Coffee Basics 101
GREAT COFFEE AT HOME (THE OVERVIEW)
Despite what you’ve heard, or may have experienced yourself, amazing coffee at home is completely achievable...if you know the basics. No lie, you can have a cup of coffee (at your home) that is as delicious (if not more so) than the one you routinely purchase from your favorite coffee shop. Unfortunately, the method and means by which you can attain this perfect cup are not nearly as thoughtless and as easy as those who benefit from you believing this oversimplification (coffee equipment makers, coffee companies, etc.) would have you believe.
As a general rule of thumb, whether brewing at home or at a commercial shop), coffee quality will almost always decrease as speed and convenience increase; and visa-versa. A Keruig is super easy and fast, but it will always yield a terrible cup of coffee. Conversely, a pour over with a V60 (using proper ratios/technique) will always yield a better cup of coffee, but will take more care and time. So it really comes down to a choice the at-home coffee drinker must make for themselves: convenience or quality?Thankfully, there is a lot of satisfactory 'middle ground' in between, but knowing the basics of what goes into the making of a good cup of coffee will allow for even more options when it comes to finding the perfect balance of coffee convenience and quality.
The bottom line is a great cup of coffee is all about one thing: extraction. What is extraction? In its most simplest form (ever), extraction is the total amount of coffee solids dissolved in the hot water in your cup (or cold water if cold brew). The goal with the perfect cup is to essentially extract all of the 'good tasting solubles' you want from bean, while keeping the more 'unpleasant solubles' in the grinds. Great coffee should be complex, well-bodied, somewhat sweet, and have a good finish or aftertaste. It should also still taste good at room temperature (the true test of a good cup of coffee), as the hotter something is, the less you can taste of it.
So it’s not how fancy or expensive your coffee machine or coffee beans are that determine how good your brew is going to be, but rather your ability to affect the factors that will contribute the most to your extraction.
Proper extraction depends on a number of factors, but the five biggest are:
- roast level
- grind size
- water type
- water temp
- brewing ratios (amount of water to coffee)
While we will touch on these factors below, the main goal of the coffee basics below is to give you (the home coffee drinker) the foundations of proper home brewing on which you can explore and expand upon yourself. Once you become more familiarized with the steps needed to brew the perfect cup, your outcomes should become more aligned with your expectations.
Yes, carefully grown, selected, and properly roasted coffee is a key element in attaining the perfect cup, as bad coffee brewed well will never taste good. However, good coffee brewed badly can, and often times does, get labeled as ‘bad coffee’ when in reality it’s more of a case of ‘bad brewing’.
You are here in our site, so your search for good coffee has already led you to the right place, so we won’t really go any further into how and where to find the good stuff. Just make sure you NEVER put coffee that is black and/or shiny in any of your coffee equipment. This coffee has been burnt, and aside from tasting as such, the rancid oils from these beans will gunk up, taint, and ultimately ruin everything you store, grind, and/or brew them in, JUST SAY NO TO BURNT COFFEE!
Probably the most important, yet often the most overlooked, component to any home brew setup is the coffee grinder. Without a consistent good grind, your coffee will never be close to as good as it could be...no matter how fancy your coffee machine or brew method may be.
A great grinder, like the Baratza Encore or the manual Hario Skerton Pro Burr Coffee Grinder, is the first thing you should spend money on. It doesn't need to be expensive, but it does need to be a burr grinder. A burr grinder will produce a more consistent grind than a 'blade grinder'. These grinders hack at the beans and create shattered pieces of coffee that range from very fine to very coarse. What this means is that coffee ground with these types of grinders will always yield inconsistent extractions...every time.
ALWAYS GRIND JUST THE AMOUNT OF COFFEE NEEDED FOR YOUR BREW! Leaving beans in the hopper will allow the oils from the coffee to build up in your grinder, shortening its life by causing it to get gunked up.
The most overlooked, yet most important, element in any brew (home, commercial, or otherwise) is the input weight of your coffee and volume of your water). Great coffee is a science/art of ratios between coffee and water, and like any recipe, the end result is greatly determined by whether or not it was followed correctly. Just as you wouldn’t randomly ‘eye-ball’ all the ingredients for a cake, bake it on an arbitrary temperature/time, and expect it to come out looking and tasting delicious, the same goes for the preparation and methodology for a great cup of coffee. Additionally, without metrics, you can't repeat particular brews you really liked nor avoid those that you really don't like.
"Well, I use scoops...that's measuring, right?" Not really. All coffees have different densities, so volumetric measurement is very inaccurate when it comes to using it as a replacement for weighing on a scale. Also, your 'scoop' could be someone else's 'tablespoon', so it's not really a standardized unit of measure.
The same goes for your water. You need to know how much is going into your brew. Otherwise, you're leaving half of the equation to chance. *Pro Tip: If you use metric, you can use your scale to get your volume (1mg=1ml) as the math is incredibly easy and intuitive.
Of course scoops and the like can be employed into a more streamlined daily routine so long as you've already determined the weight of the coffee you use for that particular volume. Just make sure you use the same exact coffee. Otherwise, different coffees will have different densities, and then you're just stumbling around in the dark again.
Coffee scales are comparatively inexpensive when it comes to your home brew setup, so spend the few extra dollars to ensure all of that fancy coffee equipment isn't just useless decor. The brand of scale is far less important than the features it offers and of course its accuracy. At a minimum, you want to use a scale that ideally weighs accurately (to 0.1g) in metric/standard units and has a built in timer. The gold standard for pour overs has been the Hario V60 Drip Scale, and the one we prefer just due to its consistency, accuracy, and simplicity. If you want even more precision and features (especially if you're brewing espresso), then the Brewista Smart Scale II. And if you want all the above, plus an incredible sexy design, then the Acaia Pearl is your choice.
The type of water you use to infuse or immerse your coffee in has a surprisingly large affect on how the end product will taste. If at all possible, use filtered water to brew your coffee. This is particularly true for those who live in areas with fairly hard water, and the minerals and turbot of this water will not only yield a not so good tasting cup, but it will wreak havoc on your coffee machines innards. At a minimum, you want a level of filtration that will remove chlorine from your water, as this is the additive in tap water that affects taste the most. Never use distilled water in any type of coffee machine as this will actually leech minerals and chemicals out of the areas within the machine water comes into contact with, i.e. reservoir, boiler, tubes, etc.
Also, ensure that your kettle or brewer is getting your water to the right temperature for your extraction level and brewing method. In general, water temps for infusion brew methods (drip coffee machines, Chemex, or any method in which water is passing through coffee grinds/filter) need to be around 200˚F (94˚C). Immersion methods in which the coffee grinds are suspended in the water (French Press, Aeropress, Percolator), temperatures need to be lower due to faster extraction levels. These can vary based on the method and technique being employed, but somewhere around 190˚F (88˚C) would be good for something like a French Press.
You would be surprised how many coffee makers do not get water nearly hot enough for a good extraction. In fact most consumer-level drip machines under $150 are typically about 10-20˚ cooler than where they need to be. Lower water temperature brews yield weaker bodied and sour coffees, and there's really nothing you can do on the grind or coffee front to really change this.
If you're using a kettle to heat water for manual brews (V60, Chemed, French Press, etc.), it really helps to have an electric kettle that you set (and hold) a specific temperature. We think the Stagg EKG 1.0L Electric Pour Over Kettle by Fellow is the best bang for the buck. Not only is it easy to operate, accurate, and durable, but it has the nice feature of being able to easily set and hold specific temperatures. It's also beautiful. Specific temperatures are important for different origins/roasts of coffees, and even more so for different types of teas.
THE BEST/EASIEST ADVICE FOR ADJUSTING THE TASTE OF YOUR COFFEE
While we will get into ratios, technique, and all of the nerdy details in separate posts focusing on specific brew methods, there is one thing to try and remember when dialing in your home brew to how you like it (if you can't remember anything else): Always make adjustments to the grind and/or coffee input weight first.
Most coffees are not innately or unpleasantly bitter or sour. These two attributes are almost always due to over or under extraction of the coffee. This almost always occurs due to grind size, and/or some combination of improper grind and improper amount of coffee...not due the coffee, machine, etc.
The general rules of thumbs refer to when your cup just isn't to your liking are the following:
This is caused by over-extraction of the coffee grinds which likely occurred from the coffee being ground too fine. This can also occur when there is too much coffee being brewed. Remember, MORE COFFEE IN THE BREW DOESN'T MAKE YOUR COFFEE 'STRONGER'...just more bitter.
The solution is to coarsen your grind first until you find a more balanced level of extraction. If still needed, reduce the input weight of the coffee.
This is caused by under-extraction of the coffee grinds which likely occurred from the coffee being ground too coarse. This can also occur when there is too little coffee being brewed.
The solution is to make your grind more fine first until you find a more balanced level of extraction. If still needed, increase the input weight of the coffee.
Finally...LISTEN TO YOUR ROASTER!. In order to experience a coffee in a form that will likely yield the best tasting result, it is very important to follow the recommended guidelines a roaster or knowledgeable shop, gives along with a particular coffee. If they don’t have at general guidelines, they’re probably not roasting good coffee.