Better Than the Average Joe
There’s nothing quite like a really good cup of coffee. In spite of the popularity of one ubiquitous beverage store (which we shall not name), most of what they sell isn’t so much coffee as liquid candy, which I admit has its moments. Mmm, mocha!
But real coffee is essentially about the flavor you can extract from coffee beans, which is unique, complex, and in my opinion, not to be missed. I’ll go so far as to lighten and sweeten my coffee a bit, but only to enhance the natural flavor of the brew.
This post describes how to make great tasting coffee, and ignores its physiological effects. So if you mainly drink coffee for the caffeine boost, there’s no need to read further.
If you’re feeling impatient, you can skip the details and view a summary of the important points.
Good Enough is Great
I’m hardly a coffee connoisseur. Some mavens will fuss over the tiniest detail in growing, harvesting, roasting, storing, grinding and brewing their beans, but there’s a limit to the benefit I can taste from such efforts. The Coffee Review website treats coffee like wine, with review summaries like:
Complex and almost giddily sweet-toned. Great depth in aroma and flavor: fresh-cut fir, sweet flowers, berry, multidimensioned citrus, roasted nut carry from aroma to cup. Intense floral-toned acidity; delicately silky mouthfeel. Resonant, flavor-saturated short finish simplifies just a bit in the long.
Frankly, my tastebuds aren’t likely to distinguish the fresh-cut fir. However, I can tell when the beans are stale, or overroasted, or the brewed coffee is sour, bitter or burnt. And I suspect that you can as well, even if you can’t always identify the cause. All we really want is a decent cup of java.
Lousy coffee is easy to make, but it’s almost as easy to take a few extra measures that’ll ensure you a pretty darn good cup. Good coffee beans don’t have to cost that much either. Here are the steps that I found work to produce consistently satisfying coffee:
A) Choose a brewing method and equipment.
Over the centuries, many different ways to brew coffee have been developed, with varying degrees of success. Some approaches are specific to the type of coffee desired, such as espresso, Turkish, or cold brewed. But in this post I’ll just mention the most popular methods of producing a mug of ordinary coffee, with the drawbacks of each:
- Percolation – extracts bad stuff from the bean along with the good stuff; produces sediment
- Steeping (e.g. French press) – requires accurate heating and brew timing; can produce sediment
- Manual drip (e.g. Chemex) – requires accurate heating and continuous attention
- Automatic drip – requires a coffee maker with accurate heating and brew timing
- Vacuum – requires continuous attention; might produce sediment
Several factors are essential to brewing decent-tasting coffee; without them, you’re wasting your time. Any brewing method must, at minimum, apply water to the coffee grounds at a temperature between 195° F (91° C) and 205° F (96° C), and the water must be in contact with the grounds for a time appropriate to the fineness of the grind. (A coarse grind needs around 4 minutes, a medium grind needs approximately 3 minutes, and a medium-fine grind needs about 2.5 minutes.) Much less and the full coffee flavor isn’t extracted from the beans; much more and some nasty-tasting chemicals come along for the ride.
I’m not really qualified to judge the vacuum method, which might well be worth the effort. But please, just convert your percolator into a flower pot! That’s where it really shines. Although the French press and manual drip methods generally use inexpensive equipment and are perfectly acceptable (and many aficionados swear by them), I prefer the ever-popular automatic drip method; once you find a good coffee maker, the brewing is, well, automatic.
A Few Notes About Automatic Drip
If an electric coffee machine can meet the temperature and time requirements of brewing, I think it qualifies as automatic (even if it does nothing else automatically). A surprising number of machines fail in this area, so it pays to shop with this foremost in mind. The better automatic drip machines aren’t necessarily the expensive ones. My current favorite machine is a 4-cup Melitta model that cost me $10 as a mail-order coffee service premium 20 years ago! In its recent ratings for drip coffee makers, Consumer Reports judges each machine’s temperature performance. You can also gauge the heating ability of various coffee makers based on consumer feedback on several websites, including Amazon. I’ve had good results with the Melitta brand.
Note that all this is entirely separate from the issue of the hot plate temperature under the coffee pot. Suffice it to say that any coffee that sits longer than 15-20 minutes over a heat source will taste burnt. Some machines have a thermal carafe instead of a hot plate, which avoids burning the coffee, but it can’t keep the heat in all that long. However, one indicator of great coffee is that it still tastes great even at room temperature.
A note about coffee filters: Drip machines are designed for either a flat-bottom (basket) filter or a cone-shaped filter (it’s actually more of a chisel shape). I’ve never had much luck with the former, so I recommend the latter (cone shape) for the best flavor. Also, some people prefer a reusable “permanent” filter, usually made of finely perforated metal, often gold colored. Some coffee makers include them as standard equipment, and they appear to work well. Be aware, though, that an aftermarket permanent filter might not fit in your machine’s filter basket.
B) Select appropriately roasted and packaged coffee beans.
Choose quality beans, and buy the freshest beans possible – they start to go stale right after roasting. IMPORTANT: This generally rules out already-ground beans. It also rules out less than airtight packaging (bulk bins, paper bags, tins with any extra airspace). Ironically, this means that a local roaster might be no better than your supermarket unless they use airtight packaging, or sell each batch of beans within a couple of days.
Immediately upon roasting, coffee beans emit carbon dioxide for several days, so a completely airtight package would explode. Good roasters often put fresh roasted beans in a bag with an embedded one-way valve that vents the gas without letting any air in. After the gas stops venting, some roasters surround the beans with an inert gas like nitrogen, and seal them in a canister or an opaque zip-top bag for longer shelf life. That extra space in the canister is filled with nitrogen, not damaging oxygen. Beans in such packaging will keep for quite a few weeks. Trader Joe’s is a great place to find “nitrogen-flushed” beans at a good price.
Try to avoid beans that aren’t identified by their country of origin, because you might not be able to be confident about their quality. You also might want to select for the flavors that different growing locales and different amounts of roasting impart to the coffee. I’ve found that blending beans from sources on different continents (such as, oh, Kenya and Sumatra) produces a nice balance of characteristics. If you really can’t grind them at home, buy well-packaged whole beans and have them ground in the store.
I tend to go for a medium roast. The less the beans are roasted, the more complex flavor they retain, and the stronger you can brew your coffee without being disappointed by the result. Many people seem to like the burnt/smoky taste of a dark roast; I wonder if they’d change their preference after drinking a truly rich, strong cup of a more mellow roast. Regardless, the advice given here for storing and brewing coffee will work for all tastes.
C) Store your beans properly.
Keep your coffee fresh. Store beans away from, in approximate order of importance:
Refrigeration invites condensation inside the storage container every time you pull the beans out. Freezing is possible, but once you remove a container of beans from the freezer, don’t put them back – multiple instances of extreme temperature change can damage the flavor in several ways. So, it’s simplest to keep your beans in a dark cupboard, away from kitchen heat sources.
An airtight (preferably opaque) storage container is best. But remember, any extra space in a sealed container probably contains air! Not good. You can minimize the air in the container with one of these methods:
- Pack something in with the beans to minimize the extra airspace. I’ve successfully used bubble wrap for this (make sure it’s clean but not too new, or it’ll emit gas that ruins the coffee flavor). I keep my beans from Trader Joe’s in the original canisters this way. (Separate the bubble wrap from the beans with food-grade plastic wrap.) Hey, it works for me.
- A compressible container like a zip-top bag can work; the heavier duty the better, and make certain it seals airtight and stays that way. Some brands aren’t really up to snuff. You can buy very sturdy purpose-made (and reusable) bags from some specialty coffee supply houses.
- You can also buy vacuum-storage canisters, from which you suck out the air using a handheld plunger. This is the same system as rubber vacuum stoppers for wine; in fact, the Vacu Vin company makes both (and they use the same plunger!). I just bought a Vacu Vin food saver canister, which seems to work as well as the wine stoppers I already have.
- You can get fancier vacuum storage systems, but remember that you’ll need to open them regularly to access your beans.
D) Grind beans as you need them, to suit your brewing method.
You might have decided to grind your beans in the store. However, ground coffee does go stale much faster than whole beans, and you’ll probably notice the difference. (Consider the vastly greater exposed surface area of ground coffee.) I encourage you to invest in a coffee grinder of your own, especially if you don’t consume your beans very quickly. Ironically, the more you drink, the less you’ll need to be concerned about storage or advance grinding.
Grind only as much coffee as you can use up in a few days, and then only if you can store it properly, away from air, moisture, heat and light. I use an airtight stainless steel food container that holds about 1.5 cups of grounds. If you can’t store it properly, grind only enough for one pot. If you must grind it at the store, divide the ground coffee into separate batches that will cover no more than a week apiece.
Grind your beans as specified by the equipment manufacturer:
- French press steeping requires a coarse grind that won’t produce a lot of sediment.
- The manual drip method usually requires a medium grind, which accommodates a 3 minute timing.
- Automatic drip coffee makers may differ in their timing. Some machines (those with flat-bottom filters, I think) use a medium grind, and others (mainly those with cone-shaped filters) use a medium-fine grind. If you substitute a permanent perforated metal filter, you’ll probably have to use a medium grind.
- For a vacuum brewing machine, check the instructions.
You can use a common blade grinder (you know, like a little blender), or a burr grinder, which is considered essential by coffee purists. The burr grinder slowly crushes each bean into precisely sized particles between two abrasive surfaces. Hand-operated coffee grinders (and pepper mills, by the way) use burrs. Good electric burr grinders cost more than good blade grinders, and for coarse or extra-fine (espresso) grounds they do the best job. But recent studies have demonstrated that for a medium-to-fine grind (to use in a standard drip coffee maker), a blade grinder works quite well. I drink only drip coffee at home, and I’ve been quite satisfied with my blade grinder.
If you use a French press coffee maker, you need a fairly coarse grind (too fine and you’ll end up with a lot of sediment), so a burr grinder might be your best approach.
E) Use enough grounds for the amount of water in your coffee pot.
A note about capacity: Every coffee equipment manufacturer has a different idea of what constitutes a “cup” of coffee. Some actually claim it’s 4 or 5 ounces! Others stick to a standard cup – 8 ounces. I like a 10-12 ounce mug of coffee. In light of this, it’s easiest to discuss measuring coffee grounds based on how many ounces of water you’ll add to your pot, not the number of “cups” you’re making.
Rule one: Don’t skimp!
You can’t make bad coffee taste better by making it weaker, but you can always dilute strong coffee with hot water or milk, if you must. I recommend that you use at least 1 level tablespoon of coffee grounds for every 4 ounces of water that goes into the coffee maker. Any less and the coffee can taste sour and weak. More grounds will produce smoother, more flavorful, stronger coffee, but not as strong as you think. If there’s not enough coffee, the hot water extracts all of the good stuff from the grounds, then starts to extract other substances, which can taste very bad indeed. That’s why I generally avoid dark roasts, so I can make really rich coffee that’s not unpleasantly strong.
Some people insist that you should use filtered, distilled, or bottled water; I think you can decide for yourself if your tap water tastes good enough. Most of the water I consume at home comes through a basic filtration system built into my refrigerator.
F) Brew at the right temperature, for the right amount of time.
For the French press and manual drip methods, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for timing.
To get the right water temperature, bring your water to a rolling boil, then remove it from the heat. It shouldn’t take longer than 30 seconds to cool to the maximum required temperature: 205° F (96° C), depending on the amount of water and the type of heating container. You might want to test your setup with an instant-read thermometer to see how fast your boiling water cools.
The exact brew timing depends on the design of the brewer, the precise fineness of the grind, and the actual water temperature. Generally, you let the coffee grounds steep around 4 minutes in a French press, and a manual drip setup should allow the water through the grounds in approximately 3 minutes.
If you use an automatic drip coffee maker. . .turn it on!
Try not to leave any brewed coffee to continue steeping, or to continue heating. If any coffee is left after the first serving, pour it into a thermal container if possible.
G) Pour and enjoy!
Here’s the coffee making process in a nutshell:
- Choose a brewing method and equipment: French press, manual drip, automatic drip, or vacuum. I recommend automatic drip with a cone-shaped filter basket.
- Buy quality beans (not too dark a roast) — either fresh roasted, or packaged with the air expelled.
- Keep the beans away from air and moisture (and heat and light too). Fresh roasted beans need a container with a one-way venting valve.
- Grind as needed, for your brewing setup: coarse for French press, medium for manual drip, medium-fine for automatic drip.
- Use at least 1 tablespoon of grounds per 4 ounces of water, and don’t skimp!
- Brew at the right temperature: between 195° F (91° C) and 205° F (96° C).
- Brew for the right amount of time: approximately 4 minutes for coarse, 3 for medium, 2.5 for medium-fine grind.
- Don’t overcook or reheat your coffee.