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Brewing coffee may seem like a common household task, but in reality, it can approach the level of art. There are so many different methods of brewing coffee and so many types of coffee that you can brew it to exactly suit your own preferences, even if they change from cup to cup.
The brewing method can make such a difference in coffee flavor that you can, by varying your brewing method and the amount of coffee and water you use, enjoy a hearty wake-me-up first thing in the morning, a mellow mid-afternoon cappuccio and a smooth, strong shot of espresso in the evening — all from the same beans and the same roast. Coffee brewed in a stovetop espresso maker — a moka pot — will taste very different from coffee brewed in an automatic drip coffee maker which will taste very different from the same coffee made in an espresso machine.
Brew method is only one of the many factors that affect the flavor of your coffee. They include the type of coffee you select, the roast level of your coffee, the water you use and the fineness of the grind. With all of those variables, it’s no wonder that brewing the perfect cup of coffee sometimes seems an elusive pursuit akin to hunting the Holy Grail.
No matter how you choose to brew your coffee and what type of coffee you choose to brew, there are some basic guidelines that apply across all brewing methods. Whether you brew in a drip coffee maker, a percolator, an espresso machine or a stovetop moka pot, these guidelines will ensure that your coffee is always the very finest.
How to Brew Coffee
Cleanliness is next to coffee heaven. Coffee oils build up on everything they touch, and will quickly go rancid, affecting the flavor of your coffee. Whether you use a coffee dripper, an ADC coffee pot or an espresso maker, thoroughly clean your coffee equipment after each use by rinsing it with hot water and drying it thoroughly. Check for coffee grounds and sludge that may build up on the shower head of an automatic drip coffee maker or the group head of your espresso machine, and rinse the filter basket with hot water after each use. Squeaky clean coffee equipment makes better tasting coffee.
Freshly roasted coffee is essential to making delicious coffee. If you can, purchase your coffee directly from a roaster that ships coffee as soon after roasting as possible, or look for a roasting date on coffee packaging at the store. Most coffee experts recommend brewing coffee between 2 and 7 days after roasting for the best flavor profile.
Because coffee tastes best when it is freshly roasted, only buy as much coffee as you’ll use up in 1 to 2 weeks. If you buy more — for example, if there’s a bargain that you just can’t pass up — you can repackage the coffee beans in jars that hold about a week’s worth of coffee and store them in the freezer. Once you’ve removed a jar of coffee from the freezer, do not refreeze it — use it up.
The one single bit of advice nearly every coffee expert will give you, regardless of brew method or type of coffee, is to grind whole beans immediately before brewing your coffee. That one single thing will make an amazing difference in your coffee flavor. The flavor of whole roasted coffee beans depreciates within a week or so. The flavor of ground coffee starts depreciating noticeably within fifteen minutes after grinding!
Blade grinders — also called choppers — are better than nothing, but a burr or mill grinder is the preferred method of grinding coffee for anyone who truly loves good coffee. A blade grinder chops up the beans unevenly, making it almost impossible to get the uniform coffee grain size needed to make excellent coffee every time. If you can only make one investment in your coffee equipment, invest in a high-quality burr grinder that allows you to set the fineness of the grind for each pot or cup of coffee that you brew.
Coffee Grind Size
The fineness of your coffee grind is essential to proper extraction of coffee. Coffee that is ground too finely for your brewing method may end up over-extracted and bitter. Coffee that is ground too coarsely for your brewing method can be underextracted, weak and flat. If you’re having your coffee ground at a shop or by the roaster, choose the right grind for the method that you’ll be using to brew coffee. You’ll find many resources that tell you how fine your coffee should be ground for the various methods of brewing. If you’re not sure, tell the roaster what method of brewing you prefer and let him choose the best grind.
And it goes without saying that you should never reuse your coffee grounds. All of the good coffee flavors are extracted on the first brewing. All that’s left behind is the bitter, acrid flavors.
There are only two ingredients in coffee — ground coffee and water — so it goes without saying that the better your water tastes, the better your coffee will taste. If you’re using tap water, let the tap run for a few seconds before filling your coffee pot. That will get rid of any water that has been standing in the pipes and ensures that you’re using fresh water.
If your tap water has a strong flavor or odor, use filtered or bottled water — not distilled or softened water. Or choose a coffee maker that inlcudes an integrated coffee filter to filter your water before the brew process.
Ratio of Coffee to Water
The general guideline for brewing coffee is to use 1 to 2 tablespoons of coffee for every six ounces of water, and an extra scoop “for the pot”. If you like your coffee strong and bold, use a little more coffee. If you like less coffee flavor, use a little less. If your coffee maker includes instructions, follow them the first few times you brew, then adjust the ratio of coffee to water to get your ideal flavor profile.
The ideal temperature for brewing coffee is 195-205 degrees F, the temperature that results in optimal coffee extraction. Colder water makes under-extracted coffee that is weak and flavorless, while hotter water can overextract coffee, drawing out more of the bitter flavor oils. Many inexpensive drip coffee makers do a poor job of regulating water temperature or don’t heat the water high enough to extract coffee properly. Choose a high quality coffee maker for best results.
If you’re brewing hand-poured drip coffee or using another manual coffee brewing method, let the water just come to a full boil, then remove it from the heat and let it rest for about a minute to cool a few degrees before pouring it over the coffee.
Another important factor in brewing perfect coffee is the amount of time the coffee is in contact with the water. Ideally, in an automatic drip coffee maker, the brewing time should be about 5 minutes. In a plunger pot, the grounds should be immersed in hot water for 2-4 minutes, depending on your flavor preference. For espresso, the ideal time is 21-25 seconds. Too short a brewing time will result in underextracted coffee — too weak — while too long a brewing time will result in overextracted coffee — bitter and sharp.
The most common way to affect the brewing time for your coffee is to fine-tune the grind and the compression of the grounds. If water is taking too long to go through a drip filter basket, try using a coarser grind setting. If it is running through the coffee too quickly, use a finer grind setting or lightly tap the filter basket to settle the grounds more closely together. With espresso, use a finer grind and/or tamp more firmly to compress the coffee grounds before brewing.
Enjoy Your Coffee!
A warmed coffee mug or coffee cup will help maintain the temperature of your coffee at optimal drinking temp. The flavor of brewed coffee starts to change almost immediately, so pour and serve as soon as possible. If you’re making coffee to serve seconds later, brew it into a themal coffee pot and keep it covered. Drink up within the next 45 minutes for the best-tasting coffee. Never leave brewed coffee on a warmer plate or electric burner for longer than 15 minutes. It will “cook” the coffee, resulting in a burned, flat, bitter tate.
Don’t do it. It won’t poison you, but you won’t like the results.
Savor the Flavor
Take the time to truly enjoy your coffee and notice the nuances of the flavor. Inhale the aroma — smell is one of the major components of taste, after all. Take the first sip and let it sit in your mouth for a few seconds so that the coffee touches all of your taste buds. You’ll notice flavors you never imagined in coffee — chocolate notes, fruity tones, woody flavors and more. Every cup of coffee will have particular nuances and signature notes, just as you find in a fine wine.