Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a piece in their Food section called "Three Steps to Brewing a Better Cup of Coffee" that I recently ran across. The author noted three steps you can take to improve the quality of your morning cup:
- Grind your beans
- Use a scale, not a scoop
- Graduate to a better brewer
Reading through them, I think the author generally got most of it "right" (I don't think there's an objectively correct way to brew, but I definitely think there's a wrong way to brew, an insult in a cup). However, there are some other items I would like to add that can definitely improve the brewing process.
Act I: Proper grinding
Generally speaking, there are two classes of grinders: burr and blade. There are plenty of resources online explaining the differences between them, and the Times piece I mentioned at the top of the page rightly indicated that a good burr grinder can be sort of expensive (for example, I bought this grinder made by Capresso more than four years ago, and it's still grinding like a champ). Though it may be a bit of an initial investment, it's something that really will pay off if you're in the hunt for good coffee at home. Strongly consider finding a decent burr grinder.
However, the Times piece only makes a passing reference to one of the big ideas behind grinding and leaves out what I think is a pretty important tip. First, when you brew coffee you're grinding the beans into evenly-sized pieces so that you can extract fats, oils, and particulate matter from the coffee beans. The types and amounts of these substances present in your coffee will affect (significantly) how your coffee tastes, because freshly-brewed coffee is still ~96% water and only ~4% dissolved substances, so variations of even very small amounts are detectable by most people. Grounds of equivalent size will therefore allow for uniform extraction, whereas uneven grounds from a blade grinder will not extract evenly, putting the balance of those fats, oils, and particulates in jeopardy.
Second, if you're making coffee that you've ground and your coffee tastes weak, try making your grind size smaller little by little over successive days. Larger grounds take more water and time to extract those fats, oils, and particulates (and more water dilutes your coffee further), so by reducing the size of the grind you can force an increase in what you're getting from the bean. However, if you notice the coffee tastes too bitter or harsh, try increasing the grind a little. Even though this isn't the only parameter you can change to improve your coffee's flavor, it's an easy modification you can make to see a significant change in your cup's flavor profile. Don't be afraid to experiment a bit, and remember that each different bean and roast could likely stand a little tinkering with the grind size to get the flavor you like.
Watch this space for future posts on a discussion on extraction yield, total dissolved solids, and striking the proper balance between a few other key brewing parameters to really improve your brewing game.
Act II: Mass matters
While it is technically possible to just fill up your kettle, eyeball how much water you pour in and hope for the best (I did that for a while before I started getting more "empirical" about it), your morning cup will really shine if you mass both your beans and your water before you brew. The Times piece mentions shooting for a coffee:water ratio (in grams) of 55:1000 (and for water, remember that 1 mL == 1g == 1cm3), but in reviews and brewings I do for myself and for this site I generally use 45:750 or so. I only do this because it suits my tastes a little better than the Times recommendation.
The point that seems lacking from the Times piece is that you should also experiment with the mass you assign to the water and grounds. Generally speakings experimentation is good and precise experimentation is better. I brew directly on a cheap ($10) scale to track these numbers more easily, and it really has done wonders for my coffee. It only takes a little bit more time to mass things out rather than just throwing them into your brewer, so I would encourage you to think about it.
Act III: Brew manually
Maybe I have become too particular about my coffee, but I have tried brews from a number of different methods and I always come back to manual pour-over. It allows control, finesse, proper bloom time and saturation patterns, and it's fun to watch and do. I use an 8-cup Chemex for my coffee, with water at or less than 93°C and a 45s bloom time for nearly every brew I make. It's cheap and highly effective, even for brewers who may butcher their first few attempts.
My strategy is to use about 80g to wet the coffee, wait 45s for bloom to occur, then begin my primary pour in the center of the bed and work my way out in a spiral pattern. I will fill until the water and coffee level is about two-thirds of the way up the side of the glass funnel (not the paper, as it will likely extend beyond the glass funnel). Once I get here, I will stop, let it subside just a bit, and then begin what I call the "maintenance pour": adding water in a circular fashion, working from the center outward and back in again, to basically maintain that level of water until I approach 750g total mass.
One of the keys here is that I never actually pour water on the paper sides and allow it to run down into the sides of the bed; rather, I always stay about an inch (for the average human, the length from the tip of your index finger to your first knuckle) from the sides. This will result in something that looks like a frothy donut, with a light taupe color in the middle and the darker brown of the grounds along the rim--and there should always be a thick froth of carbon dioxide bubbles for the duration of your brew. Additionally, I never pour aggressively into the center of the coffee bed. Though I'm not exactly sure if it's accurate, it's my sense that these two strategies help prevent the disturbance of the coffee bed and more accurately control the dwell time, or how long the water is exposed to grounds during the extraction process. A turbid bed will allow water to flow through too fast, interrupting extraction and affecting the taste of your coffee.
Think of how much you're missing by brewing Folgers with your Mr. Coffee! :)
I think that generally concludes my "quick tips" for brewing better coffee. It may seem like a lot, but once you develop a pattern these steps add only a small amount of time to your morning routine but can really bring out the best in your morning cup. If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to send me an email.