Do you start the day by pouring yourself a cup of coffee? So many of us don’t feel fully awake or fully ourselves until we’ve had our comforting pick-me-up.
The world of coffee has changed quite a bit over the past couple decades. The rise and omnipresence of Starbucks is well known. There’s one on every other street corner nowadays. It’s a sort-of-Italian-espresso-culture inspired progression from the nondescript tins of beans (marketed with stereotypical figures) that had dominated before.
The two of us grew up on the sweetest white mochas and Frappuccinos in our small town Barnes and Noble Starbucks Cafe. There’s definitely still a time and place for a big cup of sweet and stimulating. Starbucks is a number of people’s go-to everyday.
At the same time, there have been further shifts in the evolution of coffee beyond Starbucks and other old-school chains. Lo and behold, there’s a whole world of flavor and uniqueness to be discovered in the coffee beans themselves rather than in pumps of syrup overriding the coffee’s inherent flavors.
Coffees from Ethiopia are distinctly different from coffees from Colombia. Even within the same country, you can find hyperlocal differences. Growing conditions, the variety of bean, when it was picked, and how it was processed and roasted all play a role in what you drink. A coffee from the exact same place might have distinct differences from one year to the next (though don’t brew up last year’s beans if you still have them around. That’s not gonna taste great).
All of which makes it fun to try some things out at home. Try is the key word. Preparing coffee well takes some patience and experimentation. There’s potential for a really unpleasant cup if things go wrong—even if you started with the best beans you can buy. But it’s just ground coffee and hot water. WTF?
Well, it’s a little more than that, and subtle changes to how it’s prepared can make a big difference. That’s probably why many people justify spending $4-$12 (yeah, there are $12 cups of coffee) for something good and ready in a hurry. Ain’t nobody got time for gross coffee.
But you have time to make good coffee! We believe in you. We’ve gone through plenty of trial and error. It’s worth it to see what you can do yourself with a bag of beans. It can actually be a lot of fun when you know what you’re doing, delicious when things go right, and definitely more affordable than dropping $5 at a coffeeshop every day.
So what do you need to know?
A cup of coffee is almost entirely water (wow!). So it’s important to work with the right H20. What’s that mean? First and foremost, not tap water. The water that comes out of your tap is wonderful for staying hydrated. But it’s not great for a delicious cup of coffee (or tea). There’s too much stuff in there (like dissolved solids and chlorine) to brew something tasty.
This is the one and only time we’ll advocate that you buy bottled water (which isn’t super great for the environment or the economies they’re sourced from). Most spring waters–Crystal Geyser, for example–are really good for making tasty coffee. They have a friendlier composition to let the coffee speak for itself.
Alongside water and the quality of beans you get, grind is a pivotal factor in making great coffee. Grind right before you’re going to brew. Don’t use a grinder you use for other things (spices, for example). Try to find a reasonably priced burr grinder–which is much more consistent–rather than using a blade grinder. Having ground coffee particles that are almost exactly the same is the key here. Blades chop things up into irregular bits.
If you don’t have a burr grinder yet, see if a friend or local coffeeshop can grind your beans for you (tell them the device you use to make your coffee). In that case, you’re better off having something ground with great consistency in advance, rather than something shoddily ground when you’re about to brew.
Most of the time, you’ll be looking for a semi-fine grind–neither so fine it’s powdery nor so coarse it’s cracked-pebble-like. The fineness of the grind is one of the things you’ll pay attention to and adjust as you go (see below).
Get great beans! There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there, but a lot of not-so-great, too.
Coffee beans are best in the first week or two they’ve been roasted, so definitely don’t buy something several weeks old. As we said above, there’s a huge spectrum of possibility based on country and variety and how it was picked and processed. Some are very fruity, floral, and light. Others are more subdued, feel heavier in your mouth, or have dominant flavors like nuts, chocolates, or sugars.
Try beans from different countries and different roasters. Look at who’s won awards for what they source, who treats the producers they work with well, and who sells consistently good single origin stuff. Blends can be good, too. But the most interesting coffees are the ones from one distinct place and time that had a lot of care and respect go into them. You’ll know it when you see and taste it.
Look for lists like this, and buy beans that sound like they have flavors you’d want to taste. Remember, these are flavors within the beans themselves–not something added to them. The flavors are subtle, and they may taste a little different on your palate compared to someone else’s. But the bag’s description will give you a ballpark of what you can expect when you brew it right.
Oh…and never store your beans in the fridge or freezer. Keep them in a sealed, cool, dark place.
There are a whole bunch of gadgets and machines to brew coffee. It really comes down to which one you feel most comfortable with and gives you good results over and over. Broadly speaking, you’ve got manual methods (like Kalita Wave, Aeropress, Chemex) and automatic methods (classic drip makers and more sophisticated machines). We’re partial to manual methods because they give you greater control and participation (this is supposed to be fun, remember?). But if you’re short on time, or are struggling to get good cups of coffee no matter what you try, there are some solid automatic machines out there.
Our usual go-to is a Chemex, but we occasionally use a small v60 or Aeropress (particularly when we’re camping, because a Chemex isn’t super portable). The approach is pretty similar with all of these. Water just off boil is poured over ground coffee in a gentle but steady circular motion. You want to pour evenly and not agitate too much. It’s easier with any model of a gooseneck kettle, which gives you more control.
Everything should be done by weight. You’ll need a coffee or kitchen scale that can measure in grams–ideally in half or tenth of a gram increments. Weigh your coffee dose. Weigh your water. Put whatever device you’re using on the scale while you’re brewing to keep tabs on everything.
Different coffee companies will recommend different ratios of water to coffee. Different coffees and different methods can have slightly varying ratios in order for your cup taste its best. Wait, what? This is an aspect of brewing where you can really geek out, and where there can be a decent amount of trial and error. You’ll probably be in good shape with a ratio between 1:14 and 1:16. In other words, if you’re using 30g of coffee in your Chemex, you want as little as 420g (30 x 14) of water and as much as 480g (30 x 16).
Try different amounts with different coffees on the same device, and see if you can hone in a ratio that makes your taste buds happy. It could be more like 1:13, or 1:18. Again, you can do a lot of experimentation here, and you’ll probably need to when you switch to a new bag of beans.
It’s vital to bloom the coffee first. By evenly pouring twice the amount of just-boiled water as your coffee dose (e.g. 60g of water to 30g of coffee) and allowing it to bubble for 30 seconds to a minute, carbon dioxide is released. That CO2 impacts the flavor of your cup of coffee and how the rest of the brewing process goes. After the bloom, you want to gently and steadily pour the rest of the water in circles until you’ve reached the total water weight you’re shooting for (based on the ratio you’re using).
If it all flows through super fast, your grind was probably too coarse. If it’s flowing too slow or stops completely, there’s a good chance your grind was too fine. Taste and see either way. It might still be acceptable, but you’ll know what to tweak slightly the next time around.
Adjust, Taste, Adjust
Play with the grind. Play with ratios. You can also keep your water weight the same and increase or decrease your coffee dose by a gram. There’s a lot of science and variability behind coffee exaction–with tools, articles, and other resources to understand it and alter what you’re doing. But it really comes down to whether or not the coffee tastes good to you. If it does…party! Nice job. You’ll know how to brew the rest of that bag of beans.
If not, try to start picking up on the little changes that will improve what you’re tasting. Your mug of bean juice should be naturally sweet, have delicious fruit acids, and a finish that lingers pleasantly. If it tastes sour and empty, the coffee is under-extracted. You can try grinding finer or using more water. If it tastes bitter and dry, it’s probably over-extracted. Try grinder coarser or using less water.
You deserve to wake up every day and enjoy awesome coffee without waiting in line. Starting with these things will give you a good springboard to make tastier cups of coffee on your own. Just make sure to invite us over when it’s ready.