The Basics of Making Great Coffee

7 Tips to Ensure that Your Coffee Rocks

It saddens me when high-quality coffee beans are roasted to the best possible spot on the roast scale and then poorly brewed. It’s like running the 100 meters at a record pace, only to trip in the last ten with the finish line in sight. If you invest in good coffee and are hoping for it to shine in the cup, here are some tips for making sure the experience is the best possible.

1. Start with clean equipment. If you haven’t cleaned your coffee maker recently, do that first. Regular descaling is a must. If your water has off tastes, you might want to filter it first. Some minerals are good, but sulfury or hard water tastes, for example, are not conducive to good coffee.

2. Make sure the water is hot enough. This is the major problem with most home drip machines. My old [insert major brand here] coffeemaker heated to no more than 180F (probably due to product liability concerns.) This is simply not hot enough to make coffee extract properly. The rule is, “just off the boil,” or about 204 – 210F.

3. Use the proper extraction time. If using a filter drip cone or a drip coffee maker, the water supposedly drips so that the coffee gets the right amount of extraction, assuming you ground the coffee to the right size for the method of brewing and poured the hot water at the right pace. If you use an immersion brewer such as a French press or a Clever Dripper (my favorite), you can control the time the grounds are in contact with the water. Four minutes is just about perfect, then remove the grounds from the brew, or bitterness will develop. Note: If you are brewing a very dark roast and desire a strong bittering aftertaste, however, you should steep the grounds longer. Be careful.  More coffee ground finer might be better than more extraction time.

4. Grind matters. I didn’t want to believe that my grinder has a large impact on final flavor, but it does. Buy a burr grinder instead of the whirly-blade type. With a burr grinder, you get uniform size coffee bits that extract flavor at the same rate rather than a bunch of different size pieces that extract too fast or too slow. Over-extracted grounds lead to bitterness, and that is bad on so many levels. You will want to choose a grind setting that is suitable for the method of brewing–very fine grind for espresso, medium grind for drip, slightly coarser for pour over, and coarse for french press. Do not grind your beans until you are ready to introduce them to the hot water. Ground coffee has more surface area exposed to air and thus, it begins to stale as soon as it’s ground. Finally, clean your grinder burrs of old coffee regularly with a soft brush.

5. Use enough coffee. Many experts recommend 8-9 grams of ground dark roast and 10-11 grams of ground light roast coffee per standard 5 oz cup. One “standard” coffee scoop is supposed to be enough for 2 of the 5 oz cups. Unless you are OCD enough to weigh your water and grounds and to account for the difference in densities of various beans, my advice is to use one standard coffee scoop for one 5 oz cup until you know where the sweet spot is for you. You can always dilute as needed if you like, but it doesn’t work the other way. Sorry!

CAVEAT: If you are making decaf, make sure you use enough coffee; the decaf process tends to wash out some of the intensity of flavor.  “Weak” tasting high-quality coffee is still awfully disappointing!

6. Use a thermal carafe instead of a heating element. Continual heating destroys coffee. The best stuff is that which is consumed immediately after it’s cool enough to enjoy (not super hot—the flavors open up considerably as it cools to comfortably hot temperature).  Be aware that even the best thermal carafe cannot keep it delicious for many hours. Remember: Life is too short to drink bad coffee. Plan to make more when you need it.

7. Have it your way. If you want to have cream in your coffee, be my guest. However, be aware that as you get used to drinking really good coffee, you will experience less of a desire to flavor it with other amendments.  Still, it’s your choice, and I won’t judge you either way.

Did your coffee not meet your expectations? Troubleshoot it here.