“Making coffee. How hard can that be?” I’m sure you are thinking something along those lines, right?
How Your Choices Affect The “Golden Cup” Standard
You grind coffee beans or buy them already ground and use your favorite brand.
You grab a paper filter or use a metal reusable filter.
Measure the ground coffee or go by feeling and experience.
You put water in the coffee maker and push a button. Wait.
But I’m sure you’ve noticed the coffee does not always taste the same. Some days are good, some days not so good but not bad either. But on a few days, those rare, wonderful days that the coffee universe aligns just right on you and your little coffee maker… on those days the coffee is simply divine!
“Why can’t coffee always be that good?” you are probably asking yourself?
The answer is simple: you are the single most unreliable variable in the whole coffee making process. Every step you take is a little different on every occasion that you do it.
- Where are the (green) beans from?
- When were they harvested?
- How were they harvested, washed, honey or natural?
- Were they dried or fermented?
- How were they stored?
- How were they processed?
- How long ago did you grind them?
- How did you store the ground coffee?
- How did you measure the ground coffee?
- When were the beans roasted?
- How were they roasted?
- How were they packaged or transported?
- How were they stored after roasting and in the packaging?
- How did you measure the coffee beans you needed? On a scale or by eye?
- What was the accuracy of the scale? 1 gram or 0.1 gram?
- Which type of grinder did you use? Blades? Burr?
- Hand grinder or with a motor?
- Metal or Ceramic burrs?
- Old or new burrs?
- What was the coffee:water ratio you had in mind to use? If any, of course.
- What is the water quality where you live?
- What is the degree of hardness (Calcium ion content)?
What is the pH (acidity)?
- Any specifics on the Mg and Zn ion contents?
- What temperature did you (or your machine) use to brew the coffee?
- Was that temperature constant during the whole brew cycle or did it vary? By how much?
- What was the flow rate of the water onto the coffee? Was the rate even or did it fluctuate?
What was the spread of the hot water on the coffee grounds?
- What water pressure did your coffee maker use, if any?
- Did you use a paper or metal filter?
- Did you pre rinse the paper filter?
- Was the paper filter unbleached, chemically bleached or bleached using oxygen?
- How many paper filters did you use, one, two or more?
- What kind of cone (filter holder) does the coffee maker have? Does it have one large opening in the bottom or a few smaller holes?
Also read: Best pour over coffee makers
- Which coffee maker did you use?
- Espresso machine with 9 bars of pressure?
- Single or double group?
- Did you use one group at a time or multiple at the same time?
- Maybe a Bialetti or “moka pot”? Did you turn the heat max or min?
- A percolator by any chance?
- Household filter-type coffee maker? For instance, a Mr Coffee?
- Hario, Chemex, Clever Dipper or Kalita Wave?
- Syphon-type coffee maker?
- French Press or Cafetière?
- Or fancy hip and trendy coffee machines such as the “Flair”?
As you can see, the number of variables that account for making the “golden cup” of coffee is staggering. Haunting and demotivating for some. How can you ever achieve any kind of control over them so you can make the same quality of coffee two or three times in a row?
Believe me, I’ve been in that position too and believe me when I say that you too can control all (or most) of them when you make coffee. Because even though each variable influences the end result, another variable can compensate for the effect of one variable. That way, you can make up for not so good factors. For instance, if the coffee is old, use a little more than strictly necessary.
Making Great Coffee
The first thing you should realize is that you can “control” many of the variables simply by fixing them. Always use the same beans or grinder or water or coffee maker. By doing that, you fixate them and you can slightly adjust any other one variable. For instance, the amount of ground coffee, the grinder’s setting, the water temperature and so on.
Doing that means you’ll gain experience in the effect of any one variable. You will learn what it does to the taste and flavors of your coffee.
Start With Good Water
Take a good look at the water you use to brew you coffee. If you live in a large modern city, chances are the water is not great for making coffee. Regulations vary greatly by country but also by region. A large city often has multiple water supplies and your recipe for a divine cup will probably not taste as great at your friends’ house across town.
Coffee is 98.5% water, so the water should be good.
Too much hardness and the flavors will be off, like too much salt in food eventually tastes salty whereas the right amount of salt lifts other flavors. Look for the pH (acidity) of the water. It should lie between 6.5 < x < 7.5 pH. Too low and flavors will get sour. Too high and bitters will take over and make your mouth go dry. There are various teams around the world that are working on researching the effect of water on your coffee. Scientific research mind, serious stuff.
If you can afford it, get a water filter. Chlorine is instant death for your coffee. It must go, definitely. If you can’t, get bottled water. The large 5 gallon jugs are great and you can elevate the “water profile” by using powders to supplement the water with necessary ions. Third Wave Water makes powders that are “ideal” for espresso-type coffee or filter-type coffee. You choose. They work best with water cleaned using “Reverse Osmosis” (RO). This removes practically everything from the water, but also the good things. So you must put these back.
Large coffee establishments that are very serious and home to world champions can even build custom water filter columns that tweak the water to just the right composition for the coffee they use. That’s why their coffee, when taken home, tastes l;ess good as in the shop!
Whatever you choose, choose wisely. It does not need to be perfect, but good enough.
Coffee Maker - Which one should I use?
If you use an old scaled household coffee maker, chances are you do twice as good by just getting a slightly better machine. The SCA has a list of Certified Home Brewers and the list grows regularly as the general public discover just how bad the old ones are and our taste for good coffee improves. Granted, some of these cost serious money but $80 gets you a great one too!
In the US, I highly recommend the OXO ON 9 cup coffee maker! It makes excellent coffee in a very consistent way and comes with an incredibly good thermos that keeps a liter of coffee hot for 3 hours and warm for 5-6 hours. You will also notice that great coffee still tastes great after 5 hours and does not turn bitter or stringent as bad (instant) coffee does! Breville also has wonderful models that are similar but I have no experience with them.
Grinder - Burr or Blade?
Invest in a home grinder, if at all possible. Not only does this open you up to a whole universe of whole, fresh roasted beans from local (artisan) coffee roasters, but you also get the freshest possible ground coffee to use when making coffee.
Avoid blade grinders! They are cheap, yes, and portable when going on vacation, but the produce very uneven coffee grounds with a large spread in particle sizes. I’m serious.
It can be good but never good enough. Instead, get a burr grinder such as the Baratza Encore – around $130 – or its bigger cousin, the Baratza Virtuoso (approx $200). The latter is better for the home barista that has various brewing methods at his (or her) disposal. The former is great when only using one and the same coffee maker all the time.
Remember that burrs must wear in and will produce a slightly more uneven particle size when new. After a while they wear in and produce steady stable particles spread in your coffee grounds. Burrs do wear out, but will last for several years under normal (home) conditions. Manufacturers say burrs should last between 250-450 kilos. Considering you will use 55-65 grams per liter of coffee, that should last more than your average marriage!
If you only occasionally make coffee, you can buy a hand grinder. They are also awesome if you travel much as they go in your suitcase and you can make fresh coffee in your Hilton hotel room! Kickstarter always has new hand grinder projects but results may vary. Ask your local shop for advice! You will also make a great impression at your favorite coffee spot!
Importance of Coffee Scale
Next essential item for making great coffee at home is a scale. No more eyeballing it. No more using the black plastic measuring spoons they always give away free. There is a reason they are free: they suck. Unless you know what you are doing, chances are there is several grams of difference between 3 or 4 cups of coffee you measure that way. Professionals can taste the difference in cups of coffee that were brewed with +/- 0.2 grams of coffee, so let alone 1 whole gram!
Bonavita makes great scales for home baristas with an accuracy of +/- 0.1 gram. They use rechargeable batteries and have a micro USB charger, so there is no reason to even deplete the battery. If you’d rather have a pretty design scale, browse over to Acaia. They’re gorgeous, go well with your MacBook and have bluetooth, but I suggest you first learn how to brew great coffee every single time before investing in one of those.
Get paper filters that were NOT chemically bleached. If you like, get a few different kinds and experiment with them. Learn what their differences are and choose the one you like best. Beware: different beans will give different coffees and probably work best with different paper filters.
Whichever you choose: always pre-wet the filters. This rinses out dust and paper particles and gives you a cleaner cup! Seriously, take hot water and pour it through a paper filter into a cup, let it cool and taste the water. Depending on the filter, you will taste different flavors that have nothing to do with coffee! Also, store paper filters in an airtight odorless plastic or metal container until ready for use.
If you are using a certified home brewer, Melitta has great paper filters but Amazon is your friend here!
Last but not least: get freshly roasted coffee beans. Doesn’t matter which kind. If possible, choose some that were roasted for filter coffee not for espresso!
Also read: Our guide to the best coffee beans
Get a few different kinds to try out and store them in the fridge. If possible clear a tray at the bottom of the fridge that’s normally used for fruits and vegetables. It’s important it has a stable temperature and consistent humidity. General trays will have varying temperature and humidity every time you open the door, especially if you stand there hanging around deciding what to get. See, your mom was right after all!
Now that you have everything, here is a basic recipe to start with. Assuming you have an automatic coffee maker, certified or not, that can make a liter (34 oz) of coffee in one go, use this:
- Weigh one liter or 34 oz of water using the scale
- Weigh 55 grams of whole coffee beans using the scale
- Grind them on the level that the manufacturer recommends for home filters
(Look for models such as MoccaMaster, Breville, GE, Mr Coffee)
- Rinse out the paper filter
- Fill it with ground coffee
- Fill the water reservoir of the coffee maker
- Turn it on
If your grinder had the correct fineness, the water should have stopped dripping into the (glass) pitcher after 6-8 minutes. Did it run through faster? Then the ground is too coarse and you should use a finer setting. Did it take longer? Then use a coarser setting and try again.
The finished coffee is best tasted when temperatures are around 55-60 C (131-140 F). Flavors should improve as you taste it! The coffee should be well-balanced with a touch of sweetness immediately when it enters your mouth, followed by some acidity or freshness (similar to yoghurt or soda) and it should finish off with pleasant bitters that do not turn your mouth dry.