Before I owned a coffee shop, I struggled at home to make delicious coffee. It wasn’t until I was at a coffee shop everyday trying new things and reading about best practices that I realized some very simple tips to making your coffee at home taste better. It doesn’t matter how you are making your coffee (Chemex, Pour Over, French Press) there are a few tricks that work for everything.
There are a lot of posts out there that target the gear nerds, this isn’t one of them. This is just for the people who already have some kind of coffee maker at home and are looking to make a few easy tweaks for better coffee. It isn’t fool proof mind you, but with a little practice and some thoughtful techniques you can really up your home coffee game without dropping a bunch of cash on new equipment.
First, grab a small notebook and a pen. At the top write a row of all your parameters. (Coffee, Roast Date, Method, temperature, dose, time, taste) Then on each row underneath write down all the tweaks you make as you try to find your favorite combination. Keep this notebook and pen some place close so you can write down new info and observations as you make coffee each day (or just Sunday mornings).
Quality Water: Since most of your cup of coffee is actually just water, using high quality purified water is a must. Especially if you live down river from the rest of the US – looking at you Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. We’ve seen the Mississippi and it. is. not. pretty. and neither are all those boil water advisories.
Roast Date: Coffee is a fruit and it should be treated as something that will expire. It is possible to use coffee that is too old. Coffee should be delicious, not something that you have to cover up with a ton of sugar and milk and gulp as fast as you can. Coffee is a wonderful ritual that is made up of the talents of experienced farmers, roasters, and baristas.
If possible don’t purchase pre-ground coffee in big tins at the grocery store. (or at the grocery store at all for that matter.) And don’t put that tin or bag in the freezer to hold on to it longer. Hop on over to your favorite coffee shop, they probably can sell you some beans and grind them for you if you aren’t ready to invest in a grinder at home. Buy a smaller amount of coffee if you are having them grind it for you.
Most coffee shops are individually owned and those little shops invest in our communities with jobs and culture. They also spend a lot of time on finding great beans for you and hold a lot of knowledge. Support your local coffee shop!
Method: Just because you don’t have a huge espresso machine doesn’t mean you can’t make great coffee at home. You can usually pick up different slow brew devices at consignment or thrift shops. I’ve found several small Chemexes, Percolators and french presses around town for $2 or $3 a piece. Also, many coffee shops around town sell these smaller pieces of equipment.
Slow brew machines where you manually brew each cup (or a couple cups by pouring water yourself on the grounds) allow for better control over the temperature of the water than something you plug in like a Mr. Coffee. Once you get into a machine having control over the stability of the temperature, it needs to be a machine that you have put some money into in order to guarantee a good cup of coffee. Basically, I’m advocating for pour over methods at home here. Your Mr. Coffee just isn’t going to get you delicious coffee, but you probably already knew that.
Below are three inexpensive methods that are consistent and delicious. (1) Chemex (2) Stove Top Mocca Pot (3) Hario V60
Temperature: Speaking of temperature . . . You want your water to get hot, but under the boiling point, 190 to 205 degrees is a good range. You should experiment (get that notebook out!) to find the best temperature with your beans. Most kettles have a place to fit a thermometer. Different temperatures are going to be more satisfying or less satisfying depending on the coffee and the method that you are using. Finding the right temperature is one of the important parameters that is going to help make sure you coffee is evenly extracted. Even extraction will help you taste all those wonderful notes the coffee farmer and roaster spent so much time thinking about when growing and taking care of the coffee plants.
You don’t want to burn the grinds and you don’t want luke warm water hitting the grinds. You want a steady controlled temperature that doesn’t over or under extract.
Dose: Total amount of coffee per cup is called your dose. It will change according to the origin of the coffee, the roast, the number of days off roast, and the brew method. Keeping track of this number is especially helpful.
I always start with 25 grams of coffee grinds per 12 oz cup and then modify as necessary. Generally speaking, the closer to roast date the lower the dose should be and the farther away from roast date the higher the dose should be. If your coffee taste bitter and thick, that means you have too many grinds or the grind is too fine, but start at making your dose smaller next time. If that doesn’t help, have your beans ground coarser. If your coffee is sour and weak, there probably isn’t enough coffee or the grind is too coarse and you should put more coffee per cup next time. If changing the dose still doesn’t help, make the ground finer next time.
Grind: Having a grinder at your house will allow you to make a better cup of coffee, but you can always hop over to your favorite coffee shop and ask them to grind the beans when you purchase them. There are precise grind levels that help make coffee more delicious. Your barista can help make the right decision when you purchase the beans. For reference, French Press should have coarser grinds and Percolators (stove top) will have finer grinds. When beans are ground coarse they allow the water to go through them faster and when beans are ground fine they create a bigger barrier for the water to get through.
These are some of the parameters that you can tweak to make your coffee at home even better. Start experimenting. Get your notebook out and change up the parameters one at a time. See what happens when you put too much coffee and then when you put too little. Understanding what is happening when things are going wrong helps you problem solve quicker in the future. The weather also matters. Coffee is going to react differently in the summer and in the winter, especially on the Gulf Coast. So when you’ve been making a great cup of coffee all Spring and then the first wave of humidity rolls through and nothing works like it was, go back to your little notebook and see if there is something you can tweak to make it better.