How to make better coffee

Frequently I get asked how to make better coffee. Referring back to our post on why coffee tastes like it does, I thought it would be useful to think about every step of the brewing process and how they impact drink quality. The below is a summary. If you want more detail, email us any time.

Step 1 - The Beans: Get better, fresher ones

You want whole beans that are from a good origin, sent to a good roaster, the right roast and a fresh roast.

  • Better origin: You will get to know what you like. Some say they like Ethiopian coffee. Some people have a vague feeling that Colombian coffee is the best. But both places can produce coffee from eye-poppingly good all the way to undrinkable. Wherever your coffee is from, you should know: Is it a reputable farm? Is the crop a good crop? Is the origin generally known for producing good coffees? Is there a grade associated with the coffee (like 'AA'), or a tasting score (like 90+)? Shortcut: A lot of the cues you'll take come from the roaster - if it's from a good roaster, it's likely to be from a good origin.
  • Good roaster: Start with brand names - Stumptown, Heart, RitualMarket Lane, Small BatchSquare Mile, Seven Seeds, Five and a few others. Anything you get from these roasters is almost guaranteed to be specialty grade, high quality. Once you've tried a few you'll get to know which ones are best. Note: Despite claims, there is no way of storing coffee that preserves flavour. Ignore Illy and Nespresso's marketing gimmicks. They don't work. Buy fresh.
  • The right roast: As a rule of thumb, you want a light roast for filter/pour-over and a darker roast for espresso. This is not always the case, and lighter roasts can be used in espresso with the right equipment, but it's unlikely that the beginning home barista has this equipment (it costs over $5,000 all in.)
  • A fresh roast: For starters, if there is no roast date on the package, it's almost definitely stale. (No, a use-by date is no substitute). Try to buy coffee roasted no longer than a week ago. Within four weeks, coffee has lost significant flavour and can even have gone rancid. The average drinker will finish a 250g or 1/2lb bag within about 2 weeks or less, brewing one cup a day.

If you've followed the above, you've laid the foundations. In fact, from here on I'd just say 'don't muck it up' and you're home free.

Step 2 - The Grind: Fresh, with a better grinder

You'll notice above I said 'whole beans'. Why? Coffee goes stale (loses flavour) within minutes of being ground. The flavour just dissipates into the air. Many taste tests have confirmed this. The grinder also matters. A burr grinder is the minimum, and the more even the grind the better. You want:

  • Your own burr grinder: Don't settle for less than a hand-operated burr grinder, which can start as low as $25 for something I'd call 'barely adequate' (the Hario Mini Mill). These are only adequate as while they don't cook the beans (more on that in a second), they produce many chunks and fines (more on that below too). Better choices are the OE Lido 2 ($175) or the Baratza Vario ($450). Don't use a blade grinder. These produce chunks and fines, and because of the amount of work they put through the coffee, they heat it and pre-cook it, destroying delicate flavour compounds.
  • A fresh grind: Grind every time you're making coffee. Don't let the grinds sit more than a few minutes. In other words boil the water, prepare the equipment, then grind the coffee and brew.
  • An even grind: The uniformity of particle size is of paramount importance in the quality of your brew. That's a mouthful. What it means is that if you have fines, grounds and chunks, then only the grounds will extract correctly. The fines will produce bitter coffee, and the chunks will produce sour coffee. Here's an analogy: Imagine you're making a stir fry where your chunks of meat or vegetables are all of random sizes. The small ones will be overcooked, the large ones will be undercooked and the medium sized ones will be OK. Is it all 'OK' on average? Of course it isn't.

From here on in it's all almost mechanical. You're well on your way to an amazing cup of coffee!

Step 3 - The Brew: Brew it with better equipment and a better recipe

There are many ways of doing this. The key is to keep it simple, and follow a recipe.

  • Use better equipment: Stop making do with the $200 espresso machine. It's not 'good enough'. Get something simple, dependable and versatile: Try an Aeropress, a Clever Coffee Dripper, a Hario V60 or a Chemex. These are all under $50 and can make amazing brews that cafes regularly charge more than $6 for, just for being so fancy.
  • Follow a better recipe: Look up the recipe from the roaster. They'll usually give you guidelines for whatever brew method you use. The general guidelines are: a ratio of 16:1 of water:coffee (or 1000ml water for 60g coffee, scaled down appropriately), water temperature of 93-96 degrees C, a grind coarseness suitable for what you're using (coarse for Clever Dripper, fine-ish for Aeropress etc.), and a target brew time of somewhere between one and four minutes. Anywhere in these parameters is likely to make something drinkable with the above steps followed, but you can improve dramatically if you keep practicing.
  • Have a better scientific process: Learn how the brew parameters affect the coffee flavour. Too bitter? Use coarser coffee, a shorter brew time or agitate it less. Too sour? Use finer grinds, a longer steep time or agitate more. Not enough punch? Try controlling the grind, or improving it. Keep notes and keep experimenting.

If you've come this far, you're almost guaranteed to be producing something that a cafe could be producing. Most of the work is done in choosing a good origin and roast. The rest, as I mention above, is not mucking it up. Enjoy, share the love and let me know how you went and anything you learned along the way that might be worth sharing.