Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How I Make Coffee

This is my second go at a blog, and when I started it, I told myself, this time I'm actually going to post stuff. It's been a week since my last post, and every day since, I've increasingly felt like I'm already repeating my previous failed attempt. Eek! My excuse is lack of inspiration. However, I started this post with a "I'm not inspired but I'm going to write about something that's on my mind anyway" attitude---and already I'm getting inspired, and thinking of more topics to write about....

People that know me personally know that I have a fairly elaborate coffee-making process. That's a euphemistic way of saying I'm a coffee snob. However, I honestly believe that the coffee I make is some of the best I've ever had, and the handful of people who have had my coffee agree.

A quick general outline of what makes for good coffee:
  • Freshly roasted beans. Ideally they are less than a week old.
  • Freshly ground. Grind no more than an hour before brewing.
  • Ground with a burr grinder. Blade grinders are inconsistent and tend to burn the beans.
  • Water temperature. This may be more a matter of preference. If I remember correctly, the ideal brewing temperature is around 195 degrees Fahrenheit. However, I prefer a lower temperature, around 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Fresh, pure water.
  • Clean equipment
To be honest, I don't follow these rules exactly. Given that, I think it's entirely possible for me to make an even better cup of coffee. But I'm happy with the quality as-is:
  • Compared to cheap coffee (gas stations, cafeteria) there is no contest (duh).
  • My coffee tastes better than any other home-brew I've ever had.
  • I think it's better than "premium" purchased coffees, such as Starbucks, and even my previous favorite, Dunkin Donuts.
Now that I'm done bragging, on to the details:
  1. Fresh roasted beans. This is where I slack a little bit. I usually buy freshly roasted beans from Intelligentsia, but to save on shipping costs, I buy two or three pounds at a time. So as I consume the first pound, I'm usually in the "one week" threshold for roasting, but after that, the roasts become increasingly aged. On the other hand, each pound is vacuum sealed. I'm sure the coffee purists would argue that vacuum sealing doesn't help, and that the beans will degrade after a week regardless of storage method. (Some day I'd like to learn to roast my own beans. Relative to pre-roasted beans, unroasted beans are much cheaper, and can be stored for a very long time.)
  2. Grinding. I always grind immediately before brewing; my grinds are always well under an hour old. I've found that it's pretty easy to judge the freshness of ground coffee by smell alone. Intuitively, I think a lot of people know this. Think about buying pre-ground coffee (e.g. Folger's, Maxwell House). When you first break the seal on the tin, the coffee smells remarkably good. But even after a week, those grinds have lost a lot of their charm. After a month, they almost smell rancid.
  3. Burr grinder. A lot of people (including myself before "coffee enlightenment") don't even realize that there are two main types of coffee grinders: burr and blade. It's easy to tell the difference once you know what to look for; search the web for pictures. But an imprecise rule of thumb is: if you paid less than $50 for your grinder, chances are, it's a blade-style. Half-way decent burr grinders usually start around $100. I have a Capresso Infinity Conical Burr Grinder. I've had this for about two years now, and I'm mostly satisfied with it. It does a great job of grinding the beans. My only complaint is that there is a lot of static in the grinding area, and after every grind, I have to take this little brush and clean out grinds that didn't make it into the hopper. It's not hard, just a nuisance. To be fair, though, this is the only burr style grinder I've actually used. And from the reviews I've read, virtually all grinders (regardless of style) have this problem to some extent.
  4. Boiling hot water. Actually, I don't use boiling water. I put water in a tea kettle, and bring it to a boil. Before I actually use it, I pour more water in to cool it down. I gauge the water temperature entirely by rough feel; this is admittedly imprecise. However, I have used a thermometer on a couple occasions, and, remarkably, the water temperature is around 170 degrees Fahrenheit. I've found that water temperature makes an enormous difference in the taste of the brew. Coffee is not supposed to be bitter. The overwhelming majority of coffees available today are bitter, and most people probably think "coffee" is a synonym for "bitter". Bitterness comes from brewing at too high a temperature. Coffee is supposed to be smooth and buttery, reminiscent of chocolate. When I was initially experimenting with my brewing methodology, one of the most significant improvements was when I lowered the brewing temperature. I can honestly say that the coffee I brew is noticeably less bitter than almost anything you've ever had, and in fact will surprise you with just how smooth it is.
  5. Fresh, pure water. This is a huge deviation for me---I use tap water. I've read that some people actually buy distilled water. Some day I'll try it.
  6. Clean equipment. This is mostly self-explanatory. However, see my note about cleaning the "static cling" coffee out of my grinder---coffee actually goes rancid after too much exposure to oxygen. Failure to remove the stray grinds from my grinder means that every time I made coffee, some of my grinds would be from the previous day---and probably rancid. That's a chance I'm simply not willing to take. The rest of my equipment is actually remarkably easy to clean...
  7. Brewing. I don't use the conventional drip-style coffee maker. I use an Aerobie Aeropress (yes, this is the same company that makes frisbees and other toys).
    • I first heard about the Aeropress on this relevant Slashdot discussion. It's actually marketed as an espresso maker; in fact, I use it to make "espresso", then simply dilute it with hot water. Technically, this results in an Americano. (I don't use that term because, well, it sounds snobby. I have to retain some semblance of coffee humility.)
    • The Aeropress is often compared to the French press, but there are differences. A primary difference is that the Aeropress has a filter. As in the more familiar drip-brewing, the coffee/espresso passes through a paper filter before it is consumed. A French press has no filter. I've never tasted coffee made with a French press, so I can't say whether or not the filter makes a difference in flavor. One thing I've read, though, is that there are substances in brewed coffee that may increase a person's cholesterol level. These substances are actually removed in filtered coffee.
    • There is a massive thread on coffeegeek.com talking about the use of the Aeropress. But the gist of it is this: grinds are placed in a tube; one end of the tube has the filter, the other is open. Hot water is poured into the tube with the grinds. The mixture is stirred for about ten seconds. A plunger is then inserted into the tube, and used to force the espresso through the filter into the mug. Dilute the espresso with hot water to complete the Americano, err, coffee.
So there you have it, a process for creating remarkably good coffee. Granted, this process is significantly more complex than simply dumping pre-ground coffee into a drip-style coffee maker and flipping the "brew" switch. But the result tastes significantly better. In other words, the increase in coffee quality in flavor is greater than (or at least equal to) the increase in effort required to make it.

A lot of people think I'm crazy for the amount of effort I put into making coffee. But there are two things to consider: (1) a lot of people have never had really good coffee---if Starbucks is the best you've ever had, then you haven't had really good coffee; (2) there are people who take coffee-making more seriously than I do---waaaay more seriously (just check out the CoffeeGeek Forums).