It’s such a wonderful guilty pleasure, coffee: it’s fragrant, delicious, and comforting. It can be warming or cooling, depending on your taste and the season. It comes in hundreds of different varieties and there are dozens of different ways you can make it. No two people are likely to agree completely on the best method of brewing coffee.
How to make coffee – a whistle-stop tour
At the risk of teaching grandmothers to suck eggs, the three essentials for the very best tasting coffee are: coffee from good beans; the clearest, freshest water possible at the correct temperature; and a nice drinking vessel. We’ll come back to that last point later – yes, the cup you use really can make a difference to the taste.
Even if it’s instant coffee you’re using, it will have started life as one of two varieties of coffee bean: Robusta or Arabica. Arabica beans give us a milder, rounder flavor, while Robusta, as its name suggests, has a much stronger taste. Once you’ve tasted real coffee, of course, going back to instant can be very, very hard – so we’re assuming you’ll be using real coffee.
It’s all in the beans – what to look for in coffee
Look for merchants who store their stock in cool, dry conditions, with as little light on the containers as possible. Check out the country of origin, the roast – lighter roasts are much less bitter and more palatable; and look at the age of the coffee, as coffee beans lose flavor as they age. One way around this is to store coffee in an airtight container in the freezer. Yes, we really did say in the freezer.
How to grind coffee beans
Most grinders are what are known as burr grinders, using two pieces of metal with teeth to grind the beans until they are small enough to fall through the gap although you do occasionally come across blade grinders.
Some coffee machines have integral grinders, or you can buy small stand-alone grinding machines powered by batteries or running off the mains. Or, of course, you can choose to purchase your coffee beans ready ground. Many coffee merchants will be happy to do this for you, free of cost as part of their service.
You get the best of both worlds, and they get a happy customer who’s likely to return. Ideally, you should brew up your coffee as soon as you possibly can once the beans have been ground.
It’s important that you decide whether you want finely ground beans or more coarsely ground coffee and this may depend on what you’re actually using to brew coffee. In general, if you’re using a pour-over or flow-through method, the finer the coffee, the slower the brew time. You can reduce the amount of coffee, of course, but bear in mind this will have an effect on the brew time.
The best way to brew coffee
So you’ve chosen your beans and they’re safely ground, sitting next to you in their shiny packet. And you’re resisting the urge to open the packet and inhale the aroma. (I don’t know about you, but I just love the smell of freshly ground coffee.)
The next thing you need to make sure of, for the best tasting coffee possible, is that the water you’re using is fresh and clear. Many of us live in hard water areas, and if that applies to you it’s even more important to make sure your water is filtered well or even bottled.
Since coffee is a very acidic substance, the chemistry of your water will make a difference to the taste. Soft water may increase the acid taste, while hard water often produces cups of coffee without much taste and with a slightly “chalky” undertone.
Coffee to water ratios
Of course, everyone has their own preference here and it really depends on the coffee you’re brewing. Some prefer the dark strength of a double espresso; others the milky expanse of a latte or the fun and froth of a cappuccino. (It doesn’t seem that long ago that a cappuccino was truly exotic.)
Believe it or not, though, there are actually ratios for the optimum coffee to water ratio. The “golden ratio” is around 1 unit of coffee to 18 units of water. MIT chemistry professors even conducted research into the matter back in the 1950s. (Coffee brewing is a serious business, after all, and academics really love coffee, so it sounds like it was something of a research match made in heaven!)
The temperature of the water is pretty important too – for most people, coffee is at its best somewhere between 50 degrees Centigrade and 80 degrees Centigrade, with recent research showing 70 as the “sweet spot”, seemingly, at least when it came to intensity of flavor for brewed coffee. If you’ve ever used boiling water by mistake you’ll know it can scorch coffee and literally burn the beans.
How to make coffee with a coffee maker
The wonderful thing about technology in its best form is that it exists to make our lives easier, and there is such an amazing range of coffee makers out there now that you’re bound to find one that will suit you.
If you have a coffee maker, the technology will do a lot of the work for you when it comes to blending strengths, water ratios, and other variables. If you own one of the newer styles of single-serve coffee machines, you’ll probably be limited to the drinks you can brew without damaging the coffee maker, unless you’ve purchased one of the machines with a reusable filter option.
How to make coffee without a coffee maker
Without a coffee maker, your other main coffee brewing options are Aeropress, batch brew (sometimes called regular drip), French press, the pour-over method, siphon, or the relatively similar Arabic and Turkish approaches, both of which involve boiling the coffee over a heat source and leaving the grounds in the brewing cup or pan. In Turkish coffee, the beans have also been re-roasted.
There are also some very specialized options, like the Chemex that actually features in one of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art or the slightly more common Moka stovetop espresso maker gadget. The last will be ideal for you if you’re a fan of the seriously dark stuff but don’t drink it often enough to merit investing in an espresso machine.
They’re all cheaper options in terms of money than buying a coffee machine; however, they all require a little more time and involve a little more work than using a dedicated coffee maker. We’re going to look at a couple of the most popular in a little more detail.
French press vs drip
If you’re using a French press, then the assumption is that you’re going to drink the coffee immediately once it’s ready. With a French press, you add the coffee grounds and the water, and once you’re ready to pour and drink your beverage, you push the center lever down into the mixture. The grounds are separated from the water and you’re good to go!
In general, the French press method will produce a stronger brew than the regular drip equipment, and medium or coarse ground coffee beans will produce the best results. Around 90 seconds to 4 minutes will be just right – obviously the longer you leave the coffee before plunging the lever downwards, the stronger the brew. You don’t need filters for this method of producing brewed coffee.
The French press has a long history – it’s over a hundred years since it was first patented and the design hasn’t changed much.
Make sure you have your coffee, water, filter paper, and receptacle all ready to go. Insert the filter, add the coffee grounds to taste, position carafe or cup you’re using as appropriate, and pour the water over the coffee.
Some schools of thought suggest 1 unit of coffee per cup to two units of water; those who prefer a milder taste will find 1 unit of coffee to three units of water more to their liking. You usually use cold water, which is gently heated as it passes through the filter and the coffee.
You can also sometimes get filters or cones which allow you to use the regular drip method to brew coffee directly into a cup or mug.
For most of the methods of making coffee without a coffee maker, you’re going to need filters of some description to allow the water to slowly percolate through the coffee grounds, gently extracting the flavor. If you like very strong coffee, then a French press is probably a good option for you. If your palate tolerates milder flavors better, then the pour over method will be a better match.
Whatever machinery you’re using, keeping it clean and well-maintained is essential if you want to enjoy really good coffee.
The finer details – why cups are important
You know those clichés about drinking tea out of bone china cups and warming the pot beforehand? Well, cups are just as important when it comes to drinking coffee. If you’ve ever made the perfect cup of coffee and then poured it into a travel mug or a flask you know what a difference it makes. And the same drink from your local coffee shop tastes different if it’s in a takeaway paper cup or a pottery “drink in” vessel.
Coffee also tastes pretty good from a heat-reinforced glass cup, we’ve found – those lovely milky lattes just don’t taste the same if they’re not in one of those pretty cone-shaped glasses. There’s also the fact that if your coffee is served in an open cup you can smell it – and smell actually accounts for a lot of the enjoyment we get out of food and drink. Turns out we really do wake up and smell the coffee…
It’s that whole chemistry thing. Simply put, ceramic or china cups are utterly neutral. They don’t have any flavor of their own, unlike plastic or metal, or some of the recycled materials. So your coffee tastes different in ceramic cups as it isn’t reacting with anything. The true flavor comes through. And believe it or not, some science shows that the color of the mug or cup and even the size can affect things too.
The best ground coffee – the verdict
What you think of as the best ground coffee for you is down to personal taste – that’s quite before we start looking at what you can add to your beverage, like sugar, or syrup, or all the different kinds of milk now on the market.
Whatever coffee brew technology you choose (yes, make no mistake, even the French press is actually technology), you’re going to need good coffee beans, the purest water you can lay your hands on, a heat source, and something to put the coffee in while you drink it.
And all of this is just relating to hot coffee. Iced coffee is a whole different ball-game, as the saying goes…
Hi my name is Larry, a coffee aficionado and passionate traveler from the US. I have already visited Colombia, Sumatra, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Jamaica in my pursuit of finding the best-tasting coffee beans that make you feel like you are in heaven. I currently write from Bali and enjoy the relaxed life that you can find only in Indonesia. Welcome to my coffee world!