Like computers, coffee is complex, easy to sink money into, and attracts a vast swath of opinions. And like computers, there is a wise middle path you can walk to get top-notch coffee at home without spending MacBook-like money on brewing gear.Image via Mat Honan.
What will you get out of this treatise on slightly snob-ish coffee? A better understanding of why the standard means of buying, storing and making coffee leaves much to be desired, followed by a rundown of some of the better, and less expensive, coffee-making methods — what I call hand-crafted coffee — and how it's sometimes faster, and usually more fun, than making a pot of the classic drip stuff or just sticking with instant.
There are two things you should know up front. First: I'm not a coffee expert. In fact, as of a month ago, my coffee came primarily from baristas, a Keurig single-serve machine (photographic evidence here, a standard drip machine, or, on leisurely weekends, a French press that I knew two-thirds of the instructions for. To rectify this, I spent a month experimenting with at-home coffee methods, foisting blind taste tests on friends and co-workers, and researching what I call the Taste-to-Fuss Ratio. I also betrayed everything I once held dear about caffeine dependency.
Second: Your taste in coffee is different to mine. You might be looking for a smooth, gentle cup to accompany your drive to work, while I'm hoping my next cup tastes like pure Arabic gold. You get the freshest, single-source beans you can find from a local source, while I'm okay with the occasional cup of Eight O' Clock.
What You Get by Leaving Automatic Drip Behind
Standard drip coffee makers have their uses. Automatic timers can be mighty helpful, especially the night before you fly out. If you're making coffee for ten people after dinner, it's easy to just load up, hit a button, and meet standard expectations. In my blind tests, too, some drinkers, given the right beans, ranked certain cups of drip above the hand-crafted competition.
But there are means of making coffee at home that can take less time than a drip maker. And you're making a few sacrifices for set-and-forget:
• You usually use twice as much coffee: Water drains through ground coffee in an automatic machine at a relatively rapid pace, getting less direct exposure to the stuff than with most other means. That's why most bags of good coffee suggest using two tablespoons per six-ounce serving. It's a tablespoon here and there, but it adds up quickly if you actually drink the stuff.
• You can't adjust two of three key elements: The key variables in coffee making are water temperature, the amount of coffee used in relation to the water, and the amount of time the coffee is brewed with the water. With a drip coffee maker, you can only control one of those three elements, and not that precisely.
• Lingering, hard-to-clean tastes: It's relatively easy to clean out a glass carafe or metal container after you make coffee with it—you kind of have to, actually. Unless you're meticulous about cleaning your drip maker after each use, its tubes and crevices accumulate residues, and the carafe itself usually smells faintly of whatever was last inside it.
The Tools of the Better Coffee Trade
To get better coffee, you need to to expose hot water to more high-quality coffee. That means doing a few things differently than you're told by mass coffee merchants.
Buy freshly roasted coffee:
Hopefully, somewhere near you, there's a coffee merchant that roasts beans on-site and stamps their coffee with the date they roasted it. If you can't find that merchant, find one in the area that sells to a nearby store. If that's out of the realm, and you're really game for committing to better coffee, consider buying your own green beans and roasting them yourself. It's probably not as hard as you might think, and you'll actually have some real coffee nerd bragging points. Image via B*2.
I didn't quite get the impact of fresh-roasted coffee until a recent trip to Los Angeles, during which I visited Intelligentsia in Silver Lake. The cappuccino was strong — not heavy, not bitter, but just muscular in its flavour. The single-origin beans on the shelf were so fragrant, I grabbed them more than once during stops in LA traffic for quick aromatic stress relief. It got ridiculous — I could convince myself that Intelligentsia was "on the way" if it only added 6km to a straight-shot trip. Ask Whitson. Ahem.
Store Those Beans Properly
If your beans can be roasted, bought, and used within one week, that's nifty and ideal. If not, take Starbucks co-founder Jerry Baldwin's advice:
Use the freezer for longer storage. For example, if you bring home a pound of beans, divide it into weekly amounts to store separately. For this week's coffee, leave it at cool room temperature or seal it and put in the refrigerator. The remaining weeks can be put into the freezer to be removed a week at a time.
The conical, blade-based grinders available everywhere are perfectly fine — for making drip coffee. Their blades spin faster than the human eye can track, crashing against the beans multiple times. Hold down the trigger long enough and you will get something resembling a fine grind, but with noticeable inconsistency.
The preferred grinder among coffee enthusiasts is an adjustable burr grinder, where interlocking lengths of metal, or ceramic, actually grind the coffee beans with consistency, rather than slice them at high velocity and random angles. Again, this doesn't matter as much if you're sticking with coffee methods that only need a rough, coarse grind, like drip coffee, and, to a lesser extent, French press or Chemex. But for our preferred tool, and for greater control and flavour consistency in the future, invest in a burr grinder. Ithaca-based Gimme Coffee details the proof in photos.
Use Filtered/Spring Water Tap water usually lends a bit too much mineral character to coffee, but distilled water is almost too flat and flavorless. Most brewing enthusiasts recommend filtering your water before brewing with it. If nothing else, it gives you an even playing field for sampling and adjusting your brewing methods.
Use a Good Instant-Read Thermometer (or a Notebook and Timer) This is crucial to getting the best flavour out of your efforts. AeroPress advocate Adam Pash uses an instant-read thermometer with a body that magnetically sticks above the stove, attached to a probe by an extended cord. The How-To Geek is a French press fan, and recommends an electric kettle with precise controls for getting his water just right. But many guides and instruction books I've read suggest timing your microwave or stovetop with different water amounts to reach the right temperature, then logging that down. You've likely got timers on your microwave and/or stove, so you can hit the mark without any extra equipment.
The Coffee System Showdown
Over the last month, I've alternately annoyed and intrigued friends and office workers with experiments in coffee tasting. Some were blind "How does Cup C compare to Cup A" tests. Some were straight tastings. I followed instructions, adjusted slightly when results seemed amiss, and grew to understand the quirks of each brewing system that goes beyond drip. I also expensed Intelligentsia beans and a Chemex urn to Lifehacker, which was pretty fun.
These are the impressions of someone who'd never used any of these methods seriously until now, after a month of tweaking, on the leading methods of making better coffee at home.
- Cost: $US25 on Amazon, retails for $US30.
- Ease of Setup: Coffee and the press itself, not too hard. Getting water to the right temperature (175F) easily requires timing and practice.
- Ease of Cleanup: Likely the best of all: pop the "hockey puck" out, then rinse the plunger end (as detailed at ineedcoffee.com).
- Brewing time: After the water heats, 1-3 minutes, depending on taste.
- Tasting Results: Generally the first or second choice, usually tied with Chemex (despite often very different tastes).
- Cost: $US35 for six-cup model on Amazon; filters are $US7-$US10 for 100.
- Ease of Setup: Same as AeroPress: actual coffee/carafe simple, but water temperature (90-93C) is crucial, if easier to get to — boil, wait a few seconds.
- Ease of Cleanup: A bit better than drip: toss the grounds and filter, then rinse out the carafe.
- Brewing time: 3-5 minutes, realistically, for anything more than 150-295mL.
- Tasting Results: Lives up to the packaging — very smooth, almost never bitter. Your first few batches will be weak; for some, that's still better than excess bitterness and residue.
- Cost: $US25 on Amazon for a standard three-cup Bodum model; scales up depending on size and design.
- Ease of Setup: Probably the trickiest, but not necessarily complex: water temperature (90-93C), stirring over four minutes, mindful hand pressing.
- Ease of Cleanup: Can be tricky. Getting grounds out of glass, without glass-scratching metal implements isn't always easy, especially over a sink you're trying to protect.
- Brewing time: Four minutes active, plus water heating and pressing.
- Tasting Results: Appreciated by those who want the full punch of flavour, and don't mind a little sediment. More inconsistent than AeroPress, but less variable than Chemex.
Moka Pot ("Stovetop Espresso")
- Cost: About $US25 on Amazon.
- Ease of Setup: Fairly easy, with practice, but you have to watch it work, or risk burning your goods.
- Ease of Cleanup: A bit easier than French press, but with the same angles to clean.
- Brewing time: Varies, but generally about 4-6 minutes.
- Tasting Results: Least favourite of the bunch — coffee too often tasted bitter or burnt, despite efforts at under-heating
Our Favourite: The Cheap, Versatile AeroPress
The AeroPress does not make what coffee purists would consider espresso, but it does make very concentrated coffee "shots" that you can drink like espresso, or combine with water for "Americano" coffee. It costs about $US25 for a kit that comes with a generous set of filters. It asks for a certain water temperature, but once you get good at getting your water there, your coffee, latte, cappuccino, or whatever you want to drink can be made in literally 30 seconds. Pash and I have been experimenting with the AeroPress for a few weeks, and we both think it's a nice middle point in the Taste-to-Fuss Ratio.
And that's just how it works when you use it right-side up. The AeroPress is a very hack-friendly tool, and results-minded folks like Scott Marquardt have gotten great results from their Inverted AeroPress-ing, and there's a World AeroPress Championships, the winners of which are happy to share their brewing recipes. In general, starting your AeroPress upside-down gives the brewer more control over how long the grounds are exposed to the water, along with how frequently they're stirred.
What does an "inverted AeroPress" look like in operation? A bit like this (minus, of course, the pro-quality grinder):
So there you have it: a relatively cheap path to upgrading your coffee, and one that doesn't require much more than good coffee and a timer.
Agree with our findings exactly? Of course you don't. Tell us where you found your happy medium in the Taste-to-Fuss Ratio in the comments — details, measurements and links appreciated and encouraged.