In our last blog we touched on New Year’s Resolutions and why you shouldn’t feel the need to swear off the bean juice in 2021.
That said, goals are great to have and we even left you with a possible goal at the end of that blog: drink better coffee.
There’s one caveat here: to drink better coffee, we’ve got to be able to brew better coffee.
Not overly confident in your home-barista skill sets?
Has it been a while since you’ve brewed at home – opting to dish out the extra cash to swing by your favorite café on the way to work – and now you need a crash course to brush up?
We got you.
Here are 21 tips to help you enter the new year brewing your best.
1. Water Quality
Despite the fact that the average cup of (properly brewed) coffee is over 98% water, the quality of water used for brewing at home is often overlooked. Home filtration systems can be complicated and expensive but there are a couple of things you can keep in mind to avoid some easy mistakes.
- Stay away from distilled. Coffee requires some solid material within the brew water for compounds within the coffee to latch on to, whereas distilled water has no solid material in at all.
- Avoid tap water. Depending on where you live and what sort of water service you have, tap water can have a variety of negative impacts on brewing coffee from flavor (if the water tastes bad on its own, you’ll taste it in the coffee) to being overly hard or soft (especially of concern if using espresso equipment).
- Don’t boil. It’s not that it’s too hot (coffee is roasted at much higher temperatures than water boils) but that when you boil water, you alter the chemistry of the water and can make water that was previously ideal for brewing coffee not so ideal as a result.
2. Upgrade Your Gear
Whether you’re geeking out with your favorite manual brewing device or letting your automated brewer carry the workload, the same truth applies that not all gear is created equal.
- Research before you buy. Ask a friend or a barista at a local shop what they use and prefer and why.
- Check the specs. If you are looking into home coffee brewing or espresso equipment, research the specs. Can it achieve an appropriate water temperature to brew? Can it maintain that temperature consistently?
- Profile. Different brewing methods have different flavor profiles. If you have an espresso, a batch-brew, a pour-over, and a French press, all prepared using the same coffee, you will find four very different flavor profiles. Play around at home, try different things at shops, read reviews online, and decide what gear best suits your preferences.
3. Know the Ropes
Your gear – whether automated or manual and regardless of bells and whistles – is only effective to the extent that you understand it.
Whatever brewing device or methodology you settle on, make sure you learn and understand what it is you’re doing.
Why does this brewer use this filter?
Why is it shaped this way?
What is the intended brew time for this method?
For many brewing methods, you can find some tips we’ve picked up over the years for a variety of coffee brewing methods here…
4. Know What You Like
Not every coffee is a good fit for every coffee drinker. Some folks are drawn to the musty, earthy flavors of a wet-hulled Sumatran. Some crave the crisp acidity of a washed Kenyan. Some people want a nutty, smooth Central American coffee.
Some folks like the thick, gritty body of a French press and some prefer the thin, clean characteristics of a Chemex brew.
Understanding what you do and don’t like is an important first step toward getting the most out of the coffee you brew.
5. Vocab Lessons
If you’re a retail consumer, it can be easy to shy away from “third-wave” coffee culture (trust us, we get it), but coffee-nerd esoterica aside, knowing a couple of things to look for on the bags of coffee that you’re buying – namely, region and processing method – can make finding the ideal coffee for you much easier.
This information would be a blog on it’s on but here are a couple quick tips:
- Processing. “Processing” refers to how the coffee seeds (what we call beans) are removed from the fruit which they grow within. The two most prominent processing methods are known as the natural and washed processes.
Natural process coffees are dried with the fruit still on and will generally have very fruity, berry-forward flavors. Washed coffees will tend to be cleaner and present more acidity.
- Origin. Various factors such as climate, soil chemistry, altitude, etc. can affect how a coffee tastes. These affects that the location where the coffee grows can have on the coffee is known as terroir.
There aren’t hard and fast rules for what coffee from a particular origin or region is going to taste like, but generally you can expect that African coffees will feature brighter, more acid forward flavors along with lots of floral and fruity flavors. Coffees from South America tend to have classic “coffee” profiles with notes of chocolate, caramel, and nuts, while coffees from Central America tend to be a bit cleaner and fruitier, with more acidity than their South American counterparts, although they often maintain a chocolate profile as well.
If you don’t taste coffee for a living, you may not be able to pick out some of the intricate flavor notes described on the bags of coffee you purchase. You don’t have to be a Cup Taster’s champion to enjoy a good cup and discern some basic characteristics of different coffees.
Maybe, while researching coffee terms, you read about some really tasty sounding flavors that you haven’t experienced in coffee before.
Never had a fruity coffee but think it sounds great? Have you ever had a naturally processed Ethiopian coffee? Who knows! Seek one out and see what you think.
Over time you will be able to determine what origin countries, processing methods, etc. are your favorite. Don’t be scared to take notes!
7. Buy Whole Bean
Pre-ground coffee is convenient to be sure – not to mention that decent home grinders are a $100+ investment – but, in this case, you really get out what you put in. The little extra effort in grinding your coffee as close to when it is going to be brewed as possible will net you huge results in terms of flavor.
Whole bean coffee will stay fresh longer and provide tastier results as well.
Grinding a bunch of coffee at once may seem like a time-saver but think back to why we are using whole bean coffee in the first place – we want to preserve as much flavor as possible.
Grinding your coffee as close as possible to when you are going to brew – within 15 minutes max – will result in a much more flavorful cup.
Nerd Alert: Coffee can lose up to 50% of its volatile aromatic compounds (the components which give the coffee it’s aroma and flavor) within 15-20 minutes after grinding.
9. Use a Burr Grinder
Your grinder is the most important piece of equipment in your brewing arsenal.
The quality of the grind (how precisely it can achieve the desired size and how consistent the ground coffee particles are in size and shape) is going to determine to what extent all of the other variables we are discussing are able to be effective.
If you’ve got a blade-grinder you got at the department store for $15 – toss it. Trust us.
A decent burr grinder is an investment – at least $100 – but one that is definitely worth making if you want to achieve café quality coffee at home.
In our opinion, the Baratza Encore is the best value in home grinders that can be found. At just over $100, it can best just about anything you can find for less than triple its price.
10. Stay Fresh
Many people think of coffee like they would other pantry items – generally shelf stable and generally unchanging. Instead, think of coffee more like you would a produce item, having a finite lifespan.
We recommend enjoying KLLR coffees within four weeks after the roast date. After this point, coffees may begin to lose their flavor, and eventually will develop unpleasant, stale flavors.
11. Store it Well
Now that you’ve gone through the trouble of tracking down these freshly roasted beans of your favorite origin and processing method, be sure to keep them tasting their best as you store them at home. Coffee can easily stale and/or develop unpleasant flavors when exposed to oxygen, moisture, or other aromatic food products like spices.
The best option is to keep the coffee in the packaging it was purchased in (most bags have some method of re-sealing such as a tin-tie or a zip-lock) and kept in a cool, dry environment like a pantry or counter-top.
Pro-Tip: A common practice for many is to store coffee beans in the freezer to preserve their flavor. It’s true that storing coffee in the freezer can slow the staling process, however, if you’re opening and closing the freezer frequently to get food in and out, moisture introduced into the freezer each time can actually deteriorate your coffee so this really only makes sense if the coffee needs to be stored long-term and fairly undisturbed, such as if you were on vacation and, let’s face it, in 2020 most of us are not.
One of the easiest ways to instantly improve the flavor of your coffee is to ensure that you are using a proper ratio of water and coffee. Many home coffee brewers have been conditioned to treat coffee like a seasoning while cooking – if you want stronger flavor, add more.
Unfortunately, with coffee, that’s not quite the case.
The amount of water used in relation to a given dose of ground coffee not only effects the strength of the brew, it effects how efficiently the water is able to extract material from the coffee.
For coffee to extract to an extent that is going to taste good and at an appropriate strength, a proper ratio of water and coffee must be used.
We recommend a 16:1 ratio, or 55-60 grams of coffee per liter of water (about 1.7 grams of coffee per ounce of water).
For a pour-over, we like 25 grams of coffee to 400 grams of brew water.
In order to determine that we’ve got the accurate dose of coffee for the size of batch that we are brewing, we’ve got to be able to accurately measure our coffee and our water.
Scoops and measuring cups aren’t going to get you quite where you need to be here; we recommend grabbing a decent digital scale.
The CJ4000 is a good option to get started but for any techies out there or barista-folk that want to dig deep into the data, the Acaia Pearl allows for recording and comparing brews and more via an accompanying app.
14. Grind Size
Now that you have this fancy burr grinder, let’s put it to use.
The grind size is going to change how the coffee extracts by changing metrics like ground coffee particle surface area, radius, etc., but it’s also going to change how quickly or slowly the coffee brews.
For dripper-style brews (coffee pots, pour-overs) you can generalize it this way:
Finer grind – longer brew.
Coarser grind – faster brew.
15. Stay on Time
The best way to determine whether the grind size that you’re using is correct is to measure the time of your brew. To do this you’ll need a digital timer like this one:
Or simple use your phone.
We recommend grinding such that your brew time is around 4:00 minutes.
Pro-Tip: When we talk about brew-times, brew time starts when water first contacts the ground coffee and ends when the stream of coffee exiting the bottom of the filter basket or pour-over dripper becomes a faint drip).
16. Put A Filter On It
The type of filters you use can impact the flavor of your brew.
For example, let's say that we are brewing a Chemex. Unbleached coffee filters tend to contribute more papery flavor to a brew than their bleached counterparts, and a metal filter will have a different profile altogether.
Another example; folks that used to love V60 filters for how thin they were and the body that would subsequently result were disappointed when production changed factories and the new, much thicker, filters changed the classic V60 profile to a degree. They may be more satisfied with these CAFEC filters which are closer to the old V60 filters.
The take away: play around with different filters for your favorite brewing method and see what works best for you!
Paper filters revolutionized the way we brew coffee – and made it a lot less messy. They can, however, impart a papery flavor on your coffee.
To prevent this, position the filter on your brewing device while empty and rinse it with hot water from your kettle before adding the ground coffee and brewing. A thorough rinse will ensure your coffee doesn’t taste papery and will also pre-heat your brewing device allowing for a more temperature stable brew.
Pro-Tip: Don’t forget to discard the rinse water before brewing your coffee!
18. Bloom Your Brew
When brewing a pour-over, especially with coffee less than a week after being roasted, it’s helpful to allow the gases within the coffee grounds (bult up during the roasting process) to escape from the grounds and allowing the grounds to become fully saturated. This is the point at which they are ready to release their flavor.
Skipping this step can reduce the level of extraction you are able to achieve.
Pro-Tip: Use approximately twice the mass of your ground coffee dose in water for your bloom. Example: If you are brewing with 25 grams of coffee, use about 50 grams of water for your bloom.
19. Check the Temperature
Water is more or less effective of a solvent at different temperatures. The range we want to brew coffee in is generally around 200F.
We like to brew with our kettles and coffee brewers set to 205F and our espresso machines set to 201F.
What’s really important is that you are able to get at or over that 200F mark. Historically, many home brewers have not been able to achieve the required temperatures to brew really well, however, many are on the market today.
As far as kettles go, what's really important for pour-over brewing is that you have a gooseneck kettle to be able to carefully control your pour (not necessary if you are brewing French press). Electric kettles like the Fellow Stagg EKG can even automatically heat to a perfect brewing temperature and hold it.
20. Keep It Clean
This is especially true for espresso machines but is certainly true for coffee brewers as well – and even pour-over drippers, French press, etc
Keep your equipment clean.
The oils in coffee can become rancid when exposed to oxygen and if cleaning your gear isn’t kept up with after each brew, you can end up with some funky smelling, stained, dirty tasting brewing equipment.
We love Urnex products for cleaning our gear.
21. Keep it fun
This list has been comprised of tips for how to brew coffee better at home because, if you’re going to put in the work to brew, why not expect the best
That said, the point of coffee is to enjoy it and to enjoy yourself.
Have fun, break the rules, do what you like, and definitely don’t get frustrated. The information provided here are just the guidelines that have proven themselves to us.
At the end of the day, the best way to brew coffee is the way you like it.
Have a favorite way to brew coffee? Document it and tag us on Instagram @kllrcoffee!