How to Brew a Better Cup of Coffee at Home

How to Brew a Better Cup of Coffee at Home - the science and art of making coffee. From http://spoonandknife.com

This is about what I have learned about how to brew a better cup of coffee at home. I’m not going to cover espresso-based drinks. It has been awhile since I wrote about this, and I’ve changed a few things and learned a great deal since then. This is the current State of the Coffee. Here goes:
 

The Four Ms of Espresso (and, well, not-espresso)

Part of the lore of good espresso is summed up by the Italians in four words: Miscela (the coffee blend) , Macinacaffe (the grinder), Macchina (the machine) and Mano (the hand or the barista). The same is true for brewed coffee as well, really. Those four elements, in no particular order, cover everything needed to make a great cup of coffee. (Well, with a little fudging.)
 

Miscela – The Blend

Grinding coffee beans at home

Buy quality beans, only what you can go through in about a week or so, and only whole bean. Really, that’s the basis of it. Local coffee shops are popping up all over, so try to get to know your caffeinated neighbor and support the local economy. Chances are, they are either roasting great beans themselves or are sourcing something much fresher than you’ll find in the grocery store or mega-chain.

Beyond that, try all sorts of coffee and get to know your own preferences. I’ve found that I tend to prefer coffee from Central America over the Middle East or Africa. Generally. Well, often, anyway. There isn’t a “top” or “best” growing region, they all show different characteristics of the soil, elevation, climate, et cetera.

I said there’d be a little fudging. As long as we’re talking about base ingredients, water deserves a mention. Always as filtered and pure as you can get. There is such a thing as “too” pure, but that’s mainly medical-grade. I most often use the water from my fridge filter, out of convenience. But remember when I said to make friends with the local coffee shops? When I really have my act together, I take an empty beer growler (never used for beer!) and fill up with water from them. They put in a high end filtration system when they built out the new cafe, calibrated to have a specific amount of dissolved minerals and stuff in the water, which makes it awesome to brew with.
 

Macinacaffe -The Grinder

Baratza Vario-W Coffee GrinderIt’s stunning how important this is to the quality of your coffee. I don’t care how you choose to brew or what coffee you use, the grinder WILL have a significant impact.

Basically, grinding is the act of smashing a coffee bean into bits. Try this experiment: Put a handful of beans in a plastic bag and bash them with a pot. Is every piece the same size? Definitely not. Some pieces will be larger chunks, others closer to dust.

When you brew coffee, you’re soaking the grounds in hot water trying to pull out all the flavor that you want without pulling out too much (which is bitter). The grind size affects this; smaller pieces extract faster than larger ones, so by the time the big pieces are done, the little ones are way overdone. Good grinding is therefore not just about grinding a size right for the brew method, but grinding as evenly and precisely to that size.

Cheap grinders just don’t perform that well (and there are good ones aren’t that expensive). This is where I’ve made the most significant upgrade at home, purchasing the Baratza Vario-W Coffee Grinder, after some obsessive research.
 

Macchina – The Machine

This is the part that always gets the glamour and focus. Truth is, with a bit of understanding of what goes on in extraction and why, almost any contraption can make good coffee. Broadly, I put brewing methods and devices into three categories:

  • Immersion- these methods soak or steep coffee grounds in water. They are usually the fullest bodied coffee, but often cloudier or bitter from tiny coffee particles. Examples include the French Press and the Clever Coffee Dripper but also, with a leap from hot to cold, includes Toddy and other cold-process brews as well.
  • Filtered – This includes most of the traditional coffee machines. Hot water is passed over ground coffee through some kind of filter. Examples include auto-drip makers as well as Chemex or nearly any other pour over setup.
  • Pressure – Not so different from filtered, but makes for a sufficiently different drink that I put it into its own category. Hot water is forced at pressure through grounds. Examples: Moka Pot, espresso.

One type of brewing isn’t “better” than another; it really does come down to taste and what characteristics of the coffee are desirable. Filtered brewing tends to bring out the brighter, more subtle flavors and acidity. Immersion methods tend to extract more and highlight the deeper, richer flavors and have a stronger body or mouth feel. Think of it like the three-band equalizer on a car stereo. Filtered pour-over methods are like turning up the high or treble side and dialing back a bit on the bass. Immersion brewing cranks up the bass and mids, which squash out the high frequencies. Pressured brewing like espresso is like turning up all three at the same time.

Basic Home Brew setup for making Coffee
 

Mano – That’s You!

This is the part that ties everything else together. First off, the “best” coffee is whatever matches your taste and preferences. If what you love is waking up to a Mr. Coffee pot of drip coffee, or a boiling kettle and a jar of instant coffee, then by all means have it your way! The point of all this is to think more critically and holistically about coffee, to have more options at the ready, and to understand a bit more how all these factors affect what goes into the cup.

That said, some brewing is more technical or requires more finesse and dexterity. Much has been published on the ways to pour water into a Hario V60 to achieve an even extraction, for example; this is beyond the scope of this writing. Depending on what kind of coffee you are brewing for, read up, watch videos, and talk to the folks at your local coffee haunt for tips and advice.
 

Some Basics To Get Going

Using a variable temperature electric kettle to get water to the right temperature

Now, welcome to my coffee ritual. This varies a bit depending on a whim really, but should illustrate the concepts above.

  • I do most of my brewing now in a Clever Coffee Dripper. This is a hybrid that brews immersion-style, but filters the coffee at the end like a pour-over. I really prefer the deepness of brewing like this, but it solves the bitter grit or cloudiness problem of a French press.
  • Good beans, good water are key. A standard dose, and where I would start with a new brewer, is 6O grams of coffee per liter of water. (A scale is truly your best friend here, regardless of how you brew. Consistency matters.) I find I like mine a little stronger, so I go to 32g per 500ml of water.
  • Coffee generally brews best around 195-205 F over 3:30-4:00 minute brew time. This is most certainly a work of trial and error to hit this range and decide whether it’s more pleasing to be on the high side or the low. Using a Variable Temperature Electric Kettle will make getting your water to the right temperature much easier.
  • Bloom. Bloom is what happens when you first introduce hot water To coffee grounds. The trapped gases (mainly carbon dioxide) in the coffee beans is released. I pour over just enough water to wet the grounds and let it sit for 20-30 seconds. You should be able to watch it bubble up. Then add the rest of the brew water. The science behind this is that the gas otherwise forms a vapor barrier that keeps water from making contact with the coffee; what I know is that doing this yields a better and more even consistent extraction.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

I said back at the start that this is my current state of affairs. Fact is, There is a LOT to learn about coffee, and our understanding of science and technique is constantly evolving. A year from now, I maybe doing some thing completely different. The fun is in the journey.

I hope your daily cup gets a little better for reading this; please ask questions in the comments!

Mike loves to cook. He also loves coffee. You can find his personal blog at CoffeeCorner.org and find him on Twitter as @CoffeeMike.