Local coffee enthusiasts reveal their secrets to making the perfect brew

Coffee geeks go to a lot of effort to make the perfect cup. They tell Mischa Moselle about the best ways to extract flavour

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 6:54pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 6:54pm

The entrance to the world of the Hong Kong coffee geek is the door of a small shop under a flyover in Yuen Long.

Accro Coffee is home to the 2013 World Siphonist Championship winner and a HK$100 cup of coffee. It's also home to some people who take coffee very seriously indeed.

It's a world we are entering to get tips for anyone serious about making better coffee at home.

Pinky Leung Hoi-yan won the world champion title in Tokyo in September and she demonstrated her technique to the SCMP in the cause of higher quality coffee consumption.

It's remarkable considering that just three years ago she was a drinker of three-in-one instant coffee.

Today she drinks up to 20 cups a day, getting by on four to six hours sleep. "They are very small cups," she says.

To make winning siphon coffee - the Japanese method that uses two glass bowls connected by a valve - Leung had to brew four identical cups of a blend that she had chosen for four judges.

Leung used beans from Costa Rica, Kenya and Ethiopia, roasted by her boss Tsuyoshi Mok Wai-kin, who trained in Taiwan under a coffee master.

Her technique can be used by the amateur coffee maker, too. Having warmed her cups, she places water in the bottom bowl and the coffee in the upper bowl. As the water bubbles through, she gently stirs the mix with a wooden stick and lets the water and coffee blend for exactly one minute before switching the heat off and letting the finished coffee pass through the filter back to the lower bowl.

This is more difficult than it sounds. While competing, Leung had to man four siphons at once and ensure the end results all tasted the same. She could have lost points for just using the stick incorrectly.

The blend uses equal proportions of each bean and takes 20 grams of coffee for 200ml of water. It is designed to be drunk black.

Leung also had to make a signature coffee. She used a blend of two beans from Yunnan and an oolong tea from Guangdong province, brewed in a sommelier siphon by Japanese company Hario. These are available to buy but are rather large to use at home, or even in a coffee shop the size of Accro.

The device has two filters, one metal and one cloth, which allow more oils through while still catching all the grinds. The signature coffee is the one selling at HK$100 per cup.

Leung was judged on her technical skills, the taste of the coffee, her creativity and overall performance.

The barista who makes the shop's espresso-based milk drinks says the technique used is not as important as the quality of the beans. She is an advocate of buying beans whole but already roasted and using them within two weeks of purchase.

Although it's possible to roast your own beans at home, even just by holding them in a sieve over an open flame, the results are likely to be inconsistent.

Or you could follow the example of Hong Kong actor Moses Chan Ho who is believed to have bought a professional roasting machine for around HK$50,000.

It's a pity home-roasting is so expensive, as it's an interesting process, if a little complicated. When Mok gives a demonstration, the machine is cranked up to 210 degrees Celsius before the green beans go in. Mok monitors not only the temperature but the gas pressure as the beans rotate in a drum for two or three phases.

The first phase is to take the moisture out of the beans. The next phase develops flavour as the very small amount of sugar in the beans is caramelised. At this point there is a mildly spicy aroma. This phase stops when you hear a crack in the beans.

"Some roasters stop at the first crack, others go for the second crack, depending on the coffee and the humidity on the day," Mok says.

He advocates waiting a few days after purchase before using your beans, as they will lose some carbon dioxide. He demonstrates why this is worthwhile by brewing two cups of pour over coffee with freshly roasted and one-week-old beans.

Even here he is painstaking - water at 88 degrees Celsius is swirled gently over the coffee grounds in the cone and filter to "pre-wet" them. After a pause, more water is added, again with a gentle swirling motion.

With fresher grounds, the coffee rises in a mushroom cap and tastes more aggressive. The coffee with less carbon dioxide is richer and milder.

The advice is to use your beans within two weeks, storing them in a dark place. Storing them in the freezer has its own hazards, such as contamination with the flavours of other products in there.

There is a more cynical reason for buying whole beans. As Michael McCauley, a brand ambassador for French brand Cafés Richard, says: "Ground coffee may have been ground many months ago." The end result will not be so aromatic.

The worldwide trend is for lighter roasts that bring out the fruitiness of the coffee and produce a more balanced cup than a longer, darker roast.

McCauley is a big fan of the Hario and the Chemex filter coffee pot, pointing out that one such pot is on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Cafés Richard is France's best-known brand and has just started being distributed in Hong Kong, but only to coffee shops and bakeries, such as the Kayser chain.

He points out that the difference between techniques hinges on the extraction time and the pressure at which water is forced through the coffee grinds.

The coffee from a French press has more body and a different feel and flavour to coffee from a Chemex or Hario siphon, and from the sometimes bitter coffee that has had water heated from 85 to 94 degrees Celsius forced through it at high pressure in an espresso machine.

Contrary to expectation, the coffee from the French press contains much more caffeine than that from an espresso machine, due to the latter's shorter extraction time.

Ground coffee may have been ground months ago
Michael McCauley, Nespresso

McCauley is not a fan of espresso machines for domestic use, as professional ones require the "understanding of lots of technical details", which "you can't master" without training.

Which inevitably brings us to the simple-to-use Nespresso machine, which has been so commercially successful that it was responsible for an identifiable surge in Swiss export statistics last year.

Putting a capsule in the machine and pressing a button is unlikely to release your inner barista, but the system does offer the amateur coffee maker some fun possibilities with latte art.

Some machines come equipped with a milk frothing steam pipe that recreates that quintessential coffee bar noise of steam bubbling through milk.

The company also has a device called an aeroccino that froths milk in 60 seconds at the press of a button. To indulge in latte art, first be prepared to drink a lot of coffee, as it takes practice.

Matthieu Pougin, Hong Kong manager for Nespresso, drinks five to seven cups a day. "I'm French, when I'm thirsty, I drink coffee. It's our water."

Pougin's tips for fine latte art start with cleaning the steam pipe and placing it about an inch (2.5cm) into the milk. The milk will rise around the pipe. Stop foaming when the jug gets hot.

Then - and this is crucial - knock the jug firmly to get rid of bubbles. Pour the firm froth onto the coffee in circles. Tight circles should result in a heart shape and looser circles a tulip.

If all this seems like a lot of effort for a cup of coffee, Leung can make her award-winning blend and signature cups of coffee at Accro Coffee for two to four people for HK$500.

Or you can rip open a sachet of three-in-one.

A taste of the Big Easy

Café Pierre

A classic New Orleans coffee cocktail, as prepared by Michael McCauley from Cafés Richard.

Ingredients (serves one)

A wedge of lime

3 tsps sugar

25ml brandy or cognac

15ml Kahlua 8ml Galliano

180ml fresh black coffee

60ml whipped cream

1 tsp instant coffee


Wipe the lime around the edge of a stemmed glass. Spread the sugar on a plate and dip the rim of the glass onto it. Flame the brandy or cognac by holding it over a low heat. This will also caramelise the sugar. Add the liqueurs and then the coffee. Float the whipped cream on top and decorate with instant coffee.