Coffee is personal. Raising the topic in a crowd — whether how to brew it or how to drink it — starts discussion rivaling religion and politics in enthusiasm. Maybe not quite to that level, thankfully. But no matter how you brew or drink it, experts agree that controlling certain factors in the process is the secret to a perfect cup.
A good cup of coffee starts with a good bean — freshly roasted and properly stored. Ideally, coffee beans should be used within one to two weeks from the roast date and kept whole until used.
“If you buy your beans from a specialty roaster and you let them go longer than two to three weeks before using them, you lose what you’ve paid extra for,” says Kevin Fox, roastmaster and owner of Crazy Fox Coffee Roasting Company in New Market, Virginia.
Fox says coffee beans should be sold in a bag that allows for the outgassing of carbon dioxide through a small valve, protects the beans from light, and provides the roast date.
To preserve their unique flavor, grind your beans immediately before using. Grinding exposes more surface area of the bean to the air, thus accelerating the oxidation that makes them stale. If you don’t know what stale tastes like, do your own taste test between ground coffee bought in a can at the grocery store, and freshly roasted and ground coffee purchased locally.
To preserve the flavor of your coffee, only use fresh, nonchlorinated water. “If you buy water, do not use distilled water,” says Fox. Distilling removes the minerals that give your coffee flavor. On the other hand, Fox says if you use well water heavy with iron or sulfur, it will adversely affect the flavor of your brew. In addition, coffee requires water between 195 to 205 degrees. Any hotter and you extract the oils that create a bitter flavor. Any cooler and your coffee tastes flat.
The next secret to a superb cup of coffee is to select a coffee-to-water ratio that is perfect for you. Begin with 1 tablespoon grounds per two 6-ounce cups of water. Use more or less according to your taste. It’s also important to use the proper grind for your brewing method. A French press requires coarse grounds, whereas a pour-over method requires fine.
Outside of actually brewing the coffee, there are a few additional ways to a better cup. Once the coffee is brewed, remove it from any heat source. Leaving your automatic drip coffeepot on the heat element results in a burned flavor. Preserve your coffee’s true essence by transferring it to an insulated carafe.
Finally, clean your coffeepot daily and the entire system every month. Failing to clean your pot results in a buildup of oils, which will result in a bitter taste. For an auto-drip coffee maker, that means equal parts water and white vinegar go into the water reservoir, run it halfway through a brewing cycle, then turn it off and allow it to sit for 20 to 30 minutes. This will help loosen any minerals that have built up. Turn it back on, and let it run through the rest of the cycle. Run it through another cycle with clean water only.
Now that we have the secrets to a truly flavorful cup of coffee, let’s look at the different brewing methods and how to best use each one.
While the automatic drip has been the most popular method for homebrewing coffee for decades, a lot of folks may not know how it works.
When you pour water into the coffee maker’s reservoir, it fills an aluminum tube within the heating element. Turning on the machine heats the water, causing it to rise into a second tube, which showers it out evenly over the grounds and drips into the coffeepot below.
Many folks choose an automatic drip for its options. You can set the machine the night before, and wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee. You can also make as little as 2 cups or as much as 12, depending on the size of your pot.
However, for those folks who take their coffee more seriously, the automatic drip has its drawbacks. For one thing, you cannot adjust the temperature of the water or how long the water is in contact with the grounds. The machines can experience electrical issues, heating elements can burn out, and mineral-rich water frequently clogs the tubing.
Used by families long before the automatic drip was invented, the percolator works in a similar fashion. The pot of the percolator is filled with water, and a basket holding the grounds with a long, hollow tube through the center is fitted into the top of the pot. A lid is placed on top, and the pot is then placed over a heat source. As the water heats, it rises through the tube and filters out over the grounds and returns to the pot below — called percolating.
To get a consistent cup, folks who like this method usually opt for an electric percolator. If you want something that works without electricity, you can purchase a stovetop model. However, when using the stove or fire, you’ll need to monitor that the water percolates without boiling. Over boiling has given the percolator a bad rap.
Food blogger from New York City, Ruthy Kirwan, who uses an electric percolator, says, “I prefer the flavor of coffee when it’s percolated. I think percolating coffee gives it a more robust flavor.”
If your percolated coffee is bitter, it was probably boiled. When the temperature is perfect, the water “perks” every few seconds. Any faster and the water is too hot. Because the same water goes over the grounds continually, you’ll want a coarse grind.
The pour-over method of making coffee gives you the most control over your flavor. Pour-over doesn’t require any special machinery and can be done without electricity.
“We like it because it doesn’t require electricity, we can regulate the water temperature, and each cup is fresh,” says Cherie Ellis, a Virginia homesteader.
For a single-serve cup of coffee via the pour-over method, you need a coffee funnel, filter, and coffee mug. The specially made funnel (usually ceramic) fits over a mug and holds the filter. A quick online search will bring up several brands.
Bring your water up to a slow boil. Remove from heat, and pour just enough water to cover fine grounds in your filter-lined funnel. The carbon dioxide in the coffee reacts with the water causing the grounds to “bloom,” or swell, as they absorb the water. Once the bloom is complete, slowly pour over the rest of your water, and wait for it to drip through into your mug.
If you like the pour-over method, but want to make coffee for a crowd, you can buy a pour-over pot that holds 3 to 10 cups. To keep the fresh coffee piping hot, transfer to an insulated carafe.
The French press is also pretty low-tech and involves pouring hot water over grounds. Typically a glass carafe with a screened plunger, the French press requires nothing else to produce a superb cup of coffee, and it takes up little counter space.
To use a French press, place your preferred amount of coarsely ground coffee in the carafe. Pour almost-boiling water over the grounds (don’t overfill!), give it a good stir, and let sit for three to four minutes. Slowly press down the plunger to trap the grounds beneath the screen, and enjoy.
Some folks complain that coffee from a French press leaves sediment in the bottom of the cup. This will happen if you use coffee that is too finely ground. Since most preground coffees on the market are produced for the automatic drip, using a French press effectively requires you grind your own beans.
Cleaning a French press, as well as a percolator, involves nothing more than placing all parts in the dishwasher — after composting the grounds, of course.
If you prefer espresso to coffee each day, you can make it at home with a stovetop espresso maker. These little gadgets are as easy to use as the percolator but of course create a much stronger brew. The pot consists of three pieces: the bottom water reservoir, the filter funnel with a metal tube in the center, and the upper chamber that collects the espresso.
Fill the bottom with water, and place the filter on top. Fill the filter with finely ground coffee, lightly packed, screw on the upper chamber, and place over a heat source. As the water heats, it rises, filtering its way through the grounds and out a tube in the top into the upper chamber. Serve hot! The pot comes apart for cleaning and the grounds can be composted — no paper filters required.
These methods are some of the most popular ways to make coffee at home. Once you determine which method is right for you, remember the best flavor comes by controlling the other factors that result in the perfect cup.
The perfect grind
If you have sludge in your French press or your espresso seems too weak, chances are your coffee was ground incorrectly. The same is true if your cup is too bitter or flat. The type of grinder you use will affect how well the beans are ground. A blade grinder — one in which two blenderlike blades chop the beans — gives you an uneven grind. A burr grinder creates a more uniform grind in coarse, medium, fine, or espresso by grinding the beans between two stainless steel burrs. Consult the chart below for the perfect grind for your coffee maker.
Automatic drip: Medium
French press: Coarse
Stovetop espresso: Fine
Carol J. Alexander lost her Southern drawl while living in Florida for 19 years. Not to worry though, it comes right back every time she talks with the locals where she lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. A regular contributor to GRIT, Carol’s writing has also appeared in more than 70 local, regional, and national publications. She is the author of Homestead Cooking with Carol: Bountiful Make-ahead Meals.