March 19, 2019

8 Simple Tips for Great Coffee at Home

The secret the great coffee – and the difference between a delicious, full-bodied dark drink full of personality and flavor, and your average cup of burnt coffee – is just a handful of simple tenets that, if followed consistently, will net you a delicious experience each time. As complicated and messy as coffee can be, it’s actually pretty simple. The rules are always the same, and you brew each cup the same, with minimal variation.

There’s very little to tweak in order to make coffee stronger or conform to a different brew. While most coffee snobs will have you thinking that the key to proper coffee is some magical combination of knowledge and skill accumulated over hundreds of hours of trial-and-error, it’s really just like any other recipe: just do the things in the right order, with the right timing, and follow the measurements. I’m going to go over a series of simple and comprehensive tips that you can follow to create a great coffee-shop quality cup of joe in your own kitchen.

Grind Your Own Beans

Half of the battle when making coffee is just making sure that you’re starting with beans and not ground coffee. That’s pretty much the majority of flavor right there – if you grind your coffee and don’t brew it within the hour, you’re letting a ton of flavor go to waste. Think of coffee beans like a clove of garlic – as soon as you chop up garlic, you’re letting all the oils and juices seep out of the clove and onto the cutting board. The longer you wait to make use of your chopped garlic, the less aromatic and delicious it’s going to be.

Coffee’s flavor comes almost entirely from the oils locked inside each roasted bean. Without the roasting process, you’ll have a hard time bringing the oils to the forefront of any brew. However, after roasting, all you have to do to get that delicious coffee flavor and aroma into your mug is crush the beans and extract them with hot water. But if you crush them and leave them to sit around, much of the oils dissipate or dry out, and the flavor is lost. So, do yourself a favor and grind your own beans.

A hand mill is your best option, as burr grinders tend to be on the pricey side and blade grinders make for great finely-ground coffee, but not much else. However, if you’re willing to spend the extra money, a burr grinder can be a great timesaver. So, to recap: grind only as much coffee as you’re going to use for your current cup and use an appropriate grinder and grind level.

Keep Your Beans Fresh

Perhaps the most common error people make when buying a bag of coffee beans – or ground coffee, for that matter – is storing their beans in the freezer or fridge. It’s not exactly their fault because let’s face it – if you want something to last, you stick it in the freezer. And sticking a bag of coffee in the cupboard is even worse, as the flavor gets lost much faster.

But when you place coffee in the freezer, and only take out enough for a single pot each time, something starts to happen – the air that entered the freezer adds moisture to the beans and causes them to start extracting while still sitting in the bag. Sometimes, you’ll notice this when you go to take some coffee out of the freezer and a couple beans are clumped together. This is a bad sign. This means the coffee has started to lose its flavor. However, there is a solution: use a jar.

The best way to keep coffee flavorful is to take it out of the (preferably vacuum-sealed) bag you bought it in and place it in an airtight glass or ceramic container, be it a jar or something else. Opaque containers are better, as they don’t let the light in (which you don’t want). Then, store it in a cupboard or somewhere else that’s dark and cool. It’s as simple as that! The flavor and taste of each cup of coffee is based heavily on the coffee you’re using – the fresher it is, the better.

Get Your Beans Locally

If you haven’t noticed yet, the majority of these first few tips are about coffee freshness. But why does it matter how you store your coffee when it’s been shipped in from South America several months ago and spent most of its time in an unsealed container in some grocery store on the East Coast? While getting your beans locally isn’t really an option for a lot of readers living in countries where coffee doesn’t grow very well, if you live in a country that produces coffee, buy that country’s coffee. Preferably right from the source.

Ideally, check that the company doesn’t employ children or abuses underpaid workers – the closer you are, the easier it is to find this stuff out. Typically, getting your coffee locally is also going to result in cheaper coffee, because it’s much easier to buy a bulk box of vacuum-sealed coffee bean bags from a farmer up in the nearby mountains than an unverified blend from a foreign country at a premium cost.

The fresher your coffee, the better – so get coffee that’s produced nearby, from companies that care about sending out fresh and potent beans.

Don’t Burn Your Coffee

You can have the most delicious and fresh beans on the planet, roasted perfectly to your liking, and ground just right for your particular method of brewing, and still ruin it all by pouring piping hot and bubbling water right onto those perfect grounds, destroying all flavor by burning it to hell and back. The temperature of your coffee matters immensely – never mind overextraction and the potential of bitter coffee, your coffee is guaranteed to be bitter and taste burnt if you brew it with water that is way too hot for the beans to properly extract.

It’s a pain in the ass to use a thermostat, so buy a kettle with a thermostat attached to it or use an electric water heater and set the water to 92 Celsius. Anything between 91 and 96 Celsius makes for good coffee – under that, you’re looking at a longer extraction time, while anything over that is likely to burn your coffee. The wait time for boiling water in a kettle to cool down to the optimal brewing temperature is different from kettle to kettle and depends on the amount of water you boiled as well, so keep an eye on the thermostat.

Use the Right Water

This part doesn’t matter quite as much, as it isn’t likely to really affect the taste of your coffee in a very meaningful way. However, if you want the perfect cup, you’ll need distilled water. That’s pure, completely dead H2O, not mineral water or alkaline water or, god-forbid, carbonated water. No, really, why would you boil carbonated water?

Definitely don’t use tap (or ‘hard’) water, because the talc content in a lot of municipal water sources is too high for most coffee-making implements, so unless you’re a big fan of regularly washing your coffee machine or cafetière with a bottle of vinegar to clear out any residual talc, you’ll want to make sure you’re making your coffee with soft water.

Measure Coffee by Weight

The thing about coffee beans is that while they may look similar in size, they have varying weights and densities. Some coffee beans are heavier than others, thanks to a variety of factors including the oils locked in each bean. Because of that, coffee grounds are also highly variable in the amount of actual coffee (i.e. the oils) in each spoonful of coffee grounds. So, as we’ve mentioned previously, consistency is important to achieving a good cup of coffee.

Don’t measure your coffee in spoonfuls, just use a scale. The math is pretty simple, because there are a wide variety of different tools out there to help you figure out the proper ratios for water to coffee. Remember that grind level matters a lot, too. You can’t make a cafetière of coffee with a ‘strong’ ratio of 1 gram coffee to 15 grams of water if your coffee is about as fine as it should be for an espresso machine. The result will be incredibly bitter coffee.

The easiest way to do this is to get a cheap cooking scale, set it to ignore the weight of your empty cafetière (or whatever it is that you use to make coffee), and then add coffee until the number hits the right gram count. Then, add your hot water. Remember, one milliliter is one gram. If you need 300ml of coffee, you’re looking at 20 grams of coffee grounds, and a rough total of 320g in the cafetière after pouring. Simple math.

Try Different Brewing Methods

Maybe you’re not much of a French press kinda guy/gal, so try out the pourover. Or an AeroPress if you’re looking to invest a little moolah in your coffee. Or an old-school moka pot for something stronger, and smaller. Shop around! See what you like best and go for quality. Coffee-making equipment is the kind of stuff you can pretty much pass on to your children, if you treat it right.

Now Altogether!

Let’s have a quick overview: buy beans with a verifiable source that’s close to you and likely/certainly fresh, then store the beans in an opaque airtight container, grind as many as you need for the coffee you’re making, use a scale when pouring your water, don’t let the water get too hot, and finally, don’t overextract your coffee. The extraction process depends on the method you’re using, but a good rule of thumb for a French press/cafetière is to go for no longer than three minutes.

With these simple tips, you should be making world-class coffee within the comforting walls of your own home, with just a cheap kitchen scale, a kettle with a thermometer, and your brewing method of choice. It barely takes longer than you likely take to make coffee right now, and it’ll taste infinitely better than it ever has.