I love coffee. It’s one of my favorite beverages along with sparkling water, and as vices go, it’s relatively harmless. The best coffee is coffee that’s made properly, and the Italians have a great expression for that, which Alton Brown covered on a fabulous Good Eats episode back in the day:
- La Miscela
- La Macinazione
- La Macchina
- La Mano
Translated, this is:
- The beans
- The grind
- The machine
- The hand
What does my perfect cup look like? Let’s dig in.
Where and when possible, I use my own beans. I buy them green from a company called Sweet Maria’s in Oakland, California, then roast them at home with a Fresh Roast coffee roaster. Roasting your own coffee is an experience in itself; if you don’t have the equipment or the inclination, then I recommend buying roasted whole bean coffees and grinding them yourself. Be sure to buy the roast flavor you like best.
- Dark roasts – Vienna and French – are more smoky, where you taste the roast but not the bean. Many “espresso roasts” are in fact just dark roasts and may not actually make decent espresso.
- Medium roasts – Full City+ and Full City – are a good balance and great for drip coffees
- Light roasts – Light City and City – are a light roast where the flavor of the bean is more prominent than the flavor of the roast. Great for people who love the variation in bean flavors.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but think of roasts similar to wines. Some people love a heavy, dense, dark red wine. Some people love a rosé or white zinfandel. Some people love white wines. Whichever you like, you had to find your preference by tasting lots of wines until you settled on some that you like. Coffee is no different. Taste lots of roasts, and know what kinds you’re tasting.
I’m not a fan of capsule/pod coffees, or of whole bean bins at the supermarket. I have no idea how old those beans are or how exposed to oxygen they may be. Coffee beans oxidize over time once roasted, so fresher is always better.
By the way, used coffee grounds are great compost. Don’t throw them in the trash if you can avoid it.
Grinding beans should be done only before brewing. Never grind them in advance unless you absolutely have to (for example, the day before a big holiday dinner is fine if it helps you manage stress better). I like two kinds of grinder – a manual hand grinder and an electric grinder. If you work from home frequently as I do, and you don’t want to wake up your household, the hand grinder is beautifully quiet.
If, on the other hand, you have to grind coffee for more than a cup at a time, a hand grinder sucks. Brewing a whole pot? Set aside 15 minutes and make sure your Fitbit is on – or, use an electric grinder. I like the Capresso for this – it has lots of grind settings.
Grind your coffee to the appropriate size! Half the time a cup of coffee is bad because the grind is wrong.
- Espresso: finest grind
- Drip coffee: medium grind
- French press: coarse grind
Because every grinder is different, it’ll be some trial and error to find the ideal extraction for the type of coffee you’re making. So what do we brew with? The machine.
People spend an inordinate amount of money on coffee machines without realizing that the quality of bean and correct grade of grind make just as much a difference as the machine. A $5,000 coffee machine with $2 discount expired beans will make as bad a cup of coffee as you’ve ever tasted. So, what machines work well without breaking the bank?
For espresso, I am a huge fan of the DeLonghi brand, and this machine in particular, the 3420. It’s a good balance of cost while having the necessary features. For espresso machines, look for a machine that maintains 15 bars of pressure and uses actual steam. Anything less probably isn’t an espresso machine at all. Any additional features beyond that are probably unnecessary expenses. (seriously, you don’t need a cup warmer, just fill your cup with hot tap water while your coffee brews) In addition to the machine, get a proper tamper. It makes a huge difference.
For drip coffee, I like manual drip. These days, it’s trendy to call that a pourover. Either way, it’s just a coffee filter perched on top of a cup or carafe that you pour boiling water over. Manual drip is important because many automatic drip machines fail to bring water to the correct temperature for coffee, around 205F/96C. Some brewers I’ve tested barely achieve 160F/71C. Use an electric kettle and a manual drip filter for a single cup – I like the reusable type; they’re much kinder to the environment. For serving more than one person, pourover carafes are the way to go.
For French press coffee, glass and steel are the way to go. Avoid anything that isn’t completely dishwasher safe. That’s the easiest way to tell good from bad. I like this all-stainless steel French press carafe. If it ever gets grimy, a quick dose of drain cleaner followed by a trip to the dishwasher makes it brand new again. French press coffee also requires a timer; use the built-in app on your smartphone for this or ask your smart assistant (Alexa/Siri/Google Home) to do it for you.
Finally, use filtered water. Tap water varies heavily from location to location, and since 99% of coffee is made of water, better water = better coffee. If you have generally safe tap water, a countertop pitcher water filter will clean up any last remaining oddities to make clean water. If you have questionable water, use a water distiller.
That’s the equipment. Let’s talk about technique.
Making coffee is something of a catch-22. To do it well, you need to have all your pieces in place and know your technique. Yet most people make coffee as a way to wake up, which means they’re not fully ready to focus on technique. In order of ease, I suggest:
- Espresso if you’re really a zombie in the morning
- French press if you’re mentally capable of setting a timer
- Pourover drip if you can safely handle lots of boiling water over time
With both French press and drip coffee, you need more coffee than you think. Two tablespoons per 6 ounces is the way to go. If your morning coffee cup is a 12 ounce cup, you should be using 4 tablespoons of coffee. Why? Because coffee is a delicate chemical extraction. About 30%, give or take, of the coffee bean is soluble in hot water. Most of that is good. Some of that is bad. When you don’t use enough coffee, the more bitter elements of coffee sneak into your cup.
With both French press and drip coffee, bring the water to a full rolling boil. If you’ve got an infrared thermometer, ensure it’s at a boil. Remember that at higher altitudes, water boils at lower temperatures, but a full rolling boil in most places will hit the right temperature for brewing. For drip coffee, the reason I like an electric kettle is that after each pour, I put the kettle back on to maintain temperature. Every pour of water onto the grounds should be just off the boil – don’t allow the kettle to cool down before a pour.
French press coffee with a coarse grind takes 3-5 minutes to extract. If you happen to have medium grind coffee, shorten that to 2-3 minutes. Don’t use a fine powdery espresso grind ever in a French press – you’ll clog the screen.
Speaking of bitterness, if your coffee is unavoidably already ground or brewed incorrectly, a pinch of salt (0.25g) will fix a lot of woes.
Finally, if you’re on the road, be sure to learn how to extract the most from your hotel room coffee maker. It will never be as good as home, but at least you don’t need to suffer unnecessarily.
Great Coffee Is Within Your Reach
Stop paying $5 a cup to major coffee chains. Brew at home or at the office with the right beans, grind, machine, and technique and you’ll have better coffee than most coffee shops can produce, especially at peak hours.
Disclosure: links are affiliate links wherever possible. I earn a small but non-zero direct financial commission from any product you purchase through an affiliate link.
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Also published on Medium.