How to Make Great Coffee at Home: 5 Tips

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espresso and milk - perfect together

espresso and milk - perfect together

How to Make Great Coffee at Home: 5 Tips

Writing about Italian food we get plenty of questions on topics such as “my favorite Italian food or recipe” (answer: too many to choose just one) or my favorite Italian restaurant (answer: cook Italian food at home).   On occasion, we also recieve questions having to do with coffee, in general, and particularly the coffee in the United States versus Italy.  My answer is often long winded and complicated, but we generally have a few standard convictions about coffee in the United States:

  1. Coffee that is sold at cafes (both independent shops and chains) is, generally, of very poor quality; i.e., while the raw ingredients (e.g., roasted beans) are good the brewing process and methodology is wrong.  In turn, leading to a broken coffee culture here in the United States.  For example, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz suggests the French Press is the best way to make coffee while his chain uses drip style makers (a huge paradox)
  2. The best coffee on the planet is produced via forcing water (near boiling temperature and under pressure) through finely ground (and darkly roasted) coffee beans; that is to say, espresso.
  3. American style drip coffee brewing is, generally, not the right method to extract optimal flavor from ground coffee beans.  This is the method used at Starbucks and by most folks preparing coffee at home.

Like eating good Italian food we believe drinking good coffee can only be had by perfecting the process at home and, as you guessed, making your own coffee.  There are a few coffee shops in large metropolitan areas, often run by European ex-pats, that make old world style espresso (roasting their own beans, getting the grind correct, setting up the right pressure and time allocated for water to run through the coffee beans, etc.)  but I’ve personally had more bad espresso than good in the United States, including in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, etc.  So, what’s a person interested in consuming good coffee to do?  Ween him or herself off the substance?  Maybe switch to tea?  We say no and just follow these basic tips:

Stovetop espresso - not the ideal way to make espresso but the most common way to consume coffee outside of a bar or cafe.

  1. Invest in good (and the correct) equipment.  Throw away your $40.00 drip style coffee maker and percolator from the 1970′s – both machines get water temperature wrong as well as the correct time that water and ground coffee should sit together.  It’s our unscientific (and entirely qualitative) opinion that there are three great coffee making devices designed for American style coffee on the planet: 1. Aeropress 2., Chemex 3. French Press (we also like the Clever Coffee Dripper).  The online shop Sweet Maria’s carries only the very best equipment, green beans, and dispenses excellent coffee knowledge (the owners also love what they do and it shows).
  2. Invest in whole beans and never buy pre-ground coffee.  It’s a fact that coffee detoriates as soon as it’s roasted and the situation only amplifies if the bean is roasted and ground.  So, ideally the home barrista is roasting and grinding his or her own coffee beans.  Roasting coffee at home can get complicated, but there’s no excuse for not grinding your own, pre-roasted, beans at home just before consumption.  If you’re buying pre-roasted beans then inquire about roast date and the source of the beans.
  3. Think long and hard about water temperature and the time ground coffee is in contact with hot water.  The optimal extraction temperature for American style coffee is beetween 195 – 205 degrees Fahrenheit.  If the water is to hot or too cold you’re looking at underextracted coffee which will yield all sorts of bad coffees tastes.  Depending on the coffee making device, you’re looking at different times that the hot water is exposed to the ground coffee.  For example, when making espresso the water in coffee are in contact for anywhere between 10-30 seconds depending the style of espresso (e.g., ristretto <my favorite style>, doppio, etc.)  and a method like French Press has the coffee and hot water commingling for about 4 minutes.
  4. Spend more time thinking about grind.  Different coffee making machines and processes call for different whole bean grinds.  For example, if you’re using a French Press (invented by an Italian in Italy, by the way) then your grind can be coarse and fairly uneven.  If you’re making espresso, then you’ll want to use a grinder that can create a small, uniform, substance or grind (“burr” grinders can often control bean grind better that a standard “blade” type of coffee grinder).
  5. Making good espresso is lots of work.  I grew up on stovetop espresso, like many Italian children (i.e., I didn’t start to consume it until I was about 17 but the stovetop espresso pot was the #1 coffee maker in our household) and it was simply a substitute for real espresso (only made at proper bars or cafes).   Real espresso is still consumed outside of the home in Italy and is the ideal way to enjoy coffee in it’s finest form.  If you want to try and make espresso at home then you’re looking at a signifact investment in equipment (including espresso machine and canoical burr grinder)  and a steep learning curve (especially if you vie for the type of espresso machine that gives you the most control and in turn best tasting cup; viz., a semi automatic machine).  For more on espresso see our guide.
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  • Dr. K

    You didn’t think you could do a post on coffee and not get a comment from me, did you?! : ) 

    Helpful information.  A few notes.

    Good equipment is important.  It doesn’t have to be expensive though.  The Abid Clever Coffee Dripper is one of the simplest and most effective brewers out there, and you can get it for as little as $13.  French Press also can brew good coffee for a low price.  The Aeropress requires their proprietary filters and uses low temperature which underextracts, so it’s usually a pretty mellow cup.  My main objection to it is that it wastes a lot of coffee for a small volume cup.  It uses twice as much coffee as most methods, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a routine method.  It may be best suited for travel.  The Chemex produces a very nice cup, and is a conversation piece as well.  However, it also uses proprietary filters, which are very thick and require pre-soaking if you want to avoid paper taste in your coffee.  Chemex brewing also requires close attention during the brewing process which may not be suitable for all occasions.  But it can brew a substantial amount of coffee if you buy one of the larger models.  You can get excellent coffee from a drip maker, but not for less than $150.  With few exceptions, most do not get the water temperature high enough to extract properly. The Technivorm and Bonavita are fantastic electric brewers, but not cheap.  Stay away from percolators.  You do not have to limit yourself to any one method of brewing.  If you shop at a reputable retailer like Sweet Marias (I have no financial interest in them, though as much as I’ve spent there, I wish I did), you will be able to find any number of brewers at a variety of prices that can produce great coffee when used correctly.  If it can’t make a good cup, they won’t sell it.

    If you buy pre-ground coffee, no matter how you prepare coffee, the single biggest improvement will be achieved if you switch to whole beans and grind just before brewing.  Period.

    The quality of your grind is important.  Different brewing methods require different grinds.  Evenness of grind at times is more important than whether it is fine or coarse.  The quality of extraction depends on how much surface area of the ground coffee is presented to a given volume of water.  If you try brewing espresso with coarsely ground coffee, you will have bad espresso.  If you try brewing with a French Press with finely ground coffee, you will have sludge.  If you use a brew method with a long extraction time, you need a coarser grind or you will overextract the coffee.  A blade grinder with whole beans will still be better than buying pre-ground coffee, but if you want quality coffee, invest in a conical burr grinder that allows you to consistently and evenly grind your coffee to the proper particle size.  Blade grinders are nice for travel, but they produce uneven grinds and they heat the coffee grounds prior to brewing which can adversely affect the final product.  

    As Vincent emphasized, buy the freshest whole beans you can find.  Go to a reputable roaster and don’t buy beans without a clearly identifiable roast date.  Coffee degrades from the moment it is roasted, regardless of temperature controls or vacuum seals.  Do consider roasting at home.  You can make a roaster yourself or buy one of many commercially available products.  Sweet Marias again is a valuable resource for this.  I roast at least a pound of coffee every week in my garage.  It takes all of 15 minutes, and I have wonderful, fresh coffee all week long.

    Store your beans properly.  Keep them away from light and heat.  An air-tight container is preferable, but again even vacuum sealing won’t prevent your beans from going stale within days.  Do NOT refrigerate or freeze your beans.  It will not only hasten their demise, but will cause them absorb off odors from whatever else you’ve got lurking in your appliances.  

    As Vincent said, pay attention to water temperature.  If you are not using an electric brewer that maintains a proper water temperature, you want your water between 195-205 degrees.  Preheat your brewing apparatus, mug, and thermos so the water and coffee don’t cool to suboptimal temperatures when they come into contact with a cold vessel.  An electric kettle is a good tool.  I have one that will bring the water to a specified temperature and hold it there, but if you want to keep it simple, you can bring your water to a boil and let it sit for 30-60 seconds and you’ll be in the right range (don’t pour boiling water over your grinds).  Also, your coffee is only as good as your water, so make sure it’s good water (filtered is ideal).  

    Try to drink your coffee while fresh, though it’s best to let it cool for a few minutes.  At 195 degrees, you won’t taste much and you’ll just burn your mouth.  But it doesn’t get better with time.  Store it in a preheated thermos if you can’t consume it all right away.  Reheating your coffee in the microwave is not a good idea from a taste standpoint.  Nor is keeping your coffee on a burner plate.  

    Try to get accustomed to drinking your coffee without added sweetener or milk/cream.  You will better appreciate the nuances and flavors of different varietals.  Very often, sweeteners and creamers were a necessity to mask the bitter and stale flavors of poorly made coffee.  If you have good coffee, it will not be bitter, and these additives will only mask the taste and contribute unnecessary calories.  Coffee tasting can be much like wine tasting, and if you read cupping descriptions they will appear very similar to wine tastings/reviews.  Appreciate your coffee for the fine beverage that it is without adornment.  You wouldn’t add sugar to your Nebbiolo, would you?

    This all may sound very complicated if you’re just getting started, but don’t be intimidated. Great coffee is not at all hard to achieve at home, and you don’t need to spend a lot either.  Pay a little attention to the quality and the process and you will enjoy something far better than any coffee you will find at most shops and restaurants.

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Dr. K.

      Excellent comments and we were waiting for your reply/comment. I added the Clever Coffee Dripper as another favorite (I had forgotten about it because it’s currently not in our morning routine). We agree on the French Press and also concur on the amount of coffee needed to make a cup of Aeropress (as well as the cumbersome process, per our original review of the product).

      On the Chemex product, we certainly like the brew but prefer an Aeropress cup (if we had to rank devices). We actually think the Chemex produces the more mellow cup of coffee versus the Aeropress (we grind our beans fine for the Aeropress and don’t use as much recommended water when making an Americano; the Aeropress doesn’t make Espresso. We also think the proprietary filters shouldn’t discourage anyone from trying the device (they’re cheap and last a long time).

      We’ve never tried the drip machines you mention above, but we’ve heard great things about both the TEchnivorm and Bonavita (though I cringe at the idea of another appliance on our counter).

      Agreed on the grind! The only exception may be French Press which is more forgiving to a blade grinder and non uniform grounds.

      I like both espresso and American style coffee with no milk, though we do add a small amount of sugar (per how most Italians drink their coffee).

      Vincent

      • Dr. K

        With the Chemex, the large and thick folded filter may remove more oils from the extraction than other methods.  However, if you use as much coffee per unit of water as with the Aeropress, or if you used as much water for your Americano as with the Aeropress, you might not notice much of a difference.  One problem with the Chemex is that the accompanying instructions specify about half as much coffee grinds as should be used.  Less coffee, weaker beverage.  My Chemex has moved to an undistinguished corner of my basement.  Although it works well, it is simply more labor intensive than other methods, and I am rarely just making coffee without doing some cooking, cleaning, or other multitasking in the kitchen.  The Chemex cannot be left alone for more than a minute or so at a time.

        I have a hard time getting excited about the Aeropress.  It is basically advertised as an espresso maker, and as you said it does not make espresso.  My main criticism is the tremendous waste of coffee, which if you are buying and/or roasting quality coffee goes against my frugality.  It would be like cooking a pound of pasta, eating half of it and then throwing the other half into the trash or compost.  For the same amount of ground coffee, I could make double the volume of outstanding coffee (in my opinion, better than the Aeropress), using the Clever Coffee Dripper.  The CCD is also easier to clean, not as cumbersome, and half the price.  The Aeropress is also only good for one cup at a time.  The CCD does this just as well, but is also more versatile if you want two or three cups.  I think its best place is in your luggage for travel, although for this I tend to use a travel press pot/mug.  If you want an extra Aeropress, you can have mine!

        And I hate to disappoint on this Italophile forum, but the French Press was NOT invented by an Italian in Italy (see http://blog.kathrynmcgowan.com/2010/10/18/coffee-preparation-through-the-ages-part-ii/ and  Two Italians did redesign it with coiling around the edge and patented this, but the invention (an imperfect version, admittedly) came about 80 years before by a couple of Frenchmen (hence French Press and not Italian Press).  The first patent did go to an Italian, but that doesn’t mean the concept originated there. 

        Another innovation in coffee preparation emerged in France around 1850, a pot with a fine mesh screen attached to a plunger, which would be pressed down when brewing is complete to prevent the depleted grounds from pouring into the cup. This was a great improvement over cloth or paper filters which absorb the coffee oils and hence much of the best of coffee’s flavors. In hindsight this seems like an obvious thing to try, however, the technology to create fine wire mesh screens was not really available until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.Again, it is the French who are forging ahead with coffee innovations. Messrs. Mayer and Delforge received the first patent for this “infusion coffee maker” in 1852. The only drawback to the design was the fact that it was difficult to make a mesh filter that would hug the sides of the pot tightly enough to keep all of the grounds out. This was improved in the 1930s when Italians Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta redesigned it with a spring coiling around the edge of the filter. Finally, in 1959 Mr. Fallero Bondanini of Switzerland hit upon the solution we see in the modern version of the press pot, with the mesh screen extending out beyond the coiled spring and turning up at the edges. The official name for this style of coffee maker in French is cafetière à piston filtrant, the word cafetièresimply means coffee maker. In English it is often referred to as a French Press, or a Plunger Pot.

        The notion that French Press is more forgiving of a non-uniform grind or blade ground coffee is an unfortunately widely disseminated fallacy with little justification. It is only forgiving if the coffee-drinker is forgiving of a cup of sludge in place of a cup of coffee.  The press pot filter is incapable of filtering out fine particles, so they make for a pile of sludge in your coffee.  Furthermore, the combination of very large particles with very fine particles creates very uneven extraction and funky flavors.  In fact, filtered methods of extraction and brewing will be more forgiving of poor grind than a press pot.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the Coffee Geek (http://coffeegeek.com/guides/presspot):

        If there’s one thing that you need to take away from this how to, it’s this. Don’t skimp on your grinder.I get really irked at comments I see online, in alt.coffee, even in our consumer reviews section that say things like “it’s good enough for a french press”… these are people talking about a blade grinder, or even the cheaper burr grinders like the Pavoni PA or the Braun KM30. I say to that: bull shite.Let’s think about something here. What is it about press pot coffee that makes people think the grind should be more forgiving? The bigger size of the grounds? The steep time? No, none of that. There’s nothing in press pot coffee brewing that will allow for a crappy grinder to produce the same results that a good grinder can produce. 

        With a press pot, particle size of the grounds is as important as it is for espresso. The difference is, you want uniform large particles, instead of uniform tiny particles. Cheap grinders can’t give you either – they will give you a mixed bag of big and small chunks. Dust and boulders. It’s what leads to the thing people dislike most about press pot coffee – the sludge.

        Personally, as someone who cups coffee, I don’t mind a bit o’ sludge and grit in my cup. Well, that depends. If I find it in my filter drip coffee, it bothers me. But in a Press Pot brew, I can deal with it. What I can’t deal with is a funky (in a bad way) extraction because the grinder used wasn’t up to snuff. A good grinder gives an even grind. Bad grinders and products pretending to be grinders (read: blade grinders) give a grind all over the map – dust and chunks.

        Also, the type of filter you use plays a huge role in what level of grinding you should have. Nylon filters tend to handle a more finer grind (still coarser than drip coffee), whereas metal filters need a true coarse grind, where the particles of coffee are the same size as you would get from a pepper mill set to its coarsest setting.

        The fineness of the grind also determines how easy or hard the plunger is to press – the finer the grind, the harder to press. The difficulty in pressing evenly increased with the size of the pot as well. I once scalded myself pretty badly with a 12 cup press, even though the grind was very coarse. Be wary.

        I’ll say it once more. Don’t skimp on your grinder. A quality conical burr grinder, from the Bodum Antigua, up to the Solis Maestro Plus and beyond will suit. You’ll get the best possible extraction from your coffee, and a fairly clean, though deep cup. 

        • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

          On Italian inventing French Press: yes, I was referring to the patent holder.  

          On the aeropress versus chemex versus CDD: I enjoy the aeropress brew (as I said, I grind fairly fine, reduce the amount of water during the extraction process, and add only about 1/2 the amount of water to the concentrated coffee to yield a very good tasting Americano).  I think there’s also a psychological barrier to get over with the Aeropress, namely the product design looks like something out of an infomercial.  Agreed on excess use of coffee and somewhat long clean up time (though for me it’s just a matter of shooting the spent coffee puck right into the garbage followed by a quick rinse).  Chemex is better than general drip brew, but as you said the long prep time is a negative.

          I’ve used ground beans via burr and blade grinders for French Press brew and I can’t tell the difference (I grind to roughly the same size and get the same amount of “sludge”, though I’d call it sediment) in terms of flavor, color, aroma, etc.  Maybe my palate isn’t refined and I probably haven’t tasted as much American style coffee as a typical “coffee expert”, but I do believe French Press allows for some flexibility in grind (at the same time, I’m not saying grind type isn’t important with French Press).

          Conversely, grind type and espresso brewing are intricately connected (i.e., given the process for creating concentrated coffee by way of pressurized, nearly boiling, water) and even slight variations of texture and size can have an impact on a whole host of espresso flavor qualities (a bad grind will also prevent most machines from even making espresso).  HOWEVER, and I’ll use an example by way of Starbucks, there are some cafes/bars in the US that get grind and roasting correct but still get espresso wrong:

          from another post on Scordo on espresso: “Allowing the water to run through the portafilter too fast produces too much espresso that is often watery, bitter, and full of way too much caffeine (you’ve probably had this experience at a restaurant when the waiter returns with a “coffee mug” full of “espresso” or when you ask for a single shot and they return with the equivalent of 4-5 proper, single, shots).  Conversely, when the barrista runs the water through the portafilter at a slower rate you usually end up with a muddy and overly thick espresso (Italians do have a word for a portion of espresso smaller than a single shot; namely, ristretto, but this is almost impossible to find in the United States).”

          Again, a place like Starbucks gets grind correctly (they have great equipment and I’ve actually asked to see the grind and felt the consistency at a local shop a few years ago) and the beans are of high quality and roasted well (at least for espresso, I wouldn’t make the same claim for their standard, American style, coffee).  

          • Dr. K

            I am curious as to what type of burr grinder you were using that resulted in similar press pot coffee that the blade grinder obtained.  Blade grinders give very uneven grinds.  You will get lots of fines that clog your filter and create excess sediment in the cup.  You also get lots of oversided particles that cannot present enough surface area for complete extraction.  Try not to grind as far to avoid the fines, and you get lots of poorly extracted clumps.  Try to compensate for that and the grind is too fine.  

            Burr grinders are better, but there are plenty of inferior burr grinders that don’t do much better.  With press pot coffee, even grinding is actually more important than particle size.  If you look at Sweet Marias, they don’t offer an electric burr grinder for less than $149 (you can get this a little cheaper elsewhere, but still it’s more than $120).  The reason for that is that the cheaper models don’t do as well.  

            I completely agree that grind quality is critical with espresso, but it is also very important with press pot coffee.  If you want to enjoy great coffee at home, a good grinder is worth it.  I have a blade grinder as a back up, and for travel (but I’ve replaced that with a manual burr grinder).  Coffee is a passion of mine, so I want to make the most out of it!

  • LKM

    I have a clever coffee dripper and it makes the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. And thats coming from a french press/aeropress. 

  • Chuckie

    You give short shrift to stovetop espresso but I love the stuff.

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Hi Chuckie,

      We like stovetop and it’s how the majority of Italians have their coffee. I grew up on stovetop espresso (literally had a bit of it in my morning “Italian” cereal with hot milk and twice baked bread).

      The issue is that stovetop espresso is not real espresso, this doesn’t disqualify the substance as being bad, it’s just a different type of coffee.

      • Chuckie

        True that it’s not true espresso, but I prefer it to drip and French press.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1169830757 Jim Morgan

    As a certified Starbucks Barista, I can resolve that “paradox” you mention in your article above:

    As far as using a French Press to make coffee, which Howard Schulz correctly identifies as the best method, a Starbucks customer can order coffee brewed in a French Press.

    Starbucks uses drip urns to brew large amounts of coffee to go.

    We use espresso bar machines to brew the espresso used in our coffee beverages.

    We also, in select stores, use the Clover Machine – a semi-automated industrial “French Press” – to brew individual coffee orders because that system offers the best of several systems in one machine; coffee is brewed in a cylinder similar to the French Press, brewing is accomplished via the use of an industrial hydraulic press, filtration via an engineered permanent filter, and individual brewtimes for each roast are controlled via an onboard computer.

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Hi Jim,

      I didn’t realize customers can french press coffee at Starbucks, I’ve never seen it on the menus nor advertised (however, I don’t often go to Starbucks).

      Yes, I’ve seen the drip urns and the nice semi automatics (often made in Italy) espresso machines.

      I think Starbucks uses good equipment, good beans, and does a nice job of training its staff. My critique is really with the quality of the single and double shot espresso at Starbucks. And the lack of depth in their drip style coffee (compared to what I do at home: grind freshly roasted beans via a burr grinder and use a single cup coffee dripper via SweetMaria’s.