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Now, here is a curious thing. Most coffee houses, tea-rooms, and serious general caterers do their best to learn a lot about coffee, and tea. What very few of us know the first thing about is… the water. And while most of us think we can taste what is good and bad about beverages, most of us don’t have a clue about the actual science of brewing.
In this, it is an interesting fact that UK caterers serving quantities of tea and coffee can learn a lot about water from the Irish.
It is all because of Ireland’s tea-drinking tradition. By the mid-1800s, tea was part of the Irish diet. Unlike Britain, even the poorest families bought the best tea they could, brewed it carefully, and appreciated it more than the UK did.
So it is not surprising that a leader in water boilers, Marco, is based in Dublin. Nor is it at all surprising that the company head, Drewry Pearson, takes such an interest in handling water that he has even hired a scientist from the university college to come and lecture his team on the subject.
And now that the better-quality tea-shops and cafes are beginning to understand the effect of water on tea, he is well-placed to advise on what some people still think is a simple operation.
“Only this week, I have had two calls from cafes asking me about how water should be prepared for tea,” he told Coffee House magazine.
This is a more complex question than it sounds. Boiling water sounds easy, but water for tea has to be at a precise temperature – and in a busy catering operation, how do you monitor that temperature? That temperature is not boiling point – it is, at the very hottest for black tea, it should either be the merest fraction below boiling, or removed from heat and served at the instant it bubbles.
“Marco equipment is the only way of ensuring consistency in this,” says Drewry Pearson thoughtfully. “You won’t get it any other way unless you boil each kettle on the spot, and have someone waiting to catch each kettle at exactly the right moment. And usually, there’s a short delay before you actually pour that kettle into the teapot.”
So how can a good water boiler help?
“You may think that we’re just making a big kettle, but the difference is this – a kettle is on for three minutes, three times a day. We’re making machines to hold water consistently on 95c for 24 hours a day.
“How do we do it? Because of a thing called heat-fill – we have a tank, an element, and probes. The machine takes on water to a certain level, takes it to a predetermined heat, and stops. Then it takes on more and stops. It keeps doing this until the whole machine contains water in an envelope between 93-96C.
“As you draw water, you are refilling and heating – other machines will empty, refill to the top, and take time to heat all over again, but ours cannot find itself full of cold water.”
This sounds all very well in engineering terms – but does it make for a satisfactory drink? Tea experts will tell you that water must never ever be re-boiled, because it will affect the taste – isn’t keeping water so hot for hours on end just asking for a problem?
“No – the point about boiling and taste is that if you come to the boil, you have driven your oxygen out by creating steam.
“This gives you an interesting decision between pressure boilers and atmospheric boilers. You would think that a pressure boiler, which operates at boiling point and above, would deliver water which lacks oxygen – but it doesn’t.” (The reason is all to do with physics, and we don’t have room for it here!)
“A pressure boiler will, we find, give you good-quality water for tea.”
But so will an atmospheric boiler, which keeps the water just below boiling, and requires a lower insurance certification.
The question of how heated water affects the taste of a beverage fascinates Marco – and if you think they go too deeply into the subject, remember that there is such a thing as the Gold Cup standard for filter coffee. This standard exists to remind the hospitality trade that filter coffee has to be made properly – you don’t just throw some grounds into a container and slosh boiling water in.
No, filter coffee can be made carelessly, or perfectly… and made perfectly, it’s the biggest profit-maker in the trade. Made carelessly, it will drive customers away. Just think of all those cups of awful coffee served in restaurants and pubs, poured from jugs which have been left on hotplates for an hour or more. It really doesn’t have to be that way!
“You can get into highly esoteric arguments about the profile of water, and whether it is our job to work on the quality of water, or just to heat it. The answer is that if we don’t work on the understanding of quality, people will blame the machine – and we’ve had a customer complain about the quality of our machine, when in fact they had mud coming in through their mains supply!
“We think that without understanding water, how can you understand the taste of tea or coffee?”
And then, if you are going to understand filter coffee, says Drewry Pearson, you may as well make a good job of it.
One of the biggest problems in the filter coffee trade is the trend towards too small a dose of coffee in the brew. This all started as the result of cost-saving drives from hotel accountants, and although there really should be at least 50gm of coffee per litre of water, some in the hospitality trade try to get away with half of that measure. Those who love filter coffee are furious at this – and also at those roasters who roast high to try and disguise the resulting weakness.
“Personally, I also think that you have to understand filters – it is possible to put a filter in, and take everything else out, and the people who make filter coffee and filter papers know a great deal about what fats and so on the paper can take out. Filtered coffee is said to be better for the heart, for this reason.
“However, filter coffee can also be ruined if you let it stew, like tea. And the trouble with cafetieres is partly that they lose heat so quickly, and partly that the extraction continues indefinitely – you get over-extraction, grounds, and too much fat.
“By contrast, a boiler brewer can produce a great cup of coffee.”
Marco has done a lot of work into the engineering of boiler-brewers, and advocates a ‘soft heat’ system. This is a system in which no heating element actually touches the coffee – the brewing chamber is kept to temperature by the heat of the water in the surrounding boiler reservoir.
“Because I think there will be a reversion to high-quality coffee which is not espresso, and because we’re in a niche where other manufacturers don’t want to be, we’re in a unique position to talk about equipment for water for beverages.
“One of our major features is the isolation of water from the electrons. You’ll find that 99 per cent of water boilers are built with a screw-down lid and the electronics on the side… and many manufacturers have found to their cost that a combination of dampness and heat will blow the back off a machine
“We have built a unit in which steam, dampness and water, will never reach the electronics – you can turn the machine upside down and they still won’t. I often wonder why other manufacturers haven’t worked out why their motors blow and ours don’t…!”
Filter coffee is the king of coffee consumption in the UK and Ireland. Approximately 70% of coffee consumed on these islands is filter brewed. It is also an excellent profit maker.
To brew good filter coffee there are some core principles, and Marco, largely through operations director Paul Stack, has played an active part in establishing the Speciality Coffee Association’s gold standard for filter coffee, which lays down how the beverage should be best made.
Marco has gone further. In partnership with James Hoffmann, the 2007 world barista champion, they have established a remarkable new piece of equipment to allow for filter coffee, and indeed tea, to be brewed to absolute precision of temperature.
This is the so-called ‘uber-boiler’, which is an item that allows the caterer to literally pour, from a tap-like mechanism, water at the exact temperature required. It is still not in commercial production – but it is one of the Next Big Things in brewing equipment.
Marco has also extended its enthusiasm to chocolate. Its Ciocco machine is one of the newly-popular systems in which liquid chocolate can be held at the ideal temperature for serving when needed – it can be used as the basis for a hot chocolate drink with milk or, in what is another recently-popular trend, a ‘shot’ of hot chocolate in an espresso cup.
This is the Uber-boiler - precision control of temperature.
The Filtro Shuttle - a solution for cases in which coffee has to be transported to various locations
The Eco-boiler (above) and Freshcup, two of Marco's imaginative solutions