Brewing and Storage

The Most Important Step - Grinding Your Coffee

The process of grinding coffee correctly is the most important single step in any form of coffee preparation - and ideally, this will be done just before brewing.  If you don't have access to a grinder and need to grind it at the store, we'll provide some suggestions at the end of this section for how to get the best results.

A good coffee grinder will  allow you to control the degree of fineness of the ground coffee - effectively the particle size of the grind.  This is important because the fineness or coarseness of the grind needs to match up with the brewing method used and the amount of time this method exposes the particles of coffee to hot water.

At the upper end of the spectrum, a very coarse grind is used for a French Press, because here, the coffee sits in the water for 4-5 minutes, and a smaller particle size would cause the coffee to overextract and bring bitter flavors into the cup.  A medium grind, used for drip methods, is used because the water sits in the filter for a short time before passing through the bed of coffee into the cup or pot.  And, with espresso a fine (and uniform) particle size is best because the pressurized water spends just 25-30 seconds in contact with the coffee.

To grind coffee at home with this degree of control, you'll need to spend $100 or more on a decent burr grinder with machined steel burrs.  The "burr grinders" below this price point have stamped burrs that dull very quickly, and they are not good long term investments.  Visit the CoffeeGeek consumer reviews to see how others evaluate different grinders.

If you have a blade grinder at home, experiment with pulsing the grinder in short bursts and then opening it to see the grind size - the thing to avoid here is pulverizing the coffee, and this experiment will help you tune your grind to the right degree of fineness for your preferred brewing method.

If you pre-grind your coffee, remember that air is the enemy and that your coffee will begin to stale as soon as it is ground.  If the ground coffee is repeatedly exposed to the air, it will get more and more stale - and if it takes you a few weeks to drink that coffee, most of the nice flavors will have left the building by the time you are done.  So, if you have to pregrind and the coffee will take some time to brew, consider dividing the ground coffee into ziplock bags and store these in the freezer until you are ready to brew.

Buying and Storing

The experience of preparing fresh coffee at home is the byproduct of three important steps - a good purchase decision, the way you store your coffee and the proper execution of the grinding/preparation methods you use.  We'll deal here with the first two. 

When you buy coffee, it is hard to tell when the coffee was roasted unless your roaster puts the roasting date on their package.  Many roasters use the crypic "Julian Calendar" (a sequential rendering of the monthly date) to show the roast date, and these codes (June 1 is, for example, "153") are more to help the grocer than to help you.  Since the roasting date is a very important determinant of coffee freshness, we recommend you do business with small roasters (like Freeport Coffee Roasting) who show the roast date on their packages. 

We and others use good quality laminate packaging with one-way valves that permit coffee to be packaged just after roasting, but the further your coffee is from the roast date, the faster it will stale after it is opened.

A dirty little secret of the coffee industry is that coffee that is not packaged in valve bags must be "staled" prior to packaging, or else the bags will literally burst from the CO2 the coffee emits for several days after roasting.

Buying coffee from bulk bins is a gamble - and unless the bins are in a roaster's shop, you don't have a way of knowing anything about when the coffee was roasted.  Worst of all are stores using these that don't turn over a lot of coffee - the air space in the bins helps the coffee go stale quickly, and though this seems like a way to buy "Fresh Coffee!", it too often isn't.  Look for a good quality bag with a valve and a roasted date.

From the store to your cup, the coffee is your reponsibility, and the way you store the coffee has a lot to do with the quality of your cup.

We very strongly recommend buying the coffee in whole bean form and then grinding only the amount you need just before brewing.  Grinding coffee at the store greatly hastens the staling process and any air is exposed to the very heart of the beans.  And buying pre-ground coffee is just a bad idea. 

If you will drink your (whole bean) coffee within a week, either keep it in the bag (assuming it came in a good bag), close the bag in a way that removes as much air as possible and seal it tightly.  An alternative is to store your coffee in a good-quality airtight container (mason jars work great if kept in a dark place).

If it will take more than a week to drink your coffee, we suggest freezing rather than keeping the coffee in the refrigerator.  The condensation properties of the fridge will flush your coffee with moisture every time you open it, and the combination of moisture and air will speed up the staling process.  To freeze, use a good quality freezer bag and place the bag deep in the freezer where the temperature will stay consistent.

And did we mention using a good grinder? :)                                                                 

French Press

For its simplicity, the French Press is a wonderful tool.  The brewing choice of many coffee professionals, a good press pot costs under $30, and used properly (with a good grinder, of course) it produces a clean, accurate brew at whatever strength you prefer.

When you buy a press pot, get a good one made of glass (not plastic) and with a metal filter (again, not plastic).  We recommend the well-established Bodum Chambord.

Note that the size ratings of French Press pots are based on four-ounce cups, so the “8 Cup” model of the Chambord will yield more like three of the larger cups most of us use.

To use, grind your coffee coarse, as the larger particles are exposed to the water for a long time, and a finer grind will overextract the coffee and clog the filter screen.  Use 5-6 grams of coffee for each “cup” of the rated capacity (and adjust to your preference).  Then, give the water about thirty seconds to cool after you boil it, then pour over the grounds to completely saturate them.

Set your timer for four minutes. After about 20 seconds, stir the coffee, and you will notice that the foamy “bloom” at the top of the pot will shrink by a good amount.  Add a bit more water to bring the level up to about 3/4" below the top of the pot, and then push the plunger down so that it is about half an inch below the top of the liquid (this makes sure all the grounds are in contact with the water). 

When your timer goes off, slowly press the plunger all the way to the bottom of the pot and serve.  If you need to keep the coffee warm for a while, decant it into a thermal carafe.  And, leave the last half-inch or so in the pot, as this will have picked up some sediment you don’t want in your cup. 

The common problems with French Presses (and the reason some people have given up on them) include grinding too fine (as mentioned above), plunging too soon (the coffee won’t extract enough and tastes weak) and plunging too fast (a big mess).

Espresso

A sad irony of the wonder of espresso is that the word "espresso" and its kin (cappucino, latte, etc.) are the most misused terms in all of coffee.  "Real Latte!" screams the sign from the doughnut store window.  "Instant espresso" and "[insert romantic phrase] Instant Capuccino" line the shelves of our stores.  Electric "espresso machines" are available for under $30 online and people ask for "espresso beans" or "espresso roast" when they buy their coffee.  Lies, all lies. 

Espresso coffee is the result of a brewing method in which hot water is forced under high pressure through a tightly packed bed of finely-ground coffee.  Espresso blends (often mislabeled espresso beans) are sets of coffees that, when combined, taste good when extracted by this method and that generate the distinctive "crema" for which espresso is famous.

So, there are a lot of variables at play here - water temperature, a good fresh, espresso blend, water quality, pressure, degree of grind and the practiced hand of the barista tamping the coffee into the portafilter with just the right amount of strength.  There are even more variables at play when steamed milk is introduced - the steam pressure, the steaming technique, the quality of the milk and the temperature of the milk, among others.

Did we scare you away yet?  I hope not.  We just want you to know that, to produce a beverage that tastes reasonably like good espresso, you'll need to invest some time and a little money.  But not a lot. 

Other than starting with decent coffee, the most important element in any coffee preparation method is the grind, and to ensure a good consistent grind at any degree of fineness or coarseness, you need a good grinder - one costing more than $100.  Avoid the cheap "burr grinders" priced well under $100 - these have stamped burrs that dull very quickly, and for espresso, you won't get the nice, consistent grind you need to resist the flow of hot, pressurized water and therefore do a nice job extracting the coffee.

Once you get past the grinder, you have some decisions to make - and a need to do some research.  If you like the "set it and forget it" approach, you'll want an automatic machine that grinds the coffee for you, tamps it and produces shots of equal volume each time - and maybe one that adds the feature of steaming the milk.  And, at the other end of the spectrum, you could invest near the amount you paid for your first car in an all-manual, plumbed in, Italian made, chrome plated beauty that requires you to learn the techniques of a barista to get optimum results.

Is there a difference in the result?  Absolutely.  Is it an easy question to answer?  Nope - not at all.

If you are an espresso person (and we know some are and some aren't), the best thing to do is to do some reading of the opinions and experiences of other people just like you. We recommend starting with the Home Barista How To's section, which will give you a crash course in everything you always wanted to know about espresso. Then, move on to the  CoffeeGeek Consumer Reviews, all posted by regular people, and reading there about what people have to say about grinders and espresso machines with different levels of features, quality and cost.  A hint for you here is to look for the equipment with the highest number of reviews and the reviews that go the farthest back in time - this gets you to the time-tried machines that haven't changed much because they didn't need to.  Alongside each review, you'll find links to online vendors that supply this gear - and, unless you live in a big city and are fortunate enough to have a local supplier of good coffee equipment, these are the best places to buy.

Enjoy.

Automatic Drip

In the early 1970s, the introduction of the automatic drip coffeemaker rescued American consumers from the bitter, overcooked brew coming from their stovetop and electric percolators. Drip coffee gave most people their first taste of properly prepared coffee, and this method remains the most popular way of preparing coffee in the U.S. 

In its simplest form, drip brewing can be as easy as making a cone from a paper towel and using it as an ersatz filter in a common funnel – and at the other end of the spectrum are the fancy, temperature-controlled Technivorum and the traditional diner brewers with the big glass pots.

Drip coffee is all about convenience.  Timers allow harried homeowners a way to load the basket the night before and have freshly-prepared coffee waiting in the wee hours when they wake up the next day.  The large capacity allows a lot of coffee to be made quickly and easily.  And, the built-in burner will keep whatever is in the pot warm for hours. 

But, this convenience comes at a price.  Coffee that sits out all night goes stale – and we all know just how bad coffee can smell or taste when it is abandoned to sit out all day on a hot burner.  Read on, and we’ll help you out of this problem.  

Grinding: If your grinder has settings, pick one in the middle and then adjust the grind to suit your taste; finer for a stronger brew and more coarse if the coffee is too strong.  If you grind at the store, you’ll find a setting for drip brewing – and sometimes, they may give you options for a conical or flat bottom filter shape.  The hard part of grinding comes if you have a blade grinder.  We recommend you pulse the grinder and pay attention to the size of the grind rather than holding down the power and letting it fly (this results in nothing but powder and an over-extracted, bitter brew).

Use:  The basic operating instructions are those that came with your machine, but we offer a few tips for getting the best results.  First, use good filtered or spring water if you can – many municipal water supplies are treated with chlorine, and this taste can permeate your coffee. Next (though this may slow you up in the morning), add the coffee to basket right before you brew, and if you can’t grind it fresh, store your coffee in a tightly sealed bag in the freezer until you are ready to use it.  And finally, remove the coffee from the burner right when you finish brewing – the heat causes chemical changes in the coffee that make it more and more bitter as the day goes on.  Store the coffee in a thermal carafe to keep it warm if you have someone getting up after you who likes good coffee.

Cleaning:  For an easy and inexpensive way to clean your drip brewer, make a solution of two parts water and one part white vinegar and  run a brewing cycle with it (sans coffee, of course).  After the mixture runs through the machine, turn the brewer off and let the vinegar/water mix sit in the pot for an hour to help soak off any staining in the pot.  Then, wash the pot with soap and hot water and run two cycles of plain water through the brewer to rinse the vinegar away.

Moka Pot (aka Stovetop Espresso Maker)

The moka pot (often called a stovetop espresso maker) is a great brewing method for those who like their coffee strong and rich.  The coffee is not really espresso in the truest sense, but if you need an inexpensive way of producing a thick and concentrated cup, this may be for you.

For $30-$40, you can buy a beautiful, classically designed stainless steel moka pot that will look great on your stove and that gets more beautiful with age. We recommend that you avoid the low cost aluminum models, as these leave a distinctly metallic flavor in your cup.  Note that moka pots are sold with capacities listed as as two, four and six cup, but these refer to Italian demitasse cups, not the large mugs favored by Americans.

We suggest that, at the time you buy your moka pot, also get a couple of the gaskets that help seal the chambers together.  If you use your pot every day, you’ll want to replace these about once a year, and they can be hard to find.

Grinding:  Use a fine grind, but don’t go as fine as you would with espresso, as you may clog the holes in the filter basket and develop sediment in the cup.

Use:  As always, you’ll want to start with good water – filtered, from a spring or bottled. 

Begin by filling the lower chamber with water up to just below the brass pressure relief valve. 

Then, drop in the filter basket, fill with your fine ground coffee and then level the grounds with your finger or a knife.  DON’T tamp the grounds as you would in an espresso machine.  The coffee will expand as the steam passes through it, and too many grounds will prevent the steam from moving through them.

Attach the top chamber, making sure that the threads turn smoothly.

Place the pot on your stove and turn the heat to medium high.  Too much heat for this method results in a bitter brew!

After about five minutes, you’ll hear a wonderful gurgling sound that signifies you’re your coffee is done.  Remove the pot from the burner (especially important with electric stoves) and serve right away.

Cleaning:  One problem we’ve always had is brewing the moka pot just before running off to work – leaving the tightly compacted grounds sitting there all day.  As soon as the pot cools, separate the parts and clean the grounds off the underside of the top chamber. Remove the gasket and filter screen every few uses, and if you have especially hard water, you can use vinegar to remove any deposits.