The financial success and relentless expansion of StarBucks is clear evidence that most people don’t really know what good coffee tastes like. StarBucks has to offer so many flavored, sugary drinks because the coffee beans are over-roasted and taste like burned particle board.
There are alternatives. Most cities have quality local coffee shops where one can get fantastic coffee, often at half the price of StarBucks. But what if you want great coffee at home (or the office)?
Fortunately, the steps you need to take to improve your coffee are not that difficult. The first couple of steps, in particular, have wonderful returns for very little investment of money and effort.
Step One: Fresher Roast
Coffee is very much a perishable good, with a shelf life very similar to bread, once the beans are roasted. You should only purchase coffee that you know has been roasted recently, and buy it in small enough batches so that you can finish it in a week or two.
In many cases, you can buy coffee that has been roasted locally at your neighborhood coffee shop. The better grocery stores will also offer locally roasted coffee. If neither of these are available in your area, there are countless e-commerce stores that will ship coffee to you right after roasting.
Step Two: Burr Grinder
You are grinding your coffee right before you brew, right?
It always amazes me that people go through the cost and effort of buying quality, fresh roasted coffee, and then have it ground when and where they buy it. Ground coffee loses much of its best flavors within the first few minutes of grinding.
But don’t get one of those grinders that simply spins a couple of blades around. While those are great for grinding spices, they create inconsistent, pulverized coffee grounds. For coffee, a consistent grind is desired, and its size should match the brewing method.
Take one of those 20% off coupons you keep getting in the mail for Bed, Bath, and Beyond and go get a burr grinder. It’ll run you about $40 with the coupon.
A burr grinder crushes the beans between a moving wheel and a non-moving surface. The positioning of the wheel (or burr) controls the size of the grind, and ensures consistency. It can also be changed for different types of coffee brewing.
Step Three: Water Purity
To put it simply, the better your water tastes, the better it will be for brewing coffee. While high quality tap water will work fine, even the best city water could benefit from some basic filtering.
And, the purer your water, the less sediment it will have. Such sediment can gum up the works of more complex brewers like espresso machines.
Step Four: French Press
Now, it’s finally time to look at actual brewing methods. While there’s nothing wrong with filtered, drip coffee, you can do much better.
The first step along this path is the French press. Instead of using gravity to pull the water through the grinds, the two are mixed together in a glass vessel and allowed to steep (usually for four minutes). The grinds are then pressed down to the bottom of the vessel, and the coffee it poured off.
The result is a much fuller flavor than filtered coffee, at the cost of a bit of sediment.
French presses are wonderfully portable, requiring only ground coffee and hot water. Add a hand coffee grinder to your toolset, and you’ve got a wonderful camping solution, for even the most primitive of settings.
Step Five: Vacuum Brewer
If a French press and a chemistry set had an illicit tryst and neglected to use protection, the offspring would be a vacuum brewer.
The vacuum brewer uses heat to force water onto the grounds for the brewing time. When the heat is removed, the drop in pressure caused by the decreasing temperature pulls the coffee off the spent grounds and through a filter.
This gives you a coffee with the richness of a French press without all the sediment in the cup.
Vacuum brewers come in an incredible number of shapes and sizes. Many people get so hooked on the brewing method that they start collecting them. At any particular time, eBay probably has dozens of them for sale.
Step Six: Home Roaster
Now it’s time to take control of the roasting process. Home roasters aren’t cheap (a decent one starts at about $150), but green beans cost about half as much as roasted, so it’s an investment that can pay for itself quite quickly.
Green (unroasted) coffee is also fairly stable, lasting months or even years if properly stored.
The home roasting process is too big a topic for this blog post, but there are many fine resources on the internet. Perhaps I’ll address home roasting in detail in a later post.
In the meantime, I’ll point you towards Sweet Marias, an online store for the home roaster. They have a wide selection of high quality green beans from all over the world, as well as a great deal of equipment. The latter, however, can often be found at lower prices elsewhere.
Step Seven: Better Grinder
At this point, you should be making damn fine coffee. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that improvements from here can get expensive.
The next thing on your list is a conical burr grinder. Don’t get cheap here, or you won’t really be improving things over the circular grinder you got in Step Two.
A quality conical burr grinder will easily run you more then $300. One of my favorites, the Rancilio Rocky, is currently around $350.
However, if you aspire to coffee nirvana, a top quality grinder is critical.
Step Eight: Espresso Machine
At its best, espresso tastes like what freshly ground coffee smells like. It takes effort and skill, and practice and luck to make what we call the “God Shot”, a shot of espresso so good that only God’s providence could have created it.
Brewing espresso is another topic that’s just too big for this blog post, but for equipment, I’ll again point you at the Rancilio line. This time you want their Sylvia espresso machine, which is actually meant to be paired with the Rocky grinder.
A Rancilio Sylvia will currently set you back about six hundred dollars. It’s arguably the best espresso maker for under a grand, however.
While many people purchase their espresso maker much earlier than what I laid out above, I feel that these steps give you the best bang for your investment dollar, and recommend that you follow them on your path to better coffee.