You’ll likely never rival the brewing handiwork (or the fashion sense) of the barista at your favorite coffee shop, but with a little experimentation and attention to detail it’s possible to make excellent coffee at home
Diana Mnatsakanyan, director of coffee at Undercurrent Coffee in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a Specialty Coffee Association-certified barista instructor, says investing in a few tools and paying closer attention to your ingredients can pay off with a much more satisfying coffee experience. “It's about making incremental improvements to the things you’re doing at home,” she says.
Whether you’re using a bargain percolator or a high-end brewing device, there are a few important considerations to keep in mind to maximize your coffee experience at home — even if your latte art will never make it to Instagram. Here are some tips.
Stick With Quality, Fresh Coffee
Mark Howell, General Manager of Green Coffee and Tea at Community Coffee Company, says the first step to enjoying a great cup of coffee is to start with a high quality product that is 100 percent Arabica coffee. The coffee should be roasted with care to bring out its unique characteristics and packaged immediately after roasting with high-quality materials and a one-way valve that maintains the coffee’s freshness until you open it.
Air, moisture, heat and light can all compromise the flavor of your coffee, so it’s important to store your beans in an opaque, air-tight container at room temperature. The National Coffee Association says coffee’s retail packaging is generally not ideal for long-term storage; it suggests investing in a storage canister with an airtight seal to prolong the fresh-roasted flavor that makes for great coffee.
Even if you’re taking steps to seal off your coffee, keep in mind that the average shelf life of coffee is only about two to three weeks after roasting, although some lighter roasted coffees can last up to two months.
“To avoid diminishing the quality of that great coffee you bought, only buy what you would readily use in a week or two and store it correctly,” Howell says.
Invest in Some Equipment
For coffee lovers looking to take their brewing game to the next level, there are a few basic tools that can help. A quality coffee grinder, among the most important and least expensive tools for good coffee, offers a great return on your investment.
Mnatsakanyan suggests avoiding common electric grinders that use metal blades because they pulverize the beans and typically result in an inconsistent grind. When it’s time to brew, the hot water will extract flavor from bigger pieces and tiny specks of coffee in an inconsistent manner. “You can buy the absolute best coffee in the world, but if your grinder is a little blade grinder, it’s pointless,” she says. “You’ll end up with a really uneven and unpleasant flavor.”
Instead, she recommends picking up a hand grinder, which can be found for under $30, or a more expensive electric burr grinder that breaks down coffee in a more uniform way without using blades.
Once you’ve mastered the grind, take a cue from bakers and add a small kitchen scale to your coffee-brewing repertoire. Different varieties of coffee have various densities, which means the same size scoop of different varieties may not weigh the same. A scale will help you ensure the ratio of coffee to water is correct no matter what type of bean you’re using.
That ratio, by the way, is heavily dependent on the brew method you choose to make your coffee. For example, for a pour-over method or a basic filter-based automatic drip percolator, the recommended coffee-to-water ratio is between 1:14 and 1:17, by weight.
Choose Quality Water
Even though coffee is 98.9 percent water, many people overlook this vital ingredient and simply use water straight from the tap. The Speciality Coffee Association of America has detailed standards for water used in coffee that specify factors such as the chemical and mineral content.
If that’s too complicated for your taste, there are still a few basic guidelines to keep in mind. “Water should be odor-free, fluoride-free and chlorine-free,” Mnatsakanyan says. “It should be clear and fresh.”
Mnatsakanyan says to avoid distilled water because the absence of minerals can cause it to over-extract the coffee, creating a heavily bitter flavor. When brewing coffee, she opts for tap water filtered by a standard charcoal filter or bottled spring water from the supermarket.
Preheat Your Brewing Vessel
Last but not least, try preheating the vessel you’re using to brew. A cold French press, for example, could cool your water to below the desired range for extracting flavors from coffee during the brewing process.
Coffee should be between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit for brewing. Below that range and the water won’t extract enough flavor from the coffee beans; water above 205 degrees will over-extract. “It doesn't have to be super hot,” Mnatsakanyan says.