Use fresh beans.
How important is it to use fresh coffee beans? Let me put it this way: I’d rather have coffee improvised with a sock, an old pot, and a campfire if I get to grind my favorite beans fresh each morning, versus coffee from the latest expensive brewing machine using pre-ground, stale beans. As with all food, the ingredients matter much more than the tools.
Short science lesson: When beans are roasted, they go through a chemical change called the Malliard reaction. Not only does it turn the beans dark brown, it also creates aromatic compounds in the beans that give coffee its distinct taste and smell. But here’s the catch. The moment beans are roasted, those aromatic compounds start to fade away. After a few weeks the beans simply won’t smell or taste as good. Once beans have lost those compounds, there’s only one way to save the coffee: dump out that hot mess and start over with some fresh beans.
Have you noticed that beans off the grocery store shelf don’t print the date of when they were roasted? That’s because grocery store coffee is almost always past its freshness window. Sure, they can vacuum pack the beans and keep them fresh a little longer, but you can’t count on grocery store beans to be in their prime. Your best bet is to buy fresh-roasted whole beans from a local roaster. Or you can try one of the subscription services that will send you fresh-roasted beans every few weeks. If you’re feeling ambitious you can roast your own, but that’s the subject for another blog.
If beans are past their fresh date, they can still be used to make pretty good coffee if you cold brew them! But don’t waste your really good beans on cold brew. The best a cold brew will ever give you is pretty good coffee.
Pro Tip:For the absolute freshest beans, buy local. We have some fantastic roasters along the Wasatch Front including Publik, Pink Elephant, Blue Copper, and La Barba (which is sold at Harmons).
If you want an extraordinary experience with a coffee genius, visit John Piquet at Caffe D’Bolla. You’ll quickly see why I treasure all the time I’ve spent there! His regular menu on the wall only offers espresso drinks, but ask for the siphon menu. John roasts all his coffee in house. The nuanced flavors you'll experience in both the the espresso and the siphon coffee at Caffe D'bolla are because of the roasting. As John says, "It's the single most important aspect of my craft."
Grind your beans just before you brew.
Grinding beans greatly increases the amount of surface area that’s exposed. Exposing more surface area means you'll get a lot more flavor out of the ground beans when you brew them. Unfortunately, as soon as beans are ground, they’ll start losing their aromatic compounds at a much faster rate. So if you’re trying to get the best-tasting cup of coffee, it makes sense to grind them only when you’re ready to brew.
One piece of equipment that’s worth investing in is a burr grinder. Unlike regular blade grinders that just bash the beans into random-sized pieces, a burr grinder mills the beans between two grinding plates until the pieces are all a uniform size. With a regular grinder, you’ll have tiny bits of bean that get overexposed during the brew, giving the coffee a bitter, sludgy taste. At the same time you’ll also have larger pieces that won’t be exposed enough, adding a sour, acidic taste. If you use a burr grinder, all the bits will be the same size, so you can get a consistent flavor. You may have to try some practice runs to find the perfect grind for your machine, but whatever size of grounds you’re aiming for, a burr grinder will help you hit it precisely and consistently.
Pro Tip:You can spend thousands of dollars on a burr grinder, but the Kinu hand grinder, at around $200, is my favorite. 1Zpresso and Helor make comparably great grinders. For lower budgets, the Hario Skerton Pro is a good ceramic grinder. It’s not the greatest, but at around $60, it may be the best value for the price.
Use the right water temperature.
To extract the best flavors out of your coffee, you should brew with water between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Below 195 degrees, you won’t get enough flavor from the coffee. Above 205 you’ll scorch the beans and get bitter chemicals that should have been left in the beans. Perfect brewing involves finding that temperature “sweet” spot.
If you’re boiling your own water, you may need to let it cool a bit before you start your brew. Remember, water naturally boils at 212 degrees at sea level, and the boiling point gradually decreases as you go up in elevation. If you live above 4,000 feet in elevation (as we do here in Utah), you can pour boiling water straight over your beans, since our water boils at 204 degrees. The lower your elevation is below 4,000 feet, the longer you’ll need to let your water cool before you brew.
Pro Tip:One thing I learned from John Piquet is that the taste of coffee changes at different temperatures. If you drink your coffee too hot, it may smell great but it won’t taste its best. John encourages his customers to begin sipping their coffee when it cools to around 155 degrees, which is the first point the flavors can truly dominate the heat. Then enjoy the changing range of flavors as the coffee gradually cools.
Find the right ratio of coffee to water.
In addition to temperature, the amount of water you use also affects the brewing process. The more water you use, the weaker the coffee will be. Finding the right balance of coffee and water (a.k.a. the “brew ratio”) is key to making a perfect cup of coffee.
Personally, I use 240 grams of water for every 15 grams of coffee, a ratio of 16:1. You’ll want to experiment with that ratio depending on how rich you want your coffee to be. As you’re experimenting, try to be as consistent as possible in your measurements. This brings us to the second piece of equipment that’s worth investing in, a digital scale. It’s impossible to control exactly how much ground coffee fits into a scoop, but a digital scale will allow you to measure by weight, giving you a precise and accurate measurement every time.
Pro Tip:There’s an ongoing debate about what kind of water (tap, bottled, filtered, etc.) makes the best coffee. My two cents: unless you’re doing espresso, the type of water usually doesn’t make much difference. But I don’t recommend using distilled water. Just like food is enhanced by a little salt, a perfect brew needs a small amount of minerals in the water, ideally around 150 parts per million. Distilled water is too pure and will make your coffee taste bland.
Bloom your coffee.
If you grind fresh beans just before you brew, you might notice that the coffee grounds appear to bubble when they first touch water. What you’re seeing is CO2 gas escaping from the beans, a phenomenon called “the bloom.” If you don't get rid of that gas before you start your brew, the CO2 can form a kind of blanket around the coffee grounds, preventing them from brewing properly. To bloom your beans, pour a little water over the grounds. Then give them a gentle stir so that all the grounds get wet, and wait for about 30 seconds for the gas to leave. Use about twice as much water as there is coffee grounds. In other words, if you’re starting with 40 grams of grounds, use about 80 grams of water in your bloom.
Over the years, I tried a lot of techniques and technologies in my quest to brew the perfect cup. Most of them turned out to be more time-consuming or expensive than they’re worth. But these five tips I’ve discussed are simple, tried, and true, and I guarantee that if you give them a try, you’ll taste a dramatic difference. I should warn you that once you’ve tasted how good your home-brewed coffee can be, it may spoil you. You’ll have a hard time forking over $6 at Starbucks when, for 50 cents, you can brew something much better at home.