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. ParisParamus Inactive
    ParisParamus
    @ParisParamus

    Here’s a pair of related questions.i remember loving the smell of coffee as a kid (say, 1968-78). For some reason, no coffee smells as good now as it did then. Is there any explanation for this other than getting old(er) and losing my sense of smell?

    Also, if there any general correlation between how good coffee smells and how good it will taste?

    • #91
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The Reticulator:

    I think the best temperature for the water is 195F.

    Just coming off of boil is about as close as you’re going to get without going to a lot of work with little gain to show for it.

    By the time your pour of boiling water comes into contact with the press (even if you prewarm it) it will be somewhere in that range.

    When I make coffee, whether at home or in the lunchroom work (back when I used to go to work) I’d always ask if anyone else wanted a cup, too. I was being selfish.  My presses would hold 2 or 3 normal mugs worth of coffee, and a bigger batch would hold the heat better, which usually meant better tasting coffee.

    Another tip: I always roasted single-origin beans.  It would be 2-3 batches of different varieties once or twice a week. But I’d take the beans that were past their peak in flavor, say 10 days past roasting, and dump the small leftover batches all together and would sometimes get some nice, complex flavors from the combination of otherwise stale beans.

    It’s sort of like the way your aged whiskeys tend to have more complex flavors than the young ones, partly because they spent their time in different barrels. (I don’t know much about whiskey, but had a chance to learn and sample on a recent trip to Ireland.)

    • #92
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    ParisParamus:Here’s a pair of related questions.i remember loving the smell of coffee as a kid (say, 1968-78). For some reason, no coffee smells as good now as it did then. Is there any explanation for this other than getting old(er) and losing my sense of smell?

    Also, if there any general correlation between how good coffee smells and how good it will taste?

    I think so.  Smell is a part of it.  When I go camping I learned not to bother with making good coffee from freshly ground beans in a press. It was too much work, took too much water for cleanup, and since there is usually a breeze to carry the aroma away, it wasn’t quite the same as sitting indoors in a quiet room where you take in the whole sensory experience.

    But when it comes to flavored coffees, I think they often smell good but the taste is terrible, and are harsh on the tongue. The flavoring is oily and contaminates your equipment. You can’t be my friend if you put flavored beans in my grinder, though maybe I can eventually forgive you if you spend a few hours cleaning it out afterwards.

     

    • #93
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Another point about the aroma and taste.

    I used to drink 6 cups of coffee a day, but only the first two really had the really great flavors. Good coffee was wasted on me after that, so I’d usually save my inferior beans for afternoon coffee.

    As one gets older one reacts differently to the stuff put in one’s body, and by a year ago I had cut down to a maximum of four cups a day. Then after doctor visits a year ago it turned out I now need to pay attention to my blood pressure, so among other things I cut down to about two. In a way it was no great loss, because only the first two cups a day taste really good, anyway.

    Before the election I cut down to often having no more than one cup a day, because it seemed my blood pressure (not easy to monitor, because it’s all over the map) was tending high again.  But after Hillary lost and it seemed I probably would not get sent to her GULAG system after all, my blood pressure dropped again, so I went back to having a couple of cups a day.

    • #94
  5. ParisParamus Inactive
    ParisParamus
    @ParisParamus

    The Reticulator, I think I wasn’t clear. I’m referring to the smell of freshly ground coffee. Specifically, I remember loving the smell of ordinary coffee, say the coffee that had just been ground in one of those big red machines at the checkout of the local A&P. Now, almost nothing smells that good. Flavored coffee?!  NEVER..

     

    • #95
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    ParisParamus:

    The Reticulator, I think I wasn’t clear. I’m referring to the smell of freshly ground coffee. Specifically, I remember loving the smell of ordinary coffee, say the coffee that had just been ground in one of those big red machines at the checkout of the local A&P. Now, almost nothing smells that good. Flavored coffee?! NEVER..

    Check out some freshly roasted coffee. Grind it and see if it doesn’t smell the way you remember it.  You probably won’t get that in your grocery store, but you can sometimes take it to your grocery store and grind it.

    It might not answer your question about the sense of smell deteriorating with age, but I suspect you will notice a huge difference between that and grocery store coffee.

    It also makes a difference whether it’s a dark roast or not.  Dark, fresh roasts usually have a richer smell when ground, but they also don’t have all the flavors you’ll get from somewhat lighter roasts.

    The really light roasts are more of an acquired taste IMO.

    I used to get coffee roasted-to-order from Upson’s in Kalamazoo, back when they were the only roaster in town.  You didn’t need to grind it. The smell of a bag of bags would permeate the car. Wonderful stuff. But the roasts tended to be a bit on the dark side – not to the point of completely obscuring the flavor of the origin, though.

    • #96
  7. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    Having quit smoking and then drinking I am left with coffee.  While the process described is very good, my learning over the years has been that beans and water are about 99% of the flavor and process is maybe .5% and quantum variations in reality the other .5% when it comes to coffee.

    Being my only vice left, I spend on  good 100% Kona beans, delivered wet with oils when I open the bag. I then use filtered water and because I will sacrifice that .5% to comfort, a twelve cup auto drip maker that I clean regularly and keeps my daily ration of 48 ounces warm for four hours.

    If you want a serious caffeine jolt, go for peaberry kona, the small , young beans which pack a wallop of the drug of choice.

    • #97
  8. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    ParisParamus: i remember loving the smell of coffee as a kid (say, 1968-78).

    I hated it. I had an association with that smell and waking up for school. I especially hated the smell of coffee on my parents’ breath. The cup in hand near my dreaming head. They were making me go. Again.

    • #98
  9. Penfold Member
    Penfold
    @Penfold

    Best cup-a-joe I ever had was while sitting around the campfire on a canoeing trip in northern Minnesota.  It was early morning in October and there was frost on the ground.  I think it was Bucket-o-Folgers and we used generic creamer and sugar packets.  Somebody forgot to pack the French press dammit.

    • #99
  10. ParisParamus Inactive
    ParisParamus
    @ParisParamus

    I thought there might have been some significant change in coffee varieties grown or some blight that changed the coffee over the years. Actually, since I live in that bubble–Brooklyn–advertised on SNL, I have pretty good access to good beans.

    • #100
  11. GirlFriday Inactive
    GirlFriday
    @GirlFriday

    MitchCardwell:For a little variety get an Aeropress to go along with the Chemex or French Press.

    it makes an outstanding shot of Espresso for $14 and is portable.

    I was wondering if anyone would mention the lovely little Aero. Hubs got one a few years ago and we’ve never looked back. Before that we used a $20 Boden French Press.

    • #101
  12. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Random Robert Heinlein quote:

    Coffee comes in five descending stages: Coffee, Java, Jamoke, Joe, and Carbon Remover.

    • #102
  13. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    And of course the recipe for Cowboy Coffee:

    1. Build campfire.
    2. Bring water in pot to a rolling boil.
    3. Add coffee.
    4. Boil one hour.
    5. Throw a horseshoe into the pot.
    6. If the horseshoe sinks, add more coffee.
    7. If the horseshoe dissolves, it’s ready.
    • #103
  14. Michael Farrow Inactive
    Michael Farrow
    @MichaelFarrow

    The Reticulator:

    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.

    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.

    My experience too.  I buy 5# or 10# of beans and eliminate some variability.  I really do enjoy the flavor variability – as a wine maker I think it is like tasting fine wine from different vineyards, etc.

    • #104
  15. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me.  All I know is that MJB tastes good when it should.

    • #105
  16. valis Inactive
    valis
    @valis

    Taster’s Choice, good coffee freeze dried into granules then reconstituted.  Good enough for WWII soldiers, good enough for me.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Just kidding, that stuff is undrinkable.  But my saint Mom still drinks it, guess it’s in honor of her friends who didn’t come back or the human ability to adjust to anything.

    Will try this recipe, although I will drink anything from the bean.

    • #106
  17. gts109 Inactive
    gts109
    @gts109

    I agree that Nespresso is really good. I got my dad one of those things, and the coffee is amazing, probably better than what my actual espresso machine (a Breville) puts out most of the time. I think the cost of the individual packets is fairly high, however.

    Also, I agree that burr grinders are best. But I’m not sure I would buy the separate unit from Breville. For $50 more than the standalone, you can buy (from the same company), a coffee maker that includes an internal, automatic burr grinder and also actually brews a whole pot of coffee–you get to set the strength too with a nifty dial. Now, the coffee may not be as good as individually pouring each cup, but it’s more practical, IMO.

    https://www.amazon.com/Breville-BDC650BSS-Grind-Control-Silver/dp/B00VGGVQCI/ref=sr_1_1?s=kitchen&ie=UTF8&qid=1480964069&sr=1-1&keywords=breville+you+brew

    • #107
  18. Heather Champion Member
    Heather Champion
    @HeatherChampion

    The best cup of coffee I ever had was in my husband’s great Aunt’s little apartment in Oslo. She quickly hand ground the beans and threw the grinds into a small boiled pot of water. She strained each pour from her simple kitchen pot through a fine mesh sieve and we all had the best coffee and listened to her tell us her memories of WWII.

    • #108
  19. Elizabeth VG Thatcher
    Elizabeth VG
    @ElizabethVG

    Adding burr grinder to my Christmas list!

    • #109
  20. meadabawdy Inactive
    meadabawdy
    @meadabawdy

    ♫ “Waiter, waiter, percolator!” –The Inkspots, “The Java Jive”

    • #110
  21. Scott Wilmot Member
    Scott Wilmot
    @ScottWilmot

    Speaking of percolators – my family and I went camping for New Years and would wake up on cold mornings to a hot cup of coffee made on a wood fire in and old timey percolator pot – mmm mmm good.

    • #111
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