How to Make a Better Cup of Coffee at Home (Part 1)

Coffee PercolatorFor many of us, our first memories of coffee-making at home are of mom filling the percolator with water, pulling the can of Folgers or MJB off of the shelf and putting four scoops into the top of the “round metal thing.” She would then plug it in and we would wait as the aroma and rhythmic popping and gurgling (in those days, coffee was never brewing – it was “perking”) teased our senses for what seemed like forever before the delight of the hot, dark amber brew scalded our tongues with the first sip. Like everything else in the third century, coffee-making has come a long way in a short amount of time.

Many Americans have given up on making a quality pot of homemade coffee, and have decided the most important thing in the morning is getting a quick cup of something to hold them over until they can make it to the Starbucks on the way to work. For me, the desire to make the perfect (or as close to perfect as possible) cup of coffee has been a lifelong mission. I have spent countless hours on Google, talked to scores of coffee roasters, and tasted thousands of cups of kitchen-experimental coffee during my quest – and still do not have all the answers. For this report today I have enlisted the expertise of “Roast Master” Erik Anderson of Colorado River Coffee Roasters in Boulder City, NV, to help set some guidelines to make your daily pot of coffee the best it can be.

The Beans

Coffee Bean VarietyThe ideal scenario for making a perfect cup of “Joe” starts with roasting your own beans. Since that would require hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in equipment and several hours of training, it is best to simply purchase beans which are already roasted and go from there. Coffee beans come in light, medium and dark roasts, and you have probably already developed a preference for one of those categories. The beans also are grown in hundreds of different areas of the world, and you will find that, eventually, you will discover a taste for a certain area. I have grown to prefer coffees from Latin American and South American plantations. If you have not found your specific preference, you can look forward to a special kind of journey, sampling beans from all over the world while deciding what is right for you.

While knowing which roast and which bean is most pleasing to your taste is important, Anderson says how the beans are roasted will play a big part in the quality you enjoy in your cup, “You’ve got to make sure that, in the process of roasting, they are not over-cooked. You can have the best beans in the world, but if you turn them into a lump of charcoal, your coffee’s still going to taste like junk.”

He goes on to explain one of the things to look for in your coffee beans. “You don’t want a lot of oil, which is an indication that it was either over-cooked, or it’s not very fresh and has been sitting around long enough for the oil to excrete.” So what do we look for in a bean? Anderson personal opinion is to find, “a nice medium roast type of bean. You want the beans to be big and full and plump and not have too many wrinkles in them. There should be a nice shine to them, but not an oily sheen.”

Another important factor in picking the best coffee beans, and the most easily identifiable, is the freshness of the bean. Reputable coffee roasters will always indicate the roasting date of their beans, and Anderson says it is important to purchase beans within four weeks of the date they were roasted. As far as keeping them fresh, he says it is best to keep them in an airtight container at room temperature. Keeping your beans in the refrigerator or freezer does nothing to keep them fresh, and can even adversely affect the flavor of the beans.

Grind Your Own

Coffee Burr Grinder
Burr Grinder

The biggest leap I ever experienced in the flavor of my coffee was the first time I tasted a cup made from freshly ground beans. I have used a coffee grinder in my home ever since that day. There are two types of coffee grinders most prevalent in today’s market – the blade grinder and the burr grinder. Professional coffee people like Anderson will recommend the burr grinder over the blade, and I must confess that I used a burr grinder for a period of time before going back to the blade. The sole reason was convenience. I found my burr grinder almost impossible to clean thoroughly, while it is a simple task to wipe and rinse my blade grinder after each use. Honestly, my palate could not tell the difference between the two grinders, and ease of maintenance became the deciding factor between the two.

Coffee Blade Grinder
Mr. Coffee Blade Grinder

There is a blade-type coffee grinder on the market that makes grinding your coffee beans perfectly every time almost foolproof. It is the Mr. Coffee Blade Grinder with Chamber Maid Cleaning System and retails for around $2o. This grinder can be set for four to 12 cups, and also lets you choose coarse, medium or fine grinds. After the choices are made, you simply push down on the start button and hold it until the machine stops grinding. You can then detach the top bowl, twist it back and forth a few times to loosen the excess coffee from the sides of the bowl, remove the lid and empty into the coffee filter of your coffee maker. Cleanup is simply a matter of running hot water into the grind bowl, swiping a few times with a sponge and detergent, and letting it dry.

The Right Amount

How much coffee per cup? If you are confused about this, you are not alone. I can only pass along my own practice of using one scoop (around 2 tablespoons) of beans for every cup of coffee. By “cups,” I mean cups according to the capacity of my coffee-maker. I have discovered that what the coffee industry considers a cup is not the American standard of eight ounces. A 10-cup coffee maker will be filled to the limit with around 50 ounces of water, which means the coffee industry counts five ounces as a cup of coffee. This is another trial-and-error facet to coffee-making, and it will undoubtedly take a few experiments before discovering the strength of brew that is right for you.

That is what to look for in coffee beans, and how to prepare them for brewing. In the next installment we will discuss what to look for in purchasing a coffee maker and how to enjoy your coffee in a French Press.

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