07 August 2017

Coffee Extraction Class with George Howell Coffee, Boston Public Market

One of my favourite coffee shops from my visit to Boston in February was George Howell Coffee's beautiful flagship café in the Godfrey Hotel on Washington Street in Downtown Coffee. Last time, I didn't have chance to stop by their first Boston café at the lovely indoor gourmet-food market, Boston Public Market, next to Haymarket station, but I made it a priority on my recent trip.

Although we were staying out near Gloucester on the North Shore, we made a few trips into Boston, including on the rainiest day of our stay. Luckily, we parked only five minutes' walk from Boston Public Market and I headed inside seeking shelter and caffeine. The market reminded me a lot of Copenhagen's Torvehallerne, and it houses a wide variety of food and drink vendors, mainly from local producers. There are communal tables for eating in, but you can also take away many of the food and drink items and cooking- or kitchen-related items; it's a great place for gift shopping. I sampled a couple of doughnuts during my two visits: an apple cider doughnut from Red Apple, and an awesome brown butter hazelnut crunch from Union Square. I also tried a couple of oysters and could have eaten a whole lot more!

The George Howell Coffee stall is located next to the Haymarket T station entrance and although small, it offers a big variety of coffees and other drinks, with espressos pulled using either the Alchemy house blend, a decaf or a single estate — from Tarrazu, Costa Rica, during my visit. There were two Colombian coffees available as a pourover, but these are only available after 6 pm on Sundays through Wednesdays, so if you're in the market for a hand-brewed filter coffee, you're better off at the Godfrey than at the market. There is also a lot more seating at the former and it is a more relaxed place for lingering over an excellent coffee.

I don't generally like sweetened or flavoured coffee drinks, but I'm a sucker for lavender and even I was tempted by the Lavender Spring latte. I managed to resist, though, instead ordering a cortado with the single-estate Costa Rican coffee. Although the barista was very busy dealing with the long line of rain-dodging customers, my coffee was well made and tasted very well balanced. You can read fellow coffee blogger Brian's review of George Howell at Boston Public Market on the Coffee Spot.

The coffee is roasted at George Howell's roastery in Acton, about 25 miles northwest of Boston. There was a big selection of beans available to buy, and some very nice mugs and canteens. The company is also big on education and helping customers to get the most out of their, admittedly expensive, beans (retail bags cost up to $20, or about £15.40). They have detailed brew guides online and I'd thought about attending one of the frequent drop-in classes or events that take place at the Godfrey.

None of the events scheduled for the days I would be in Boston really stood out, though, so I was pleased when I heard that George Howell, along with The Trustees (a Massachusetts non-profit conservation organisation that promotes links between people and the land in the state), would be hosting a two-hour seminar on coffee extraction on my last day in Boston. The class — subtitled 'how not to ruin 9 months of hard work in 5 minutes at home' — cost $25, but included a bag of George Howell beans so I signed up right away.

Matt Hassell, Becca Woodard and Rachel Apple of George Howell Coffee

And so it was that about 30 of us found ourselves in the Boston Public Market Kitchen on a rainy Saturday morning discovering how to improve our home brewing. First, we listened to some of the theory. Rachel Apple outlined how easy it is to make a bad cup off coffee. She walked us through the many steps in the process where everything has to go right to ensure your beans arrive to you in tip-top condition, from planting the seeds, to picking the coffee cherries, fermentation and drying, and roasting. She explained the steps of the extraction process — how salts and acids dissolve first (which is why under-extracted coffee often tastes sour and almost salty), then the desirable sugars, and lastly the woody/plant extracts, which can create the bitter, dry taste of over-extracted coffee. Rachel also walked us through the three key variables for home brewing — grind size, water temperature and brew time.

Next up, Matt Hassell demonstrated his refractometer out and explained how it works, allowing you to measure the strength and extraction of your coffee to improve your brewing. I'd heard of refractometers before, of course, but never quite fallen far enough down the coffee geekery rabbit hole to learn much about them, so it was really interesting to find out more. Christopher H. Hendon, co-author of Water for Coffee, explains a bit more about their pros and cons in this interview. Quite a few of the attendees were keen to buy one when Matt mentioned the accompanying smartphone app cost about $30, but the device itself will set you back closer to $800 — certainly way out of this hobbyist's budget.

Finally, we heard from Becca Woodard, who talked more about the difference between strength and extraction — the former being the % total dissolved solids (TDS) added to your beverage (1.32% is what George Howell shoot for with filter coffee), and the latter being the % of matter removed from the ground coffee (ideally around 18–22%). It's perfectly possible to have a weak but over-extracted (bitter) coffee, for example, or a strong but under-extracted (sour) coffee. Becca talked us through the importance of only altering one variable (grind size, dose size, brew time, etc.) at a time when trialling a new coffee to find the perfect balance.

During the second hour of the class, we got to put our new-found knowledge to the test with some tastings. First, we tried out the same coffee brewed under-extracted, correctly extracted and over-extracted. The extractions were exaggerated, which made it easy to taste the bitterness of the over-extracted coffee, the sourness of the under-extracted one (I still couldn't quite get the saltiness) and how great the 'Goldilocks' coffee was. Next, we did the same but with strength, so each of the three coffees were at the same extraction, but one was super-strong, one super-weak and one just right.

Finally, we had a little pop quiz where we were given three coffees and had to comment on their respective extraction and strength. Our group did OK on this although I definitely need more practice. Knowing the theory — and indeed the language to describe the different varieties of bad coffee — helps a lot, though, and I feel that I learned a lot. It was fun too, and I'm looking forward to trying the Ethiopian Yabitu Koba coffee we all got to take home (I also now know that I should try to wait 3–5 days after roasting for filter and 5–7 days for espresso, to allow the coffee to de-gas).

If you're interested in doing a similar class — coffee-related or otherwise — at the Kitchen, keep an eye on The Trustees' website. You can also check out the Godfrey location events calendar, and Rachel mentioned that the Godfrey team are very happy for customers to make an appointment (email godfrey@georgehowellcoffee.com) to have a one-on-one brewing lesson. You can even bring in your coffee brewing kit, grinder and a gallon of the water you use at home so they can help you troubleshoot. I was really impressed by this passion for customer education and how much the team care about making sure that every cup of coffee you drink is as delicious as possible.

George Howell Coffee at Boston Public Market. 100 Haymarket, Boston, MA 02108. Website. Twitter. Instagram.
Programme of events run by The Trustees at the Kitchen at Boston Public Market.


  1. Hi Bex,

    That class sounds awesome! I'm not sure if anyone in the UK does anything like that, but they really should! It would also make (cut-down a little) a brilliant workshop at the London Coffee Festival (or any other Coffee Festival for that matter).

    Thanks again for the link,

    1. Thanks, Brian. It was great and I hadn't seen anything similar either. I'd been considering doing one of the shorter GH classes at the Godfrey but I wasn't in town on the right days for the sessions I wanted to do. The longer workshop was very well done, in any case, and I learned a lot. My non-coffee-geek friends were amused when I told them I paid to spend two hours tasting bad coffee! ;)