Some Like it Hot: 5 Tips for Brewing Better Coffee
Next to bacon, the smell of freshly brewed coffee is powerful enough to rouse even the drowsiest sleepyhead. From the largest corporate chains to hip specialty cafes and carts pulled by bicycle, in Seattle, Chicago and many other places, you can’t go more than a block or two before stumbling into the doors of a coffee shop. While the availability of quality coffee is at an all-time high, going out for coffee gets expensive quick. Brewing at home is not only a way to save money but a cup at a time step towards discovering this meditative process. Between French Presses, Aeropresses, traditional pour overs and contraptions that look like they were designed to distill grain alcohol, there are many different ways to brew coffee, but no matter the method, here are some key tips towards creating a better cup o’ joe.
Narrowing in on the best way to brew coffee is like trying to pick a favorite pizza: there are plenty of great options as well as some longtime sub-par choices. With the increasing popularity of specialty coffee, there are plenty of brewing options to choose from these days that don’t involve one of those pod machines or a hotel room coffee maker. Whether going with a pour over, French Press, Aeropress, moka pot or espresso machine, each device has its own characteristics—and die-hard fans.
Just like cooking food, brewing coffee is best done by starting with clean equipment. But if you’re just brewing the same coffee every morning, is it worth the time to wash your brewing gear? Turns out… yes, it is. Over time, coffee oil builds up in your French Press, in your Aeropress and in that nasty stained coffee pot, creating a resin layer that’s worth scraping but not saving. This oil build up can make coffee taste bitter, plus it’s just gross. Keep your kit clean.
The better the beans, the better the coffee. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive beans. Much like wine, flavors like berry, citrus, chocolate and caramel can all be smelled and tasted with premium beans. The region of origin, variety, roast and grind texture all work to determine the overall taste of the coffee. There are basically two varieties of beans: Robusta and Arabica. Arabica beans create coffees with complex flavors and aromas and are typically found in most coffee shops, while Robusta beans are used in brown hot water like Folgers. You be the judge.
Once you’ve dropped in on those heady beans, be sure to store them in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. Oxygen and bright light are quick flavor ruiners. Also, keep them beans out of the fridge or freezer because they can absorb moisture and odors from that leftover Chinese food, which is no good. And while it can be a pain in the ass, it’s best to grind beans before each brew, but once you taste the difference, there will be no going back. Finer grinds are for things like espresso while coarser grinds go in something like a French Press. Here’s a link to a cheat sheet.
Coffee is just two ingredients: beans and water. So if you’re going to spend $15 on a pound of premium beans would you really just use regular old tap water you normally wouldn’t even drink? Getting one of those refillable Brita Filter pitchers is a good way to go, less wasteful than using bottled water, and will improve the overall flavor and quality of your brew.
Without a thermometer it can be hard to gauge the proper water temp of 200F and dipping in a finger to test the waters is a horrible idea. A good trick is to let the water come to a boil, remove it from the heat and rest for a minute before pouring over grounds. Before you get too far ahead of yourself at this point, rinse your filter with some hot water if you’re using one, this will help remove the papery taste.
Now that you got your beans ground and water boiled, the next question is, “how much grounds and for how long?” There’s a golden ratio in the design and photo world, and also one in the coffee world—but they aren’t related. The golden ratio for coffee is one tablespoon of ground coffee for every six ounces of water. Pop quiz Hot Shot: how much ground coffee would you need for a 12oz cup of coffee? If you guessed two tablespoons… your basic math is on point.
Once you’ve dialed in the proper ground coffee amount, slowly and carefully pour hot water over the grounds. Depending on your brewing method and how strong of a flavor you’re going for, that will dictate how long to brew. For a drip system like a pour over, 5 minutes is about average. Two to four minutes will do for a French Press and only 20-30 seconds are needed for an espresso. While waiting five minutes might feel like an eternity at 6am, this is the fun part. Watch the freshly ground beans release their gases as the grounds bloom when hot water is added. This is the time when the aromas will be going crazy as well, so go ahead and take a big whiff—it’s only creepy if you make it.
Finish it Off
Coffee’s done. You made it through with no problems or first-degree burns. Now what? Purists will say to drink it straight—black as midnight on a moonless night—while New Yorkers tend to cream up their coffee until it looks like a brown paper bag and Vermonters are known to put maple syrup on just about everything. If it’s the weekend, why not add a little whiskey for a morning pick-me-up? Or you could just go classic with a little cream and sugar, but really, you just spent all that money and time brewing the perfect cup of coffee… why not just go black?
The last step is deciding what vessel to drink this fresh brew from. Well, maybe that should have been the very first step. For those who like to slam down their morning cup in a matter of minutes, a sturdy ceramic mug is a good way to go, but for those who like to savor it throughout the entire morning, an insulated tumbler or bottle will keep it piping hot. No matter how you brew or how much you’ve dialed in the process, making coffee at home can be a fun and rewarding part of a morning routine or the perfect afternoon slump buster. This is by no means a comprehensive brewing guide, but hopefully these tips will help percolate your cup to the next level.