How to Make the Perfect Cup of Coffee

 

coffee-twin-peaksThe old adage says, “write what you know.” As you can see from my profile picture, I know coffee. As a little kid, my Finnish uncle would roust me before dawn to go fishing, then serve us the morning’s catch with heavily sweetened java. I started guzzling the stuff in earnest as a 13-year-old paper boy. Over time, I used less cream and sugar, so by the middle of high school I was slamming down black coffees before trig class. (I was also very ADD, so I apologize to my mom and teachers for being such an annoying spaz.)

There are a zillion ways to make coffee, many of them complicated and insanely expensive. But after trying most, I can tell you that simple and cheap is the best way to brew the finest damn cup of joe you’ve ever tasted.

coffeeBeans

Get the good stuff. Now the good stuff doesn’t need to be expensive. Jamaican Blue Mountain is great, but $50-a-pound great? Nah. And if you drop $150 on beans crapped out of a civet, your lower GI deserves everything it gets.

There are two types of bean, Arabica and Robusta. Always go for the former; the latter is what you find in instant coffee and bucket-sized tins. If you have a good coffeehouse nearby that roasts in-house, buy there (it’ll always be Arabica). Look at the roast date and make sure the beans are fresh. If they’ve sat around for a month or more, the flavor takes a big hit.

As far as country of origin and roast level, explore a bit to see what you like. Medium roast is a bit sweeter and a lot of times dark roast is used to pass off inferior beans. And make sure you get whole bean. The grinding should be done at home.

brevilleGrinding

There are two types of grinders: blade grinders and burr grinders. Blades are cheaper, but they heat up the beans and make an inconsistent grind. Both of these hurt the flavor in a big way. So you need a good burr grinder, which will be your most expensive purchase.

After shopping around for months, I highly recommend the Breville Smart Grinder Pro. It’ll set you back $200, but it’s built like a tank and grinds like the gearbox in a used Fiat. A hand grinder works too, but I don’t need that much exercise.

Hot Water

I use filtered, but my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to tell the difference from tap water. Feel free to boil the water on the stovetop if you like, but it’s quicker to use a simple electric kettle. When you need caffeine, every second counts.

81vmqlemdal-_sx522_Brewer

Above, I linked to a $7,000 espresso maker. You know what the best brewer costs? Twelve bucks. Making coffee isn’t a high-tech endeavor, and your best bet is a modified plastic funnel called the Hario V60. If you want to get fancy, get the ceramic version for $10 more, but that one’s prone to breakage when you’re stumbling around the kitchen at 6 am. And remember to pick up some filters while you’re at it.

Now, the Hario is designed for brewing one cup at a time. If you want a potful, get the little piece of modern art known as the Chemex for $40. The process is identical to the V60 — just water pouring over ground coffee.

what-exactly-is-a-coffee-bloom-2It’s Time to Brew Some Coffee

Now that you have all the gear, it’s time to wake up.

  1. Set your burr grinder to a somewhat-fine grind and select the number of cups you want to make. I have a big mug, so I set mine to three cups, or 24 oz.
  2. Fill up your electric kettle with that amount of water (24 oz. in my case).
  3. Place a filter in your Hario or Chemex, then run some hot tap water over it. This wets the filter and gets rid of that raw paper taste you don’t want in your coffee (my palate is sophisticated enough to pick that up). Dump that nasty water out.
  4. Pour the ground beans in the filter.
  5. Once the kettle is boiling, take it off the heat for a few seconds. The optimal temperature for brewing is 205° F, or just off the boil. A big reason your auto-drip coffee tastes crappy is because it often only heats the water to 160° or so. This creates bitterness, both in your mug and your mood.
  6. Pour a little bit of hot water over the coffee, just enough to soak the grounds without dripping through. Then wait 60 seconds. This steeps the coffee a bit and releases the CO2 created during the roasting process.
  7. Slowly pour in the rest of the water. Again, the idea is to soak the grounds instead of letting the water race through. This will draw out all those flavors that make coffee so great.
  8. Drink the best cup of coffee you’ve ever made.

By controlling every part of the process, you get the best quality coffee, grind, water, and temperature, and it doesn’t take much longer that setting your Mr. Coffee to “Brew.”

damn-fine-coffee

If you have any tips, tricks, or blasphemous dissent, please let me know in the comments.

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  1. Bereket Kelile Member
    Bereket Kelile
    @BereketKelile

    Since we’re all coffee aficionados here I thought you might find this interesting. It’s a barista college in Portland that trains people on the art, mostly geared towards prospective coffee-shop owners, I believe. If I had the time and money…

    • #31
  2. SParker Member
    SParker
    @SParker

    Minor quibbles about Chemex pots (one of which I had for many years probably thanks to an astute product placement in a movie called John and Mary.  Definitely not the one in Harper):  Brand filter paper is way overpriced vs. lab paper and you always find you didn’t somehow manage to buy a new box after you used your last piece because you’re an idiot; the wooden grip and leather binding–the thing that separates it from a ring stand, funnel, and Ehrlenmeyer flask–will drive you nuts over time when cleaning the thing, which is about as much fun as cleaning an Ehrlenmeyer flask, really, and the grip gets scuzzy and the leather rots.

    I’m fond of the Oskar, although if you are one of those people who actually has friends and needs the 8-cup,  I imagine it’s a little spendy.  Reminds me of my Norwegian grandmother’s method somehow:  grounds into a saucepan, egg shells to settle them, i.e., Cowboy Style.  She will forgive me for drinking anything out of a Swedish contraption.  I hope.

    And a big thanx-and-FU-to-you-and-the-horse-you-rode-in-on about the burr grinder.  I’m happy with a blade grinder (in lonely guy quantities).  I was happy, that is.

    • #32
  3. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Freesmith:Jon,

    Between steps #6 and #7 do you maintain the 205-degree water temperature in the Bodum, or do you allow the water to cool slightly during that 60-second interval?

    I ask this because I have never used an electric water heater for coffee and wonder if I should place my kettle back on the burner and keep it at full boil after soaking the grounds or let it sit off the flame.

    The scientists say you’re supposed to, but I figure it cools off less than 10°, which is still in the heat range that you want.

    • #33
  4. Richard Hanchett Inactive
    Richard Hanchett
    @iDad

    Tried the recommendations to wet the grounds and slow pour using my $6 Melitta single cup cone.  Noticeably better.  Thanks, Jon.

    • #34
  5. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    Nah. Just get a pre-McDonald’s lawsuit electric percolator. Sure, you have to stand by for ten minutes for the brewing to reach peak flavor and heat (especially heat) but my mom’s 30 year old perc renders coffee that is:

    • #35
  6. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Scott Wilmot:Interesting stuff Jon. I didn’t know the difference between a blade and burr grinder. I always use a french press – why do you prefer the drip method?

    The best cup of coffee I have ever had was in Bali at a coffee shop in a botanical garden. It was kopi luwak and only set me back 50 cents – it was incredible.

    Right up there though was the coffee at Losari Plantation in Central Java. My wife and two youngest took a trip there in October of 2010 when we were living in Jakarta. It was one of the most fabulous resorts I have ever been to – a stunningly beautiful place. This is a view walking in the main gate looking out across the lawn:

    losari1_volcano

    It was a working Dutch coffee plantation turned into a resort. One day we took a tour of what was left of the plantation:

    tour

    losari3_dirt

    losari9_greenbeans

    The roaster and beans:

    losari6_roaster

    losari7_thebeans

    Relaxing over a cup:

    losari5_relaxing

    The two dishes in the middle of the table are freshly roasted beans and shaved gula merah (red sugar – coconut palm sugar). It was the signature snack there. One mixed a shave piece of sugar with 2 or 3 beans and popped them into your mouth – tasted like some of the best chocolate you have ever had!

    losari4_beanssugar

    I would also assume that the real dish is your wife, you lucky guy.

    • #36
  7. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    The beauty of coffee is its versatility. Experimentation will lead anyone to a brew to their own taste. Personally, I have the benefit of having a kid who has worked at Starbucks for almost 15 years. We acquired an espresso machine many years ago that we call the Nuclear Reactor. It makes me a nice Americano every morning with the press of one button. I appreciate the coffee and the absurdity of using more technology than Apollo 11 to brew it.

    • #37
  8. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    I can’t hear about Luvak coffee without thinking of Dave Barry’s classic article on the subject. What sort of world do we live in where we have to worry that our overpriced coffee was NOT crapped by a weasel?

     

    • #38
  9. Scott Wilmot Member
    Scott Wilmot
    @ScottWilmot

    PHCheese: I would also assume that the real dish is your wife, you lucky guy.

    Amen to that.

    Hanging out on the Bali-bale:

    k

    • #39
  10. Tennessee Patriot Member
    Tennessee Patriot
    @TennesseePatriot

    I second the recommendation of sweetmarias.com for roasting devices and great green beans. I have been roasting my own for over 25 years. I used to use a french press, but it lets oils from the coffee get into the cup. My triglycerides were sky high and I read an article that stated frech press, or metal filter, coffee could contribute to this. After I went to filtered coffee, with a Chemex, my triglycerides decreased more than 30%. Therefore, if you have a triglyceride problem keep this in mind.

    • #40
  11. Trinity Waters Inactive
    Trinity Waters
    @TrinityWaters

    Almost in time for Thanksgiving, somebody finally writes a post about something worthy.  Politics?  Meh.

    Coffee is one of the crowning achievements of Western Civilization, and you have described the process of brewing with exquisite detail, nay, eloquence.  All you say it is true and relevant to a meaningful life, but for lesser beings like me, there is an answer that uses all the correct concepts and parameters such as grinding and temperature in joyful and lazy unison.  Behold the power of a fully operational Swiss fully automatic espresso machine, the Jura Capresso Impressa S7, teamed with the king of froth, Mrs. Breville!

    img_1153

    (His little brother, the Jura Ena Micro 1 resides in our fifth wheel with Breville twin).

    • #41
  12. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    You people are making this way more complicated than it has to be.

    k-cup1-500x247

    • #42
  13. Matt White Member
    Matt White
    @

    Matt Bartle:You people are making this way more complicated than it has to be.

    k-cup1-500x247

    We thought Trump and SSM set people against each other here.  Now it’ll really get ugly.

    • #43
  14. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    Matt Bartle:You people are making this way more complicated than it has to be.

    k-cup1-500x247

    I heard that the inventor doesn’t even use one because it makes bad coffee.

    • #44
  15. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    You hipsters with your optimal temperature and grinding your own green beans and French press and burr grinders which I’ve never even heard of! I have a Black & Decker coffeemaker with a timer, into which I put Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee from the grocery store. How do you not have coffee that’s already waiting for you when you stumble into the kitchen?! I do not get that! I could no more wait around for the coffee to brew than fly to Venus. The very idea makes me break out in a cold sweat. I mean let’s get our priorities straight.

    • #45
  16. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Your beans should be fairly freshly roasted. If your seller of beans doesn’t put the roast date on the bag, you’re not getting the good stuff. (I don’t always buy the good stuff, but when I do it puts the regular stuff from the store shelf to shame.)

    How long the beans should age after roasting varies, but darker roasts can be used fairly quickly and won’t get any better with time. With those you taste the roast rather than the coffee, anyway. Lighter roasts need a little longer to age in the bag before they reach their peak, but probably not more than 3-4 days, max.

    I keep saying I’m going to get back to roasting my own, but it has been just over four years since my last roaster broke and I haven’t gotten around to it.

    • #46
  17. wilber forge Inactive
    wilber forge
    @wilberforge

    Find a diner at a truck stop where the sign  says Eat. MultiUse Brew served there, end of story. And no stinkin Fo Fo barristas.

     

    • #47
  18. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Black and decker machine. Peets uzuri African beans. Nothing better.

    • #48
  19. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    wilber forge:Find a diner at a truck stop where the sign says Eat. MultiUse Brew served there, end of story. And no stinkin Fo Fo barristas.

    Once on a road trip, we saw a diner with a giant sign that said EAT AND GET GAS.

    • #49
  20. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    RightAngles: Once on a road trip, we saw a diner with a giant sign that said EAT AND GET GAS.

    Ha!  Decades ago, along a country highway in Pennsylvania, a sign:

    Diesel Sandwiches.

    We didn’t stop…

    • #50
  21. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    RightAngles:

    wilber forge:Find a diner at a truck stop where the sign says Eat. MultiUse Brew served there, end of story. And no stinkin Fo Fo barristas.

    Once on a road trip, we saw a diner with a giant sign that said EAT AND GET GAS.

    Actually, gas station coffee is a lot better these days than it was twenty years ago. It’s not all good and it’s never excellent, but decent coffee can be found when traveling.  If I want a cup late in the day I’ll ask when it was brewed (if it’s not one of those setups where that information is provided) and maybe give it a smell test.

    Some parts of the country aren’t so good, though. I haven’t spent a lot of time south of the Ohio River, but I’ve had some bad coffee experiences in that direction.  Sometimes you don’t even have to go that far south for bad coffee.

    I had a little trouble getting good coffee in Ireland, too.  There are lots of independent little cafes where one can get lunch – with good service, good food, and bad coffee. I learned to beware, because sometimes it was instant coffee.  But I did have some good coffee, too.

    • #51
  22. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    The Reticulator:

    RightAngles:

    wilber forge:Find a diner at a truck stop where the sign says Eat. MultiUse Brew served there, end of story. And no stinkin Fo Fo barristas.

    Once on a road trip, we saw a diner with a giant sign that said EAT AND GET GAS.

    Actually, gas station coffee is a lot better these days than it was twenty years ago. It’s not all good and it’s never excellent, but decent coffee can be found when traveling. If I want a cup late in the day I’ll ask when it was brewed (if it’s not one of those setups where that information is provided) and maybe give it a smell test.

    Some parts of the country aren’t so good, though. I haven’t spent a lot of time south of the Ohio River, but I’ve had some bad coffee experiences in that direction. Sometimes you don’t even have to go that far south for bad coffee.

    I had a little trouble getting good coffee in Ireland, too. There are lots of independent little cafes where one can get lunch – with good service, good food, and bad coffee. I learned to beware, because sometimes it was instant coffee. But I did have some good coffee, too.

    the first coffee I ever drank was “Insta Cafe” from Kenya. I have no idea if it was any good. Must have been mild, though.

    • #52
  23. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Interesting comments on how to make good coffee.

    My wife and I do love a good cup, and we dislike a bad one, though we’d rather have bad coffee than none.

    In the last half century, we’ve tested an infinite number of theories about how to make great coffee.

    We’ve discovered that sometimes a cup of coffee is very good, sometimes ok, sometimes not very good, sometimes awful.

    We’ve also determined that one morning the coffee is fantastic, and the next day mediocre, even though nothing was changed.

    We’ve read much advice. Dunkin Donuts coffee beans are bad, I learn in the above post.  So why are so many of our great cups of coffee made with Dunkin Donuts coffee beans?  I can tell you confidently that this speculation is conclusively disproven.

    So if you use Dunkin Donuts beans, you will have great coffee?  The next bag you open, if you believe that, will be awful. That isn’t reliably true, but it’s more consistent with reality.

    Every theory about making great coffee is wrong.   It is like every theory about great beer.  If there were a correct theory, then if you have a fantastic glass of beer, and then have a second of the exact same beer, it should be fantastic. But it never is.

    This is not to say that there is absolutely no science to it. I am just saying you’ll never figure it out.

    • #53
  24. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    You need a burr grinder rather than a blade grinder to keep the coffee from getting hot? You’re going to pour boiling water on it when you’re done.

    grouchoEyeRoll

    • #54
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Percival: [eyerolling] You need a burr grinder rather than a blade grinder to keep the coffee from getting hot? You’re going to pour boiling water on it when you’re done.

    I’ve heard that, but the reason for a burr grinder is to get a consistent grind for a press, which requires a coarser grind. It’s very hard to do that with a blade grinder. You tend to get a lot of fines mixed in with the big pieces. If you grind it all fine, though, it’ll work OK with a pour-over filter. If I am reduced to using a blade grinder for a french press, I hit the button repeatedly, staccato style, which sort of mixes it up and keeps the grind even.

     

    • #55
  26. EB Thatcher
    EB
    @EB

    I like drip coffee, French press coffee, the coffee at Cafe du Monde, and yes, Starbucks.  But the best coffee is our wonderful “instant” coffee:

    We use the Toddy System (cold brew) for our coffee. 1 pound of ground coffee and 9 cups of water overnight (or longer) give you a great coffee concentrate that you keep in the refrigerator. It’s rich and not bitter (the cold water doesn’t release much acid) and you can make your coffee as strong (or weak) as you like. We put approximately 2 ounces in a mug and add boiling water.  https://toddycafe.com

    • #56
  27. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Mark Camp: This is not to say that there is absolutely no science to it. I am just saying you’ll never figure it out.

    There is truth to this at many levels. There is science to it (mostly proprietary) but there are a lot of variables.

    When I started roasting, I figured I’d figure out which origin I liked (from Sweet Maria’s), get my technique down for that variety, save my roasting curves, and do it repeatedly for my famous Reticulator Special-To-Be.

    It doesn’t work that way. For one, by the time I figured out I really liked a particular variety, it was almost always out of stock by the time I went back to Sweet Maria’s.  All gone for the season, and maybe for several years, because Thom only buys the best beans in the best years. Next year the weather might be different, or his grower might have gone on to something else.

    Also, I was using an electric air roaster, which can get some bright flavors that other roasters cannot, but there is no such thing as getting a consistent roasting curve. Ambient temperature varies. Household AC current varies. Beans vary within a bag. There will be variations in your timing.  You’re doing small batches, and there is nothing to smooth out the variables.

    I finally learned to just enjoy the variety and the surprises. If it’s consistency that you want, do something else and lower your expectations.

    • #57
  28. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The Reticulator:

    Percival: [eyerolling] You need a burr grinder rather than a blade grinder to keep the coffee from getting hot? You’re going to pour boiling water on it when you’re done.

    I’ve heard that, but the reason for a burr grinder is to get a consistent grind for a press, which requires a coarser grind. It’s very hard to do that with a blade grinder. You tend to get a lot of fines mixed in with the big pieces. If you grind it all fine, though, it’ll work OK with a pour-over filter. If I am reduced to using a blade grinder for a french press, I hit the button repeatedly, staccato style, which sort of mixes it up and keeps the grind even.

    Then grind it longer.

    But then the coffee will get hot …

    lionFacepalm

    • #58
  29. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    EB:I like drip coffee, French press coffee, the coffee at Cafe du Monde, and yes, Starbucks. But the best coffee is our wonderful “instant” coffee:

    We use the Toddy System (cold brew) for our coffee. 1 pound of ground coffee and 9 cups of water overnight (or longer) give you a great coffee concentrate that you keep in the refrigerator. It’s rich and not bitter (the cold water doesn’t release much acid) and you can make your coffee as strong (or weak) as you like. We put approximately 2 ounces in a mug and add boiling water. https://toddycafe.com

    This looks interesting!

    • #59
  30. Matt White Member
    Matt White
    @

    MLH:

    Matt Bartle:You people are making this way more complicated than it has to be.

    k-cup1-500x247

    I heard that the inventor doesn’t even use one because it makes bad coffee.

    Actually, he doesn’t use it because he thinks all the disposable cups are destroying the planet.

    • #60
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