight a prominent acidity that could be characterized as pink grapefruit. It was very much in your face and not a coffee I’d make for my mother. To me, the challenge was to tame this acidity, while not sacrificing any of the other important components. I definitely found that the combination of sifting + making a concentrate allowed me to achieve great flavour clarity and sweetness. After some more tweaking, I finally settled on my recipe.
The day of...
Jon Dempsey in action at the 2018 Canadian AeroPress Championship
When it came to the day of the competition, I did one last run through in my cousin’s kitchen and had a mild heart attack when I tasted the coffee: it was WAY off. I then noticed that during transit, the top burr + burr collar of my grinder had come loose, and I failed to properly align them. I then re-adjusted the burrs, did another quick test brew, and after nervously tasting, took a huge sigh of relief. Back on track, I then packed up, and hit the road with my co-worker. We arrived in Hamilton early and did a mini-cafe crawl in the hours leading up to the comp.
At the competition, it turned out that my name was drawn for the last heat of the first round, so I was able to relax for about 45 minutes, and schmooze a bit. It was really great to see some familiar faces, and to run into some of my favourite Canadian coffee professionals. Fast forward to my first and second heat, I felt much less nervous than any other time I had competed, and somehow made it through both rounds. The third round was weird— I remember thinking I had had a false start. I looked over to my opponent and asked, “Why haven’t you started?” I remember not correctly hearing the MC amid the crowd and music, so I wasn’t 100% sure that he had told us to begin. My opponent laughed and replied, “I haven’t started because I don’t have much to do.” I guess some people don’t need much time, and can finish their brew within a few minutes. Out of the allotted eight minutes, I took up about five, with the last few minutes left for fine-tuning.
I remember the last round was a complete shock to me, and I scrambled to prepare; I honestly did not anticipate I would make it that far. I had only brought 1L of competition water with me, and had just enough for that last and final brew. I will say, on that round, my nerves got the better of me, and I accidentally poured some fines from the bottom chamber of my KRUVE into my AeroPress… a crucial mistake. I chalk it up to being tired and wired, excited and nervous— so yeah, mistakes happen. In the end, I was happy with my overall 3rd place result, and I must give credit to Paul from Rosso Coffee Roasters for his second place finish, and to Elly Cortez from Show & Tell for her win.I actually managed to sneak of sip of Elly’s winning brew afterwards and wow, I have to say—she is a magician. She transformed the coffee into this incredible, insanely delicious, perfect cup. It was sweeter and more balanced than my coffee. Hats off to her— her AeroPress recipe produced a world-class brew that deserved to win, and that will hopefully take her all the way in Sydney, Australia, at the World Championship this month. Good luck, Elly!
A costly expense: fines in the AeroPress
After I got home to Montreal, I noticed that during the fanfare and fog of an over-caffeinated, under-hydrated LONG night of competing, I forgot to clean out my sifter. I left the fines in the bottom chamber, a biting reminder of the critical error made during my last round. I shook my head, laughed at the souvenir of fines, and dumped them into the trash. I told myself, “Next year I won’t make any mistakes, and won’t settle for bronze!” I cannot wait to compete again.
I’d like to thank KRUVE for sponsoring me, and for allowing me to use their product at home and in a competition environment. I think the KRUVE sifter is an extremely versatile tool to have for coffee professionals and home brewers alike. The sifter has so many applications from grinder-calibration to home brewing enhancement, and to coffee competitions. I’m happy that sifting coffee has become this easy, and grateful that KRUVE saw the need for something beyond what we were using two or three years ago. Cheers to better coffee!
Jon's recipe at the 2018 Canadian AeroPress Championship:
- Inverted / paper filter
- 30g sifted coffee for <300μm fines removal
- 88C water
- Add 125g water, stir, cap
- Flip and plunge at 1:10 for 30s
- Add ~175g water, adjust to taste
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon heads Wholesale Relationships at Eight Ounce Coffee in Montreal. Perfecting his brew style, experimenting with new methods, and constantly looking out for ways to improvise on his brewing, are just few of things that talk about Jon's passion for coffee. Jon is on Instagram @father_jon_v60 and on email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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