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Tasty Tech Tips for Brewing a Great Cup of Coffee

Published: April 9, 2012

Cuppa joe, java, or “just give it to me and don’t talk” — whatever you call it, if you’re one of the millions of coffee drinkers worldwide, you know just how delightful a good cup of coffee can be. Many people think that making the perfect cup of coffee at home isn’t possible without a professional setup, but in this day and age, that isn’t as true as it used to be. If you stick to a few simple rules, you’ll be able to enjoy a superb mug of magic bean juice every time.

What is coffee, anyway?

The coffee beans that we see at the store are actually the roasted seeds from inside the fruit of a plant that is grown in many parts of Africa, South America, and Asia. There are a few different varieties of this coffee plant, which is why there are different types of coffee that you can buy at the store, each with their own unique differences in flavor. The two most common varieties are robusta, which is often the foundation for commercial coffee blends, and arabica, which is a bit more expensive and has a slightly sweeter, less bitter flavor.

Coffee berries.

Photo by Jeromecruft.

After the berries are harvested, the flesh is removed and the beans are dried. The beans (at this point called green beans) are roasted and ground to make the coffee that we know and love. For serious coffee connoisseurs, even the methods used to roast and grind the coffee matters!

Finding the perfect roast

There are three basic types of coffee roasts: light, medium, and dark. Different people prefer roasts for different reasons. Typically, dark roasts have a bolder, slightly sweeter flavor, while the light roasts tend to be a bit more acidic and aromatic (not to mention being very slightly higher in caffeine, typically). The important thing is to find a roast that tastes good to you.

After you determine which roast you prefer in general, try out a few different variations to fine tune what you like best. Most local coffee shops will be happy to help you find the right roast and style to fit your taste. A knowledgeable barista is like a good sommelier when it comes to finding a brew that suits your tastes.

Beans and grinders

The first step to brewing the perfect cup of coffee at home is to buy whole beans. Grinding up coffee beans releases oils. These oils can be lost if the coffee grounds are stored too long, yet they’re an important part of what makes a good cup of coffee. The oils add a whole new layer of flavor and complexity to the drink.

Buying whole beans means that you have to grind them before brewing. As any coffee aficionado will tell you, a good grinder is perhaps the most important part making good coffee. Having a consistent particle size makes a real difference in how coffee tastes, so you’ll probably want to play with your grinder to see what tastes best to you. Certain brewing methods also require a finer or coarser grind, so having a grinder that allows you to adjust this is also important to final quality.

Coffee grounds, by David Joyce.

Photo by David Joyce.

There are two basic types of grinders,¬†burr and blade. Blade grinders are the cheapest and most common, consisting of a spinning blade that chops the beans. Unfortunately, blade grinders are notorious for having inconsistent grind coarseness. Unless you’re on a tight budget, avoid blade grinders for your coffee.

Burr grinders, usually more expensive than their blade counterparts, work by passing the beans through one or more sets of sharp grinding wheels to ensure a consistent particle size. A good burr grinder is an essential tool for any home barista. No matter which grinder you use, always grind your coffee immediately before brewing it to ensure that the grinds don’t dry out.

Brewing style

There are many different ways to brew your coffee, each with its own set of pros and cons. The most popular are pour-over, press pot, vacuum pot, and auto-drip.

  • Pour-over: The pour-over style consists of a container with a hole in the bottom that holds a coffee filter over a cup or carafe. You simply place your grinds in the filter and pour the hot water slowly and evenly over all of the grinds.
  • Press pot: The press pot (commonly called French press) method is another easy way to make a good cup of coffee. You do so by placing coarsely ground beans into the pot, then adding hot water. After waiting a few minutes (depending on taste), you press a filter/plunger down to separate the grounds. There’s a newer variation of this called the AeroPress, which works the same way but yields something more like espresso straight out of the press.
  • Vacuum pot: Perhaps one of the coolest ways to brew your coffee, a vacuum pot works by placing ground coffee and water into two separate chambers. The water is then heated and, as it begins to boil, it’s sucked up into the chamber with the grinds. Turning off the heat brings the coffee (and not the grinds) back into the lower chamber. It’s impressive to watch and makes a great cup of coffee.
  • Auto-drip: An auto-drip is a coffee maker that attempts to automate the pour-over method mentioned above. Most home coffee makers work this way. While it is definitely the most convenient method, it doesn’t necessarily brew the best cup of coffee possible due to less-than-ideal water temperature and poor grind saturation.

Brewing voodoo

Coffee Beans, by Nate Steiner.

Photo by Nate Steiner.

No matter which method you choose, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Typically, you want to use 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for every 6 ounces of water. Also, the quality of water you use makes a big difference in how the coffee tastes. If you have poor quality tap water, you may want to purchase a faucet filter or filtering pitcher, or maybe even consider getting bottled water service.

The temperature of the water can also make a big difference, as water that is too hot or too cool brews coffee differently. Ideally, the water should be just below boiling (around 200 degrees Fahrenheit). If you’re using a press pot or pour-over brewing method, the easiest way to make sure you have the ideal water temperature is to bring a kettle to a boil and then remove it from the heat briefly before pouring it evenly over your grounds, making sure to get all of them wet.

Ready… set… joe!

As you can see, making great coffee at home is surprisingly easy. Just remember:

  • Buy whole beans.
  • Use a burr grinder.
  • Avoid auto-drip coffee makers.
  • Watch your coffee-grounds-to-water ratio.
  • Use good quality water at the proper temperature.

Pour yourself a cup, doctor it up how you like it best, and enjoy!

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