Friday, January 18, 2013

How-to: perk coffee

Morning coffee (1)
There's something wonderful and special about having fresh ground coffee in the morning. I am one of those coffee drinkers who really requires that first cup, but can then proceed with the day and not touch another drop. I sometimes indulge in a second cup mid-afternoon, but not always. I love the dusky, hearty scent of freshly ground beans, and the unmatchable flavor when you brew them into that dark, rich liquid. Add cream and sugar, and there's just nothing else like it in the world.

In an emergency or while camping, knowing how to make coffee without power is a skill that will be much appreciated by those around you.  Ignoring the lack of electricity and being able to whip up a batch of steaming hot brew will gain you many bonus points with your family and friends.

Start with some good quality beans, if at all possible. In a real emergency, you may have to make do with pre-ground, or even scrounge for substitutes like dandelion or chicory root, but let's assume you have the beans in long-term storage, ready to be pulled out. Your best long-term storage beans are ones that are dry, without the oil that you see in the picture to the right. The oil in coffee beans can go rancid relatively quickly (within days in warm weather, or months in cold weather). Dry roasted beans last longer and stay fresh longer.

My grinder
You will need to grind your coffee beans in order to make it possible to brew with them. The best method is to use an old fashioned hand-cranked coffee grinder. In my house, this is the only way we grind coffee, and the children argue over who gets to do it next! Look for hand grinders at yard sales and estate sales, as the older ones are much better (in my opinion). Old coffee mills use burrs, metal plates with bits sticking up to grind the beans into granules. Newer mills, especially electric ones, often use blades instead. Blades simply do not release the right kind of oils for a good cup of coffee. Ebay has quite a few antique grinders listed, although prices can be quite high. Places like Lehman's also sell brand new but old fashioned style coffee grinders, if you prefer to buy new.

The tension screw
One of the best things about a coffee grinder of this type is that, in a real emergency, it can be cleaned out and used to grind grains and beans into flour. It won't be perfect, but it will be functional. The secret to using an old fashioned style grinder is the tension screw. The tighter the screw, the finer the grind of coffee (or flour). For a French Press style coffee maker (another non-electric method of making delicious coffee), you want to have an incredibly fine grind, almost like a powder. For our purposes, though, in a percolator you want to have a fairly rough grind. In fact, in a pinch you could even just smash up coffee beans by putting them into a plastic bag and hitting them with a rolling pin. I don't suggest this, though, as your coffee won't taste nearly as nice as grinding it.

Freshly ground coffee
My grinder is easy to use. You put the beans into the top glass hopper and up-end it onto the grinder. Turn the tension screw until it's very loose, then grind away with the handle until all the beans are gone. Lift the hopper and poke any loose bits down into the grinding mechanism, then grind again until the burrs run free.  Tap the cast iron side lightly to release any bits of ground coffee sticking to the burrs, then remove the glass catch cup from below and there's your ground coffee. I always like to take a moment to smell the coffee when it's freshly ground, because the aroma is unbelievably good. It's almost (but not quite) better than the coffee itself.

The stem
Now we turn to the coffee percolator itself. You may be familiar with the percolator from the standard blue Grainiteware camping version that is in most stores today. The one I own is Farberware, a stainless steel version that cleans up and stores well when not in use. The kind of percolator doesn't really matter, as the process of perking coffee is pretty much the same across all the different brands. Inside the pot, you'll find a few interesting looking pieces. There will be a stem with a base that has a hole in it, and a spring part of the way up. This is the piece that allows the liquid to actually "perk" up into the coffee basket. Pressure builds up below the stand, creating bubbles which push the liquid up the stem. The liquid spurts into the clear knob on top (where you can see it) and then falls down into the coffee basket, where your grounds are.

Basket and lid
The basket itself is usually stainless steel, and has very small holes at the bottom and sometimes along the side. They're too small to allow the coffee grounds to escape, but small enough for the liquid to pass through. The lid also has holes in it, allowing the liquid in but keeping the coffee grounds from spouting all over. With an electric drip coffee maker, water comes out of the reservoir and falls into the coffee basket, where it filters through the coffee and into the urn at the bottom. In a percolator, you are actually running the liquid through the coffee grounds in the basket several times, circulating it to make a stronger cup of coffee. Keep that in mind as you load  your basket with ground coffee, and be conservative in the amount you use.

Basket and lid on the stem
That coffee you just ground can be put into the basket now, in preparation for making your coffee. To do this, take the basket off the stem and place it on your counter top. Take the lid off and set it aside. Now pour one to two teaspoons of ground coffee per 8oz of water  you'll be using. Give it a shake to settle it evenly in the basket, then put the lid on. Pour your water into the body of the percolator, being sure to keep the top of the water below the bottom of the basket by at least a half inch. Place the stem into the pot, then carefully fit the basket and lid onto the stem. The whole thing goes onto a stove burner or over a campfire. If you're doing this over an open flame of any kind, watch the percolator carefully during the entire perking process.

Ready to perk
Bring the heat up under the percolator and let the water come almost to a boil. The bubbles will cause the liquid to start circulating, which will make your coffee. When the perk starts to happen, keep an eye on the color of the liquid. When it starts to turn brown, set a timer for ten minutes. You may need to turn down the heat once the perking has begun, or move the pot farther away from the flame if you're doing it over a campfire. You don't want to have the coffee at a full boil because it will make it bitter.

Freshly perked coffee!
At the end of your ten minutes, turn off the heat and move the percolator away from the heat source. Once the coffee stops perking up into the clear top, you can take the lid off and carefully (using hot pads or a towel) remove the basket and stem entirely. Your coffee is now ready to be enjoyed!

As I mentioned above, the coffee out of a percolator is much stronger than that from a drip coffee maker. There are reasons for this, mainly that you're circulating the coffee through the grounds rather than just passing water through them once. You may need to adjust the amount of ground coffee you use, and the length of time you perk for. Play around until you get it to just the right flavor and strength.

Making perked coffee is a skill, and it takes practice.  Your first pot is likely to be rather sludgy in consistency, but don't be discouraged. Like most emergency skills, this is one to practice now, before an emergency hits. That way, when the time comes you'll be prepared. Believe me when I say, that first miraculous pot of coffee made during a power outage will make you one of the most popular people in your house!

Shared at the Homestead Barn Hop #95 (click here to enter your own post!). Also shared at the Backyard Farming Connection Hop #16 (click here to enter!) and at the Old Fashioned Recipe Exchange 1/22 (click here to enter!).

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1) Image by Seemann / morgueFile free photos