Ask Brooke

Widely regarded as one of America’s finest coffee roasters, Brooke McDonnell is Co-founder and Master Roaster of Equator Coffees & Teas® in San Rafael, California. (Learn more about Brooke here.)

Use the form below to ask Brooke a question. Maybe you want to know more about a varietal you read about. Or maybe you are curious as to why your coffee tastes different at home than at the cafe. Whatever your coffee or tea question, post it here and Brooke will add it to the list of answered questions below.

Have a question for Brooke? Use the form below to submit your question.

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Answered questions

Q: Brooke, I have read that coffee beans are a crop that is heavily fumigated with the use of pesticides, not sure if this is accurate or if it depends on where the coffee is produced, type etc?? Don't know your feeling on this but it is a reason I was looking into organic coffees.

A: Good question. For many of us involved with specialty coffee the issue of certification is not a black & white issue, thus an overview:

Commercial (lower grade) grade coffee relies on agri-chemicals much more then specialty grade coffee. Commercial grade coffee crops are about macro-production, higher yields at sea level and on lower altitude slopes, incorporating synthetic inputs and mechanized harvesting.

Specialty grade coffee emphasizes hand picked, high mountain, lower yielding micro-production, incorporating integrated pest, weed and fungus management with strong emphasis on organic methods.

Many high mountain specialty coffee habitats are bio-diverse environments that provide natural shade cover via multiple tree canopies or high mountain misty cloud cover that specialty "shade" varietals of coffee require.

Low-yielding high grown specialty coffee farms operate on slim margins and have to utilize their resources in a sustainable way to improve their farm economy: the coffee fruit pulp is recycled for use as fertilizer, parasites are bred to eat the coffee destroying Broca pest, birds are also involved in pest control, trees shedding leaves and fruit provide mulch for the soil. Higher altitudes also result in less infestation of pests and fungus.

The challenge for farmers who practice sustainable farming is producing sufficient quantities of fertilizer. Often they have to purchase locally produced chicken byproduct to supplement their needs. Composting requires dedicated tracts of land which many farmers don't have. If they are fortunate, they will share composting facilities with other farmers.

We take an inclusive approach to buying coffee, sourcing from certified organic, passively organic, non organic yet bio-friendly farms and strongly believe that each farm is unique with its own set of circumstances. The reality is that boutique-grade coffee requires exceptional land stewardship and we are fortunate to partner with many second and third generation growers who take great pride in nurturing their land with an eye towards viability and perpetuity.

Q: What is the best way to store coffee and keep it fresh?

A: Some guidelines:

Our whole bean coffee stored in a sealed unopened foil bag will maintain its character up to 3 weeks from purchase date. Ground coffee stored in a sealed unopened foil bag will maintain its character up to 2 weeks from purchase date.

Once the foil bag is opened, coffee should ideally be consumed in a week, at which point, a loss of aromatics will result in flavor fall-off.

Coffee ordered that will not be consumed in the above-mentioned time frames should be immediately stored, when received, in the freezer which will slow down oxidization. Store coffee sealed in its foil package, or in plastic ziplock bags, or in airtight tupperware. We do not recommend storing coffee in freezer for more then 4 weeks.

Q: When brewing coffee, what is the correct ratio of coffee to water?

A: Use 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for every 6oz of water. For each half gallon (64oz) of water use approximately 4oz of coffee.

Q: What is the formula for pulling a good espresso shot?

A: Start with coffee beans that are designed for the espresso machine as a result of their profile and roast style (method used to roast espresso). For a home espresso machine ($300-$600) look for a 12-18 second pour that yields 2 ounces of syrup-like espresso. For a commercial style espresso machine machine look for a 20-25 second pour that yields 2 ounces of espresso. Grind fresh for what you will use. The key is grind particle size and tamping which will influence rate of pour and can be adjusted to yield a good a shot. Espresso should yield a balance of sweet, salt, sour & bitter - proportionate to each other. Too fast a pour will taste thin and bitter, under-extracted – the solution is to make the grind size finer ; too long a pour will taste sour, over-extracted – the solution is to make the grind size larger.

Q: How many coffee trees and coffee cherries (the fruit that contains the beans) does it take to get one pound of coffee?

A: A mature coffee tree will produce one pound of coffee per growing season. It takes around 2000 hand picked cherries containing 2 beans per cherry to yield 4000 beans which will make about one pound of coffee.