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How to Make Perfect Coffee (theatlantic.com)
185 points by jonbaer on Aug 23, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 121 comments



This article attempts to delve into the world of hand-brewed coffee, which became a trend in the professional barista world after Starbucks acquired the Coffee Equipment Company for its Clover Machine in 2008. The Clover was an $11,000 coffee maker that allowed for the precise digital control of every aspect of the brewing process. When Starbucks yanked the machine from the market for exclusive use in their stores, the coffee industry rebounded to more analog brewing methods that relied on the art and craft of the brewer. By providing pourover bars with $12 ceramic funnels in place of $50K espresso machines or $10K brewers, baristas strived for perfect coffee through individuality, as they highlighted method, bean, and flavor. What this article attempts to highlight is the fact that this hand-brewed coffee equipment is both accessible and affordable, thus allowing home brewers the opportunity to appreciate the effects of coffee freshness, grind, temperature, and proportion during the brewing process.

The article could be drastically improved by highlighting the bisection between immersion and pourover brewing methods in hand-brewed coffee. Immersion methods, like the French Press, leave all coffee beans in the full quantity of water for the brew time, and by using filters that remove only coffee grounds, produce a flavorful, full-bodied cup of coffee with natural oils. Pourover methods, such as the Chemex or the V60, generally combine the use of a paper filter with a specific coffee grind to limit the rate at which water flows through the coffee, generally in a cone-shape, which results in a "clean" (less oily) cup of coffee with more fruity and citrusy flavors. The line between immersion and pourover coffees is blurred by hybrid brewing methods such as the Aeropress or the Syphon, which mix ground beans and water for the full brewing time, then extrude through a filter that extracts oils from the coffee.

To get started in the world of hand-brewed coffee, I suggest the Aeropress and a burr handgrinder (total <$40). This combination allows full experimentation into the effects of grind size and extraction time on coffee flavor. The next step would be acquiring a scale, to perfect the proportion of coffee and water. A thermometer would then provide insight into the variable of water temperature, which generally is about ten degrees Farenheit below boiling. Moving forward, the brewer learns about the benefits of preheating the device, the speed of extraction (here, plunging) and its effect on flavor, and about the freshness of beans based on the bloom period of the coffee.


I don't get all this fanfare over coffee with respect to all these processes and equipment etc. In a blind taste test, much like wine, I reckon a lot of it is the knowledge and observation of the process rather than flavour or the outcome.

For me, a dirty knackered Bodum french press bought in a charity shop in 1997 for £1 and the cheapest value brand ground coffee the supermarket sells works. Sometimes I can't be bothered with that and just instant.

Perhaps I'm sad but I've spent the last decade playing a game with people. When I lie about the coffee's heritage just to see, they remark that it's good. If they do know the genuine story, they make no remark. I've even thrown some instant in a cup or two next to people drinking pressed as a control and there is still a consensus.

YMMV but I think it's mainly hokum.

Suppose I better tell them all now :)


I've performed limited double-blind taste tests to check whether I'm fooling myself about liking quality coffee, and the results indicate that no, I really can tell the difference.

In fact, it turns out I can taste the difference between beans ground with a high-quality burr grinder and a blade grinder, brewed in an otherwise identical way.

If you can't, then I don't see any problem with continuing to use what are perceived as lower-quality beans. But assuming that everyone has exactly the same taste sensitivity as you probably isn't 100% accurate.

(Note: all of this assumes you're drinking the coffee black, that you're using at least a reasonably well-controlled brewing process, and that your water isn't utterly horrible. If any of those things aren't true, it's entirely likely it's much harder to taste the difference.)


Ok, maybe so. But its pretty easy to fool yourself. Did you do the brewing? Then any difference in color/particulates you notice ruin the experiment.


I've been into coffee for a while now. I've been lucky enough to know people in the industry. You can absolutely tell the difference between brewing methods, beans, roast levels, cleanliness of the machines, etc ... I can't say what method is better or worse, that is up to the individual, but there is a difference.

The beauty of coffee, is that you can brew multiple cups quite easily and do proper experiments.


I did the brewing myself. But I'd invite you to repeat the test and see if you can distinguish between the two brews by colour.

The visual difference between two identical-bean, identical-brew-method cups of coffee where the only variable is the grinder is, to my eye, zero. The placement of the cup in the room relative to the primary light source will be by far the most significant element.

(Note: this was cafetiere-brewed coffee, not espresso. Had it been espresso, I'd 100% agree with you that the trial wasn't appropriately blinded.)


I can only tell the difference between cheep coffee we make at work and what I'd consider decent to good quality coffee. Since I don't drink a lot of coffee I just use a Keurig machine since I can tell the coffee is a lot higher quality then instant but don't notice a difference between it and Starbucks.


The only difference I can tell is if it's french pressed or not. You do get more oily coffee with a french press if that's your kind of thing.


I don't notice the oil with the french pressed coffee at all. The coffee was much more oily when I used my moka pot. French pressed reminds me more of turkish coffee, just less sediment.


If you tell someone that the coffee you're giving them is special, won't good manners dictate that they compliment it?


A French press ( cafetieres for non-colonials ) will produce great coffee without a doubt and I certainly don't use anything more expensive than that.

Cheapest value-brand coffee though I will take exception to, there is a massive difference in taste between freshly roasted, roasted some what recently and dust in a packet even of the same bean variety.

I can't tell the difference between 1% and 2% milk in a blind taste test, I can tell the difference between good and shit coffee by blind smell alone never mind getting it to my mouth.


as a black coffee drinker I'd just like to point out the obvious here - crap coffee is clear when you drink it black. in your latte nobody notices. oh, and lots of expensive brands with Italian names including often wat you get from a trendy Batista, are actually crap coffee.


I'll go one further. I bought the nastiest robusta as green beans, roasted it myself, and I liked it more than instant or supermarket stuff. Sure it was rough, strong and had an aftertaste like overheated rubber, but I enjoyed it. If it was purely about taste (doing it yourself seems to give a somewhat more positive feel to bad coffee) I'd probably rank it pretty damn low. However good green beans as a home roasted option are unbeatable IMHO. Cheaper than the cheapest supermarket brand, always fresh (I roast probably 2x per week). The heatgun I use for roasting cost about $5US. Try it.


And in case anyone thinks I'm some kind of coffee snob who's trying to justify his purchase of obscure double-cat-shit-only-harvested-on-a-full-moon-by-blind-virgins coffee beans I actually drink medium roasted Columbian, the most middle of the middle of the road when it comes to coffee.


> I actually drink medium roasted Columbian

No, you don't. You drink medium roasted Colombian.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colombia


No, I get coffee from the same guy who used to supply Peter Falk.


I'd suggest that you try serving the same people freshly roasted and ground coffee from a clean french press and pass it off as cheap coffee. Afterwards, serve them the cheapest coffee you can find from dirty coffee equipment and tell them it's high end coffe.

I'd be surprised if they don't prefer the "cheap" coffee. The only exception is that some people will actually prefer old, bitter coffee made with dirty equipment because they're used to that taste. Just like some people will prefer McDonalds to a good restaurant because that's what they're used to. Still doesn't make good coffee or food "mainly hokum". :)


A lot of people expect coffee to taste bad. That's why it's rare to find someone drinking it black. I conducted a fairly large number of ad hoc singly-blinded tests in college on friends to get them to see what I saw in coffee. People often do "like" "bad" coffee but never once believed that it had more flavor or was preferable to drink black.


These things are detectable in blind taste tests, unlike wine. I did one myself to test how much the time-since-ground made a difference in flavor. I had 1 month, 2 weeks, 1 week, 2 days, and fresh grounds. In a blind test I correctly put them in order, except for transposing the 2 day and 1 week old grounds.


I kept all grounds in a ziplock freezer bag in a dark room-temp cabinet. As I went from freshest to least-fresh I found that there were flavors missing and more bitterness and acidity.

What I meant about wine is that there is a lot of stuff in the wine world that people obsess over, but is not detectable by even experts. For example, the differences in regions of origin, price of the bottle, etc. I'm not saying that everything in the wine world is BS but there is plenty of if. Even experts have been fooled with food coloring into describing white wines with adjectives normally used to describe reds.


There's two separate issues here.

One is whether wine experts are able to detect certain flavors or even figure out the grape variety and origin of a certain kind of wine.

The other is whether in blind tastings cheap wine is consistently rated as inferior to expensive wine.

I've found people in the wine industry can figure out where wine is from with surprising accuracy. But their skill is not in the least based on a judgment of how much they like the wine. It's about having an encyclopedic knowledge about which wine is associated with which flavors and production techniques, and then matching up what your nose tells you with one of those taste profiles in your head.

Once you know what type of wine you're tasting, you can infer the price category:

* French Pinot Noir is generally more expensive than New Zealand Pinot Noir.

* Wine that's been in new oak barrels (evident from e.g. vanilla and toasted flavors in the wine) is more expensive than wine that hasn't been.

* Wine that tastes only of red and black fruit is probably young and thus cheap, wine that tastes of weird things like truffles and what-not is likely to be older and thus more expensive.

* Sweet white wine which tastes like marmalade and honey and nuts has a good chance of being made from grapes with noble rot, which are picked individually, berry by berry, and thus result in incredibly expensive wine.

* ... and so on.

So the link between quality and price in wine is very tenuous, but that doesn't mean professionals "can't tell the difference". They can.


Professionals are a self-selected group, perhaps with vastly superior noses or some such. It has no bearing on My enjoyment.

Other trials use undergrads, who couldn't tell any wine from any other wine, no matter how you run the experiment.

I'm probably like the novices tested, less like the professional. Maybe you're different.


> It has no bearing on My enjoyment.

Exactly so. I just wanted to note that "expensive wine doesn't always – or even often – taste better" and "experts can reliably spot the difference between cheap and expensive wine" are not incompatible statements.


That's interesting. So you found that while fresh ground coffee is still different (one would assume best, but lets go with different) -- if you're "pre-grinding" one week old is fine.

Did you keep it refrigerated? Room temperature? Dark/daylight? Sealed?

Btw, what do you mean "unlike" wine? Certainly there's a difference between wine that's been left to breathe, and the same wine straight out of the bottle (well "wine" is a bit wide, but for many good wines).


He means that most people cannot tell the difference between different wines based on quality or cost in a blind taste test. If you tell them it's a high quality label, they drink it and act that way. If you tell them it's a low quality label, they don't use fancy descriptors when you ask their opinion. What it really is doesn't correlate with the results at all; it's all placebo.

And what the other commenter said is also true. Most people can't even tell a difference in color. If you serve white wine dyed red, people describe it as they would red wine, and vice versa.

EDIT: Citations:

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wine_tasting#Blind_tasting

[2]: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/23/wine-tas...

[3]: http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/handle/37328

[4]: http://www.yumsugar.com/Wine-World-Reels-2-Buck-Chuck-Wins-A... (not a citation in the strict sense, but a demonstrative reference)


Well... the gaurdian article is fucking useless because it doesn't break down the numbers, for all we know 39% got it right one hundred percent of the time, 39% percent got it wrong one hundred percent of the time and the remainder was just flipping coins. Which may very well mean that 78% absolutely can tell.

That AgEcon paper actually bears that out, though obviously much less dramatically, the hoi poloi can tell the difference and they (to a small extent) 'prefer' the cheap stuff, and the experts can tell the difference and they 'prefer' the expensive stuff.

'prefer' standing in for perceived quality not necessarily enjoyment.

Yes "most" is still legit word to use here, BUT, please try to find anything, anything at all, where "most" people can unambiguously determine 'quality'.

And hell price is a piss poor predictor of quality in just about anything, what with price being some combination of supply, current profit strategy (loss leader?, cash cow?), social signaling, manufacturing cost, number of middlemen, and about a billion other things.

---

The color study was a group of like a dozen oenology undergrads.

A handful of oenology undergrads is not "most people". It's not a large enough N, and there are different pressures on a student in field when describing wine than a random consumer. For all we know they could all tell the difference but none of them wanted to be the asshole to look at a glass of red fluid and say "you know I don't think this is a fucking red".

---

As for coffee I'll go see if I can dig it up but I'm pretty sure there was a test that recently showed 'most people' couldn't tell quality either and just preferred stronger over-extracted coffee to "good" coffee.


From the wikipedia article:

"One of the most famous instances of blind testing is known as the Judgment of Paris, a wine competition held in 1976 where French judges blind-tested wines from France and California. Against all expectations, California wines bested French wines according to the judges, a result which would have been unlikely in a non-blind contest."

So, the judges can taste the difference, but they aren't honest unless it's a blind test. That's very different from saying there is no difference...

Now, that people can't "tell a difference in cost" should be almost a tautology -- what moron thinks that what tastes better will be more expensive, all the time? All things being equal, if you can, from a given, source, make something that tastes good and bad, with approximately the same amount of work, you'd think you make more that tastes good, and due to the benefit of producing large quanta, the good stuff would be cheaper?

In fact, if "most people" prefer the cheaper wines, I guess the wine industry people are doing their jobs, and selling most of what most people want. That doesn't mean it's what I (or you) want, just what "most people" want.

Incidentally, my tastes in coffee doesn't correlate very well to the description of what "most Americans" prefer, in the article, but that doesn't mean that I don't see that it makes a difference in taste what beans you choose, how you grind it, and how you brew it. It just means that I'll consistently make coffee "most Americans" would think is far too strong and bitter. No problem, let them drink whatever kind of coffee they prefer. But don't try and tell us there isn't a difference in taste.


by unlike wine ze means that there's a couple studys out there showing

  a) price is suuuuper loosely correlated to quality
  b) you can get some undergrad oenologists to describe (some unspecificied) whites like reds if you add food coloring
From which people --who apparently think color is the only differentiator in wine-- leap to the conclusion that the there is no discernable difference between a chianti and a reisling ice wine. Hell no difference between a malolactic chard and and non-mal chard. And that only posturing fools would drink anything but boones farm.


Which is funny, as a far as I know, the main reason for price difference in coffee is scarcity, not "quality". Although, as for most things, the crappy stuff is cheaper.


Try doing it as days since roast. I like 30 mins old (well, cool enough to grind) lightly roasted (just after first crack). This type of roast seems to get progressively worse for 2-3 days then gets particularly good from for 2 or three days. After that it's stale. The darker the roast, the less effect time has on its taste as far as I can tell.


I think we're all susceptible to mood affecting taste, and like in medicine, where the placebo-effect may often be real -- if the goal is to enjoy the best taste, then being "fooled", doesn't have to be a bad thing (just like being "tricked" into getting better isn't a bad thing, but basing medical research on it, probably is). Ceremony can add to any experience; and it may be overdone and detract from it.

As for taste varying by how you make the coffee; I'd say that it does -- but assuming you're not doing anything "wrong" -- the differences would be subtle and dominated by the type and preparation of the beans.

Just like you can take a prime cut of meat and burn it to a crisp, you can ruin good coffee -- but the difference between getting it "just right" and "almost right" are much more subtle.


I wanted a [citation needed] on that blind taste test bit, but I went ahead and found it myself.

For the curious, it's true, most people can't tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine[1].

[1]: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/apr/14/expensive-win...


>I think it's mainly hokum.

Ha! I completely agree. Drink snobbery, whether relating to coffee, beer, wine, or [insert beverage here], has always seemed like confirmation bias in action. Is Startbucks really undrinkable sludge to some people, or is only that way because of that sweet, sweet feeling of smug superiority that they feel when they say it?

I am one of the few that is nerdy enough to blind test myself and friends with things that have an entire culture of snobs around them -- a trait which I picked up after working in the audio industry for years (where people will believe and argue to the death about magical cable properties (give me measurements, or give me death!)).

If I could assemble enough coffee samples, I would love to put myself under test and see if one is empirically "better" to my taste buds. However, logistically it's not possible.

That said, beer and wine is readily available, transportable, and easily testable! So, my girlfriend and I set up a tasting night a few months ago. We grabbed a 6 pack of every cheap beer in the grocery store (pbr, miller lite, Natural Ice, bud, etc..), and then a whole range of wines -- everything from the $70 2011 wine of the year, to a $3 ABC brand bottle. We randomized each trial, poured the wines into glasses and then left the room so others could enter so we wouldn't influence their decisions (our attempt at setting up a double blind test). We had people log their impressions of each one, and then attempt to rate them in ascending order of "quality."

After 4 or 5 trials (it stopped being fun around the 3rd set of trails) we called it quits and looked at everyone's results. It was pretty interesting. In with cheep beer, there was only one consistent looser, and that with Miller Lite (I honestly expected it to be Natural Ice), the rest were all randomly distributed. No one could tell one from the other -- or if one was better than the other -- with any reliability. It actually made it a little frustrating while testing, as some people (including me) though they were being messed with by having several glasses all with the same beer.

The wine had similar results. No clear winner. Result were all over the place with the "best" tasting wine being different for each person each time. With my pallet, I couldn't discern one as being "better," so much as just "different." This one is a little more X, while this one is a little more Y. It was an interesting experience. So, moral of the story, I only buy cheap wine now, because I honestly can't taste the difference. That $70 bottle wasn't even distinguishable from the rest.

I've rambled, but I highly suggest self testing! It's fun, and I can now say that, empirically, Miller lite is undrinkable piss water to my taste buds :)


Beer snob here, with a nitpick!

The beers you picked (PBR, miller, bud, etc) are all one single beer style, which BeerAdvocate classifies as an American Adjunct Lager. I'm not at all surprised that you couldn't tell one from another, but if you picked beers out of a wide variety of styles, I'm positive your taste buds could differentiate them.

American Adjunct Lagers: http://beeradvocate.com/beer/style/38

All Beer Styles: http://beeradvocate.com/beer/style


Right, right. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that all beer is the same! The specific thing under test was the assertion that some of the "shitty" beers are better than others -- the stuff you can get a 12 pack of for under $10. The thing that spawned the test was someone objecting to me picking up a pack of Coors because it was on sale, to which I asserted that all of the cheap stuff is indistinguishable from one another, and thus snobbery is not needed. Which ultimately lead to our science throw down.

It was a very narrowly scoped test.


Starbucks roasts their coffee very dark - until there is a distinct char flavor. Can you tell the difference if I lightly parboil asparagus, or throw it on the grill until it is blackened? Of course you can. Are their flavor differences between rare and extremely well done steak? Huge differences. Same with coffee beans.

Note that is not a judgement on the roast level - obviously tons of people like it. But the more you roast, the more the char (carbon) flavor dominates. I don't know if it destroys the rest of the flavors, or just masks them, but for me it removes all of the reasons to drink the coffee. I don't see the snobbery in that statement.


Do tons of people like Starbucks as drip coffee or plain espresso, or do tons of people like it whacked out with half a cup of sugar and 14 ounces of steamed milk? There's a big difference. (And by that point, as many joke, it's not coffee anymore but a milkshake).

What you call "char" I call "burnt", and I've seen a lot of opinions that agree and bring up multiple conspiracy theories as to why (cheaper shipping costs, higher caffeine concentration among others).

I'm agreeing that it's not snobbery to say that Starbucks wrecks some of the great flavors that properly made coffee can have. This isn't like wine where anything that isn't spoiled is usually drinkable. You can make bad coffee, accidentally or deliberately.


I'm super into coffee. I have a ton of different pieces of brewing hardware, roast my own beans, etc. I've always hated the snobbery aspect of people who are super into anything, so I've thought of a few general rules of thumb for coffee drinkers that can up your game.

First and foremost, just cleaning whatever you brew your coffee in makes a huge difference. Even if you use a $9 Mr. Coffee drip machine, wash the glass carafe, drip cone, etc. with mild soap, and rinse. You will taste a huge improvement in the taste of your cup of coffee.

I've landed on a simple ceramic drip cone, kettle, and coffee mug for being the absolute best brewing system because its so easy to clean.

Freshness of the beans is a big factor. Coffee beans are exploding with flavor 1 to 7 days after they're roasted. After that it still tastes like coffee, but complexity around the flavor starts getting lost. This is why I roast my own beans, and its also really cheap ($6-$8 per pound as opposed to $14-$20). http://www.sweetmarias.com/ is a great place to buy green coffee beans in the Bay Area and you can roast them stove top without buying additional equipment.

When you start getting into roasting your own coffee or buying stuff that's 1-2 weeks from the roast it makes sense to get a decent grinder to preserve flavor. Lots of people buy blade grinders because they're so cheap, but they make it really difficult to brew coffee with a ceramic cone filter. You want to shop for a burr grinder which cost $40 for a hand grinder up to $80 for a decent electric grinder.


Whenever I wash my glass carafe with soap, either I rinse for more than ten minutes or I can still taste the soap - so I don't do that. I usually do successive rinses for a minute, but if I'm feeling serious I use (cheap, store bought) lemon juice and baking soda. If I haven't rinsed those enough, I don't mind the trace of citrus and sodium.


As an analogy, you might be hard pressed to tell the difference between two burgers cooked the same, but made with different kinds of ground beef. (Grass-fed, organic, etc.) However, you might well notice the difference between cooking one rare vs. well done, or one cooked on a charcoal grill vs. fried in a pan. Hand brewing vs. using a Mr. Coffee or an Aeropress is much the same. It does make a difference in how it tastes, and the big difference is a matter of preference.

There's also the matter of doing things right vs. wrong. Whether your ground beef was from Whole Foods might matter a whole lot less than whether it was properly refrigerated or whether the cook burned it. When it comes to coffee, Americans have been trained to tolerate beans and grinds that are a bit on the old and stale side. Some people go to a shop for beans roasted yesterday or today for the improved flavor, and some go to that shop as a matter of conspicuous consumption, and for some it's a mix of the two. It's the same as any foodstuff.


I love doing blind wine tasting, and I do it every time I can get enough people together who are down for it. That said, I think it's easy to draw a hasty conclusion from a very small sample of wines.

The thing with wine is that, regardless of price, there is a huge variation between wines at any price point, and a huge variation between individuals' palates. Until you know what you like, then you should expect that, with a set of randomly chosen wines, there will only be a mild correlation between price and enjoyment.

On the other hand, once you know that, for example, you like aged traditional Barolos and don't care much for Napa cabs, then it won't surprise you if you like the $40 Barolo more than the $150 cab.


If you want to do blind tests on beer snobbery, why would you choose a bunch of shitty American Lagers? If you had put in higher quality beer along side those lagers, I'm sure any seasoned craft beer drinker would know the difference. If you put a line up of different beers of a similar style, most "beer snobs" would be able to distinguish them, which ones they prefer, and most likely would be able to pick out their favorite if it was among the lineup.

I'm not sure how blind testing a bunch of cheap beer helps with your hypothesis that "Drink snobbery, whether relating to coffee, beer... has always seemed like confirmation bias in action."


I failed to make it clear, but the thing under test wasn't that Guinness is better than Bud Lite, but the assertion that some cheep beers are better than others -- a snobbery which pops up every time I order a pitcher in a bar. That one was really more of a fun testing anecdote of narrow scope.

The wine test on the other hand, I don't think you could take issue with, as its snobbery is second only to -- I'm not even sure, whiskey drinkers? The test was set up exactly as you'd want the beer one to be

>If you put a line up of different beers of a similar style, most "beer snobs" would be able to distinguish them

Just sub in "wine" for "beer." And the snobs failed.


"Don't know what all the fuss is about", "good enough for me" may mean that you have low standards as much as it might mean other people are faffing about needlessly. Perhaps your friends are just being polite and laugh at your cheapskate ways when you're not there.


Mind you, I wouldn't call a friend polite who laughs about someone behind their back, nor a friend, for that matter. I tend to trust people on face value, and I've seen that these sorts of blind studies apparently vary in their success depending on whether the person implementing them claims to have or not have this magical "coffee pallet" as I'll put it. Long and short of things, I don't expect people to be QUITE as backhanded as you suggest, I also don't trust people to do "good science", and I'd need to see a properly empirical study before I made up my mind in either case.


Haha, I can kinda agree with you on this point. And I will admit I do love a good Starbucks VIA Italian Roast (Instant Coffee). But Keurig stuff just tastes like shit to me. Also the local coffee shop only sells watered down lightly roasted acid.. So can I tell handmade from instant, no, not always, but I can always tell you whether I like it or dislike it. And I always, ALWAYS drink coffee black. If you don't you get no say it what tastes better, cuz you just watered it down with milk and destroyed any flavor it had with sugar...


Have you tried Starbucks in the Keurig cups? That tastes better than Starbucks VIA, to me.


I have not, perhaps I should. My biggest beef with the K-cups is that it always seems to be too watered down. With the VIA (or actually brewing my own) I can control the strength(water/coffee) ratio more to my liking. Granted, I probably like my coffee darker and more "dense" (full bodied) than most... I tend to gravitate towards the French Press and Moka pot brewing methods. (The moka pot is something I discovered when I lived in Italy, it was really the only method I saw people brewing in their own homes, and I found it works great for me, in that it's smaller quantities (I'm only a single dude, I don't need a full drip pot..) and "fuller bodied".)


Years ago I used to buy and store wine, but I lost interest in it for this very reason. It is difficult to tell the difference between an inexpensive Cote Du Rhone and a $200 Hermitage, or the differences don't justify the cost (in my mind).

With hand brewed coffee the difference is much more noticeable. If are you in SF, stop at 50/50 on Geary. They spend more effort prepared their coffee than any place I've been. I think you will be surprised by the difference in quality.


Maybe you don't taste bitter very much. Most coffee that isn't fancy is weak and bitter. I could certainly spot weak coffee, and dark vs light roasts.


> The article could be drastically improved by highlighting the bisection between immersion and pourover brewing methods in hand-brewed coffee.

Did you miss the chart about 2/3 of the way through labeled "spectrum of body and flavor clarity" and accompanying discussion? It goes into exactly this and even uses the same examples of a french press vs pourover. They also recommend a burr grinder, scale, and thermometer as you do in the your last paragraph.

I'm forced to wonder if you read the article before returning here to critique it.


I can understand how people can read an article like this and think it's too much work or money to get a good cup of coffee. And many folks, including lots of programmers, view coffee as a utility beverage and are okay drinking anything that's drinkable. It's for these people that I wrote "The Coder's Guide to Coffee," [1] aiming for the sweep spot of cheap, easy, and pretty damn good.

Although I wrote it in 2002, the recommendation hasn't changed:

1. Buy only whole-bean coffee roasted within the last few days.

2. Grind it fresh, just before brewing. (Yes, a cheap "whirly blade" grinder is fine.)

3. Brew it in a French press or a pour-over filter using fresh water, off the boil.

That's it, in a nutshell.

I've gotten criticism for claiming that a cheap blade grinder is fine, but it's true. You can make better coffee using a better grinder, but just using any grinder lets you ditch pre-ground coffee, which is almost always stale, and switch to brewing with fresh coffee, ground on the spot. That one change produces a huge jump in quality. And I'd rather you experience that jump, even if you can't justify more than $10 on your grinder.

The other thing I'd add is that if I had written the Guide today, I probably would have included the AeroPress. It makes really good coffee, but there's a bit of a learning curve before it becomes an easy, reliable brewing method.

[1] http://blog.moertel.com/posts/2002-04-25-coders-guide-to-cof...


I don't even think you need the french press. My method for making fantastic coffee is simple Buy fresh-roasted beans Grind, then immediately.. Throw in a standard drip coffee-maker. Have my morning shower. Enjoy


Not bad. Agreed on fresh-roasted beans being the most important factor. The smell of stale preground coffee drip brewed can ruin my day, but fresh ground brewed the same way isn't so bad.

Still, I prefer the pourover/Aeropress style and if given the option will the standard drip machine as a pourover conversion. Just swing open the filter basket, put the coffee in a standard filter, and pour over hot water, letting it drop down into the carafe or a mug. Make it concentrated and top off with water.


no stirring? I always stir while the water is seeping through my pourover.

i should probably do some taste testing on that myself, but it seems most logical that you need to stir at least once, to make sure all the coffee gets wet.


I stir in the aeropress but not the pourover. I basically use this technique: http://stumptowncoffee.com/brew-guides/chemex.


I drink enough coffee that I've been working on finding better ways to prepare it.

Good beans matter a lot. I typically like medium roasts, since dark roasts often taste burnt, while light roasts end up tasting too weak. I also tend to not like Indonesian beans, since they tend to have too much peaty taste for my liking. That said, I've been drinking Kicking Horse dark roast[1] lately and it's quite good. Lots of flavor, nice oily beans, no burnt taste.

I boil water, then grind my beans after removing it from heat, which means that the water has cooled to around 195 by the time I pour it. The brew happens in a thermally insulated French press, which maintains the water temperature while it brews. It makes a remarkably smooth, flavorful cup of coffee.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B0027Z8VES


I think you'll find that dark roasts are popular now because they have a more robust, classic coffee flavor that stands up to the fat of milk. Lighter roasts seem to come off as citrusy and less flavorful for two reasons. First, roasters tend to use V60s to profile their beans, and the V60 disproportionately removes citrus flavor. The second reason is that many people drink their coffee immediately after brewing, when in fact the flavor completely opens up after the coffee cools down to about 140 degrees (about the temperature of a hot water faucet in a home).

Try a darker roast if you put cream and sugar in your coffee. If you have a lighter roast, be sure to let it cool down to appreciate its benefits. If you buy a medium roast, keep in mind that each type of bean is unique, and certain beans have unique qualities that are highlighted by their roast, so don't assume that the flavors you enjoy are particular to the "medium" roast.

Finally, keep in mind that lighter-roast coffees actually have the most caffeine. This is because heating the coffee breaks down the caffeine molecule, so the longer the roast process and the darker the roast, the more caffeine is broken down.


In general, I shoot for medium roasts just because they're safer - I like the richer flavors from dark roasts, but most dark roasts are just burnt, which makes for a really bitter and unpleasant cup. You're absolutely right about the range of flavors, though - I tend to like nutty coffees (not nut-flavored), and citrus/floral/peaty tend to be less appealing to me. Light roasts seem to accent lighter flavors, like citrus, whereas the darker to roast, the more accented the round, full flavors like peat and nut tend to be.

I actually drink my coffee black (for health reasons; I realized that I was taking in a ton of daily calories in milk and sugar) which is what motivated me to find better coffee. When you're masking the flavor of the coffee with additives, it's easier to get by with bad coffee, but when it's just the brew itself, the tastes matter a lot more.

The lighter roast = more caffeine thing is actually (kind of) a myth; you get less caffeine per bean, but since the dark roasting process removes more water, you actually end up with a higher caffeine-by-volume content in darker roasts. If you're using the same volume of coffee per pot (say, 4 tbsp), then you may actually end up with more caffeine from a dark roast, since substantially more of that 4tbsp will be the coffee itself rather than water left unextracted from the bean. However, the caffeine differences between something like a robusta vs an arabica bean are very significant, so if you need more or less caffeine, you can pick a roast you like with a bean that gives you the caffeine you desire.


Most roasters worth discussing use a process called "cupping" to profile their coffees. Even those not worth discussinh are far more likely to use this controlled, direct immersion method, than a paper filter brewer like the Hario v60. Not sure where you're getting this from.


I don't know if it's perfect, but you can do far worse than an Aeropress. It will make a really good americano with ordinary supermarket coffee, and an awesome one with good coffee.


I've been using areopresses for a few years now and absolutely love it. I still make cafatiere (french press), stovetop and occasionally vacuum-pot (usually if we have a lot of guests) but areopress is extremely good, and somehow makes even cheaper pre-ground supermarket coffee taste many times better.


The article actually goes into depth about what brew methods produce what results. On the scale of more body to more clarity, an aeropress is near the middle, but slightly more body-oriented. So if you prefer flavor clarity, you can do far better than an aeropress too!

Then again, this article is primarily about brew coffee, not espresso, so how it brews an americano is worthwhile contribution.


The Aeropress stands as the best $25 I've ever spent. It's amazing how good the coffee is from that (and I've tried nearly every other means of making coffee out there). It's also very travel friendly, I generally take it with me on trips with a little pre-ground coffee.


I used an Aeropress for quite some time. I stopped using it because it wastes a lot of coffee. I used to need a lot more grounds in an Aeropress for the same strength and quantity of coffee. And it was a pity to waste good coffee beans.


Everything you said. Also, the simplicity of the device and the preparation are appealing to me.


You want to know how to make a perfect cup of coffee? It's easy. Make yourself perfect and then just brew naturally.

EDIT: Jeez, downvoters clearly have never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


I can't downvote you, but I would if I could.

Here's why: http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/social-software-sundays-2-the-...

TL;DR:

Witty comments might be funny but promoting them is anathemic to serious discussion (in the long run). You can always go to Reddit if you're out to be witty and funny. I realize this sounds harsh and dismissive, I apologize for the tone. (Interwebs and all.)


But I think you also have to take into account the context of the comment. A glib comment would seem out of place in a more "HN-centric" post about VC or Scala or something, but when a fun story about, say, brewing coffee makes the front page I think the comment standards should naturally loosen up.


Lighten up, a joke here and there is okay. I thought it was funny, but it didn't diminish my ability to resume serious business, and it didn't push me to be witty in return. The echo chamber needs a stronger boost than that.


Grinders are so important with hand crafted, I've not dropped the $350+ on a Mahlkonig, and I go through a bag a week, so I'm happy to have the store grind. I do have a porlex hand grinder for times when I order a bean based pack from somewhere online, but it's time consuming.

One simple 'hack' for using a french press, as I prefer, is that when pouring the water over only pour enough to cover the grounds. Then stir/shake this around and let it sit for 30 seconds. Then pour over the rest of the water and leave for 4 mins without stiring.

I don't know the science behind it I'm afraid as I read this tip a long time ago, but that inital absorption rather than drowning - leads to a smoother cup. (in my opinion.)

Oh, and support your local roasters! I'm lucky that in my small city there is half a dozen independent companies knocking out great quality beans. For all the staff in their shops may look like the kind of people you don't want to ask a question of, do it, they probably really love coffee and will be able to help your home brew immensely.

--Edit : Beans from Peru are my fav at the momement, give them a shot. :)


My guess: Less water means less heat energy, meaning you don't "overheat" the coffee as badly. It tends to bring out the bitter taste. You find similar things with (proper) tea -- I suppose most infusions.

If you only have one french press it might be difficult to experiment; but like the top comment says; if you want to find out why, getting a thermometer might help (or a timer -- boil water and leave it to cool for x minutes before pouring -- would be somewhat harder to replicate with different ambient temperatures and different vessel, though).


Coffee is a drug and an obsession.

It affects mood & brain function rather strongly compared to other legal non-prescription drugs (alcohol for example being another). I am not surprised there are quite a few people who shell out thousands of dollars on hand crafted espresso machines.

It is pretty interesting. I can see why. I drink coffee and tea and I find myself day dreaming about my next cup of coffee. That is pretty weird. I never did any drugs so I guess that must be a one of the "signs" of addiction? ;-)

Speaking of perfect coffee, there is this latest craze out there and that brewing cold coffee. Not ice coffee as in brewing coffee with hot water and pouring over ice but instead let coffee steep in the refrigerator for 8+ hours with cold water. This is nothing new but I feel I keep hearing about it more lately. I tried it and it is actually pretty good. It is like a completely different drink. There is minimal bitterness and just a different taste profile. Try it the next time, put the grounds in your french press with cold water, stir it, but don't press it, put it the refrigerator for 8+ hours and then pour it over ice.


The best coffee I've been able to make at home is with a red plastic #4 cone filter holder and a large mason jar, slowly pouring boiled water over the grounds until the jar is full. Now they have those fancy looking chemex ones for $60 and I'm sure they make good coffee as well. I was seduced by the inferior coffee of a coffe maker because, well, it can have coffee ready for me when I wake up.


Forgive my ignorance, but a mason jar can withstand temperatures of 200+ without shattering?

I kind of feel bad asking this bc I have lived my entire life in the south (Dallas, Texas) so I feel like I should already know the answer; yet I don't.


If you mean 200f, yes. The traditional way is to sterilize them with near/boiling water in situ, to preserve foods without trapping pathologens.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mason_jar


They're frequently used to store jams, which can be quite a bit hotter than coffee when prepared. It wouldn't surprise me. Just don't plunge it into an ice bath right after filling it with boiling water.


Unless it's one of those rare Pyrex mason jars.


Mason jars are intended for canning. Typically that involves a boiling water bath. So, yes.


Interesting article, but they overlooked (or at least downplayed) what I think is the most important part of good coffee:

> They should be whole beans, sustainably farmed, and roasted within the past few weeks.

Roasted within the past few weeks? How about the past few hours? Seriously, if you haven't had coffee on the same day it was roasted, you don't know what you're missing. All the other variables of preparation method fall by the wayside in the face of the freshness of the roast.

Of course, roasting yourself is not really an option. Still, if you can find someplace that roasts their own on a regular basis, go for that. (For my part, I've been spoiled by the fact that almost every dry goods store where I live roasts their own, usually right in the shop...)


Actually according to Tim Wendelboe (a former world barista champion) you should rest fresh roasted beans for a few days to allow it to degas.

From http://timwendelboe.no/coffee/finca-tamana-espresso/ "When the coffee is roasted it develops a lot of CO2 gas inside the beans. This gas will make the coffee taste smokey and ashy immediately after roasting. It is absolutely crucial to let the coffee degas and rest for a while before use to ensure maximum flavour."

He gives a great talk on sourcing high quality beans here: http://vimeo.com/69487909


Was going to note this - I asked a local roaster about it and they said yeah, you're going to taste a lot of carbon dioxide. If you don't know what that tastes like.. you will.


>Of course, roasting yourself is not really an option.

Why do you say that? I've been meaning to try it after I saw Michael Johnston describe it as his hobby[1]. He bought a 300$ machine[2] that by his math will pay for itself since green bean is cheaper than roasted. Amazon also seems to have a few cheap and well reviewed home roasting machines[3].

[1] http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photogra...

[2] http://www.roastmasters.com/behmor.html

[3] http://amzn.to/1d9OvOB


Hot air popcorn poppers work really well.

http://www.sweetmarias.com/airpop/airpopmethod.php


I roast with a popcorn popper I bought at Walmart. They only last a few roasts before they "die" - that is just a heat fuse that is set too low. Buy a new, higher rated one from Radio Shack, and you are good to go. 25 bucks total including the surgery. This does require you to have an outdoors place to roast - if you live in an high rise in a city it's a no go.

By and large you'll want to wait a few days. I find it depends on the bean - some are great just out of the roaster, some are pretty bad. Some take a day or two, some take 5 to really come into their own. Or so I perceive, with non-blinded tasting.


I split a $300 Behmor purchase with my friend. My $150 contribution will pay for itself in 4 months. Green coffee beans are significantly cheaper.


This was a great read. I am not prepared just yet to deal with the inconvenience of buying, storing and grinding my own beans, but our household gets through a small packet of vacuum-sealed preground stuff each week. It's a workable compromise.

I've prepared coffees with french press (we call them "plungers" in Australia) and a mini espresso machine. Recently I've been playing with cold brew as well. Like the article suggests, different methods bring out different notes in the coffee.

For the next 10 days I am on decaf-only, so cold brewing has made life more tolerable. Decaf in the espresso machine is like liquid dirt. As a cold brew it has revealed surprising tastiness.


For what it's worth, grinding your own beans is not really any more work than pre ground. I think it's actually easier, since I don't have to carefully measure - I just know that I have to cover the blade with beans, and that turns out to be perfect for my size pot. I just keep my beans in a zip lock in a cabinet, so they stay dark and cool and air sealed. As a bonus, you can decide how fine a grind you like per pot.


The extra step of roasting isn't really that bothersome either. If it takes more than about 10 minutes you have baked them, any less than about 5 and they are scorched. Always fresh, very cheap (for me its about $10 New Zealand per kg versus $14 NZ per 200g) and you rarely run out. I get 5kgs per purchase and it lasts about 3 months. I use a heat gun ($15NZ) a wooden spoon and an old colander. Heat them and stir them outside.


I've been wanting to try my own roasting, but I've heard that the roasting beans smell truly vile, and I don't live alone, so I haven't attempted it out of courtesy. Any guidance there?


If possible, do it outside. A dark roast will be smokey. It doesn't smell bad, its more of a burnt toast type smell. The biggest problem is the chaff that comes off. I finish up by giving myself a quick dust. The beans each shed a thin layer of their shell as you roast them. If you are doing a dark roast this can also catch fire. If I was doing a light roast with a small volume of coffee (say 2 handfuls) I'd do it inside if my wife wasn't too close by.


It's mostly that I already have a grinder which I use for other purposes. Having two grinders just seems silly.


Peter Baskerville has the most detailed coffee writeups on Quora http://www.quora.com/Coffee/What-are-some-tips-for-making-a-...


I didn't know that cold brew even existed until I moved to Seattle, but its upended my world -- especially on hot, lazy mornings where I'd rather sleep the extra thirty minutes and grab a to-go cup from my fridge than go through the morning routine.


I have an AeroPress and a Bodum conical burr grinder. Buy beans from local, independent companies. Grind on medium-fine setting, 200 degree water, 1 AeroPress scoop of ground beans, fill up cylinder, stir 30 seconds, fill up again, place plunger on top to steep coffee for 30-60 seconds. PRESS SLOWLY AND GENTLY. Should take approx another 30-60 seconds to press the coffee out.

I freeze my beans, grind 5 days worth at a time, but keep in a extremely air tight container during those 5 days.

Edit: What I love about AeroPress is that I can buy it from many, local, independent retailers. The girl I bought it from didn't even know what it was, or that her store sold it!


I use an AeroPress when car-camping, and often show it to other campers if they complain about the difficulty of making decent coffee in the field.

A surprising number (1/3..1/2) glance at it and ask: "How do you make coffee with a breast pump?" I should start replying: "Follow the instructions: press slowly and gently."


I think a large part of making better coffee is a matter of iteration, or trial and error. If you do something and it tastes better, you keep doing it. But you're never sure if there's some patch of the search space that you missed, that's even better.

If anyone wants to make splendid coffee, and doesn't fear learning a significant new art I'd suggest roasting your own beans. You can do it with a heat gun or an air corn popper, modified. It's not simple and it's a bit of a fire hazard, but you can get satisfying results blasting some hot air at beans in a pot. Roasting can be more fun and aromatic than making coffee. It is amazing.

For a brewer you could get a sock pot aka woodneck (or just the sock without the pot -- or just muslin cloth if you want to make your own); or, a ceramic cilio-freiling cone, or an inexpensive melitta plastic cone. Both sock & cone are considered pour over methods but they taste different.

For a grinder there are too many choices to pick just one, and the good ones are expensive. For the grinder it may be safer to avoid mass-market products, just because it's too easy to make a mistake and buy an inadequate product.

[Edit: there is another effective trick to get better at brewing. Coffee brewing competitions. It is surprising how effective these are at improving the art. Watching videos of what the contestants are doing is one important tool for improvement.]


Pretty good article. I'm glad that it mentions freshly roasted and light roasting as the most important factors. This is true, but most people have never experienced it. Roasts a few hours old are the best!!

Article does not mention types of bean. Beans are themselves also dried in different methods. The most expensive coffee in the world is scooped up from poo after digesting in an animals stomach.

Also getting different types of air to blow over the coffee after roasting can change the taste a lot.

Finally... what you drink as 'coffee' is mostly water (and milk for many). Better quality water goes a long way. Your tap water probably tastes very different to mineral water, or rain water. Different types of blends mix well with different types of milk too. With milk, you can usually get away with a more bitter coffee.

The pour and grind are important I guess... it's what lets people make a ristretto for example. But not as important as the roast.

Finally, what many of these coffee articles fail to consider are asian methods. I guess it is either racism, or ignorance. Try Viet, and turkish styles for example :)

Coffee snobs! There is no 'good' coffee, just different methods and tastes.

ciao! xo


Even though I lived years drinking coffee brewed with a moka nowadays I think that If the coffee is not ristretto it is not coffee.

It's not hard to get nor to operate a small espresso coffee maker, and as a bonus you get to make not only perfect coffee but wonderful cappuccios. They go for about €120 on amazon, and for €20 more you can get a reasonably good electric grinder.

That's it for the hardware, now the coffee beans. As others mentioned, it's very important you get the good stuff. My taste is 100% arabica medium roast, yours may differ. BTW, what's your favorite coffee beans?

Anyway, no matter what beans you choose you have to grind them thin otherwise you won't get out of it those incredible flavors you're expecting due to lack of pressure.

After all this talk I'm having the need for a ristretto... So it's coffee time! :)


Arabica is a species of coffee; coffee changes from place to place depending on where it's grown.

I'm currently working my way through a perennial favorite, Tanzanian Peaberry, with occasional changes to Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and sometimes Kenyan.

Yeah, I like East African coffees. Although I'm less thrilled by a bag of Rwandan I picked up -- it's not great hot, but it does reasonably well cold-brewed.


> Arabica is a species of coffee

I forgot to mention that I drink Italian arabica coffee which is usually is grown in South America.

Thanks for the tip on East African coffees. I'll look for it in my next buy! :)


Two teaspoons of Taster's Choice. That's my perfect coffee. It's quick, affordable and gets the job done. Doesn't taste bad either.


This was a great read, thank you for the post. I recently purchased a La Pavoni, I am not pushing any particular brand, but these types of machines, the manual type, honestly make the best Espresso, which in my view is the best way to enjoy coffee. I have tried every contraption out there over the years, by far a manual pump machine is the best.


As an outsider looking in, meaning I don't drink caffeine, this guide seems like something only an addict would create.


I'm too lazy to find links at the moment, but the same sort of guides exist for, well, just about anything. For example, see the "Pizza Lab" on Serious Eats: http://slice.seriouseats.com/the_pizza_lab/?ref=sectionnav


Indeed. Obligatory xkcd: http://www.xkcd.com/915/


Addiction may be a secondary effect, but I'd say the appreciation of good coffee flavor is the primary motivation. You can be addicted to caffeine and not care about good quality coffee. In fact, I'd say most coffee drinkers fall into the latter category.

To me it's simply the equivalent of a foodie's interest in preparing good food.


George Carlin once described being addicted to drugs as the enjoyment of the ritual surrounding the usage not the actual effect. He was addicted to feeling you get while preparing to get high possibly just as much as to the effects.


One man's hobby is another man's addiction.


I think I would prefer tips from their marine days on how to get maximum caffeine into it. Currently I just get three espressos in one coffee cup, but could use a more powerful technique. I don't really understand their chart with perfect in the middle between weak and strong, isn't perfect what comes after strong?


Just a heads up:

"How Unfiltered Coffee Can Cause Heart Attacks"

http://www.drmirkin.com/nutrition/8241.html

The original study:

http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/71/2/480.full


I'm liking my cowboy coffee right now. Made with whole beans, crank grinder, and camping pot. Boil water, dump in the grounds, cover and remove from heat, sit for ~ 5 min.


I just like really really strong coffee. What's with this "perfect" stuff? I want my coffee to be very flavorful and bitter.


An article entitled 'How to Make Perfect Coffee' is probably going to be as popular as 'Why Vim/Emacs/Nano is The Programmers Editor'.

There's at a certain stage a level of subjectivity, the perfect cup of coffee is the one that makes you smile. There's a similar argument made in photography that a perfect photo conforms to rule of thirds/perfect whitebalance/correct exposure triangle/tripod shot, but it's not always got enough soul to work.


What? 17.42 units of water to 1 unit of coffee? This is not perfect coffee, this is slightly flavoured water!


I suspect you are coming from the same background as me, where "coffee" means espresso. I need to keep reminding myself when reading these discussions that for most people in the US plain "coffee" means brew or drip type. (I'm Puerto Rican BTW, where most households use a moka pot[1] that produces coffee very similar in strength to espresso.)

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moka_pot


too much work.. need coffee in under 5 minutes of waking up


I'm in a similar boat. Any minute I spend preparing coffee is a wasted minute I could have been sleeping. It's hard to motivate myself out of bed in the morning, so a fast coffee prep is paramount.

I've tried plenty of methods, and for me, the easiest way of making 20 ounces is a Yama stove top vacuum pot. Look it up, it takes mere minutes to produce quality coffee.


Don't forget to drink perfect tea[1] while you're making this.

[1] See upcoming articles about how to make a perfect tea (involves drinking a perfect coffee).


I'm sorry but there's no way a French press has more body than a "Moka Pot". (also wtf with the gun comments/pic?)


useless article, like disecting a frog. nobody brews good coffee this way. It hardly even mentions roasting, goes into trivial details the will have negligible or no effect on the final product, doesn't even mention bean sourcing. A technical distraction; don't waste your time reading it.




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