The Case for Better Coffee – how to make a better cup

French Press Starter KitPictured: French Press Starter Kit – via La Colombe

A good number of years ago, I had the pleasure of watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats on the subject of coffee.  It explained many things and helped me understand why I was struggling to produce something that I would call a good cup of coffee.  Since I have had the pleasure of traveling to Central America many times and have furthered my love and appreciation of a good cup of coffee.  I’ve gone from drip to french press to pour-overs to roasting my own green coffee beans to making espresso in my home that rivals or often time exceeds the brew that’s coming out of many coffee shops at a fraction of the price.  Here are some tips to take your cup to the next level no matter where you are in the spectrum.

  1. For the pre-ground drip coffee maker crowd – Use the right amount of coffee.  Generally speaking, you’re looking for 2 tablespoons per 6 ounces of water.  If you like your coffee weaker than that… dandy.  Make it using 2 tablespoons for 6 ounces and dilute it to taste with hot water.  Using too little coffee draws unwanted and bitter compounds from the coffee.  Use the right amount of coffee.
  2. Start with good water.  If your water is overly hard or otherwise unpleasant pick up a filter or consider using bottled water.
  3. Grind your own.  The biggest bang for the buck improvement in my opinion is grinding your own beans.  Green coffee beans have a shelf life of years, in fact some think that green coffee beans get better as they age.  Roasted coffee beans have an optimal shelf life of 2 weeks or under.  Ground coffee has a shelf life of… minutes.  Ground coffee has a lot more surface area (compared with whole unground coffee) to interact with oxygen and stale/oxidize.  Also fresh beans release CO2.  That CO2 helps to drive important oils and flavors out during the brewing process.  Ground coffee left to sit, releases all its CO2.  Leaving no CO2 left to help drive the flavor extraction process.  All pre-ground coffee is stale. Amazon Best Sellers in Coffee Grinders
  4. Get the grind right.  Each brewing method calls for a specific grind size.  That grind corresponds with the speed of the method and helps extract the right flavors and compounds.  Choose the right setting for your equipment.
  5. Get fresh beans.  Look for a busy coffee roaster that includes roast dates on the bag.  Busy means beans aren’t sitting around too long.  In my opinion… I suggest running away from bins of coffee beans.  These are open the air and are most likely stail.  Who knows how long they’ve been sitting there.  Run from the bins!
  6. Skip the drip coffee maker.  Most drip coffee makers do not get hot enough for optimal brewing.  A pour over brewer is generally inexpensive and gives you control over your water at a reasonable price.  You can be certain your water is hot enough by heating it yourself in a tea kettle.  In my opinion a freshly ground pour-over coffee is an economical way to get a great cup of coffee that outclasses most drip machines.
  7. If you want to make the jump to espresso… plan on saving up.  A quality setup is pricey.  Expect to spend $400+ for just the grinder.  I started with a cheap espresso maker (real cheap) and had terrible results, I moved on to a Rancilio Silvia and a Rocky Grinder and have since moved on to a Rocket Espresso Appartemento.  A great cup of coffee can be made relatively inexpensively with fresh beans that have been recently ground using a method that allows you to heat up the water to the right temperature – french press, pour-over, chemex and more.  Inexpensive and quality espresso setup are mutually exclusive terms in my opinion.

If you’re happy with your cup of Joe, that’s what counts.  If you’re not and looking to improve consider some of these ideas.

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