Tuesday 15 March 2016

Dramatically improve your coffee at home - three key steps

Like most people, I like a lovely coffee at home before I go out and have another lovely coffee, made by a barista with immeasurably better honed skills.

I talk to a lot of people about coffee and get a lot of questions about 'best coffee shops', 'best home coffee machines' and 'best coffee beans'.

With both budget and coffee quality in mind, I would recommend a manual brewing method for home (filter, aeropress, chemex, cafetiere etc.) rather than an espresso machine. I think it's a lot harder to get a great cup of coffee out of a home espresso machine without considerable cost and training than manual brew methods.

On that basis, here are the most important ways you can dramatically improve your home brew, in no particular order: 

  • Use great beans
  • Get a burr grinder
  • Weigh your ingredients.

Doing these things will make the taste, texture and aroma of your coffee so different to what you've had before, that it may well feel like a different drink. (Big call, I know, but bear with me)

Additionally, because you can taste your coffee much more clearly i.e. you can taste separate flavour attributes rather than a general flat 'coffee flavour', it's much easier (and more fun) to try different beans. It's easier to work out which beans you love and those you can live without... and there's a never ending stream of new beans to try so you'll not tire of it.

A bit more information to back up my audacious claims...

Use great beans - Just like cooking, if you use excellent ingredients, you don't need to do much to them to create great tasting food.

  • Buy your beans from a specialty roaster or coffee shop to suit your brew method (espresso, filter, aeropress etc). You can expect to pay between £6-11 for 250g and buying in larger quantities can be cheaper. Edinburgh has some great places to get beans.
  • Ask the barista or roaster for brewing advice for the specific beans you buy - all tips are useful and they know their product better than anyone.
  • Don't buy too many beans at once and keep them in an airtight container or in the bag they come in if it's re-sealable - this will stop them going stale quickly. (Don't put them in the freezer).
  • On bags of high quality beans you should be able to see the roasting date - if there isn't one, this is grounds for concern (pun intended). If there is a roasting date, it should be recent (days not months). There's lots of different advice about the optimal length of time between roasting and brewing - 24 hours to 7 days - but that's your ballpark for good flavour.

Photos coffee-channel.com
Get a burr grinder - Burr grinders are easy to get, won't break the bank (they start at around £30) and create uniform sized grinds effortlessly.

  • Grinding your high quality beans just before you use them is critical. This is because ground coffee starts to lose flavour and aroma as soon as it's exposed to oxygen. We're talking discernable degradation in minutes not hours.
  • You also need to be able to adjust the size of your grind to suit your brew method and your specific beans (your barista or roaster may have advised you about this when you bought them). The basic plot here is that you want:
    1. your grind to be the optimal size so that 
    2. the temperature-perfect water passes through the grinds at the optimal rate, 
    3. dissolving the valuable coffee oils along the way to 
    4. the optimal level
    5. creating a tasty, well-proportioned cup of coffee.
  • Baristas dedicate their lives to this pursuit - so it can be extremely scientific. However, for the home brewer who has other things to dedicate their lives to, playing around with the grind size (coarse to fine) so the coffee tastes good is still going to be very rewarding, especially when combined with the next point.

Weigh your ingredients - Your basic recipe has two ingredients: water and coffee (after which some people add milk and perhaps sugar). You'd weigh the ingredients for any other recipe, and you should do the same for coffee - every time.
  • You can use your digital cooking scales or buy specific coffee scales fairly cheaply (starting at around £20). The coffee scales have a timer as well as the weighing function which is handy, but not essential if you use a timer on your watch or phone
  • If the holy grail is getting the water to pass through your coffee optimally as outlined above, then you'll want to have a consistent and correct ratio of coffee to water. And, if possible, it's good to keep track of the time it takes for the water to pass through the coffee. If it's too fast, the coffee is too coarse, if it's too slow then the coffee is too fine.
  • For example, your barista or roaster who sold you your lovely fresh beans for your aeropress, may have suggested you use a fairly fine grind. Your aeropress recipe may say 17g of coffee to 220g of water along with some guidance about how long to wait between adding the water and pressing it down to make the coffee. If you weigh your ingredients and follow consistent timing then you'll not only make consistently nice coffee, you'll be able to compare a Rwandan to a Brazilian, or a Costa Rican to an Ethiopian, because the main variable will be the coffee bean, not the recipe.
  • Recipes? I hear you say... a quick 'coffee brew guide' search on the internet will bring up plenty of guidance from credible baristas and roasters. Locally Steampunk and Artisan Roast have brew guides.
That's it. Three things - infinitely better coffee. Hope it helps!

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