Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, coffee expert Jim Schulman sampled some local tap water before testing its mineral content with digital meters he brings on trips so he can brew the perfect cup anywhere. He did not like what he found. "I tried some of your tap water," he says. "It's a little funky, no?"
L.A. water, Schulman explains, has a slight odor and is loaded with minerals — supercharged levels of magnesium and calcium. That makes home brewing more challenging than in San Francisco or Seattle, where tap water is "soft," meaning low in minerals. "If your water is hard, the taste of the coffee goes slightly out of focus," Schulman says. "It gives it a fuzzy taste." He spoke over the weekend at CoffeeCon, an event for those obsessed with brewing the perfect cup— and about 1,000 people showed up.
CoffeeCon attendees paid $29 each to spend as long as seven hours tasting coffee and attending sessions such as "Coffee Maker Cleaning 101," "Introduction to Home Roasting" and "Drinking Chocolate" in rooms at the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake.
Schulman, a Chicago native, twice gave his seminar, "Water."
His first session, at 10 a.m. on Saturday, was standing-room only, with all 36 seats taken. "This is a larger group than we usually get," he said, surveying the room. Many had notebooks in which they furiously scribbled down notes. Others took photos of Schulman's slides.
The room had the vibe of a chemistry classroom. Schulman stood behind a coffee grinder, as well as couple of pitchers of water — each with a different mineral content — and a large bottle of Evian. He was flanked by some paper towel rolls and tiny solo cups.
Schulman brewed Intelligentsia coffee with various waters, then asked the audience to compare batches. Both too much mineral content and too little produces poor-tasting coffee. "Unless I have really blown this thing, which I very well might have, you will taste the difference," Schulman told them.
Schulman, who wore a gray mock turtleneck tucked into jeans, came across as the college professor he might have been — had he not become so obsessed with coffee as a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago. In the early 2000s, his obsessiveness with brewing made him a cult figure on the Internet, and he's been lecturing on the topic since. He hasn't finished his doctoral degree.
"On the web, I realized that if there were 10 people in the world with the same hobby, we could find each other," he explains. Schulman is perhaps best-known for the 17-page academic-style paper, "Jim Schulman's Insanely Long Water FAQ."
Schulman is a man of few words. One person asked if filtering water through a Brita filter was enough to cure the water problem. "No, no, no," he responded. Others pressed him on proper water temperature, though Schulman said that's less important than the overall water makeup. Anything between about 185 and 207 degrees Fahrenheit is adequate.
A video game designer from Sherman Oaks with a two cup a day coffee habit, David Shaver attended Schulman's seminar to improve his home brewing. "It makes up like 99 percent of the coffee, so I wanted to learn about the chemistry of it," Shaver says. He had been using a Brita, but acknowledged he'll have to try another approach. "I'll have to go home and experiment more," he says.
Schulman's water fix is actually simple. He recommends brewing with bottled water, with Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water probably the best option. A home water softener is also a possibility, but not the most cost-effective one.
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Later in the day, John Martin, director of coffee for Alhambra-based LA Mill, taught a session about proper technique for making pour-over coffee.
Martin brought his own five-gallon water jug, lugging it up to the second-floor office he was assigned for the seminar. LA Mill has its own filtration system, and Martin didn't want to take any chances that CoffeeCon's water supply might be subpar. "We formulate our water just the way we like it," Martin says.
At LA Mill, the process starts with city water, which is run through a carbon filter and stripped down, so it loses all of its mineral content and odor. LA Mill then adds minerals back in, making its own water blend.
"Coffee is about 98 percent water," Martin says. "If you are starting out with really bad tap water, what do you think your coffee will taste like? Not good."