11 Ways to Brew Better Coffee at Home
By Drew Moody
At its heart, brewing better coffee is a straightforward task. You want to pour the proper amount of water at the proper temperature through the properly portioned and ground coffee to extract the best flavors out of it. Improving your morning cup may be easier than you think.
1. Find the right, fresh coffee.
If you’re going to take your home coffee experience to the next level, you’re not going to do it with just any coffee. The most surefire way to brew great coffee at home is to start with great coffee beans. Do some research to find the best roasters in your area and buy from a reputable company that sources their product ethically and transparently.
Also make sure the coffee you're buying is freshly roasted. Unlike wine and some beers, coffee doesn’t improve with age. In fact, it reacts to aging more like food: It doesn’t necessarily spoil or go bad, but its chemical structures and flavor profile certainly deteriorate over time.
2. Keep the air out.
Deterioration speeds up when coffee is exposed to oxygen, roasted beans’ sworn enemy. Oxidation contributes significantly to flavor degradation, and it doesn’t take much to render the coffee stale. Ambient air contains 19 to 21 percent oxygen, and it only takes 70 cubic centimeters of ambient air to make a pound of coffee stale (a one pound bag contains around 1000 cubic centimeters of space). Airtight packages with degasser valves work for the most part, but if there is even four percent oxygen inside the package, it’s only a matter of time until you’ve got stale coffee. So, if the packaging doesn't have a “roasted on” date on it, don't bother buying it—you’ll have no way of knowing how long it’s been sitting on the shelf.
3. Embrace whole beans.
It's also important to buy whole bean coffee instead of pre-ground. While grinding may add a few moments to your morning routine, it’s worth it. All of the coffee's natural flavors are locked in the bean's essential oils, and once the coffee is ground, the oils evaporate pretty quickly. You want those precious oils in your mug, not evaporated into your cupboard’s atmosphere.
4. Ditch the K-Cups.
In recent years, single serve automatic brewing systems—the Keurig K-Cup, most notably—have risen in popularity. If you really want to up your coffee game, you’ll want to retire your Keurig. There are a number of issues with K-Cups: Not only are they wildly expensive and terrible for the environment (even their inventor regrets the very idea of them), they simply don’t make great coffee. All the basic principles of good, high-quality coffee are completely ignored by these single-serving machines.
What’s the issue? Water temperature is one. The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends that coffee be brewed between 198 and 202°F to achieve proper saturation and extraction, and the industry standard is 200°, but the Keurig brews at a measly 192°F. There is also no control over the coffee-to-water ratio—whether you want a small, medium, or large cup, the same amount of coffee is used. This approach means a small cup will taste incredibly strong and over-extracted while a large will be weak and watery.
5. USE A SCALE.
Scoops, measuring spoons, and eyeballing it are usually good enough to brew a passable cup of coffee, but for a reliable and repeatable cup, knowing a coffee's precise weight is best. A scale removes all of the guesswork and need to decode special instructions (for example, “a heaping scoop” might actually be 14.3 grams). Coffee can vary in density depending on the bean size, origin, variety, and roast profile, so using a scale is the best means to normalize a brew recipe. A scale is also the best tool to enable brew ratio experimentation; whether you want to brew the industry standard of one part coffee to 18 parts water, or really wake your taste buds up with a 1:13 ratio, measuring doses with a scale will make your experimentation infinitely easier.
6. REFINE YOUR GRIND.
Now that you’re grinding your own beans at home, you’ll need the right grinder. A really great conical burr grinder is easily the biggest investment when setting up your professional-level home brewing station, but it's also the best investment you'll make. There are a number of reasons that burr grinders outweigh their blade counterparts, but the most important differences spring from a burr grinder’s consistency and adjustability. A blade grinder simply cannot match a burr grinder's ability to adjust its grind from espresso (very fine) to French press (very coarse), enabling you to match your grind to your brew method to deliver consistently ground coffee. A consistent grind can’t be underestimated, as it’s the only way to produce consistent extraction. If money is tight, you can always buy a manual burr grinder—they're a fraction of the cost, they’re transportable, and using one is a great arm workout!
7. DON’T FORGET THE SECRET INGREDIENT: WATER.
The most important ingredient in a high-quality cup of coffee is also maybe the most overlooked component. Hot water is a super solvent that extracts flavors and oils out of coffee grounds. While these flavors and oils are crucial, they only account for 1.25 percent of what's in your morning cup. In other words, a properly extracted cup of coffee is 98.75 percent water, so if the water you're brewing with isn't any good, your coffee won't be either. If your tap water has any odors or tastes of chlorine, lime, or rust, your coffee will, too. Instead, use only purified water (or as close to purified as you can get, even if you’re just using bottled water or a Brita filter). If you’re wondering how pure your home’s tap water is, considering picking up a TDS meter, a moderately priced gadget that gauges water’s purity. But don’t use distilled water. Without any minerals your coffee will taste on the blander side.
8. Invest in a pourover setup.
If you really want to unlock the flavor in your beans, invest in a pourover setup. Whether you go with a Hario V60, Chemex, Kalita Wave, a Clever Dripper, or even a French press, brewing with a pourover device gives you absolute control over nearly every aspect of the brewing process. It also gives you the ability to experiment with water temperature, grind particle size, and water-to-coffee ratios. Brewing your morning cup by hand also ensures a more even extraction of oils than an automatic brewer can. After buying better coffee, taking total control of your brewing process is the best option for taking your skills to a whole new level.
If you’re not ready to take the pourover plunge and go fully manual, the rest of these tips are just as applicable to automatic machines: Get fresh, quality beans and brew with hot, pure water. If you want to dip your toe into the pourover realm, you can use your automatic brewer as an improvised pourover apparatus. Simply lift the lid, put the filter in place, pour the grounds into the filter, then pour the water over the grounds. It’s not ideal, but it works!
9. GET HOT.
As previously mentioned, the Specialty Coffee Association of America found that the ideal water temperature for brewing coffee is 198 to 202°F. Colder water will result in flat, underextracted coffee while hotter water will burn the grounds and harm your cup’s flavor. A basic kitchen thermometer will improve your cup quality by leaps and bounds.
10. PICK UP A GOOSENECK KETTLE.
This one is pretty specific for pourover users, but it comes with the territory of being a home barista. Gooseneck kettles are absolutely not essential to brewing great coffee at home, but their narrow spouts make precise pouring much easier and give you more control over how much water you pour and where you pour it.
11. GIVE YOUR BEANS A GOOD HOME.
Have you been storing your coffee in the refrigerator or freezer? Get it out! Coffee should always be stored in an opaque, airtight glass or ceramic container. While it should also be stored in a dark and cool location, storing it inside the fridge or freezer and the constant freeze/thaw cycle when you remove your coffee and put it back causes moisture buildup inside the package, which will then cause it to deteriorate. Storing beans in a ceramic jar with an airtight lid on your kitchen counter or in a cabinet will do just fine.
All images courtesy of iStock