There’s nothing like a good cup of coffee to shake the rust off in the morning or to keep you going late in the afternoon when every corner starts to look like an excellent place to nap.
For a lot of people, the only way to get a truly fantastic cup of coffee is to fork over their hard earned money at a coffee shop. As if knowing how to make a great cup of coffee is a secret locked up in a vault, guarded by manbunned baristas wearing matching flannel shirts.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Anyone can make great coffee at home or the office without having to spend a ton of dough. All it takes to brew a delicious cup of coffee is a little know-how and a few simple tools.
A Few Tips for Brewing Fantastic Coffee
At its heart, coffee is a simple thing; it’s water, beans, and time. The secret to good coffee is understanding how those things come together, how hot the water is, what kind of beans you’re using, when they were roasted, how they were ground, how the beans and the water were brought together and how long they danced.
A lot of coffee guides include extra special advice like how you should get up before the crack of dawn to weigh each bean individually or will tell you that if your coffee beans weren’t grown on an ancient Mayan burial ground you might as well be drinking instant.
Not us, part of brewing a damn fine cup of coffee is that it should be something you can do in your sleep, whether you’ve been up all night with the kids or are so hung over that the hypnotic voices on NPR make your head feel like it’s going to implode.
As long as you can boil water, there’s no reason you can’t make a sublime cup of coffee in ten minutes.
Get Good Beans and Grind Them Right
Good coffee starts with good beans. This doesn’t mean buying the most expensive beans you can find. Good beans mean you’re starting with whole beans that were recently roasted. It’s worth noting that most roasters don’t tell you when their beans were roasted; instead, they include a use by date which could be months after they’ve been roasted and have very little to do with when the beans are at their peak tastiness.
Which beans and how they’re roasted is really a matter of personal taste, and it doesn’t matter if you like a dark chocolaty French roast or a light roast with spicy notes from Mexico. If you’re not sure what you like, start with a small amount of a couple of different roasts and go from there. In general, dark roasts have bolder, more full-bodied flavors while light roasts tend to be smoother and are more frequently described as having spicy or floral notes.
The reason for using freshly roasted whole beans is the same reason beans should be stored in an airtight container; coffee beans lose their flavor when exposed to air, sunlight, and water. A process that accelerates once the beans have been ground. If you’re storing beans at home, use a container that is opaque and airtight. We use the Friis Stainless Steel Coffee Vault.
How the beans are ground matters almost as much as the beans themselves. Grinding the beans right before brewing releases the chemicals that give coffee its distinctive flavor and aroma. The best choice for grinding is a burr grinder because they’re better at grinding the beans to a uniform size than a blade grinder.
The size of the grind also matters and should be matched to the brewing process. For example, a French press uses a very coarse grind, while espresso or Turkish brewers use a very fine grind.
It can be easy to spend hundreds of dollars on a burr grinder, which isn’t as egregious as it sounds when you think about the number of cups of coffee it will produce. We use a Cuisinart Supreme Burr Mill, which does a nice job and is reasonably priced.
Why Water Matters for Good Coffee
There are a few surprising things when it comes to water and coffee. The biggest surprise is that experts recommend against using distilled or over purified water for brewing. The minerals in the water are important to developing coffee’s flavor, which is also why experts recommend against using softened water.
In general, good tap water or lightly filtered water from your fridge or a filtered pitcher work best. Don’t use bottled water to brew coffee, using bottled water at home is a waste of money and an ecological disaster.
The ideal temperature for brewing coffee is between 195°F and 205°F degrees. Over 205°F degrees and the coffee will taste burnt. If you’re using a pour-over method, which we recommend, a good rule of thumb is to bring your kettle to a boil, turn the heat off, and wait for a minute before pouring the water over the grounds.
It’s Time to Make the Coffee
When it comes to making coffee, we prefer using a French press. The beauty of making coffee with a French press is that you have control over every aspect of the brewing process, from the size of the grind to the temperature of the water. The other advantage to a French press is it doesn’t introduce any filters or other things that can taint your coffee’s flavor.
When you start using a French press or other pour over coffee method, take a little time to figure out the ratio of water to coffee, temperature, and steep time that works for you. The secret to being able to brew great coffee at home is developing a routine, embedding each step deep inside your noggin, so your brain can execute them no matter how groggy you are. Once you’ve figured out your routine, you’ll be able to brew coffee without worrying about the details.
A good place to start is somewhere around a 1 to 20 ratio of coffee to water. While you’re figuring out your preferences, it can be helpful to weigh out the coffee and measure the water. Once you know what you like, go ahead and stop worrying about measuring everything out.
The recommended steep time for a French press usually ranges between two to five minutes. In our testing, we found that steep time was the most important variable and that for us, 4 minutes was ideal. You can read more in our Making Coffee in a French Press recipe.
Tips for Fine-Tuning Your Coffee
Once the coffee is in front of you, it’s time to taste it and decide what you think. A good rule of thumb when you’re tasting coffee is that if it tastes bitter, it’s probably over-extracted and if it tastes flat, or just so-so, it’s probably under-extracted.
Once you start brewing, there are a few things you can do to fine-tune your coffee. Each time you brew a pot try adjusting one variable at a time until you find the right combination.
One last tip for better coffee is to find a way to keep it warm. If you’re using a standard French press think about picking up a little padded cozy for it. They help keep the coffee warm a lot longer.
All together making a pot of fresh pot of coffee takes around 10 minutes. Personally, I love the ritual in the morning of starting the water and grinding the beans. It gives me a chance to get ready for the day and to look forward to my first sip of dark black coffee, and as we all know, there’s nothing better in the world than anticipation.
Shop for more in the Coffee and Tea section of Umami’s Market