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How to make better coffee at home, in 5 steps

The easiest way to improve your coffee is to buy beans fresh off the roast.  (Pixabay)
By Tim Carman Washington Post

I love coffee and the precision that goes into brewing a cup of craft mud (trademark pending). It appeals to the part of my brain informed and influenced by my late father, a civil engineer. We shared a belief that perfection is attainable if you sweat every single mind-numbing detail, alienating anyone within a 25-foot radius in the process.

The craft coffee world encourages such obsessiveness, a quality that sometimes (often?) slips into snobbery, which no doubt explains why those who don’t inhabit this orbit love to mock us.

But we coffee geeks do have a mission: to unlock the full sensory experience trapped inside those beans. It’s not necessarily easy, and it requires money, equipment, time and patience, all of which are in short supply. Plus, many folks are content with the caffeine rush alone, and the rest is just frippery.

Yet for those who want more from their coffee, here are some ways to start. I tried to crystallize these recommendations so that most apply to a variety of methods, such as automated drip or pour-over.

1. Buy fresh coffee

Nothing will improve your coffee faster than buying beans fresh off the roast.

It’s not just – or even mostly – about getting coffee into your hands before oxygen, humidity, temperature and light do their things and degrade your beans; it’s about experiencing how coffee changes, day by day, during its peak freshness, said Joel Finkelstein, founder of Qualia Coffee in Washington, D.C.

“Maybe you like it three days” off the roast, Finkelstein said. “Maybe you like it five days. Maybe you like it eight days. But just having the opportunity to try the coffee as it’s changing over time and kind of think, ‘OK, this is the best day.’ That’s what I was trying to get to.”

The problem with buying coffee from supermarkets (even Whole Foods) is that beans will sit there for months after their roast date, assuming the vacuum-sealed bags even mention a roast date.

Many bags will provide only a “use by” or “best by” date, which may promise that the coffee will be good for months into the future. This is technically true: You can brew coffee many months after its roast date, and it will still taste like coffee. It won’t harm you, either. But it won’t taste as it should.

Bottom line: Look for roast dates.

If the beans were roasted weeks (or months) earlier, find a different bag. Or, better yet, go to your local roaster and buy beans fresh off the roast. Wait at least three days after the roast date to use the beans, and, ideally, brew them all within two weeks.

2. Grind your beans

The problem with pre-ground beans is that they go stale fast, sometimes in a “matter of hours,” depending on how fine the grind is, according to the folks at Fellow, one of my favorite companies for coffee gear. Others say you can use ground coffee for a week before it takes a turn for the worse.

The best option is to grind beans fresh for each pot or cup. Even better, invest in a grinder that will serve you and your coffee for years to come. Jesse Raub, a former wholesale education manager for Intelligentsia Coffee who now writes for Serious Eats, says the “most important piece of equipment in brewing coffee is a high-quality grinder.”

You could buy a whirlybird blade grinder for less than $20, but it will mangle your beans, leading to an uneven extraction of your increasingly pricey coffee. Invest in a burr grinder, such as the Baratza Encore, a good entry-level unit that will grind more evenly. Less expensive is a decent hand grinder, such as the Timemore C2 Max, which Raub recommends.

But if all you have is a blade grinder (and you’re not ready to enter the universe of burrs), follow the advice of Chris Baca, co-owner of Cat & Cloud Coffee in Santa Cruz, California.

“I’d actually recommend getting your coffee pre-ground at the shop that you buy your coffee from,” Baca said in a YouTube video, adding: “Because the particulate size is going to be more uniform … it’s going to give you more delicious cups of coffee even though the coffee is pre-ground.”

3. Don’t be stingy with coffee

If your coffee is flat and flavorless, you might not be using enough beans in your brewing process.

For years now, I’ve relied on a ratio of 16 parts water to 1 part coffee when making pour-overs at home. It has served me well, and, just as important, it translates to many dripper devices. You can even use it with an AeroPress or an automatic coffee maker.

Do you need a scale to ensure that you hit these ratios? No, not unless you’re a perfectionist, given how much beans vary by weight and volume. But, generally speaking, for a 16-to-1 ratio, use 4 tablespoons of coffee to 1½ cups of water, with a little extra to cover the liquid that will evaporate while coming to the proper temperature.

4. Use filtered water and the right temperature

The consensus used to be that you brew coffee with water heated between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.

But in “How to Make the Best Coffee at Home,” coffee guru James Hoffmann argues that lighter roasts demand higher temperatures (198 to 212 degrees) than dark roasts (176 to 185 degrees), which turn bitter with hotter water.

I have no idea how you calculate these temperature ranges without a water kettle and a thermometer. (Many automated coffee makers can’t heat the water to the proper temperatures, though there are pricey exceptions.) So if you want to brew a cup without a fancy gooseneck water kettle, buy lighter roasts. Boil the water, pull it off the heat, then wait 15 to 30 seconds before pouring.

Which brings us to the type of water, which makes up nearly 99 percent of brewed coffee. Water quality significantly affects what you drink. This is a complicated subject, hard to boil down, but I suggest you buy a filter pitcher and run your tap water through it before you start the brewing process. It’s not perfect, but it will probably brew a better cup than the stuff straight from the tap.

5. Brew coffee three to four minutes

If you’re using an automated brewer, you have little control over the length of the brewing process (aside from a “strong” or “bold” button, which extends the brew time). If you’re making a pour-over at home, make sure your brew time hits the sweet spot between three and four minutes. Anything brewed much quicker will lack flavor, and anything brewed much slower will probably “start pulling in those astringent flavors,” Raub and Nick Cho wrote for Serious Eats.

How do you vary the brew time? You can adjust the grind on your beans. The finer the grind, the longer it takes for water to pass through. The coarser the grind, the faster water will filter through, which can lead to under-extracted coffee. Adjust your grind accordingly.

But you can also pour water more slowly, in thinner streams. You’ll need a gooseneck kettle for this, but it will reward your investment – and your patience.

One of the unspoken benefits of a good pour-over coffee – aside from the depth of flavors – is the ability to slow time down. It’s sort of like meditation, but instead of focusing on your breath, you’re focusing on building the perfect cup. Or as close as you can get.