For Neil and I, a cup of coffee is never just a cup of coffee. Sure, there’s utilitarian coffee-chain brew for mornings when you desperately need a jolt or a quick fix to satiate your caffeine addiction, but you pretty much know what you’re going to get; flavorless, too strong and bitter, or too weak and watery muck.
Call it coffee snobbery if you will, but if there’s any time to be picky, for us anyway, it’s with our favorite vice. We covet a truly great brew where you can taste the nuances in the beans and the layers of flavor.
We do have a drip coffee maker at home, but in the last year or so we’ve really been digging our French press and other methods like the classic Italian stovetop pot. We’re also always on the hunt for great beans and we usually grind them fresh and like to buy small batches of locally roasted ones (our current fave is Ideal Coffee’s Prince of Darkness).
We have a bunch of favorite coffee shops around Toronto, with Broadview Espresso and Mercury Espresso Bar (both conveniently in the east end) topping the list. When I saw that Mercury was offering up two completely new (to me anyway) and seemingly strange ways of brewing coffee, I knew a little taste test experiment was in order.
The staff at Mercury are more than just a bunch of hipsters jumping on the indie coffee shop train. They all seem to be really enthusiastic about coffee and very knowledgeable about various methods and beans. And they were all too happy to show us the ropes with their two unique methods of brewing coffee: The siphon and the chemex.
It was suggested that we try both methods with the same Indonesian beans so we could really taste the difference between each cup.
We started with the siphon, which brought back memories of science class and Bunsen burners.
The bottom glass bulb is filled with water and heated with a butane flame. The water boils and shoots up into the top chamber where the grinds sit, separated by a filter. The water and grinds mix, you put out the flame and freshly brewed coffee falls back into the bottom chamber.
The siphon promises a “very clean, delicate and crisp” brew, which is right on the money. The coffee was really more like tea – not watered down, just light and clean, and surprisingly sweet. Neil felt that his needed a touch of cream and sugar to round out the taste, but I drank mine black and really loved the interesting tea-like consistency.
Next came the chemex, which is somewhat reminiscent of a wine carafe and requires an exact, timed preparation.
It takes a large paper filter that’s folded over three times to form a cone that sits in the beaker. You need to wet the filter with hot water to remove any paper taste and to seal it in. It takes a coarser grind than the siphon, and the grinds sit right in the cone. You pour just a little boiled water onto the grinds to wet them, and then wait 30 seconds to let the grinds ‘bloom’ (I love that descriptive; the grinds really do puff up and bloom as they take in the water). Then, the rest of the water should be poured in very slowly and steadily over three and a half minutes.
This is serious business at Mercury; a timer was used and the chemex was never left unattended as the water was poured ever so carefully in equal amounts. Once all the water goes through, you let the coffee sit to allow for every last drop to come through.
The coffee produced by the chemex was delicious and, amazingly, so different than the siphon. It had a much more syrupy consistency – a lot darker like espresso, though not heavy. It produced a flavor that was intense but still very clean. It was strong but not overpowering and it tasted richer and spicier than the siphon brew.
It was amazing to taste two completely different flavor profiles from the same beans. The siphon brought out the honey, citrusy notes of the beans and the chemex brought out spicier ones. Neil drank his black with a touch of sugar (like he would espresso) and I drank mine black at first and then added some milk near the end and enjoyed it both ways.
This may seem like a whole lot of hoopla for a simple cup of coffee, but it was totally worth it. We really did experience different flavors and consistencies through the different methods and found an appreciation for both.
You can try out one or both of these methods at Mercury after 2 p.m. (the busier hours are reserved for the more common lattes and americanos), and the food nerd in me highly recommends trying both out for a fun and really cool taste experience.
Thanks to the weekend staff at Mercury for walking us through each process with a ton of enthusiasm and passion!