Pretty much everyone professes a desire to drink better coffee. Of course what constitutes “better” isn’t the same thing for everyone. For me a great coffee is complex. It’s well balanced. It’s got a nice nose and nice finish. Bad coffee? Again, it’s a personal thing, but to me bad coffee is usually thin textured, watery, flat-tasting, and frequently overwhelmed by off flavors like excessive sourness, a burned flavor, paperiness, etc.
Aside from educating my palate with tasting after tasting, probably the biggest single thing I’ve learned from it all is just how much the same exact beans can taste totally different depending on how they’re handled. Basically, brewed coffee quality can be very, very variable. It’s become ever clearer to me that even the most carefully sourced and roasted coffee beans can only get you a small way to where you want to go on your quest for quality. The grind, the water, the method, the age of the beans, the volume of ground coffee used…it’s not a simple thing.
That said, here are the things I’ve learned that any of us can do to radically increase the odds of consuming a better cup of coffee at home.
Buy Better Beans
I will tell you truthfully and with great confidence that there is a really big difference between great coffee beans and so-so stuff. I am very confident that even the biggest skeptic really can tell the difference pretty darned quickly if they just decide that they want to. This is where all of our head roastmaster Steve’s homework has paid off with connections to the most quality-conscious brokers in the US, enabling us to get hold of some really special green beans.
Use Enough Coffee
As simple as it seems, this really could be the single biggest offending action at issue in the world of home brewing. The generally recommended ratio is two tablespoons of ground beans per six-ounce cup. Even if you like weaker coffee you’re better off to brew at that ratio and then add hot water to thin your cup. Paul puts three coffee scoops of whole beans into his grinder for each 8-ounce cup of water he’s using. If you’re calculating pounds in decimals, as I like to do, it’s about .45 ounces for an 8-ounce cup. I’m sorry for all the confusion but it’s become clear to me that part of the problem is that everyone is using different measurements and, consequently, ending up with really variable coffee quality even if they start with the same exact beans.
Store the Coffee Well
That would mean in an airtight glass jar. Probably at room temperature, and stored in a dry cabinet where it’s away from the light, for no more than a week after you get it home. Although there are those who like to keep the coffee in the freezer, most folks I’ve talked to of late have given up on the idea; there is little to be gained and you run the risk of causing condensation inside the jar which will ruin your brew.
Your best bet is to buy a good grinder and grind at home right before you brew. My personal choice right now is to use one of the old-fashioned hand held German coffee mills that we’ve gotten hold of—they’re quieter, they look good, they’ve got a really great set of perfectly tooled gears inside. They don’t heat the beans in the least. They’re incredibly easy to use. And they’ve got a ten-year warranty on ‘em. For more on these old fashioned—yet marvelously modern when it comes to the actual grinding mechanism—check them out online.
If you want to stick with electronically powered machines, the best I think are the burr grinders. Like the old-fashioned hand driven mills above, these actually grind the coffee (as opposed to the chopping action you get from the ones with those little whirring blades). Whatever grinding method you might use, keep in mind the amount of time it takes to grind. A fifteen count is about right. Once you’re happy with the timing, the burr grinders give you the option of presetting the timing so that you get a higher level of consistency. If you’re using the blade style, stop a couple times to shake the beans so you get even grinding. Too fine will lead to bitterness. Too course and you lose flavor.
Use Better Water
Since nearly all of what we actually end up with in our cup is water, not coffee, it’s kind of clear that the better the water we use, the better tasting the brew will be. Filtered water will help a great deal—you may not recognize your current coffee purchases if you switch from tap water to filtered (I will say though that if you’ve become accustomed to tap water you may not like the “cleaner” taste of coffee brewed with filtered water when you first try it). Regardless it should be clean and cold. And be careful not to ever overboil.