Many of us are sheltering in place, which probably means forgoing that morning trip to the coffee shop. Fear not though, it’s possible to make coffee house quality coffee in your own kitchen.
Engineering a better cup of coffee isn’t difficult. First though, you need to figure out what “better” means to you. There is no single “right” cup of coffee, there’s just the best version of what you love. Do you love your coffee rich and dark—thick enough to stand a spoon in, as my grandfather used to say? Or do you prefer something brighter, more of a medium roast that doesn’t overwhelm you with bitterness? Or perhaps you prefer a light coffee with some cream and sugar.
Once you figure out what you like, then you can start to improve it until you hit on a home brewed cup of coffee you love more than anything the local coffee shop has to offer. And make no mistake, I still spend my days at the coffee shop, working and enjoying coffee I did not make. Or at least I did, and I hope to again when this pandemic ends, but I also know that if coffee shops for some reason disappear from the world tomorrow, I can still enjoy a great cup of coffee at home.
Sign up for the Gadget Lab newsletter for news and reviews you can use.
The Daily Grind
When it comes to food, the better your ingredients, the better your meals. The same is true of coffee. You have to start with good beans. That doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune on rare beans that have been crapped out by a civet (yes, that’s a thing), but it does mean that this is the place to start if you want to brew a better cup at home.
I’ll start with the most obvious upgrade: nothing will improve your coffee experience more than switching from pre-ground coffee to whole bean coffee you grind yourself shortly before making it.
The flavor (and caffeine boost) of coffee comes from the oils inside the bean. Once that bean is ground up those oils begin to break down. Ground coffee generally has a shelf life of less than a week. In most cases the ground coffee you see in the supermarket will have been on the shelf far longer than that. This is why I suggest you buy whole bean coffee and grind it yourself.
I know what you’re thinking: that’s a pain. But it’s really not. Good coffee grinders make it totally painless and fast.
My wife is more pragmatic and uses Oxo’s Brew electric burr grinder ($100 at Amazon, $100 at Williams Sonoma) which will spit out freshly ground coffee in about 20 seconds. Do you have 20 extra seconds in the morning to radically improve your morning coffee? Yes, you do.
Upgrade Your Beans
Now that you have a nice grinder to freshly grind your coffee, which beans should you buy? This again becomes a matter of personal taste.
For lighter, brighter coffee, go with a light or medium roast coffee.
For darker and richer coffee, go with a dark roast.
Whole bean coffee stored in a cool dry place will last up to a month. At least that’s what coffee purists will tell you. Personally, I buy in bulk every two months and I can’t tell any difference between the end of the old beans and the fresh new beans. On the other hand, I do buy from a local supplier to ensure that the beans are as fresh as possible (Jittery Joe’s Roasting Company in Athens, GA).
If you’re unsure what you like, try a subscription service that sends new beans every few weeks. Blue Bottle Coffee has subscriptions, as does Angel’s Cup, which sends samples in unmarked bags for unbiased, blind taste testing.
Once you’ve settled on a type of bean you like, I suggest trying to find and ecologically friendly dealer. After considerable research, the one coffee certification that seems to have the best guarantee your coffee is both organic and shade-grown in an ecologically-friendly manner is the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird-Friendly Certified stamp.
How to Brew Better
You have a good grinder. You have good beans. How do you produce a reliably good cup of coffee every time you brew? This is the fun part: just experiment until you get it the way you love it.
If you want to have reproducible results, make sure you weigh out your beans and water using a good scale like the Apexstone scale with timer so you can track the pace of your pour-over (for example), and take notes. It may sound nerdy, and it is, but after experimenting for a few days you’ll likely find something you love, and if you have notes, then you’ll know how to make your perfect cup of coffee every time—no matter where you are.
While experimentation is fun, here are a few suggestions to get you headed in (hopefully) the right direction. You can use nearly any brewer to brew any cup of coffee, but some brewing methods lend themselves better to different types of coffee.
Dark coffee lovers should try a Mokapot: My fellow dark, rich coffee lovers will likely enjoy brewing using a Mokapot. My favorite is the Primula ($25 at Amazon, $25 at Walmart. It’s simple to use, produces consistent results, and is the closest thing to espresso you’ll get without investing in an espresso machine.
Medium roast fans should consider a pour-over: If you like a clean, bright medium to light roast coffee I highly suggest trying pour-over brewing. The most popular pour-over is the Chemex ($48 at Amazon), but I find it fragile and the filters are expensive. It does produce a smooth cup of coffee though. Another good option is Bodum’s pour-over coffee maker ($56 at Amazon), which uses a re-usable stainless steel filter.
Light, refreshing roast enthusiasts may like AeroPress: Those looking for a light brew would be well served by the AeroPress, which excels at extracting the subtlety and depth of even the lightest coffee roasts. We really like the newer AeroPress Go ($32 at Amazon), which is more compact.
In Praise of the Classic Drip Brewer