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.