How To Brew The Perfect Coffee, Lesson 4: How To Choose Your Weapons

So far this week, we’ve made a case for drinking good coffee, given tips on scoring good beans, and covered the essential basics of coffee brewing. Now we’re ready to dive into some specifics.

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

There are many manual methods to choose from, and some that appear simple are actually somewhat fussy. Others that look complicated at first glance turn out to be easy and reliable with practice. There is no absolute “right” way to prepare a cup, and most of the popular methods will give you good results if you begin with great fresh roasted beans and take a bit of care with your measurements.

Previously we made the case for using gram-accurate scales to get precise repeatable results in your daily brews. I expect not all of you have rushed out and purchased the very finest gram scale available, so the recipes below also include approximations in standard kitchen measures. Though it will vary coffee to coffee, you can assume that 1 tablespoon of coffee is equal to about 6-7 grams. Whatever method you use to measure coffee dose and amount of water, the important thing is that you are using a good ratio and that you can repeat the results.

With any of these recipes, taste is the ultimate arbiter. Upping the coffee dose slightly (from a standard 1 gram per 16 ml to a stronger 1 gram per 14 ml for instance) to suit your taste is totally acceptable. Different coffees will find their sweet spots with different parameters, and the ratios below should be regarded as simply decent baselines from which to begin fine tuning. And shop around if you’re seeking specific items of gear — online shopping means the world is your coffee-flavoured oyster, so to speak.

Pour-Over Coffee: The Chemex

In essence, manual pour-over coffee methods are simply doing the same thing as ubiquitous drip coffee machines, but giving you more control over the process. Even if you lack the patience to approach pour over with the precision of a professional barista, odds are you’ll still bring more finesse and land better results than other means. (Image via Tonx.)

Invented in 1941, the Chemex is made of durable borosilicate glass, has a lovely hourglass shape, and comes in several sizes. It differs slightly from other pour over methods in that the chemex paper filters are a bit heavier than most allowing for slower flow rate, longer extraction, and more room to play with grind size.

  • 48 grams fresh ground coffee to 770 grams water, near to boiling
  • Grind the coffee beans so they are about the coarseness of fancy sea salt
  • A quick pre-rinse of the filter with warm water can help remove any “papery” taste that might show up in the cup in the cup
  • Using a timer, add about 1/5th of the water to the settled bed of grounds in your filter (a gentle stir can help saturate all the grounds) and allow the fresh coffee to “bloom” for about 45 seconds
  • Slowly pour the remaining water, aiming to finish the pour at about the 2:30 minute mark
  • Coffee should be finished dripping and ready to serve between 3:30 – 4 minutes

You can adjust the coffee and water amounts down when brewing smaller amounts and get good results. If the coffee is slightly sour, try going finer on grind. A little bitter, try nudging coarser. As a word of caution, it can be easy to brew too fast, too slow, or inconsistently if you’re not leaning on a timer.

For those with an aversion to paper filters, the well made stainless steel Kone filter is a great Chemex accessory, and a slim spouted Japanese pouring kettle such as the elegant Hario Buono will allow you to do a nice slow pour that most tea kettles stumble at. Similar brewing methods worth exploring would include the Hario V60 dripper, the Kalita Wave, and the common Melitta pour over filter.

Automatic Drip Machines: The Bonavita BV1800

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The ubiquitous automatic drip coffee machine has to be one of the most successful consumer appliances in history. A relatively simple contraption, the drip brewer essentially does a version of what we did with the Chemex above — dribbling hot water over a bed of coffee grounds in a paper filter. There are countless versions of this product in every colour and size imaginable with numerous features, chrome, big brand names, and blue LEDs. But very few get high marks when it comes to giving you the requisite near-to-boiling water temperatures.

The Bonavita BV1800 is one of the few that coffee nerds will give praise to (another popular one is the pricier Technivorm Moccamaster). Correct water temperature, a modest footprint, and a thermal carafe make this an exemplary brewer.

  • 52 grams fresh ground coffee to 825 ml water
  • Grind should look like typical preground canned coffee, slightly coarser than most table salt and reasonably uniform
  • Pre-rinsing the filter to minimise papery taste isn’t a bad idea
  • Pre-heating the carafe doesn’t hurt either

The Plunger: Easy to Use, But Easy to Screw Up

Many people have one of these stored in their cupboard. Some will swear up and down that there is no better way to make coffee. The classic plunger (sometimes called a French press) is in some ways the most simple of methods. Hot water steeps with coffee grounds in a glass. When you’re ready to decant, a filter/plunger mechanism keeps the grounds out of the way and (mostly) out of your mug. A well-prepared cup can show off a lovely body and mouth feel that paper filter methods sometimes don’t acheive.

  • Use about 15g of coarse freshly ground coffee per 225 ml of water just below a boil
  • Give just enough of a stir at the beginning to allow the grounds to settle
  • Total steep time of 3:30-4 minutes (if you’re using a less-than-awesome grinder with irregular grind sizes and dust, cutting down the steep time is helpful)
  • Decant completely and enjoy!

Simple, right? But there are a number of easy ways to screw your brew. Here are a few tips to help you keep it simple and tasty.

  • Keep it clean. Making a habit of disassembling and washing the filter mechanism right away each time before it becomes a bigger chore will keep things from getting rancid.
  • That plunger mechanism? Don’t think of it as a plunger. It is merely a filter to keep the grounds out of the way while you pour out the brew. Getting too aggressive with the plunger can muddy up your mug — or worse: we’ve seen presses shatter from an intense plunging.
  • Measure carefully. Just eyeballing your coffee dose and water fill can leave you with a different ratio each time, resulting in some not-always-needed tail chasing around other variables like grind size or water temperature.

A very similar brew can be had from the elegant Eva Solo Brewer, which has a unique filter top that lets you gently pour off the coffee at the end of the steep time. And in a pinch, one can MacGyver a press pot like brew with almost any vessel and some creativity applied to the straining process.

The Aeropress: Easy Geek Cred

The Aeropress is sort of a giant syringe with a simple filter attachment on one end producing a very quick and easy cup of coffee. Inexpensive, portable, nearly indestructible, fast, and easy to clean makes this a no-brainer for brewing at home or cubicle. The Aeropress has a strong and vocal geek following, as the comment threads on almost any coffee blog post will attest.

As is true with many coffee brewing devices, you can begin by disregarding most of the instructions that come in the box. After all, the company that sells you the spatula might not be the best source for the pancake recipe. With the Aeropress there are numerous methods and techniques that people have advocated and even a World Aeropress Championship where pro baristas try to out-syringe each other. The possibilities given just a bit of fiddling are seemingly endless. (Image via Ryan Brown.)

Here is a method that has worked well for us.

  • Use 14 grams (about 1 Aeropress scoop) freshly ground coffee to 225 ml near boiling water
  • Grind just a bit finer than typical filter coffee, similar to table salt
  • Place the paper filter disk into the holder and rinse
  • Assemble the plunger and cylinder so the rubber sits at the “4” mark
  • Invert the Aeropress so the brew chamber faces up and load in the grounds
  • Add about half the water and stir to saturate the grounds
  • Add the remaining water, stirring gently to encourage the grounds to settle — let it sit
  • At the 2 minute mark attach the filter holder and filter and flip (un-invert) atop a sturdy mug
  • Press down gently on the plunger and enjoy your coffee

With a finer grind you can decrease to total dwell time. Another popular method is to brew much stronger and dilute the resulting brew after the plunge, allowing you to produce a finished cup of higher volume. Sticking with a tried and true coffee to water ratio first and adjusting grind and dwell time as your variables should quickly yield good results with just a little trial and error.

Espresso: The Slippery Slope

Ah the romance of espresso. And, as is so often the case with romance, there is also heartbreak. Espresso isn’t just another brew method — it is a full-on hobby, maybe even a calling. There is a reason baristas take themselves so seriously. Much goes into the preparation of a proper espresso and achieving mastery, let alone competency, requires dedication and some pricey toys. Even a talented barista will find it difficult to step up fresh to a machine and dial in that first good shot of the morning — changing grinds, discarding bad shots — a lot of work just for one morning cup, only to be followed closely by a non-optional cleaning regimen that is necessary to keep the machine clean and ready for the next day.

Unlike brewed coffee where almost anyone can produce results equal to the best coffee bars with minimal investment, espresso perfection is hard to attain outside of the cafe environment. Still, some people insist on taking the difficult path that leads to drinking cappuccinos in their own kitchen. (Image via Tonx.)

If you’re not the type to be intimidated by these warnings, and you have the resources to invest in good gear, here is some broad advice to share to help you along your quixotic journey toward espresso utopia:

A good machine is a must. Much of what is sold as consumer espresso machines fail to hit the mark in terms of producing the correct pressure or temperature stability necessary for proper espresso extraction. The makers of many of these devices often make deceptive claims and very few of them will make anything close to resembling what you’ve come to expect from good cafes.

A good and precise burr grinder is a must. The most common mistake would-be home espresso geeks make is to focus too much on the espresso machine at the expense of investing in a proper espresso-capable burr grinder. A good truism is that a great espresso machine and a mediocre grinder will make a mediocre cup, while a mediocre espresso machine and a great grinder can produce something rather good.

Managing an inventory of fresh coffee can be difficult when you are tossing out multiple shots to dial in your grind or season the machine as it warms up. For espresso at home this can present an extra logistical challenge and expense.

If you start too far toward the bottom or middle tier with the gear you select, you will feel the upgrade urge grow for fancier and more commercial grade equipment.

Baristas are often hard up for cash. Consider taking one home with you and paying them for some private lessons. It is much easier to learn the skills with hands on coaching.

In our final lesson we’ll cover further resources for brewing geekery, home espresso, roasting your own, and general coffee knowledge.

Tony Konecny is on a mission to improve the current coffee status quo and is a cofounder of Tonx which delivers fresh roasted coffee from some of the world’s top growers to people looking to make great coffee at home.

Nick Griffith is a coffee industry veteran and one of the founders of the coffee subscription service Tonx. In addition to time as a roaster and on the business side of coffee, Nick landed a pile of trophies as a competitive barista — though he’ll really win you over when he is making cocktails.

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