Friday, December 12, 2014

How to brew great coffee

I roast coffee at home. It's a great hobby, but not without some initial frustrations: I found that my original coffeemaker took my carefully roasted, wonderful smelling home-roasted beans and made them taste like weak Folgers, or worse, K-Cup coffee. (No offense intended if you like these, but I'd hoped for better). Now my coffee tastes pretty spectacular, enough so that even my wife and kids are getting spoiled. To get to this point, I had to learn a lot about brewing coffee.

This is for my friends who have not yet heard the lecture. Below is the condensed form. You're welcome. The full lecture is coffee-geeky to the max; this is easier to stomach, unlike *bux. But, since this is Teh Interwebz, I pull no punches.

To brew great coffee is really quite simple:
  1. Start with good, fresh beans.
  2. Grind an appropriate amount.
  3. Brew using good water and a good method of brewing.
See, it really is simple, at least in outline. Now I'll go back over each of these and fill in some detail.

Good, fresh beans

Good: Know that you're getting arabica beans of a type you like.
Fresh: Buy when it's no more than a couple of weeks out of the roaster.
Beans: Get whole bean coffee, not store-ground.

How do you know good beans? Well, how do you know a good wine? You try it. Find a local coffee roaster and try their coffee. If they have periodic cuppings, go and taste. Some hints: If they don't tell you the coffee origin and species, they may be hiding something. Good coffee is of the species arabica, not robusta. Coffee types that I like vary quite a bit, caturra, bourbon, kochore, yirgacheffe... and others can all be wonderful. But know what you're getting so you'll know what you like.

If you find a good local roaster, trust them. Their goal in roasting should be to highlight the good qualities of the bean. Sometimes that will be a city (lightish) roast, sometimes that will be just past full city roast. It will not often be a very dark roast, because very dark roasts (e.g. *bux) cook out the volatiles and leave carbon. You taste the roast, not the bean. I'm not a fan of that.

Roasted coffee has volatile aromatics and oils. Because you don't want the volatiles (flavors and scents) wafting off before you brew, store beans in an airtight container. Don't freeze, don't refrigerate. Buy enough to use in a week or two, no more. Freshly roasted coffee outgasses carbon dioxide for the first few days (mostly the first day), so a one-way valve to let the carbon dioxide out is permissible, but assuming you didn't pick up the beans as they exited the roaster, an airtight container is better. 

Inevitably, oxygen gets to the beans. Oxygen and roasted beans are a bad mix. You don't like rancid oils, right? Then why pick up coffee that was roasted months ago? Especially that "french roast" rot that forced the oils to the surface then sat until the oils went bad. Ick.

Summary: Get known-good whole arabica beans, recently roasted, and store them in an airtight container.


You do have a grinder, right? You need one. Choose your brewing method (more below) and find instructions on the amount of beans needed (preferably by weight) per quantity of water. Also, for your chosen brewing method, determine what type of grind you need: fine? coarse? Then measure and grind.

The kind of grinder needed depends on the brewing method. Espresso requires a fine, exacting and repeatable grind, hence an expensive burr grinder. Drip coffee is much less exacting. A decent adjustable burr grinder is good for all but espresso. A whirly-blade grinder is barely acceptable even for drip coffee because it produces an uneven result.

Summary: Own and use a decent burr grinder.


Ah, the brewing: Use good water and brew correctly. If your tap water tastes funky, filter it or use bottled water. For correct brewing, there are many good methods. Unfortunately, if you have a drip coffeemaker on your counter I'd bet that it doesn't qualify.

First, the good methods: French press, various pour-over makers, vacuum pots, and a very few drip coffeemakers. These can all produce great coffee, but find directions and watch your brewing temperatures and times. Here are some recommendations for making coffee with filter cones, Chemex, and french press.

Good brewed coffee was studied extensively by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Their resulting guidelines are thus, but boiled down (ahem) the crux is:
  • use about 55g of ground coffee per liter of water, plus or minus to taste
  • water temperature between 195 and 205 Fahrenheit (92 to 96C), not to exceed 205F
  • brewing completed between 4 and 8 minutes, not to exceed 8 minutes
There are further guidelines about resultant net dissolved solids, sediment, holding temperature and other things, but note that you need water just off boil to get a decent cup, and you need to time it. A timer and a kettle will work.

What's wrong with your coffeemaker? Most coffeemakers don't get the water hot enough. Some cheapie brewers can start brewing with cool water and finish with water that is nearly steam. The brewing times are often too long resulting in overextraction, but a few are so quick they underextract. If you want a drip coffeemaker, get a good one that hits the SCAA time and temperature guidelines.

There are six SCAA-recommended coffeemakers at the moment. I own a Technivorm, but if I were buying now I'd certainly consider the Bonavita or Brazen.

I was about to close this section with "toss your Mr. Coffee," but as it turns out even Mr. Coffee is trying to get this right. They're not certified with SCAA and I've not tried their Optimal Brew machines, but it sounds promising.

Summary: Choose your brewing method and learn how to do it correctly.


Some people might complain that I've condemned them to buying $500+ worth of grinder and coffeemaker. Not so. Correct and tasty brewing does not need to be super expensive. A kettle, a cheap timer, a decent grinder (maybe $100 to $130 and up at this time), and a french press or a pour-over cone will work very well.

Buy good, fresh beans. Grind just before you brew, and brew correctly. End of lecture.

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