Upgrade Your Joe: A Beginner’s Guide to Better Coffee

Upgrade Your Joe: A Beginner’s Guide to Better Coffee
Many of us drink multiple cups a day without ever realizing it can taste a lot, lot better.

Caffeine remains just about the only socially acceptable addiction, and as a result most of the U.S. population live their lives a few short hours and a missed latte away from entering withdrawal. With so many of us hooked on the stuff, it’s surprising then just how little time and money the average coffee drinker devotes to getting their fix. Sure, we’ve all spent $5 a go in a Starbucks at one point or another, but when it comes to the day-to-day stuff, most of us settle for cheap drip coffee or even instant coffee granules.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. Drinking better coffee doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming (though it certainly can be both if you let it). It’s all about finding the balance between quality, cost and convenience. Better quality coffee costs more and is less convenient, but past a certain point there are diminishing returns, so what matters is finding the sweet spot, where the increase in quality is worth the added cost and inconvenience. That’s different for everyone, and different people will value cost and convenience to varying degrees, so the perfect balance will be quite an individual matter. Don’t take this as a prescriptive guide then, but more a blueprint for figuring out what works for you.

The Machine

One of the first things that you need to figure out is what kind of coffee you want to make, and how you want to make it. You’ve got plenty of options here: cafetiere (French press), stovetop espresso, Aeropress, percolator, Chemex and more. Each method has its own pros and cons, and requires some upfront investment in equipment, so you want to figure this one out before you get started, if at all possible.

One of the first big questions is whether you want to make short shots of strong coffee like espresso, or longer, milder drinks. The former is what’s typical of the modern coffee shop: a short shot of brutally strong coffee that you can either drink as is, or mix with water, milk and more for drinks like cappuccinos, lattes and americanos.

moka pot

At a reasonable budget, the best bet for that is either a Moka Pot or an AeroPress. The former, also known as a stovetop espresso maker (though it doesn’t make true espresso), typically makes 2 or 3 shots at a time, and is about as close to espresso as you can get without a real espresso machine. The Moka sits on top of your stove, and consists of three compartments. You put water in the bottom, which is heated by the stove. Coffee grounds sit in the middle, and as the water boils, the pressure from the steam pushes almost boiling water up, through the coffee grounds, and into the top compartment as some rather strong coffee.

Coffee from a Moka Pot has a reputation for being quite bitter and, detractors say, burnt-tasting, though its defenders insist that incorrect usage is to blame there. Since the Moka is among the fiddlier coffee-making methods, it’s worth bearing in mind however.

Aeropress

An AeroPress is a more modern device that uses a filter and a plunger to produce a small, strong filter coffee that takes less than a minute to brew. Although it was only invented in 2005, the AeroPress is already one of the most popular choices among coffee aficionados. Because it brews coffee very quickly and at a lower water temperature than other methods, the resulting coffee is smoother and less acidic than the alternatives. You can pick up either a Moka Pot or an AeroPress for $25 or so on Amazon, so both are cheap starter options, but the AeroPress is quicker and easier to use, making it the better option to begin with. You can of course buy yourself a full espresso machine, but since the worthy ones tend to start at $500, you probably want to save that for once you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re doing.

French Press

For filter coffees, you’ve got two main options. The most traditional is the cafetiere, or French press, which simply sees you pour hot water over coffee grounds, leave them to steep for a few minutes and then press down a filter to separate the grounds. Because the French press retains all of the oils from the coffee, it tends to be somewhat ‘heavier’, while the fact that it uses a mesh filter, rather than paper, means that inevitably some sediment makes its way into the coffee, which some enjoy while others see as a downside.

electric percolator

The electric percolator has fallen slightly out of favor in recent years, but still has plenty of devotees. The functionality is similar to a Moka, but is unique in that it continually cycles the water through the coffee grounds until it reaches boiling point. Like the Moka, water goes into the bottom compartment, which is heated on the stove – or electrically, in most modern models. As it’s heated, this water is passed up into the top chamber with the coffee grounds, before filtering back down into the water chamber. The water is thus continually passed up and through the grounds until it’s all reached boiling point, at which point the coffee is ready. The result is a typically strong, but less acidic and less bitter, smooth cup. If you’re looking for that Holy Grail diner-coffee-at-home, this is your best bet.

The other option is a Chemex, which follows roughly the same principles as a drip machine, and consists of a glass flask with proprietary paper filters. This is James Bond’s choice of coffee maker in the original novel of From Russia, With Love so you know there’s got to be something to it. The filters are really what makes the Chemex special, as they also filter out much of the oil in the coffee, unlike other methods, resulting in coffee that’s typically less bitter. This is what makes the Chemex stand out from the pack, and it produces what’s at least the most unusual coffee of the lot. That taste difference is the main differentiator between the French press, a percolator, and the Chemex, so how smooth or bitter you like your coffee should guide you here.

The Bean

So, you’ve picked up a brand new coffee maker of one variety or another, and are all set to make your first cup. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that what type of coffee bean you use makes a bit of a difference too. At the end of the day, the bean is what you’re tasting, so it’s always going to be one of, if not the, biggest factors.

There are three important ways that the bean can vary: the plant itself, the roast, and how fresh it is when it reaches your cup.

Starting with the plant, there are two main varieties of coffee plant: arabica and robusta. Most coffee grown in the world is arabica, which is generally more flavorful and complex, and lower in caffeine. Robusta is easier to grow, and can be grown at lower altitudes, but has a less enjoyable taste. Robusta beans are thus most often used for instant coffee and cheap, canned grounds, while almost all the coffee you’ll find in a coffee house will be arabica. It probably won’t surprise you, then, that I’ll recommend you make sure to look out for arabica.

Coffee roasts are referred to in terms of color, with roasts going from ‘light’ to ‘dark’ as the beans reach higher temperatures. Popular light roasts include Cinnamon Roast and New England Roast, while American Roast and City Roast are the most common medium roasts. At the dark end of the spectrum you have the French, Italian and Spanish Roasts – as you might have guessed, darker roasts tend to be more popular in Europe. Light roasts are more acidic and caffeinated, but also preserve more of the ‘origin flavor’ – the flavors from the soil, altitude, and bean variety that are unique to that particular bean. Darker roasts lose much of the acidity and caffeine, but also lose the ‘origin flavor’, with the heavier, smokier and more bitter flavors of the roasting process taking priority.

Finally, one of the biggest factors of all, and one that’s the least subjective, is freshness. You may not think about coffee beans needing to be fresh, but the taste of coffee actually changes dramatically depending on how fresh or stale the beans are. The bad news is that if you’ve always bought your coffee from the supermarket, you may never have had truly fresh coffee. The good news is that it’s never been easier to get your hands on fresh coffee, especially if you live in a major city.

The crucial period is the time between the beans being roasted and them reaching your mug. Most coffee goes weeks, if not months, before it ever gets drunk, by which time the flavors have markedly worsened. Head to Google and look for local coffee shops which roast their own beans, as they’ll almost certainly sell the beans themselves too – and usually tell you exactly when they were roasted. There’s also a growing number of online coffee delivery services, some of which even run on subscription models, delivering fresh coffee to you every week or month. If you’re feeling really ambitious you can even buy green coffee beans and roast them yourself, but that’s for the truly committed.

The main challenge with fresh coffee is that it begins to get pricey and inconvenient. In an ideal world, you should drink it within a week or so of purchase. Unfortunately, unless you drink a lot of coffee, that might not always be realistic. It also might mean weekly trips to a specialty store to buy coffee if you don’t have a convenient delivery service. Plus, inevitably, the fresh stuff is pricier – often at least twice as expensive as the supermarket stuff. If all that sounds like too much work and money, consider making fresh coffee a monthly treat, rather than a staple. Alternatively, you can freeze the coffee between uses to keep it fresh, but there’s some disagreement out there as to whether or not this has a negative effect on flavor.

The Grind

After tracking down fresh beans, the next question is the grind. At this point, what matters is which coffee maker you’re using. If you’ve opted for an AeroPress or Moka Pot, you need quite a fine grind – a bit more powdery than table salt. The AeroPress in particular needs a fine grind to maximise the surface area of the coffee and ensure that it’s able to brew properly given the very quick brew time. The French press and Chemex both require a coarser grind however – though you can always buck these conventions and experiment a bit. You probably don’t want too fine a ground for your French press though, or the grounds will pass through the filter and you’ll end up with a lot more sediment than you probably want in your drink.

Tip

To reduce bitterness and acidity, use a coarser grind.

If you’re picking up your coffee from a local roaster, odds are that they actually offer a choice of different grinds so you can make sure you get the right one. However, you can grind them yourself. Burr grinders are the best, and give the most consistent results, however they’re significantly more expensive than regular blade grinders. Grinders tend to be a bit more expensive than most brewing equipment, but they usually give you multiple grind settings, making them compatible with whatever you’re using to make your coffee.

coffee grind cheat sheet

The Brew

Finally, if you’ve gotten through all of that, you’re actually ready to make some coffee. Inevitably, this varies pretty extensively across the different types of coffee maker, but there are some general guidelines. For most methods, water temperature is important, and the mistake that most people make is to use water that’s too hot. You want to use water that’s around 200 degrees Fahrenheit – slightly below boiling – so the simplest thing is to let the kettle boil and then wait thirty seconds for it to cool slightly before pouring. The AeroPress is actually best with water at 175 degrees, so you’ll want to wait a bit longer still.

For most methods, water temperature is important, and the mistake that most people make is to use water that’s too hot.

The water:coffee ratio is also crucial. You’re generally looking for a roughly 16:1 split, though of course you can play around with this, and it does vary depending on which method you use. If you’re looking for something slightly easier to work with, a good guideline is that for every tablespoon of coffee you need six ounces of water. Folks that like things bolder recommend two tablespoons.

The final question is simply timing. For a French press, percolatorChemex or Moka Pot, you can expect brewing to take four minutes or so. While the Chemex and Moka will make it clear when they’re done (the Chemex because there’ll be enough coffee in the bottom of the flask, the Moka because the steam will become paler) the timing is critical with the French press, so it’s best to set a timer for 4 minutes to make sure you get it right. The AeroPress is by far the quickest method, boasting that coffee can be brewed in a mere thirty seconds – though since you’re likely to be waiting longer for your water to heat up then cool, some of those benefits are lost.

There’s a lot of science to getting coffee right, but there’s also a huge amount of room for personal preferences. With the sheer variety of techniques, beans, roasts, grinds and more, there’s lots of scope to experiment and find your own tastes. Once you’ve mastered making basic coffee, of course, there’s then the whole world of lattes, cappuccinos, mochas and more just waiting for you.

A London-dwelling philosophy graduate with a penchant for films, gaming, and technology, with the occasional bit of tennis thrown in there.

  • proteinnerd

    or you could just get a nespresso machine and have great coffee without any of the fuss

    • Shan

      I think its personal taste as some people don’t care for the nespresso pods either. Just what ever you like best really. I enjoy the Moka Pot, once I got it down it was consistent & tasted great (ymmv)

    • sassymacgeek

      I use nespresso at the office they are very good and have a lot of variety but it is still not as flavorful as the stuff I make at home with freshly ground beans. Furthermore, it is environmentally awful unless you are returning all those plastic cups to nespresso for recycling.

    • Alex MIller

      It should go without saying folks should drink what they like, but I’ve never enjoyed pod style coffee like nespresso or keurig. It feels artificial, sterile and too removed.

      There is also the question of freshness. There are numerous local coffee roasters available. When I buy coffee, it was roasted sometimes within a few days, which I grind just before each use. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt you always get that level of freshness with a pod.

  • Jon

    Of course, you can use a COARSE grind with a chemex, but a medium grind will work better if you find the final product under-extracted.

  • Ben

    Good article. Only two notes:
    1.) It’s a commonly-repeated piece of misinformation that the darkness of the roast affects caffeine content. The amount of caffeine that’s lost to the roasting process is insignificant and vastly outweighed by the variation between different varieties of bean, or different batches of the same variety.
    2.) You should never freeze coffee “between” uses. If you plan to store coffee longer than a week or two, freezing will keep it fresher than storage at room temperature (although still not as fresh as coffee brewed within a week or two of roasting, obviously), but you should take the portion you plan to store and put it in a sealed container toward the back of the freezer (where the temperature is most constant) and retain the portion you plan to use within the next week at room temperature. Storing all your coffee in the freezer and removing it every morning will causes the beans to thaw slightly and then refreeze multiple times, causing it to go stale faster, not slower, than if they were stored at a consistent room temperature.

    • Rook

      Good comment! Only one note:
      It’s correct that the amount of caffeine lost in roasting is insignificant, but what is significant is the effect that roasting has on the density and size of the bean. A bean of a darker roast loses more water content, among other things, and becomes less dense than an identical bean of a light roast.

      This difference in density can mean different things for your eventual cup of coffee depending on how you’re measuring as well. If we measure by weight, a pound of dark roast will have more caffeine than a pound of light simply because its lower density means more beans will end up in that pound. If instead we measure by volume, a cup (the unit, not the colloquial ‘cup of coffee’) of dark roast with have the same amount of caffeine than a cup of light roast, or perhaps even less than the light roast because a bean of a darker roast is typically larger, meaning fewer dark roast beans fit into the same volume.

      So while it’s correct that the roasting process has a negligible effect on caffeine, technically, roasting may still affect how much caffeine makes it into your brew.

  • AirstreamStyle

    I love the Moka Pot. I actually have two of them, one for my morning cup and one for my fiancé who typically sleeps in a little later. We both enjoy the strong, almost espresso brew, I like mine black, she likes the fact that creamer doesn’t make hers too weak. I’ve been using these for at least three years, my French Press has been put into storage and will likely never be resurrected. I’ve been using Cafe Bustello for the past 1 1/2. It is a great but inexpensive espresso ground coffee and works perfectly with the Moka Pot.

  • http://www.erichenao.com Eric Henao

    FYI – I have no stake in this company, I’m just a customer.

    If you live in Houston,Tx (4th largest city in the country) head over to CoffeeIcon. While they specialize in the K cup for machines, they do have very good coffee beans in store that are roasted on demand. A medium roast of Colombia beans took 6 mins and was amazing. 1 lb (16oz) of roasted coffee cost $12.99. You can’t get any fresher than this.

    Locations are here: http://www.coffeeicon.com/superstores.html

  • Kory Leach

    It didn’t mention adding a pinch of salt to the grounds. The salt blocks the bitter taste receptors on the tongue so you get a smoother tasting brew.

  • health_goth

    What’s a good grinder?

  • health_goth

    What’s a good grinder?

  • TJ

    This may be sacrelige to the coffee nerds out there, but I used a standard drip coffee machine that I have set on a timer. I put the water and coffee in before I go to bed and when I get out of the shower, the coffee is ready to go. Is that really so bad? Also, I hope I didn’t offend anyone by saying coffee nerd, everybody has their thing.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Hey TJ,

      Not at all. You can get some good coffee from a regular drip, and the convenience as you point out can’t be beat. Just because you’re eating steak, doesn’t mean you have to pay for a rib-eye every time.

      • TJ

        I mean don’t get me wrong, I love a good cup of coffee. There are a couple local places here that make great coffee and they roast it themselves, etc. Most mornings though, coffee is all about getting caffeine into my system more than anything else.

    • Ben

      Nothing wrong with a drip coffee maker; a paper coffee filter removes more oils from the coffee than a metal mesh one, which results in a smoother but less-flavorful cup. That’s a personal preference thing, some like it better one way and some prefer the other; but you can always buy a metal mesh insert for your drip coffee maker if you find you prefer it that way.

      I will say that you can greatly improve the quality of your coffee by grinding the beans as soon before brewing as possible. Leaving your ground coffee in the open air overnight is making it stale faster than weeks in a sealed container as whole beans. If you’re interested in a better cup in the morning, grinding before you jump in the shower is not much less convenient and will make a big difference.

      • TJ

        I actually buy preground coffee and keep it in an airtight container.

        • Ben

          Ah, well that’s your first mistake, then. (-:

          • TJ

            Oh I know that grinding your own beans is better but during the week, coffee is mostly just a caffeine delivery system with less sugar than a soda. I appreciate good coffee and I would be open to making better coffee on the weekends.

    • Alex MIller

      There’s nothing wrong with a drip machine. Though I personally use a French press almost religiously, as you pointed out, there’s certainly an efficiency-quality-time balance. Sometimes you want the best cup of java you can make, sometimes you just need some coffee.

  • Butch_Zee

    I’ve seen them before, but I never knew the Moka Pot was called a Moka Pot. Learned something new today! Cheers.

  • bhoe

    In my opinion, if you are trying to “up your coffee game”, a percolator is probably not the way to do it.

    In addition to Chemex, Moka Pot, or a press, the Clever Dripper and Hario V60 are two of the best pour-over single serving options which are semi-portable. Both are available on Amazon and cheap.

    I use a clever dripper everyday at work with fantastic results. But obviously the brew is only as good as your beans. This really should get first billing in the article since no matter how good of a device you use, the old adage of garbage in garbage out rings true.

    I can list off a different roaster for each region if anyone is interested, but trying to keep this short and don’t want to come off as a shill.

  • Chris Northington

    Excellent article, very informative! What about frothing milk for cappuccinos and other drinks, any advice on products for this?

    • bhoe

      I have a steam wand on my espresso maker (got it for free), but its more difficult technique to steam milk than you would imagine and obviously those things are pretty costly. Outside of an espresso maker w/wand, I don’t think many quality products worth your money exist. Maybe the heating/frothing carafes (~$50) are good, but I have never seen or met anyone that uses one.

      The handheld electronic frothing wands from BB&B or Ikea are a waste. If you are going to go that route, just put the milk in the mason jar and shake the hell out of it.

  • jacobcrim

    For christmas I received from my father a Hario mini mill hand grinder, stove top kettle and chemex. My mornings are much better now and hand grinding might sound like a chore first thing in the AM but its quite theraputic. I want to get a moka pot for affogatos now. Plus a bag of counter culture runs me 12 dollars. Thats the same price as six cups from my local health food store and I get a lot more than six cups out of my 12 dollar bag.