We’ve all had that magical moment when at a coffeehouse, a neighborhood diner or an upscale dinnerhouse, you tipped up your coffee mug or cup and were introduced to that very special memory of coffee that made a difference. The “ahs” were genuine, sip after sip, but that lingering question still was a menace. “Why can’t I make this at home?” “Why doesn’t my coffee at home taste like what I get at a coffeehouse or restaurant?” “Do I need some special brewing contraption or a PhD in brew-ology?” Not at all, just some simple guidelines that will produce that memorable cup.
(Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Food & Dining)
FRESH IS BEST
Believe it or not, coffee will go stale. And nothing you do will bring life back to stale, old coffee. So make sure you don’t have to brush cobwebs off of the coffee bags you purchase and make sure your coffee is fresh. How do you accomplish that? First of all, buy at a reputable location that rotates and moves their retail coffee regularly. Avoid grocery stores or large volume discount locations. It’s tempting to buy that big sack at that fantastic price. But that coffee is definitely past its prime. It will haunt you morning after morning. Only buy enough coffee that will last you about a week. Ask questions about how long it’s been on a shelf. If they don’t know, trust me, you won’t enjoy it.
DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE SHINE
People feel that shiny coffee beans mean good coffee. But shiny coffee beans usually mean one of two things: stale oils have come to the surface or it is over-roasted. What you may be tasting is the process of the roast, as opposed to the flavor and nuances of the coffee and how it is grown. Some coffee snobs will only determine the quality of the coffee by the amount of shine that the beans exhibit. While this is a subjective topic, dark, oily coffee beans do not guarantee that you will experience that special coffee moment. Check the aroma of the coffee. Does it smell like it was just roasted, or does it have a musty, woody aroma? Just as they say not to judge a book by its cover, don’t assume a coffee is palatable because the beans are oily.
GRIND IT UP
If you really are serious about your coffee, and you have secured those fresh coffee beans, then it is time to back it up by prying open your wallet and purchasing a grinder. Avoid those cheap, inconsistent blade grinders. Coffee needs to be nurtured and caressed by a burr grinder to produce flavor and body. Plus a burr grinder will grind faster, causing less friction and heat that could possibly burn your coffee. Shop at a local kitchen supply store and discover the difference in the weight and construction of a flimsy blade grinder and a sturdy burr grinder. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 for a basic burr grinder from Krups or Cuisinart to over $500 for a Bunn commercial grinder.
CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO . . .
So you’ve made the advancement to a reliable coffee brewer and you’ve added a dependable grinder to your coffee repertoire. But it doesn’t stop there. Dirty equipment can drastically change the taste profile of even the most expensive coffee. Buy a small paintbrush to regularly dust out your grinder’s holding chamber and the grinding burrs. Take a clean cloth and wipe the coffee oils that collect around the brewing head of your coffee maker. But what about a coffee maker with lime deposits? As we will see next, water is very important to the quality of the coffee and the life of a coffee maker. Try to avoid running water mixed with vinegar into your coffee maker. It really doesn’t work very well, and you have the danger of contaminating your coffee maker with that vinegar aroma and taste. And those are a challenge to remove. And make sure your coffee carafe (hopefully it’s a thermal one) is clean of all coffee oils.
WATER IS THE LIFE
Since coffee is almost 98% water, if you don’t use good water, then you are going to be greatly disappointed at the end results. Lime, sulfur, iron and other contaminants can be found in some tap waters, so I recommend using clean, filtered water. That truly is a key element for great coffee. Another factor with the water is the temperature. Optimum temperature for great brewing is between 190-200 degrees. If the temperature is too low, it won’t extract the coffee’s entire flavor, too high and it will produce a bitter, acidic brew. How do you know if your coffee maker makes the grade with a correct temperature? Buy an inexpensive thermometer and check the temperature as the water goes through an empty brew basket. If it is not hot enough, it may be time to look into another coffee maker that can do the job. I’m asked all the time what coffee maker I would suggest. I have been a fan of all Bunn home models because they brew coffee in less than 3 minutes and at a temperature of 195 degrees.
WEIGH AND MEASURE
When you grind your coffee do you measure and then grind or do you just grind a bunch and then “eyeball it” when it’s time to put the coffee in the filter? Not only should you grind before brewing, but you should weigh the beans before you grind. Purchasing an inexpensive household digital scale will insure a consistent coffee brew each time. How much coffee you use depends on your personal preference, but once you find that awesome ratio, stick to it every time. A good starting point is 2 ounces of coffee for every 48 ounces of water. You can then adjust to what you like for your brew. Waiting right before you brew to grind your beans keeps the grounds from going stale and extends the beans’ life.
BLEACHED OR UNBLEACHED
Surprising, the type of coffee filter you use can greatly affect your coffee. Naturally white oxygen bleached filters make a much cleaner cup than natural brown filters. In fact natural brown filters are far more likely to give that papery flavor to your cup. A tip that I learned is to pre-wet the coffee filter before adding your coffee. This little rinse will prevent the stale papery taste that might creep into your brew.
GET IT WARM
One of the easiest tricks to getting a good cup of coffee is to pre-warm your cups — so simple, but so very important. Your cabinets, especially in winter, can be a cold abode for cups, especially ceramic ones. Fill your cup with a little water, and microwave it for about a minute. Empty and dry your mug before pouring your coffee and it will extend your cup’s heat by at least 10 minutes. More time to enjoy your creation!
Brewing coffee can be as simple or as adventurous as you want it to be. You can go and purchase the most outlandish coffee equipment, but really all that you need are the basics. I went camping with a good friend one time and what we had for coffee was a campfire, a metal pot, a clean sock, a hammer and a bag of coffee beans. And we made a pretty tasty pot of coffee. The most important element? Good coffee beans. Focus your time, energy and dollars on buying good coffee beans and brewing them the best possible way you can. Then you can experience that magical coffee moment consistently every day. F&D