Everything you need to know to make great coffee.
By Emily McIntyre
Coffee was first discovered—so the story goes—when an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed his flock was jumpier than usual when they grazed in a certain patch of berries. When Kaldi tried them for himself, the foundation for one of the world’s greatest beverages was born. Since the first cup of coffee was enjoyed (and who really knows where, in the mists of legend, that happened?) it’s been a mystical and ritualized beverage.
Maybe you wake up, stumble down the stairs, flip on the Mr. Coffee, and sit over a cup while slowly letting the world settle into place around you. Perhaps you drive through a coffee chain on your way to work, then meet friends at an independent coffeehouse afterwards. You might look forward to spending each Sunday morning reading comics over a large vanilla latte.
Coffee is all about the ritual, and there are as many different rituals as there are coffee drinkers. Have you ever stirred coffee beans in a brazier and watched them turn from green to brown over hot coals in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony? Or sipped Turkish coffee flavored with sugar and cardamom from tiny, ornate cups while the sludge fell to the bottom?
No matter how it’s consumed, we are constantly searching for the “perfect cup.” The definition varies—some express it in lyrical terms like “nutty,” “caramelized,” or “sweet.” Others distill it to a brew ratio (like the widely-accepted ratio of 1:14–17 parts coffee:water). Regardless of your definition, a little attention to detail could make your ritual all the more pleasing.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but the beans are the most important factor in brewing great coffee. Stay away from big-brand grocery store coffee (Yuban, Folgers, Maxwell House), and try to get whole beans that you can grind each time you brew.
Choice of bean, of course, all boils down to your preference. Have you tried an Ethiopia and a Sumatra for comparison? It’s like blueberry sweetness vs. earthy tomatoes and peppers. If you aren’t already, I would strongly encourage you to check out the local micro roasters in your area. Many of them are doing incredible things—like spending far above the international Fair Trade minimum for their coffee beans to help the farmers who produce it. They roast the coffee to what they believe is the optimal development point, then package it to retain freshness as long as possible.
Taking the time to visit, learning the stories of the coffees you’re drinking, and asking lots of questions will make buying coffee a more enjoyable and conscious step in the process. The way coffee forms relationships is one of its best attributes. And who better to get to know over coffee than your local roaster?
To brew great coffee, you need to have a quality grinder. There are generally two kinds—blade grinders, like the standard spice grinder in many kitchens—and burr grinders, which come in a dizzying array. Blade grinders cut the coffee sort of like lawnmower blades, which results in an inconsistent grind (fine and coarse pieces of coffee). The problem is that the flavor compounds in the coffee beans extract at different rates. An irregular grind may produce coffee that’s unbalanced, often bitter or sour.
So burr grinders are the way to go. There are some good home models (like the Bodum Bistro Electric, available online for $99, and the Baratza Encore, at $140) that all have the same result: crushing the bean into a consistent grind for a better, more balanced cup.
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