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Making Great Coffee

September 7, 2016

So it begins. We’ve been watching kids start school all over the country. But today it’s our turn. Gone are the days of sleeping in on the occasional weekday. The blog will now need to be put to bed earlier at night. And the mornings will be a bleary-eyed stumble until I can suck down that first cup of coffee.

Which brings me to the subject of the day. I’ve written about coffee a lot over the years. But I don’t know if I’ve put all of those words in an order that communicates the following sentiment.

Making coffee at home is stupid.

Perhaps that’s an oversimplification. I make coffee at home. Most people do. But here’s the thing that few people will publicly admit. The coffee most people make at home is terrible. Sure, there are some exceptions. I do my best to make terrible coffee as drinkable as possible. However, I’m under no illusions that I make great coffee at home.

I suppose one could say more precisely that the attempt to make great coffee at home is a recipe for madness. And there are a lot of reasons for this.

#1 Home coffee machines

They are lousy. Water either gets way too hot, or not hot enough. The grounds get wet unevenly. The flow of the water through the grounds is far too slow, resulting in overextraction. Let’s not even speak of the fact that most likely you are pouring near-boiling water over plastic.

And then the coffee drips into a glass pitcher where it is further cooked on a heated disk, destroying any hope of an enjoyable second cup. Which, of course, assumes you were able to drink a first cup before the heater cooked the life out of your brew.

This is the best case scenario. The worst case involves your coffee maker being old and never having been cleaned out. I’ve never known anyone who adequately cleaned the water reservoirs of their home machines. Ever.

Do yourself a favor, and don’t even look.

Then, there’s the temptation to brew a full pot. I mean, the carafe goes up to 12. As long as you’re going through the hassle, why not fill the pot?

You have to read the instructions that come with the machine. But most don’t have the filter capacity to hold the amount of grounds you would need to brew a full pot of reasonably strong coffee. So try, and you’ll either be foolhardy and overflow the machine. Or you might be sensible, having read the instructions, and just produce a watered down pot. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument that you have a kickass coffee machine. Or, since such a thing only really exists in fairy tales, let’s say you’re committed to brewing in non-plastic pour-over rig at home with a digital scale, a timer, and a thermometer to make sure you’ve got the filtered water at an ideal near-boiling temperature. Then you have the issue of the beans.

#2 Coffee beans

You think coffee machines are fickle? Beans are worse. Because your crappy home coffee machine will be the same kind of crappy today tomorrow as it was yesterday. But beans change day to day after they have been roasted. There’s an arc to them. And if you are brewing coffee from the same batch roast day after day, you develop a pretty good sense of how they are performing.

But that’s not how people brew at home. Some people still keep their beans in the freezer. Some still use blade grinders. Most people buy their coffee already ground to save time. That’s pretty much the same thing as buying pre-grated cheese.

Would you buy food that has been pre-chewed? Of course not. So if you want good coffee at home, you are grinding it yourself.

#3 Burr grinders

Wow. You’ve got a burr grinder? Nice. How well do you clean it? Because even just a little old coffee residue can create off flavors in your cup.

The thing about burr grinders is that they are loud. And if you are going to try to make any kind of coffee in volume, that machine is going to be running a long time. One of the things I battle with before I have my first cup of coffee is headaches.

Yeah, I know, it’s an addiction.

So here’s what I do. I save my burr grinder for those occasions when I want to make a special cup of coffee at home. Maybe I’ve come across a very fine batch of beans. I’ll buy the smallest amount I can. And then I’ll grind them as needed, put them in my ceramic cone filter, and pre-wet the grounds. Then I’ll measure out a precise quantity of water using a digital scale, to try and make sure my extraction comes out right.

Then, and only then, can I make a reasonably good cup of coffee at home. It takes time. Patience. Equipment. Attention. So in the mornings, when I have neither time, patience, nor attention, I drink cold brew extract from the fridge made from some industrial pre-ground plonk.

This. All of this. Is why I vastly prefer to leave coffee making to the professionals. How much does a truly great cup of coffee cost? I suppose it depends on your scale of what you consider great. But I would argue that you can get something very good for $2. At $5 and you are in the indisputable range of greatness. The best coffees in the world will still cost a bit more, but those are rarely encountered by most people.

Perhaps if the Capital Region were still a good-coffee-free-zone, I might encourage more people to become self-reliant and attempt to make better coffee at home. But it’s an expensive and time-intensive proposition.

My advice is to find the bare minimum quality you can stand for daily consumption at home. And then go out and actually get to enjoy a great cup made by expert hands, with superior equipment, and better raw ingredients.

The only other path will lead you down to route to madness.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2016 10:23 am

    We use a percolator, which I know will make you shudder. But it solves the problems of overheating and boiling water on plastic. We buy whatever good quality coffee is currently on sale at Price Chopper (usually Starbucks), preground. We go through a 12 ounce bag in a week so it does not have the chance to get stale.

    I do buy an occasional cup at Uncommon Grounds or Saratoga Coffee Traders, usually for social reasons. But with the amount of coffee I drink I’d have to take a second job to buy it out on a regular basis.

    Okay, now I will remove my fingernails from your chalk board.

    • September 7, 2016 10:44 am

      I used to use a percolator. Yes, there are problems as you mention, but I found percolator coffee to be far superior to drip. I now use a French press. A plastic one. I KNOW. But I am a klutz, and after replacing 3 carafes in 3 years I got tired of shelling out the money. What I want is a good stainless steel carafe. I just haven’t gotten around to getting one yet. I also grind my own beans, though admittedly I don’t clean my burr grinder as often as I should.

      Here’s where I break a lot of rules, though. I boil my water (in an electric kettle), and then I pour it onto my grinds and let it sit while i run other errands. Sometimes I’ll prep it then go off to the gym, meaning they are soaking for an hour. I KNOW. Bad Jen, bad. But I still find it tastes significantly better than making drip coffee. And it saves a lot of money.

      When I do treat myself to a cup out, my preferred venue is Perfect Blend Cafe in Delmar, which is also close to my gym. I used to go to Tierra Coffee Roasters Delaware Ave location (which was even more convenient, as it was on the way home for me from the gym or, if necessary, on the way to work from my mother’s), but they’ve since closed and their Madison Ave location is not very convenient for me. I know there’s a new coffeehouse there now, haven’t tried it yet. I’m sure I will soon.

  2. September 7, 2016 10:23 am

    I’ve been making espresso at home this year and it’s made me appreciate the expertise of the barista even more. Mine is ok, but tastes nothing like what I get from Stacks. Normal coffee, on the other hand, I think is well within the grasp of most people to brew at home. With a decent grinder, a pour-over device, and beans that your favorite coffee shop uses, there’s no reason you can’t have an equivalent coffee at home.

    I’d be interested in seeing the results of a blind taste test to see if most people can really tell the difference when the water temperature is off a few degrees, or if there is the smallest residue of a previous grind in the grinder… my guess is that it’s all in their heads.

    • September 7, 2016 10:46 am

      I fully admit that I am sure I cannot. Sure, the cup I buy from Perfect Blend tastes better than what I make at home, but that could just as easily be because their beans are superior than Joe’s Dark Roast (my preferred “bargain brand” of coffee, at $5/can!).

      However, I always drink my coffee with cream. Occasionally I’ll treat myself to a pourover from Superior Merchandise (if I’m over that way!) and will have at least a few sips of that black, but I prefer my coffee to be creamy. It’s actually more texture than taste.

  3. -R. permalink
    September 7, 2016 11:49 am

    Most weekends, I use this at home:

    During the week, I use this drip machine:

    Both allow me to make quite acceptable coffee. I usually source my beans from JB Peel in Red Hook, but I’ll occasionally try others. Grinder is a Mazzer Mini.

    Cleanliness, freshness and attention to detail are the keys to successful home coffee making, and unfortunately like many other things in life you get what you pay for. A $400 ‘espresso’ machine just isn’t going to compete with a commercial machine, no more than a whirling blade grinder can ever compete with a burr grinder. I went through a coffee freak phase about a dozen years ago, and decided to commit to the ability to make a good espresso, cappuccino, etc, at home. I learned a lot along the way, and had many many failures.

    I’ll have to disagree with you about freezing beans however. Although I try to buy in small quantities, sometimes I’ll buy more and freeze the majority (triple zip-locked) upon receipt. While not perfect, it is the best long term solution to the issue of oxidation. However, I really ought to invest in a good vacuum sealer, as this would likely be ideal. Leaving them at room temperature or exposing them to light is coffee doom, and obviously refrigeration is strictly forbidden.

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