I found the best coffee in the world in Dingle, Ireland, one summer in college when I was aimlessly backpacking around. I’d wandered into a small stone-carving shop to cool off, and made friends with the dog keeping idle guard—apparently a good enough reason for the proprietor, an old Italian man, to offer me a coffee.
I can’t remember if he served it with cream or with a lemon peel; if there were floral notes or chocolaty undertones; if it was espresso or Americano or simple drip coffee. What I do remember is sitting in the tiny garden beside his home as he talked to me about his art and what he missed about Italy, sipping slowly and feeling both calmed and energized.
The caffeine is an objective boost, yes. But coffee’s also personal. Something easy to share. And despite what the recent proliferation of intimidating, blond-wood-and-Edison-lightbulb cafés would have you believe, it’s easy to make, too.
Here’s the real secret to coffee: What matters isn’t mastering some trendy new process; it’s figuring out what you enjoy and making sure you can brew it consistently. Half of that is chemistry: ratio, temperature, and time. The other half is atmosphere.
We can help with the first half.
Where to Start?
Scale: Peter Giuliano, chief research officer at the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), says most people like their coffee best when 1.15 to 1.35 percent coffee solids make it into the brew, and it has an extraction of 18 to 22 percent.
What that means in practice is that you should have a ratio of about 60 grams dry coffee per one liter water. (For a stronger cup, don’t brew it longer—that’ll turn it bitter. Just add more grounds.) Your scale should measure over one kilogram, to at least one decimal place. Most jewelry scales will do the trick; we also like the Acaia Pearl Bluetooth scale.
Grinder: Get a burr grinder. Blade grinders—which are cheaper and more common—don’t work as well for coffee. They slice the beans into uneven particles, which can throw off the extraction process. Burr grinders instead pulverize the beans into a consistent size. Make sure you get one with metal, not plastic, burrs. We recommend the Baratza Virtuoso.
Beans:There’s no hard rule on how much to spend, but “if you see cheap coffee, it’s almost certainly too good to be true,” says Christopher Hendon, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon who’s studied coffee extensively. He usually stays in the range of $15 to $20 per bag. “You get probably 20 cups of coffee out of one bag. That’s like $1 a cup, and it’ll make you extremely happy.”
Mastering The Method
Some Important Coffee Questions
What’s a Good Pour-Over System?
The important part of a pour-over system is the brewer itself—functionally, it’s the basket where the filter sits, removed from an automatic coffeemaker and plopped on top of your mug of choice. The Hario V60 is more or less the industry standard. Once you’ve heated your water and measured out your grounds, it’s pretty straightforward, but you do have to stand there pouring slowly for the entire process—usually about two and a half to three minutes.
What’s The Best Water Temperature?
The optimal extraction temperature is somewhere between 195 to 205 F. If you’re working without a thermometer, a good rule of thumb is to let your water come to a boil and then wait 30 seconds before beginning to pour. A kitchen thermometer like a Thermapen is a great investment.
Even a small investment can have a huge—and delicious—payoff.
What Is the Best Drip Machine?
The good people at the SCA can answer that question for you. Teaming up with the coffee lab at UC Davis, they run tests on consumer drip brewers to determine which machines hit all the right qualifications. “Most brewers don’t pass that test,” Giuliano says. He’s not kidding.
The SCA currently lists a mere 23 approved brew machines on its website, including the Bonavita Connoisseur.
Is Starbucks’ Coffee Good?
Actually—yes. Remember, before Howard Schultz became an ultrarich potential presidential candidate, Starbucks was the original specialty café. You won’t find niche, super-small-batch beans there today, largely because the company set its prices a long time ago; if you ignore all the flavors, foams, and various nondairy milks and just stick with a plain cup of drip coffee, Starbucks will run you just about $2.50.
You could easily pay twice that much for a pour-over at an independent coffeehouse. But the other part of what makes Starbucks decent is the same reason your favorite greasy-spoon diner has a shockingly good cup of joe: Brewing big helps smooth out any measuring errors. Even a one-ounce mistake can make a huge difference in a small batch; as you scale up, it gets less obvious.
Can Someone Grind Beans For Me?
As soon as beans are roasted, they start letting out carbon dioxide. When they’re exposed to air, oxygen replaces the CO2, slowly turning the aromatic coffee oils inside the bean rancid. When you buy beans, they’ll usually come in a bag with a small one-way valve on the front, which slows that process—look for whole beans that have a roast date within the past two weeks, and they’ll last about another month. (Beware of coffee packages without this valve: That usually means the grounds inside have essentially been pre-staled.)
Ground coffee goes stale within days, though, since that degassing process is accelerated by a larger surface area. It really is much better to grind the beans yourself. Invest in a burr grinder—and buy your family some earplugs.
Can I Cold Brew at Home?
The simplest way to make your own cold brew is to grind your coffee coarse—as you would for a French-press brew—and soak it in room-temperature water (not cold, despite the name) overnight and then strain out the grounds. A good ratio is one pound of coffee to a gallon of water, which will make a cold-brew concentrate that you can store in your fridge for several days. Decant into your favorite mason jar and dilute with cold water to drink.
Can I Put Cream and Sugar Into Great Coffee?
Definitely. Just make sure you’re using good-quality milk and sugar—if you’re dumping in Coffee-mate (or worse, skim milk), why even bother with the rest of it?