You probably brew coffee, like most people, the most insipid way possible: Using a Mr Coffee that you fill with pre-ground coffee from the supermarket. There's a million other ways to make coffee, and they're all better.
Here's the rub about making coffee: The best ways to make coffee are the super simplest or the ultra-geekiest. The middle ground—i.e., your drip brewer—produces mediocrity. And where I come from, mediocre is spelled s-h-i-t-t-y. What's universal to every good method of making coffee is that there's a ton of control and consistency going on. In fact, consistency is the secret sauce to making great coffee. But we've got a few things we even get to the part you probably think of as "making coffee." These are the basic elements, no matter what voodoo you're invoking to make coffee: the beans, roast, grind, dose, water, temperature and brew time.
Buy 'em fresh, buy 'em whole, buy 'em sustainably. That's about all there is to it. Well, almost. If you're a dark roast drinker, it's time to branch out. Here's how Ken Nye, owner of Ninth St. Espresso, which has been at the forefront of NYC's coffee scene since 2001 explains it like this: Take a piece of dry-aged prime rib, which is loaded with complex flavors. How are you gonna cook it? Lighter, to preserve all of that complexity, or are you gonna char the holy hell out of it? There's nothing wrong with people who like the taste of a well-done piece of meat, but well, they're loving the char more than the meat. Same thing with some of the amazing coffees people that are being sourced now by companies like Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Counter Culture—they tend to roast on the medium to lighter side using older equipment to let the coffee's actual flavor come through. Roasting super dark is a good way to hide what's going on with the bean (good or bad).
There's no way around this: If you care about coffee, you have to grind the beans right before you make it. As soon as they're ground, the oils inside the beans are exposed to air, and the thousand different flavor compounds inside start dying. Coffee's fragile, man.
The grind is the foundation process for everything else that happens afterward. In fact, David Latourell, formerly of the Coffee Equipment Company (of Clover fame) and currently at Intelligentsia, says that the number one thing people can do to "change their world" when it comes to coffee is to fix their grind situation. If the grind up is screwed, so is everything else. Uniformity is what's key, otherwise you get an uneven extraction, which means mediocre coffee. And the only way to get that uniformity is with a good burr grinder.
Blade grinders mutilate coffee beans, and the heat caused by the friction screws up the chemistry, so don't even think about it. A burr grinder pulverizes the beans instead of chopping them up. Just because it's a burr grinder doesn't mean it's a good grinder, though. You want one that's efficient and can grind slowly, otherwise you're introducing friction and heat that corrupts the coffee. Typically, that means a conical burr grinder, versus a flat burr grinder. While you can get a burr grinder as cheaply as $US50, both Ken and David say that you have to spend at least $US150-$US200 for a home grinder—in particular, David recommends the Baratza Virtuoso, a conical burr grinder that's about $US200. (Ken's commercial grinder, pictured, is about $US3000.) It sounds like a crazy amount of money for a grinder, but if you're serious about making coffee at home, this is where you start. Fortunately, it's the most expensive piece of equipment you need to buy.
Okay! Let's get to brewing, from simple to whizbang.
A Chemex pot is one of the simplest ways to brew coffee. Seriously. You put a paper filter over a carafe, dump in coffee grounds, and pour water over it. There is an art to it, however. As is the case with every method of making coffee, there's no one perfect dose, brew time or temperature for every coffee—it depends on the coffee, and of course, your taste, and that's where the art lies—but Intelligentsia's got some starting points (PDF). (90C is a good fail-safe temp, though.) Intelligentsia's got a tutorial video ready to go. Besides the $US35 Chemex pot, you need Chemex brand paper filters (no, the cheap filters won't do, because the paper weave sucks). Something to look for is a nice, even bloom, like we see up top (the coffee will puff up in the filter) as you pour. The end result is a light, super clean cup of coffee where all of its qualities shine through really brightly.
The French press, while low tech like the Chemex, produces coffee that's almost antithetical to the Chemex's clean profile: It's got more heft, it's grittier, it's a little less defined, but it's much richer, too. A solid Bodum press starts at about $US30, give or take. The coffee is ground a little coarser here, for bigger particulates. Happily, there's another video to walk you through the process. Two things to emphasise, Ken from Ninth St. says: When you push down the plunger at the end of the brew time, go slow and easy. As coffee steeps longer, it gets more sensitive, so you don't want to agitate it by slamming down the plunger. Also, when you're done brewing, pour off all the coffee. Don't let it sit, you gotta get it outta there. (Image via jilliansvoice/Flickr)
Vacuum or Siphon Pot
The vacuum pot looks like it's straight out of a chemistry set for a reason: You don't wanna go there. David explains that it's perhaps the finickiest way to brew coffee—it "requires skill" and an amazing cup out of it can be "elusive." It is a seriously cool concept though. So, you've got two chambers connected by a tube. Water is boiled in the bottom chamber so it rises into the upper chamber, where your coffee is hanging out. It brews. Then you pull it off the heat source (whatever you're using), and the coffee is sucked back into the lower chamber—vacuums, baby—leaving the grounds up top and an articulate, clean cup in the bottom.
Then there's the Moka pot. What makes it special is that it uses steam pressure to brew coffee, and you make it on your stove, using coffee that's almost as finely ground as espresso, though not quite. Again, pretty simple idea with a couple of chambers connected by a tube. You've got a base chamber, filled with water, into which you stick a funnel-shaped filter filled with coffee. Start the water a-boilin' and steam pressure will start forcing through the filter (and the coffee grounds, natch) into the upper chamber. So it's sort of like a percolator, and there's debate as to whether or not it's a true perc pot because of the way it uses steam pressure. You've got to take care not to let things get too hot, though, otherwise you'll screw up the coffee. Gimme Coffee's tutorial for making Moka Pot coffee is a pretty solid one to follow, and pots go from $US25-$US50, depending on size. (kanaka/Flickr)
Cold Brew or Toddy
Haven't heard of cold-brewing? This is how you make iced coffee, not pouring coffee you've brewed regularly over ice, which results in a sour, disgusting abomination. Well, every method we've talked about (and will after this) for brewing coffee involves hot water, and a relatively short brewing time. Cold brewing is the low and slow approach: Coarse coffee grounds are steeped in room temp water for 12-24 hours, depending on the coffee. What comes out is exceptionally smooth, with most of the acidity—and some would say complexity—gone, so it has drinkability, like Bud Light. The "official" and I suppose easiest way to make cold-brew coffee is using the $US40 toddy system, which claims credit for starting the whole damn cold-brew deal in the first, but you can make it on the cheap.
Okay, I'm about to explode your world here. The drip coffeemaker you've got at home and at your office on the left here? It sucks. Remember earlier, how I said consistency is the key to coffee? A consistent temperature is crucial, and most drip makers can't deliver that. They can't even deliver the right temperature to begin with. The golden temperature for brewing coffee is 93C, and most drip pots top out at around 82C, which isn't hot enough for a proper extraction. Plus, they probably wet the grinds unevenly, making it worse. In fact, Ken and David both say that the only drip brewer who can deliver that is from Technivorm (on the right), whose drip brewers actually meet the temperature standards of the Special Coffee Association of America. And Technivorms coffeemakers aren't cheap, going for around $US200. Sorry dudes.
You know what? Let's just get this out of the way: You can't make amazing espresso at home. Not unless you're will to spend something $US7500 on an espresso machine from someone like La Marzocco. Why? Consistency. Temperature. Pressure.
As big and scary as an espresso machine looks, again, the basics aren't too complicated to grasp: It's using pressure to force water through a puck of finely ground coffee. What's inside that giant box is a boiler system—or two—that heats the water that passes through the puck and powers the steamer, and a motor to force the water through with a degree of pressure, so that the coffee is quickly extracted with all of those "beautiful oils" Ken from Ninth St. is fond of talking about, if the espresso shot is pulled skilfully. It should be dense, rich and topped with a yummy looking rust foam on top, called crema.
Lesser machines aren't that good at the two most important things an espresso machine works with: Temperature and pressure. To start, good commercial machines have at least two independent boiler systems, one for the coffee, one for the steamer. In the past, Jacob Ellul-Blake from La Marzocco R&D told me, before the brew boiler and steam boiler were separated, you ran into a problem where steaming milk would cause the steam pressure inside of the machine to drop, which would make the water temperature drop as well, since temperature and pressure are proportional—and you'd get a less-than-excellent shot. So, a good machine keeps a consistent temperature. Incredibly high end machines are super-precisely controlled temp-wise, within tenths of a degree. That's because taste is affected with a temperature variation of half a degree. (We'll go more in-depth on that later this week.) On the pressure front, most home machines just can't deliver the 8-9 bar of pressure that you need for a good extraction.
So when it comes to espresso, if you desire excellence, you're pretty much resigned to going to a coffee shop. They've got the equipment—and hopefully barista skills—you just don't have. But that's not a bad thing. David related it this way: It's like the difference between cooking at home and eating out. You can make a delicious meal yourself (coffee analog: Chemex or French press) but you're probably not going to make cookie-covered ice cream balls using liquid nitrogen, and that's okay.
Clover was the darling of the coffee world until the Coffee Equipment Company was bought by Starbucks. All hand-built, around 250 of them were made before Starbucks swooped in. Essentially, the Clover is a nerdy way of delivering water to coffee with precisely—digitally—controlled parameters that are repeatable every single time, so you can brew the same cup over and over and over, or so you can experiment more rigorously, carefully tweaking one element at a time.
The gist of the Clover of this: You place ground coffee in a chamber, which is filled with a precise amount of water at the exact temperature you set (give or take a degree) for the precise brew time you set. When it's done. Coffee pulled into the chamber by the vacuum formed when the piston is pushed back up with the Clover's powerful motor—it can lift 350 pounds—with the grounds left on top thanks to its 70 micron filter. The resulting cup is clean—coffee aficianados love clean cups—and expressive, though it's not quite so as the Chemex method. But that's what $US12,000 of coffee engineering gets you.
That's not quite every method of brewing coffee—seriously, there's about a million, like CafeSolo or single-cup ceramic drip—but those are the majors definitely worth knowing (or in one case, forgetting). If you wanna get really geeky about coffee, believe me, we haven't even started, so stayed tuned.
Still something you wanna know? Send questions about coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee or coffee to [email protected], with "Giz Explains" in the subject line.
Taste Test is our week-long tribute to the leaps that occur when technology meets cuisine, spanning everything from the historic breakthroughs that made food tastier and safer to the Earl Grey-friendly replicators we impatiently await in the future.