How To Brew The Perfect Coffee, Lesson 1: The Case For Better Coffee

Are you a total coffee nerd, always on the hunt for the newest and best blends? Or maybe you're on the opposite end of the spectrum — you appreciate a cup no matter where it comes from. Whether you're a noob or a connoisseur, this week's Lifehacker Morning School is for you. All week, the experts from Tonx, the US-based fresh roast subscription service, are setting out to demystify some of the contemporary coffee culture noise, and give you the knowledge you need to make great coffee anywhere. So grab your favourite cup and let's get to learning.

Top image remixed from etraveler, Subbotina Anna and Oros Gabor (Shutterstock).

Today, we're discussing the case for better coffee. Is there really much difference between convenience store sludge and an expensive cafe blend? And if there is, why should I care?

What Is Coffee?

By some accounts, coffee is the most popular beverage on earth besides water. The World Bank estimates that several hundred million people make their livings directly or indirectly in the global coffee trade. Coffee is a part of (sometimes a very cherished part of) many people's daily rituals. Still, many myths and misperceptions persist about what makes for a good cup.

We'll gloss over the particulars for now, but coffee as we know it is the seed from the ripened fruit of a shrub or tree native to Africa. It grows best in tropical climates at higher elevations and is cultivated commercially on five continents. The two species of commercial interest are Coffea arabica (arabica coffee) and Coffea canephora (robusta), with arabica beans being the tastier of the two. Within arabica there are a number of subtypes with different hardiness or flavour characteristics.

People in the "specialty coffee" trade talk a lot about the seed-to-cup chain — a seemingly insurmountable series of events from plant to pour that determines whether your coffee tastes like paradise or poo. The selection of cultivar, the long husbandry of the plants, the altitude and quality of the land, the climate, the care exercised in harvesting, the meticulousness of the processing, the practices of the dry mill, the rough travel of export, the competency of the roaster, and the many variables of proper brewing all influence what happens in your cup.

There has been a renaissance of sorts in coffee over the last several years, from the farm level to the cafe to the kitchen. We've seen a proliferation of new microroasters, a seriousness among baristas about the craft of making coffee, and an emerging gear head culture always chasing the perfect cup with the latest gadget.

But for all the noise and increasing hype around coffee, most people's daily mugs still get filled with subpar brews. Pricey pre-ground coffee capsules and pods dominate the market. For many, real coffee remains confusing, intimidating, overly precious, or seemingly unapproachable.

People seeking to drink good coffee are often branded as snobs. But labelling someone a "coffee snob" simply for wanting a decent cup is a bit like labelling someone a "laundry snob" for wearing clean socks. There is nothing wrong with drinking good coffee.

The Argument For Great Coffee

It tastes good.Really good, actually. A well-prepared cup of coffee from freshly and expertly roasted beans sourced from growers who put real care into their crop stands head and shoulders above the lower grade and typically stale alternatives that crowd the marketplace.

Good coffee gets beyond the commodity system.Most of the world's coffee is traded as a fungible commodity, like oil or corn, subject to the whims of finance wizardry and market irrationality with little concern for quality or the welfare of the farmers who produce it. The growing specialty coffee market has changed the game for coffee farmers and created new opportunities for economic sustainability. Good coffee is better for everyone in the chain.

It's actually easy. The serious baristas at the fancy inner-city shop fondling their expensive espresso gear might lead you to believe that a well-crafted cup of coffee can only come from the hand of an expert — but the truth is that a good brew, once you grasp the basics, needn't be difficult to prepare.

The (Only) Case Against Great Coffee

It tastes really good. Once you get used to drinking awesome coffee, it gets much harder to suffer the bad stuff.

In our next lesson we'll discuss the most critical and often most under-optimized piece of the coffee puzzle: your bean selection.

Tony Konecny has pulled a long tour of duty in the coffee wars, most recently cofounding Tonx, an innovative coffee subscription service aiming to source, roast and ship the best fresh roasted coffees for people who brew at home.


Comments

    I currently use a percolator (no space or money for one of those big machines) which seems to make pretty damned good coffee (of course depending on how much coffee I put in, how much sugar, and milk). Currently I use pre-ground stuff, strangely enough, the "free-trade" (can't remember the brand) is amazingly good despite me having a low expectation for it (I always assume those things to be a gimmick). Can you suggest a decent type of pre-ground coffee?

      Coffee grounds go stale in about five minutes, so if you want decent coffee you have to grind it yourself fresh.

      Fairtrade coffee is what you're thinking of, where the grower is guaranteed a minimum price per kilo for their beans, similar to the minimum wage we have here in Australia. It's not a gimmick, but it is like any other coffee, there's going to be a spectrum from bad to good coffees that are labelled Fairtrade. Sadly, some roasters do just take advantage of the fact it has an ethical element, and use that to sell it, rather than ensuring it's a good coffee, or even well roasted to begin with.

      If you drink coffee with milk and sugar, the quality doesn't matter much. Go for the cheapest. Only the crudest tastes make it through the mask.

        Hey Bob. I disagree. I make my wife's morning brew each morning with milk. She can tell the difference when I change beans. When I am desperate and buy the supermarkets stale beans she will question the quality of my work.

        I was typing a similar message to respond the above message. Absolutely agree. What's the point of good coffee with milk/sugar/hazelnut syrup.

        You don't hear people mixing coke in wine to tell how good the wine is.

        I disagree as well. Black coffee tastes like arse, whether instant or espresso or cold drip extracted or whatever. If you make coffee the same way every time, of course you are going to be able to distinguish between a well made coffee and a poor one. Coffee plus milk does not taste like milk - it tastes like coffee and it tastes like milk. When I order a flat white from a coffee shop, I can tell the difference between Coffex (ick) and Grinders (better) and Vittoria (usually better) and Tobys Estate (much, much better). I can also tell when the barista has put in skinny milk or whole milk. No, I probably can't taste the 'fresh earth/mushroom tones' or 'stone fruit flavours' in the coffee. I'm not a coffee professional, like I'm not a wine professional. I just want a nice, strong coffee.

        tl;dr your tastebuds don't die when you drink a flat white. Of course the taste of quality comes through milk.

          I don't know about the arse, not having had your arse-tasting experience.

          Fair enough on the milk/coffee thing. I've only tasted coffee with milk/sugar a couple of times, each one nearly spitting it out, I found it so cloying/disgusting. But people differ in what they like, as they should.

          My coffee-with-milk-and-sugar friends can't tell the difference. But if you can, drink and buy the best!

    Please lets not take advice from Americans on Coffee. The two dont mix. Europeans yes. Americans NO

      Seattle seems to be the exception.

      I still don't know why people bother with chemex/siphon/pourover when they know the beauty of an espresso shot pulled using freshly ground, freshly roasted beans.

      Also the French tend to make terrible coffee.

    I have visited a friend who makes coffee with preground supermarket coffee and a percolator that's much better than usual, and I think it's because instead of percolating into a thin glass jug on a hotplate, it drips into a thermos-style urn. Overheating coffee seems to cause most of the awful bitter taste.

    Any bet most of you don't know which country is consistently considered to serve the world's best coffee. No googling.

    Last edited 12/03/13 1:35 am

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