Ten Clever (and Slightly Badass) Ways to Make Great Coffee ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ten Clever (and Slightly Badass) Ways to Make Great Coffee

Coffee has come to percolate--that is, permeate--society at almost every level, and that's especially true for people who spend hours a day staring at a monitor. If you're drinking coffee as you read this post, I salute you.

Here are ten coffee upgrades with the potential to transform brackish brew into a bright, aromatic cup.

What you may not realize is that you could turn your joe into JOE by making a few simple changes. Adopt these tricks, and you'll be hacking the average coffee experience. You'll be able to one-up Starbucks in your own kitchen--but precede with caution. Once you exchange that muddy-tasting buzz for a brilliant taste experience, there's no going back.

Here are ten coffee upgrades with the potential to transform brackish brew into a bright, aromatic cup. Some of them are common sense, a few of them will surprise you--but if you drink coffee frequently, they're all cost-effective.

10. Use clean, cold water. This may be as simple as turning your faucet all the way to the right, or as involved as installing a tap filter to deal with your 100-year-old pipes (took me five minutes). Bottled water is another option. Either way, you'll give your coffee a clear medium for self expression.

9. Buy good beans. Folgers is out. Starbucks would be a step up, but why go halfway? For the best results, look for a local company that roasts their own beans, which equates to smaller batches and greater freshness. You'll notice an immediate taste difference--and if you do a head to head comparison with a mass-produced brand, the difference will be dramatic. In KC, a couple of my favorite options are The Roasterie and Broadway Cafe.

8. Grind your own coffee beans. Some of you are scared right now, but you shouldn't be. The fact is, pre-ground beans may save time, but they kill flavor. Buy whole beans, and you'll keep the coffee oils and aromas intact (assuming the beans are recently roasted) until you're ready to brew. If you don't own a grinder, a painless first step would be a little whirlybird type (under $20) like the one I owned for years. But more on this later...

7. Measure your coffee and water. Getting the proportions wrong can result in watery, bland coffee, or a bitter, over-extracted brew. Might as well spend that extra 10 seconds and get the dosage right. Ideal measurements vary slightly depending on your machine (and your tastebuds), but a good ballpark figure for a drip machine is a tablespoon of ground coffee for every 8 ounces of water. For French press, it's more like a teaspoon for every 4 ounces.

6. Wash your coffee maker. With non-astringent soap and water, yes. But every six months or so, you should run a solution like CleanCaf through your machine to deal with grime and buildup. You'd be surprised at the residue that collects inside a coffee machine--or maybe you wouldn't be, if you clean out coffee mugs very often. Flushing with a cleaning solution is inexpensive, and it prevents taste loss and slow brew times due to clogged tubes.

5. Use your coffee within 20 minutes after you grind it. There's a technical, scientific explanation for why ground coffee quickly becomes stale, but I'll spare you the equations. Bottom line: Grind the beans, then get them into your cup, pronto! Why let the flavor dissipate on the warm breezes of your kitchen?

4. Use a quality coffee maker. Go ahead and throw Mr. Coffee in the trash. Higher-end drip coffee machines will do a good job (we like the Cuisinart Brew Central in chrome), but you can make smooth, delicious coffee with a hand-press model for as little as $25. If you want my advice, take a look at the AeroPress (right). An improvement on the "French press" model, the AeroPress is an award-winning little machine that is ingeniously simple and yields great-tasting results. (If you follow the link, be sure to take a look at the rave reviews.)

3. Upgrade your grinder. Until you realize how a grinder affects your coffee experience, shelling out serious money for one sounds like madness. That's why I suggest buying a cheap, push-button model first.
But once you experience the benefits of grinding your own beans, you'll realize that the taste dividends may justify a larger investment. As opposed to whirlybird, hack-a-bean types, burr grinders are made with sharp, opposing burrs that grind with precision and consistency.

The KitchenAid ProLine grinder was my first serious grinder, and I noticed the taste difference immediately--flavors were less muddy, more bright and aromatic. If you're looking for your first burr grinder, you won't regret buying this one: KitchenAid has exceptional customer service, and the grinder is very well designed, built like a tank, easy to use, and looks good on the counter. Excellent resale value as well, if you decide you need to upgrade. (Want to learn more? Here's the CoffeeGeek review that convinced me this was "the one.") To recap: Getting a "real" grinder may earn you the coffee geek label, but you won't mind! It's a quantum leap forward in taste.

2. Experiment with your palate. Dark roasts with strong, chocolately undertones are my personal favorite, and Ethiopia and Costa Rica are my favorite places of origin for beans. But until I started consciously sipping different varieties, "coffee" was just "coffee." So experiment: you'll discover there are a number of controlled factors that effect taste, and you'll like some better than others. Finding your favorites is rewarding.

1. Drink coffee with friends. You might think that I'm copping out on this tip, but I'm not! Sharing a cup affirms the fact that coffee drinking can be more than a physical experience. Grind your best beans, brew a pot, and pour it hot. There's a reason people love to have conversations in coffee shops. Why not create that delicious, caffeine-laced atmosphere in your living room? With the help of these tips, you can. :) There's are good reasons to wear the "coffee snob" label proudly.

[Note: The various caffeinated claims I make in this post can be substantiated on the spectacular, authoritative coffee site, CoffeeGeek. Look out, though, clicking around at CoffeeGeek quickly gets addictive!]

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Donna said...

I wonder if you've mentioned grinding your own coffee before in this blog? Because SOMEBODY talked about how great it was to grind your own, and ever since I bought the grinder, I'm so coffee-addicted I might as well be put away! I started out with cheap beans (Hills Brothers) and more expensive beans (Millstone). I'm in the boonies, so I have to settle for what the grocery store carries. I will say that you get what you pay for. Millstone is great!

Now you have me wondering if I need to invest in a fancy grinder. You are costing me some serious bucks here. STOP!

winomom said...

Hey, I've heard running a mix of water and vinegar through the machine will do the trick...any opinion on this? We've done it, try to every month or so, but I can't tell if there's a difference or not...

Dan said...

Great advice - way to get the word out.

Ariel said...

@ Donna: Yeah, I'm sure I've mentioned grinding your own beans before...so I may be guilty as charged. Just remember, it's not an addiction, it's a life enhancement. ;)

@ winomom: Vinegar & water...I don't see how it could hurt anything. It probably doesn't have the grime-dissolving strength of some cleaners, but if you do it frequently, maybe it would keep some of that stuff from accumulating?

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