6 Rules for Brewing the Best Cup of Coffee: What Happened When We Followed Expert Advice at Home

By: Barry Estabrook  |  September/October 2016
Coffee Pro Liz Clark & Author Barry Estabrook Face Off
Watch: Is Coffee Bad For You?
How do you brew the best cup of coffee at home? I went to Gimme! Coffee, a highly acclaimed roaster and retailer of specialty coffee, near Ithaca, New York, to learn how to brew the best cup possible.
During my time there, Liz Clark (pictured above), an energetic young woman who is responsible for overseeing sourcing and quality control of the company's coffee, as well as being director of education, showed me how to do exactly how to brew the best cup at home. Here are her 6 rules, plus some commentary from when I tried it myself.
1. Use really good water "We're obsessed with good water. If you don't have great-tasting water from your tap, use bottled," she said, brandishing a jug of Poland Spring, which is a popular bottled brand in the Northeast. Coffee is 99 percent water. "Don't use distilled—it can result in bitterness." Otherwise, Clark recommends using a water filter.
Barry's notes: At home, I experimented: Poland Spring vs. Estabrook tap water (which comes from a rural well). No difference. I'll continue to forgo the bottled stuff and avoid the expense of a water filter.
She then proceeded to do something that I've never seen anyone do in a home kitchen: she poured the water into a carafe that was positioned on top of a digital scale. "We always weigh water," she said. "The formula is 1 gram of coffee to 14.3 grams of water. Or you could weigh it once and eyeball it afterward," she said reluctantly. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, an industry group, recommends using 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for 6 fluid ounces of water (3/4 cup), which will get you pretty close.
Barry's notes: I remain firmly in the eyeball camp. No way will I go to that trouble, especially in my groggy morning state.
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2. Grind, then brew immediately "Fifteen minutes after beans are ground, you start losing the volatile aromatics that give coffee its scent and flavor, and after 24 hours, they're pretty much gone," Clark said. She poured a few beans into a grinder and switched it on until they ran through, then dumped them in the compost bin, just to purge any residue from previous grindings. (She also regularly cleans her mill with tablets called Urnex Grinds.) "Use a burr, or mill, grinder rather than a blade grinder," she said. Unlike blade grinders, which give uneven results, burr grinders produce a uniform grind. You also lose less of the essential oils, which get whacked out by blade grinders.
Barry's notes: I purchased a $50 burr grinder. The new machine did produce uniform results, although at a noise level that sent my partner running from the kitchen and exacerbated my pre-caffeine headache. Still, I retired my faithful blade grinder.
When the machine had done its work, Clark placed a bowl of the ground coffee under my nose. The coffee grounds were medium grind (the texture of sugar granules), and had a bouquet every bit as floral as a good Pinot Noir's. "It's also important to buy fresh beans," she said. "If you don't have a coffee shop that roasts its own in your area, order your coffee online. Most specialty companies roast on demand." Paying for the highest-quality beans is a waste of money if they are stale, she said. You will get a better cup of joe from fresh beans of lesser quality.
Barry's notes: Freshly roasted beans should be labeled: "WARNING! The contents of this container are so good you'll never go back to the coffee sold at your local supermarket." The difference was so noticeable that I became a convert.
3. Drip it Clark prefers the drip method (also referred to as pour-over) for her morning coffee. It delivers an excellent cup with minimal hassle. Her tool of choice is a Chemex coffeemaker, a simple device with two glass compartments, one above the other.
Barry's notes: I use the same method, except with a less-fancy Melitta filter setup that drips directly into my cup.
The coffee grounds are put into a paper filter in the top compartment and water is poured over them. But before adding the coffee, Clark rinsed the brewer and filter with hot water, which she poured out, to preheat the vessel and wash any paper taste from the filter.
Barry's notes: I couldn't detect any difference from the less painstaking "pour it on and let the paper taste be damned" approach.
Related: Deliciously Healthy Recipes for Coffee Lovers
4. Use the Goldilocks principle The correct water temperature, neither too hot nor too cold, is necessary for a good cup. Ideally, according to Clark, it should be between 198° and 204°F—several degrees below water's boiling point. At home, you should let the kettle cool for a few minutes after it comes to a boil.
Barry's notes: My usual method isn't too far off. Out of curiosity, I took the temperature of the water after my boil-and-wait method (Clark would be proud) and discovered it was too hot—210 degrees.
But as with every aspect of her coffee ritual, Clark prefers to be precise. Plus, she's a bit of a gadget geek. She heated the water in an electric kettle with a thermostat that can be set to warm the water and then hold it at the ideal temperature range—in this case 202 degrees.
Barry's notes: I try to avoid adding new gizmos to those already clogging our kitchen countertop, so I had my doubts. Wrong! The new high-tech kettle brings the water to a pre-set temperature immediately and holds it there. My daughter is getting her first apartment shortly. I'm sure she'll appreciate my old kettle.
5. Pour slowly and evenly After checking the temperature gauge, Clark dribbled a little water over the ground coffee, just enough to moisten it. Once it had soaked in, she poured more water in and then stopped. "You want to let the gases escape," she explained, and sure enough, bubbles rose to the surface of the grounds and then burst. She poured the remaining water over the grounds slowly and in a circular motion to ensure that it was evenly distributed.
Barry's notes: I now dribble, watch the bubbles rise, then pour slowly in a circular motion. My partner thinks I've lost my mind, but I find the ritual mesmerizing, even if I can't detect much difference in the end result.
"You can over- or underextract coffee," she said. "Overextraction makes it bitter. That is caused by three things: too long a brew time, water that's too hot or coffee that's too finely ground. If your cup is too bitter, adjust those factors. Underextraction makes the coffee sour and oily. It's caused by just the opposite mistakes.
6. Avoid the cardinal sin Even after you've brewed great coffee, it can be ruined by a mistake that's all too common. Never leave coffee sitting on a heating element, such as those found on many automatic- drip coffee machines. A good rule of thumb, Clark said, is never to drink a cup of coffee that was brewed more than an hour earlier.
Barry's notes: This brings back memories of a coffee machine that provided day-long, hot caffeine to a newsroom full of reporters—a horrid, tar-like liquid with distinct notes of burnt rubber. I've never allowed an automatic coffee maker in any kitchen of mine since.
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