When most people think of coffee, they think of a bitter concoction, maybe made palatable by cream and sugar, they drink not so much for the taste but for the caffeine.
Over the past few years I dove headfirst into figuring out how to make good coffee, after an eye-opening experience in Seattle a few years ago. I'd been drinking coffee for years at that point, always drowned in milk and sugar. Black coffee was a no-go; too bitter, too foul-tasting. While on a trip to Seattle I visited Seattle Coffee Works and a friend had me try some of his freshly ground and brewed coffee. Instead of an overwhelming bitter taste, this coffee had a sweetness to it and at that point I decided I wanted to figure out how to make the same stuff at home.
Since then, I've tried a variety of brewing methods and tools, and that's what I'm going to ramble about today. Buckle up.
Good coffee starts with good beans. What makes a bag of beans good?
- Fresh Roasted
- Whole Beans
Beans roasted within a few days of purchase are noticeably different from the stuff you'd buy at the local grocery store. The beans at the grocery store could have been roasted months ago, and roasted so much that all the delicate or more subtle flavors have been all but toasted out of them. This is also why so many people associate burnt-tasting coffee with Starbucks, as roasting beans very darkly is one way to keep them from going stale. The tradeoff is that burnt flavor.
Why whole beans? Because once coffee beans have been ground up they begin to go stale very, very quickly, as CO2 begins to escape from the beans (a process called off-gassing). The best advice I can give is to buy whole beans, roasted within 1-4 days of purchase.
If you're stuck in a town without a local roaster, like me, there's still hope for fresh beans. Subscriptions from companies like Tonx and MistoBox are able to scratch that itch for fresh beans.
Tonx has a straightforward business plan. They work with coffee farmers all over the world to source excellent beans, then every two weeks they roast and ship the coffee to your door. They offer several different plans, including an 6oz 'Half-Sack', 12oz 'Standard', as well as options to supersize a shipment for 24oz of coffee. They offer decaf bags as well. Their website makes it easy to manage your plan, and the beans are always top-notch. From start to finish Tonx is a great experience, with little details such as including a mini-bio on the beans you receive. Tonx is a great option if you're looking for variety. The orders ship from LA and I typically receive them within a few days.
MistoBox on the other hand, partners with roasters across the US and ships out a sampler box once a month. Each sample has enough beans for one or two cups of coffee. While I like MistoBox's offerings, Their subscription service is a little clunky, and a single box of samples isn't enough to get me through the month. If you're looking to try a few new coffees and then order whole bags once you've found a favorite, MistoBox may be up your alley.
Tools and Toys
The actual act of making coffee, as Tonx describes on their website is more or less a "just add hot water" affair, but the method to get there is up for debate. There are a few essentials though.
A good grinder is a must buy. While they are more affordable, stay away from blade grinders, as they are unable to achieve a consistent and uniform grind size. Conical and burr grinders are only a little more money, but offer consistent results, and as with most recipes, consistency is key. Grind size is very important with several brewing methods. Manual and Automatic grinders come in many shapes and sizes, so here are my recommendations:
The Hario Slim is a manual grinder that allows you to adjust your grind size by changing the distance between two ceramic burrs.
The Porolex series of stainless steel manual grinders are more expensive, but also include higher quality burrs and are built to last.
The Capresso Infinity is an automatic grinder from Capresso. This is actually one of their lower-end models, with professional-grade versions in the ballpark of a few hundred dollars.
Which one to pick? That depends. If you're the single coffee drinker in your house, like me, a manual grinder is a good fit as I'm only brewing one or two cups at a time. If you're in a home full of coffee drinkers and plan to serve a lot of coffee the Capresso Infinity is a good choice. Use caution if you plan to buy a cheaper automatic burr grinder; often the burrs generate more heat, which can effect the quality of the beans.
In any case, you should only be grinding your beans right before you brew.
There are a number of different brewing methods, from something straightforward like a french press, to something downright scientific like a siphon pot. Here's a quick overview of the brewing tools I've used:
The Aeropress is an interesting gadget. Essentially a plunger with a paper filter on the bottom, you add medium-fine grounds and hot water to a chamber, let them steep (similarly to a french press) for about two minutes and then force the brewed coffee through the filter into your mug. There are whole international competitions around who can brew the best coffee using this inexpensive gadget. It's portable, durable, and easy to clean, which makes it perfect for travel or tucking away in a drawer at the office.
A french press is typically a glass container with a fine mesh plunger mechanism built into it's lid. Coursely ground coffee is added to the container, hot water is added, the coffee slurry is stirred, then left to steep for about four minutes. The lid is placed on the steeping brew to retain heat, then, when it's ready, the plunger is pushed down to separate the coffee from the grinds. Many people feel a french press is an excellent choice because it can produce a large amount of coffee relatively quickly, and, because the coffee is not forced through a paper filter, all the oils and flavors of the coffee are kept in your cup. The downside to a french press is that because a paper filter isn't used, in addition to those flavorful oils and solids, you also get so-called 'fines,' tiny coffee particles that slip can slip through the mesh filter, leaving you with dregs at the bottom of the cup.
Manual brewers like the beehouse and V60 drippers are typically ceramic or glass with one or more holes in the bottom of the container for the coffee to drip through. A paper filter is pre-soaked and added, then the coffee grounds. The some hot water is added to the grounds to pre-soak them. This causes more of the CO2 to escape, making the coffee grounds bubble up or rise like a baking cupcake. This is called 'coffee bloom' and is a good indicator that your coffee is fresh. After a short bloom time, more hot water is added for about three minutes. Manual drippers tend to be a bit fussier than other methods, and to do it well require some specialized equipment like a gooseneck kettle to better control the flow of water, but is also one of the more flexible brewing methods, as you can experiment with bloom time, coffee to water ratio, pouring technique, etc.
Finally, there are two automatic brewers that are highly reviewed and rated (though I haven't used them personally.) Most automatic brewers like the Mr. Coffee you get at Walmart are inferior products. Often, the heating elements are unable to heat the water to a proper brewing temperature, and the apparatus that adds the water to the grounds in the basket isn't able to soak all the grounds, so some get over-extracted, and others under, leaving you with a odd mix of too bitter and too sour. The Technivorm Moccamaster and the Bonavita BV1800 correct this by using high quality heating elements, and only allowing the water to be exposed to the grounds when it's hit the sweet spot between 195° to 205°s fahrenheit. They also have 'shower' style water dispensers in the basket, so all grounds are properly exposed to the hot water. While expensive, these are the best way to brew up a ton of great coffee really fast without a lot of fiddling.
A few extra recommended tools are a good kitchen scale so you can properly measure out your beans and measure the amount of water to beans. The most common ratio is 1 gram of coffee to 16 milliliters of water. An in-depth explanation is available on Sweet Maria's website, a company that sells a variety of coffee equipment and even unroasted ‘green’ beans for home roasters. A thermometer can be handy for getting water to the correct temperature of ~195° to 205°s fahrenheit. An airtight container, like the popular Airscape containers are great for keeping coffee extra fresh.
I hope this little primer points you in the right direction!