How to make good coffee

Dawn makes bad coffee. At least she realizes it. That’s the first step to overcoming this terrible affliction.

Here’s roughly how to make good coffee:

Beans

Start with fresh beans. They should have a strong smell and look slightly oily.

  • If they’re bone-dry, they’re stale.
  • If you bought them in the grocery store, they’re stale. (Yes, even Trader Joe’s.)
  • If they’ve been exposed to air for too long, they’re stale.
  • If you don’t remember when you got them, they’re stale.

Coffee beans are only fresh for a few days (or weeks if you’re optimistic) after they’ve been roasted. The best thing to do, short of roasting them yourself, is to buy beans from a local roaster.

(Anything in your grocery store has been sitting on trucks, pallets, and shelves for months. This is also true of prepackaged beans from Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks.)

Ask for whatever was most freshly roasted. If you’re lucky, they’ll still be warm.

Buy the smallest amount they’ll sell you (usually a half-pound) so you won’t still be using stale beans 2 months from now. Exhaust your supply and get a fresh refill as often as possible.

Storage

Store them in an airtight container. Do not keep them in those square bags with the air-valve thing (if they came in one) after opening it. That’s a one-way valve, intended to let air out as they cool from roasting. Once the bag has been opened, the seal is broken, and no matter how well you fold the top, it’s not airtight anymore.

You don’t need to refrigerate or freeze them. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. When you take out the cold beans, condensation will form. Then, when you close the container, you’re trapping in a bunch of moisture. That’s bad. Beans need to be kept airtight and dry.

Grinding

When you’re ready to make coffee, grind the beans. Don’t grind them the night before - once ground, there’s a lot more surface area exposed to air and going stale. Smell that delicious coffee aroma after you grind? That’s your flavor escaping. You want that in the coffee.

Grind to a medium-fine level. In a typical spinning-blade grinder, this is about 10 seconds’ worth.

Use about 1 scoop (tablespoon) of beans per “cup” (as defined by your coffee maker, not your mug). Some people use less because they don’t want too much bitterness, but this is a fallacy. The flavors extracted from beans come out unevenly: when you pass more water through an “exhausted” bean, bitterness is extracted. If you really want weaker coffee, you can always dilute it with hot water afterward.

Brewing

Filter the water. A regular Brita pitcher or comparable imitation is fine. If you’ve previously used unfiltered water in your coffeemaker, you may want to clean it to remove mineral deposits.

French presses are fun, but you can get great coffee from regular drip makers, and the press usually isn’t worth the hassle and cleanup. Presses are also very unforgiving about inconsistent grind sizes — unless you have an expensive burr grinder, you’ll get grounds at the bottom of the cup and stuck in the filter mesh. So for most people, stick with a regular drip coffeemaker. I actually prefer the taste from drip pots.

Thermal carafes aren’t required, but they’re better than regular glass-pot makers if you have the choice. To keep the glass-pot makers warm, the base is continuously heating the pot. Reheating brewed coffee burns it and makes it more bitter. (This is one reason why percolators are the worst way to make coffee.) Ideally, no additional heat is applied after the water hits the grounds.

Make as much as you’re willing to — drip coffee tastes best when you fill up the pot. It’s nearly impossible to make only 1-2 cups well in a drip pot. Personally, the difference is so big that I’m willing to make 6 cups even if I only intend to drink 2 and throw the rest away. I get better-tasting coffee and I can buy fresh beans more often.

Drinking

Try not to add much, if anything. You may assume that you need to mask with milk and sugar because that’s true of bad coffee.

Good coffee has a complex, pleasant taste with many delicate components. Try it black, or only with a bit of cream if you don’t like it black. Please don’t add sugar.

Enjoy!

Also, Sanjay Shah (catsvanbags@gmail.com) is kind of an asshole.

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