The 5 Keys to Great Coffee

I began drinking coffee sometime during the seventies; a period in American history which could easily be labelled as the dark ages. (And when I say dark, I’m not referring to the roast.) In those days, cafes were non-existent. Few outside of Seattle had ever heard of Starbucks, and the only place to go for a halfway decent cup was McDonald’s.

A plastic brewing device known as a Mr. Coffee machine began springing up in homes across the country, but after raising five children, my mother had grown weary of the kitchen. Anything that saved time and effort therein was no less than a miracle of modern food science. So my introduction to coffee, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, was instant.

Humble beginnings, to say the least, but eventually, I found religion. Once you’ve had a good cup of coffee, nothing else will do, and once you’ve had a great cup of coffee, you’ll do whatever it takes to get more.  Thus began a life-long quest to brew the perfect cup.

It didn’t happen all at once.  There was a lot trial and error. Along the way, I spent a small fortune on coffee makers—each more expensive than the last, only to find that a $30 solution worked as well as a $300 one.  I’ve looked at grinds under a microscope and experimented with various roasts, including an attempt at roasting my own in a device that looks much like a hot air corn popper. I drank a lot of bad coffee in the process, but if my obsession taught me anything it’s this: Keep at something long enough, and you’ll eventually get it right.

Today I am able to brew a consistently great tasting cup of coffee day-in and day-out. So good, in fact, that I dread mornings away from home. If you too have chased the dream of brewing that perfect cup only to have it elude you, take heart.  I’m here to give you the better part of my home-brewed wisdom. When I look back on the more than 30 years of experimenting, consulting experts, and just plain figuring out what I like and don’t like, I can point to five key lessons learned that significantly improved the quality of the coffee I brew and my ability to consistently brew it. I call these the five keys to great coffee.  Some of them you may be familiar with, and some may be new, but once implemented, each should put you that much closer to your perfect cup.

1. The Water

Coffee is 99% water, and yet this essential ingredient is largely overlooked.  If you’re still brewing coffee with tap water, than you’re probably polluting each and every pot you make. Don’t believe me?  Here’s a little test. Fill a small glass with tap water and another with bottled water and taste both.  Can you tell a difference? If not, either you live in a region of the world with incredibly clean tap water, or your taste buds can’t discern the difference, in which case you probably aren’t that picky about your coffee in the first place.

Most people will notice a big difference, and while you might think that coffee’s bold taste will cover up most of the bad qualities of tap water, it’s really the other way around.  The chemicals, metals and minerals found in tap water interfere with the taste of your coffee. If you’re spending upwards of $12 a pound on coffee only to brew it with bad water, you’re missing out on the finer qualities of those expensive beans.

The general rule of water quality is simple.  If you wouldn’t drink it straight from a glass, don’t put it in the your coffee. Use bottled water, or, better yet, invest in an inexpensive water filtration pitcher.  These simple steps will not only improve the quality of your coffee, but they may have health benefits as well.

2. The Beans

It should go without saying, but you’ll want to start with quality coffee beans.  Nowadays, this is not difficult.  Supermarket shelves are crowded with better quality beans than years gone by, but “fresh” is the order of the day when it comes to coffee.  True connoisseurs will tell you that flavor peaks within 24 hours of roasting and that beans are no longer fresh after just 7 days. Why? The essential oils in roasted coffee beans dissipate quickly when exposed to light and air, and as they evaporate, they take flavor compounds with them.

Unless you live next door to a roaster, getting your coffee within 24 hours of roasting can be impractical.  The next best choice is a purveyor of fine coffees, and particularly one that’s popular and turns over its inventory rapidly. If shops that sell fine coffee don’t roast their own, they tend to buy directly from the roaster. Just inquire about a “roast on” or freshness date to be sure you’re getting the best choice. Online sellers are also an excellent option.  Many will package and ship their coffees directly to your front door within 48 hours of roasting. If the local Starbucks or supermarket are your only choices, fret not.  Modern vacuum packaging goes a long way at sealing out light and air.

Regardless of where you purchase your coffee beans, treat them like fresh baked goods. Purchase just enough for a week to 10 days, and once home, store them in a cool, dark place inside an air-tight container.  I recommend AirScape canisters from Planetary Designs, which were specifically developed for coffee storage and allow you to push excess air out of the container prior to sealing it.

3. The Grind

Always buy your beans whole and grind them just before brewing.  Remember air is an enemy of coffee, and grinding beans increases the amount of surface area exposed to air.  Keeping your beans whole and intact just prior to brewing means you’ll keep more of those flavor compounds in tact as well.

Of course this means you’ll need a coffee grinder, and not all grinders are the same.  There are generally two types; blade and burr grinders.  Blade grinders are relatively inexpensive and work in a manner similar to a lawn mower. They have a blade affixed to the center of the grinder that spins around and chops the beans into smaller and smaller pieces.

A burr grinder, on the other hand, consists of two opposing gear-like surfaces that are slightly separated. When the coffee beans meet these two surfaces they are crushed into smaller and smaller bits until they simply fall in between the gears. The distance between the gears can be adjusted such that increasing it provides a coarser grind while decreasing provides a finer grind.

Burr grinders are more expensive but are superior to blade grinders, because they produce grounds that are more uniform in size. This ensures that the coffee brews “evenly”. If the size of the grounds are inconsistent, the smaller pieces become over saturated with water and will give off a bitter taste. (More about this when we discuss brewing.)

The beans on the left were ground with a blade grinder, while the ones on the left were ground with a burr grinder. (Photos courtesy of Erin Meister.)
The beans on the left were ground with a blade grinder, while the ones on the left were ground with a burr grinder. (Photos courtesy of Erin Meister.)

Electrical burr grinders can be pricey. A decent model may cost in excess of $60  Manual burr grinders can be found for under $30, but capacity is limited.  If you’re brewing just for yourself and perhaps one other, that shouldn’t be a problem, but if you making coffee for three or more, an electric grinder is more time efficient.

4. The Ratio

Perhaps the single most important lesson learned in all my years of brewing coffee was the importance of the ratio of water to coffee.  Too much water, and your java won’t jive. It will be weak, watery, and possibly bitter. Too much coffee, and you’re left with something so strong it’s undrinkable. Admittedly, there is an element of taste that factors into this equation. Some prefer a mild cup of coffee while others want more intensive flavor, but regardless of where you fall in that spectrum, you probably are not using the right ratio of water to coffee, and here’s why.

The instructions on packaged coffee often recommend 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground coffee per cup, but this is fraught with inaccuracies. First, there is the issue of volumetric measuring, which is wildly inconsistent. It’s rare that any two tablespoons of coffee will yield the same amount. But the greater problem is in the definition of a cup.  There is simply no global standard.

In the U.S., we generally think of a cup of coffee as 6 fluid ounces, but in Europe, it’s 150 ml, or 5.07 fluid ounces. Many coffee makers have adopted the European standard, but some some machines base a cup on a little as 4 ounces. With such wide variations in the metrics of a cup, it’s difficult to determine the right amount of coffee to use.

If we consult the experts, they would tell us that the best ratio of water to coffee is about 18 to 1. That means for every 18 parts of water you will need 1 part coffee, but it’s important to point out that this ratio is based on weight, not volume.  There’s no way to accurately achieve it if we measure both ingredients volumetrically.

Now, I know that the idea of weighing your coffee sounds tedious, especially early in the morning before you’re fully awake, but once you’ve made some initial calculations, it’s no more onerous than counting scoops. The good news is that the weight of water remains constant. So you can continue to measure it volumetrically and still be fairly accurate.  I would only suggest you ignore the markings on your coffee maker, and use a trusted measuring cup to be certain of how much water you’re using.

If you don’t already own one, you will need to purchase a kitchen scale, and one that measures in grams. A gram is a much smaller unit of measurement than an ounce and allows for greater accuracy. Once you’ve determined the quantity of water you’re using, simply measure out 6-7 grams of coffee beans for every 4 fluid ounces of water, adjusting for taste. That works out to 5-6 grams of beans per 100 milliliters of water. If that seems like too much mental gymnastics before you’ve had your morning cup, you can use this handy ratio calculator below to do the heavy lifting.

How Much Coffee Do I Need?

Once again, taste plays a big role in determining the best ratio. Our prescribed target of 18:1 is merely a middle of the road starting point.  If it doesn’t hit the mark for you, don’t be afraid to experiment with either a stronger ratio of 17:1 or a milder 19:1.  Once you’ve found the ratio that works for you, stick with it.

5. The Brew

There are multiple methods of brewing, but the process is basically the same in all cases. Water flushes over fresh grounds and extracts the essential oils and chemical compounds that give this elixir its magical properties, but even a process as simple as this requires some attention to details.  If the water is too hot or the grounds soak for too long, the beans release too many bitter compounds, and your coffee will taste burnt. If the water is too cold, or the brewing time is too short, the coffee will lack body and flavor.

Controlling the water temperature and the extraction time are the most critical aspects of the brewing process. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (the SCAA) recommends water temperatures of 197-204°F (92-96°C) and brewing cycles of 4-8 minutes. Those are pretty exacting standards, yet most inexpensive drip coffee makers fail at one or both or these metrics.  In fact, the SCAA lists only a handful of home brewers on their website that have passed their certification process.

If it seems that despite your best efforts your brew is blah, the problem may reside with your machine. It may be time for a new approach. You could certainly try one of the SCAA-aprroved machines, but if you do, be prepared to shell out some cash. Prices range from $150 to $400 dollars. For true coffee lovers, this may seem like a small price to pay. If you’re in the habit of buying your morning coffee at a pricey cafe, it wouldn’t take too long to recoup your investment. However, if this is just too rich for your blood, there is a brewing method that not only costs less but also gives you greater control over the process.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, is one of the wealthiest people in the world and can afford any coffee machine known to man, yet his preferred method of home brew is the humble French press. And for good reason.  At less than $40, it produces a cup of coffee superior to machines costing 10 times that. It’s compact, easy to operate and clean, and requires no electricity.

For those who are unfamiliar with them, the French press, first patented in 1929 by Italian designer Attilio Calimani, is essentially a tall, narrow pot, usually made of glass or metal, in which coarsely ground coffee and hot water are combined and allowed to steep for at least four minutes. The lid of the pot is fitted with a fine mesh plunger or press. At the end of the brewing cycle, the plunger is slowly engaged and the spent grounds are gently pressed to the bottom of the pot and separated from the water. You control the water temperature by boiling it separately in a stove-top or electric kettle, and you regulate the brew cycle with a simple timer or a watch.

Even if you have a perfectly fine home brewer, you may find you prefer the French press method. While it does take a little more effort than an automatic drip machine, the coffee it produces is well worth it and is sure to bring a smile to your face each morning.

French presses come in various sizes.  I recommend at least an 8-cup or 1 liter model. You can always make lesser amounts. And resist the temptation to go cheap. The quality of a good French press is in the fit of the plunger. If it’s too loose, you’ll end up with grounds in your coffee. You will also need a quick read thermometer to ensure the proper water temperature and a digital timer to regulate the brew cycle. ( I use the one on my smartphone.) An electric kettle will may also come in handy.

In recent years, Chemex coffee makers have grown in popularity. Special coffee shops like San Francisco’s trendy Station cafe, brew each and ever cup individually using the Chemex method.  Like the French press, it is fairly inexpensive and allows you to closely regulate the brewing process.  (View this video on the Chemed method.) My only complaint about the Chemex method is that it’s a little more involved than using a French press, but it certainly produces incredible coffee.

The last key to making great coffee is to take the time to enjoy it; something you should already know how to do.

David Ellis
David Ellis is the Founder and Editor of The Kitchen Journals. He is a food writer, an avid cooking enthusiast. In 2009, he started a food blog, David’s Table, and quickly learned that blogging was lonely work. He developed The Kitchen Journals to work with other food writers and bloggers. He lives in Washington, DC.

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  • Right on, man! A friend introduced me to the French press eons ago, before I’d heard of Starbucks … or should I say, before Starbucks heard of the rest of the country. Anyway, since having a pressed cup, I’ve never turned back.