THE PERFECT CUP
The type of brew method (French press, pour over, espresso, etc.) that you use should determine how coarse or fine your coffee grounds should be. The coarser the grind, the more space in between the coffee particles, and the faster water will pass through. The finer the grind, the less space, which will slow the flow of water. We are often asked if it is best to purchase pre-ground coffee, to have it ground at the cafe or market, or to grind it every morning. Scientifically, coffee is food. If you leave half a bag of whole beans sealed in a bag with a one-way valve and take the other half, grind it, and leave the grounds strewn across the counter for an hour, the latter will likely not smell when you return. This lack of smell correlates perfectly with loss in flavor. But who would do such a thing?
Still, I am a not-so-self-proclaimed coffee professional and I pre-grind the coffee I use at home. I do this for two reasons. At work we have a bulk commercial grinder with rather large grinding discs that produce a consistent grind size throughout the bag of coffee. Were I to grind at home, I would either have to use my hand-cranked burr grinder or my cheap blade grinder. This overlaps with my second reason for pre-grinding—life. I wake up to two young children that I care for and there are about six steps I must take for me to have a cup of brewed coffee sitting next to me. Grinding would be a seventh, and if I use the cheap blade grinder, the grind would be terribly inconsistent.
If you have and wish to spend the money, stay away from blade or spice grinders (which operate like a blender, chopping and projecting the grounds unevenly in the chamber as they are chopped like the wild West) and invest in a burr grinder. You also need counter space (which I don’t have, so this is reason three for me). Consumer burr grinders can be purchased for $50 or less, though my experience with burr grinders is exclusively in the commercial market. Look for one that has replaceable burrs so that you do have to purchase a new machine each time your burrs become dull. Typically burrs are mounted underneath the chamber that you pour coffee into. They come in a set of two, one of which remains stationary, and the other being adjustable as you turn a knob or dial. As you adjust your burrs towards the coarser setting, you are moving the adjustable burr away from the fixed burr, thereby grinder larger coffee particles. Similarly, as you adjust towards a finer grind, you move the adjustable burr closer to the fixed burr, thereby grinding finer particles.
Places like cafes or markets often have a commercial grinder in their place of business. These grinders are likely to be much more powerful than any consumer burr grinder. However, these commercial grinders are only as good as the grinding discs (burrs) inside them. If the place of business is not maintaining their grinding burrs, these discs will become dull over time. Instead of evenly grinding the coffee, these poorly-maintained machines will literally crush the coffee. This is not uncommon, and it is much worse than any damage you could do to your coffee at home. If you are having someone else grind your coffee, you can go as far as asking to see what an ounce or so of ground coffee looks like. Put the grounds on your hand and inspect for consistently-sized granules. This is not rocket-science, and if the grounds are consistently-sized, it is a good indicator that the grinder in question has sharp grinding discs.
Coffee to Water Ratio
This ratio will be the main factor in the strength of your coffee. All other factors aside, as you change this ratio, you will change the taste of the coffee in your cup. The standard coffee to water ratio is 1:15, or 1 part coffee to 15 parts water. A 12-ounce cup of coffee (340 grams) would use 22-23 grams of coffee. If you are eyeballing, check the weight of your coffee bag and picture one-ounce (28-gram) increments. A cheap food scale will help tremendously with the guessing game in contributing to many years of pleasurable coffee consumption. You can also borrow one to use a few times for improving your eyeball game. Here is a very helpful guide from The Coffee Chronicler on ratios, if you feel like geeking out. Nearly at the end is a great table with the number of scoops needed for various water volumes. Because not all scoops are created equal, the scale will help. Here is a very detailed chart with precise measurements. It takes a moment to learn how to read, or it did for me, but once you identify the number of cups (or ounces) that you brew daily, you can easily identify how much coffee to use.
Your ratio does not need to be exact. However, consistency is the key in coffee. This is one reason that places like the Green Giant have a reliable coffee flavor, whether or not it can be classified as good. Their measurements are likely very precise, every day, through the majority of their locations. They only minimally deviate from these measurements, so the customer gets what the customer expects—reliability and consistency.
If you are eyeballing all your measurements, no problem. But try to eyeball the same amount day after day. Then tweak one factor, using slightly less coffee or an extra drop of water. See how this affects taste, and over time you can tweak your brewing towards optimum without ever purchasing that scale.
Cleanliness is Godliness, especially in coffee. I often hear people knock the Green Giant for their coffee. I am not advocating skipping the local cafe for a Starbucks (do not do this, support the small business owner and their family of people, both in business and at home). But there is a reason why places like Starbucks are typically reliable, and this is cleanliness. They likely spend as much time cleaning their equipment as they do preparing coffee, and coffee can be quite dirty.
Keeping your equipment clean will ensure that you are tasting the coffee of the day and not the coffee of yesterday, or yesteryear. Materials like plastic or acrylic, which are common in home equipment, are much more likely to retain old (stale) coffee flavors and oils than glass, or even metal. It is therefore very helpful to regularly wash your equipment with soap, rather than just rinsing with water. Glass pour over receptacles or French presses will not degrade over time and are less susceptible to dirt buildup, but require more care because of their fragility (I have been called Captain Obvious).
There are endless ways to make coffee and each has its benefits and challenges. If you are in the woods or simply without, you can throw your coffee grounds straight in a pot of hot water (preferably not boiling) and steep your coffee this way. The Turkish method involves serving the grounds with the water, and while the Turkish method involves an extremely fine grind setting, this method can be used with medium-ground coffee as well. Coffee does not require a lot of money to prepare.
Pour over coffee is probably the most diverse brew method, but at its root simply means any method in which water is poured over the coffee grounds and filters through the use of gravity. Pour over contraptions can be electric (programmed to start brewing in the morning) and massive or small and manual, but the basic concept remains the same.
Grind size should be medium, in between the coarser French press and finer espresso grinds. Keep in mind that as your water is flowing (either automatically or manually), if water is getting caught up and not flowing properly, your grind is too fine. Similarly, if your water is flowing too fast, your grind is too coarse. Too fine and the coffee will be over-extracted and potentially bitter, too coarse and the coffee will be under-extracted and weak.
Place your filter in your pour over contraption and pre-wet the filter. Discard the water that you have used. If you want to go an extra step, use hot water and leave the water in your drinking cup to preheat it until you are ready to pour water over your coffee grounds. Do not forget to remove the plain water before brewing (this is something I have done that I cannot blame my children for).
Place your coffee grounds in the coffee filter. Try and create an evenly distributed bed of coffee without any divots or mounds. Pour enough hot water onto the bed to sufficiently saturate all of the coffee, trying to avoid the outer ridge of the bed. Fresh coffee should retain this first pour and begin to bloom, or gas up a bit, releasing the carbon dioxide. If there is no bloom, the coffee may not be fresh. But it’s still coffee, it’s still caffeinated, and it will still be good for you.
After about 30 seconds, slowly pour the remainder of your water in one or more pours. If you wish to economize by pouring and walking away, make sure you pour enough water for the day. A dried coffee bed does not filter through the same as one that has been freshly poured over. This is why many cafes do not offer single cups of pour over coffee, which take a lot of human attention and time. And nowadays many commercial batch or single cup electronic brewers can do as well or better at producing a cup of coffee by taking the guesswork away. Still, there is something immensely satisfying about a handmade cup of coffee.
My favorite quality of French press coffee is that it produces zero trash, aside from coffee grounds, which can be used in a variety of ways (see this article from Healthline). From a taste perspective, the French press does not filter out oils like a paper filter would. For better or worse, this produces a more oily cup of coffee. Every year I receive an email or two from a friend about the health benefits of coffee, and for every one of these articles there is another circulating about the downsides of coffee. Often the oils are blamed. I am not a nutritionist, I love coffee, and I like tasting coffee from a French press because it is a completely different drinking experience than that of drip coffee. It’s all a preference.
Preheat (or don’t) your French press with hot water and discard when you are ready to brew. Place your grounds into your press, pour about one fourth of the water you plan to use over the grounds, wait 30 seconds, and gently stir the coffee. Pour the rest of your hot water, wait three and a half minutes more, press and pour.
Espresso is a method of preparation (just like French press or drip coffee) that relies on pressure to push water through fine coffee grounds. Espresso is a world in itself, and consumers and professionals alike have pushed espresso far into the realm of fine foods, which it is. But at the core, espresso is a method of preparation that relies on pressure. Some of this pressure is only achievable with a solid espresso machine that can supply this pressure. Other factors affecting your cup of espresso (to be enjoyed straight or with steamed milk) involve coffee freshness, grind consistency and size, evenness in tamping, and water quality. Mastering the espresso shot requires fine tuning all of these variables, each of which have their own nuances. Espresso Parts has a great resource guide on all of this and more.