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An Interview with Counter Culture Coffee’s Erin McCarthy

Words & Styling by Joanna Han Photographs by Laura Dart

Erin McCarthy is a machine technician at Counter Culture Coffee, the Durham, North Carolina–based roasting company whose coffee is served in shops across the East Coast and beyond. In the specialty coffee world, Erin is best known now as the 2013 World Brewers Cup Champion. We interviewed Erin and asked him to share the best recipe for iced coffee brewed the Japanese way.

How did you get into the coffee industry? How long have you been working at CCC?
I got a job as a barista at a small roastery in upstate New York called Gimme Coffee, and they were one of the first “third-wave” roasteries on the east coast. They were really focused on quality, and I fell in love with the multi-dimensional aspect of coffee as a career. After six months as a barista, I was asked to apprentice roast, then helped start the training program for retail as well as wholesale. I ended up running training for them for seven years altogether. I moved on to start at CCC in April 2012.

Describe a typical day in the life of a Counter Culture machine technician.
It depends on the day! I always have a list of stuff to do, whether it’s working on a piece of equipment at our training center or visiting cafés and restaurants for preventative maintenance. Throughout all of that, I tend to any service calls that may come in from cafes experiencing machine issues—usually early in the morning but sometimes after the cafés close, which makes for a very long day.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Honestly, my coworkers. They are smart, inspiring and stupid fun to be around. Also, I love learning something new [how to work on machines] while still getting to be a coffee educator.

Cold-brewed coffee has been all over the place in recent years, bottled up in brown stubbie bottles with cute packaging. How is Japanese iced coffee different from cold brew, and why do you prefer it?
Cold brew is made by steeping coffee in cold water for around 12 hours with very coarsely ground beans. As a result of the long brew time, the liquid is oxidized, which lowers the acidity. When I say acidity, I don’t mean the kind that makes your stomach hurt—I’m talking about the quality that makes coffee bright and nuanced with fruit-like characteristics. I actually prefer the Japanese method precisely because it locks in the acidity and aromatics that make coffee taste so good—basically, it tastes more like excellent hot coffee cooled down than any other method I’ve tried. Without that brightness and fruitiness, coffee can taste kind of stale. Also, it can be hard to distinguish between two different cold-brewed coffees because cold brewing tends to produce general chocolate-y notes without much nuance.

What’s your favorite summer drink, caffeinated or not?
The shakerato! It’s espresso shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker, then strained out through the ice. Sometimes people add some simple sugar or citrus. Cold and refreshing.

You won the World Brewers Cup in Melbourne last spring using a Kalita Wave brewer and not one but three kettles. Most of us don’t even what that means. Do you have any general tips for the home coffee brewer? Should we have to worry about flow-restricted kettles?
Ha, you don’t have to worry about flow-restricted kettles! I do have some tips:

• Try using a cheap carbon filter (Brita, Pur, etc.) for your water. Coffee is 98 percent water! Even if you have good quality water like we do in New York City, it helps to filter out some of the chlorine taste. Your coffee will end up tasting cleaner.

• Know your recipe. Whether you measure in grams or ounces, it’s good to know the coffee-to-water ratio you prefer. In general, 1.6-2 grams of coffee per 28 grams of water will produce good coffee.

• Once you have your recipe set, the next step to a good cup of coffee is getting the grind size dialed in. Most roasters or specialty cafés will be happy to give you a grind sample for you to use as a reference.

• Pour-over coffee should brew within three to four minutes, and steeping methods [like the press pot] should take more like five to six minutes.

Recipe: Japanese Iced Coffee

30 grams of coffee
250 grams of hot water
250 grams of ice
Your favorite pour over device (Chemex, Hario V60, Beehouse Dripper, Kalita Wave, etc.)
A container to brew into (mug, Chemex, mason jar, serving carafe, etc.)
A filter
A scale
A coffee grinder
A kettle with a pour over spout (Hario Buono, etc.)
A timer

Place ice in the bottom of the container that you’ll be brewing into.

Pre-wet and rinse filter with about 60 grams of hot water; discard.

Grind coffee on a medium coarse grind, like beach sand. A good burr grinder will deliver a consistent grind without chunks or dust.

Dose coffee into wet filter, start the timer and begin pouring hot water – just off the boil – onto the grounds. Do this as you would brew hot pour-over coffee: Pour a small amount on top of the dry grounds, just enough to fully wet them, and then wait about 30 seconds. If the coffee is fresh enough, you will see the grounds start to bubble and release gas—this is C02 being released.

After 30 seconds, resume pouring. Do not pour all of the water at once; you still want the coffee to finish brewing (meaning all of the brew water has passed through the grounds and the filter) between three to four minutes, so pour slowly. Ideally, all 250 grams of water should be done pouring in about two and a half minutes. Feel free to adjust the hot water-to-ice ratio as you see fit—you could try 2/3 water and 1/3 ice.


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