Making Great Coffee
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.