coffee ready
Good Coffee
filled coffee cup with steam rising

For the better part of 16 years, I've been in almost daily pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee, and the methods for achieving it consistently. It's a tricky business, but I've learned to hit far more often than I miss. And even when I miss, the result is now usually at least as good as what a typical coffee shop serves.

This may sound obsessive. It is -- good art always is. And the making of good coffee is a complex art. There is no one simple secret. It takes time, care, and a little hard work.

But if you're willing to do what it takes, the following tips should dramatically improve the flavor of your drip-brewed coffee at home. The principles should generally apply to other brewing methods, too. Here they are in order of importance, in my experience:

  1. Clean the brewer
  2. Buy fresh coffee
  3. Keep it fresh
  4. Use fresh, clean water
  5. Use the best ratio of grounds to water
  6. Buy whole beans
  7. Shy away from the darkest roasts (French & Italian, for example)
  8. Stir the pot
  9. Drink it straight

  1. Clean the brewer

    The most important element of good coffee, by far, is a clean brewer. I owe this one to experience as well as recommendations of coffee purveyors. This applies especially to the parts that the coffee directly touches: the pot, the basket, and the compartment housing the basket. Coffee has oils in it, and oils are sticky. Any coffee residue left in the brewer or pot from the previous brew cycle has gone stale or rancid, if it's been more than a couple of hours; you don't want that stuff flavoring your fresh coffee. The only way to get it off is with warm, soapy water, a sponge, and a penchant for thoroughness.

    • The Pot: Try this: wet a white paper towel, napkin, or cloth, and wipe the inside of your pot with it. See the brown? That's bad coffee flavor in your next pot. So wash it out with a sponge in warm, soapy water every time before you make a pot of coffee, if it has been more than an hour or two since you made the last pot. Be sure to get every area of the pot that the coffee touches, including around the spout.
    • The Basket: Take a look at the inside of your basket, where the filter sits. It should look practically new. If it has any visible film or crud on it, scrub out the whole basket with warm, soapy water. I find that if I rinse it out with hot tap water immediately after the coffee is done brewing each time, it only needs to be scrubbed out about every 10 pots or so. That may vary depending on what type of brewer you have, and on how oily your beans or grounds are. Some systems use a metal mesh basket/filter. Clean and dry those immediately after every pot so they don't get cruddy and rusted. Empty the grounds into the trash as soon as the brewing cycle is finished; the basket will be easier to clean and will stay cleaner.
    • The Basket Housing: There is some kind of little ceiling with a spout in it above the basket. When the water drips or pours into the grounds, it splashes coffee up onto that area. Over the next couple of hours, that gets stale and rancid, and when you make your next pot, water again splashes up there and some of it drips down, defiling your fresh coffee. Ick. Wipe that whole area off with a wet coffee filter (hey, they're a lot cheaper than paper towels!) at least every other time you brew a pot. I check it every time, and wipe it more often than not. Sometimes it seems to need it more than others.
    • The Cups: If you use a dishwasher, you may find that it doesn't always rinse the soap completely off things that are on the top rack, like coffee cups usually are. Detergent residue is not a friend to coffee flavor! Simply smell them -- if you smell any dishwasher detergent on them, rinse them in the sink with good, hot water before refilling them with you hard-earned fresh coffee.

    Besides those parts that make contact with the coffee itself, crud builds up in the water compartment over time. How often you need to clean it depends on the quality of the water you're putting in it. We'll address that in a minute, but suffice it to say that no matter what, some mineral build up will eventually occur. The best way to get it out is to run white vinegar through the pot. Let it sit in the chamber for a while, if possible, before sending it through into the pot. Then run several pots of water through it until it comes out smelling and tasting clear. 

  2. Buy fresh coffee

    This I learned by experience. Coffee beans can retain some semblance of freshness for as long as six months from the time they're packaged, assuming that they're vacuum-sealed immediately after roasting, and remain sealed until you get them home. Coffee in a factory-sealed steel can will last longer than coffee in a vacuum-packed bag, but neither will stay fresh forever, and once you open it, it goes downhill fast. Always buy coffee in some kind of vacuum sealed container. Avoid coffee beans that are stored in non-airtight bins, like they have in many grocery stores and certain specialty coffee shops in the US. If those beans have been sitting in the bin for more than a few hours, they're well on the way to being stale. You'll get better results from pre-ground coffee in a can (a small can!) than from whole beans that have been stored in a bin for a couple of days (or weeks, or months, or...?).

    Check the packing date or expiration date on the container -- anything you can find to give you some idea of how fresh it is -- and get the freshest batch available. If you buy at Starbucks™, expiration dates are printed on the back at the bottom. Don't be shy about checking through the bags to find the ones with the furthest date out. From what I can discern, their expiration dates are exactly six months from the packing date. If you can't find a bag of what you want that has a date further than five months away, ask whether they have some in back. They should be happy to get it for you, knowing from your question that you are a coffee connoiseur.

    Where to buy coffee online. Some online purveyors, like Peet's Coffee & Tea™, beancentral.com, and Coffee Fool™, roast coffee to order. Lucid Café's Café Forum has a world-wide list of them. I have tried several, and Peet's is the best that I know of, by far. I've ordered dozens of bags of coffee from them and always been delighted.

    But, remember, coffee is a seasonal product--it was created by God, after all, not invented by a manufacturer! In God's economy, there is a time for everything. I have found that the freshest coffees during each part of the year are:

    • In late winter and early spring, African and Arabian coffees
    • In late spring and early summer, Latin American coffees
    • In late summer through early winter, Asian coffees

    There is also the roasting style to consider, and it may be worth it to you buy somewhat less fresh coffee, if necessary, from a place that roasts it they way you like it.

    StarbucksStore.com

    I used to buy almost all my coffee at Starbucks, even though it was not always as fresh as I wanted. I tried numerous online roasters, and typically got very fresh coffee, but not very well roasted, or of inconsistent quality. Peet's has turned out to be a gold mine: every bag is masterfully roasted, and it always arrives at my door two days after roasting. I still pick up a bag or two of Starbucks Black Apron Exclusives™ when they first come out. But, you know, a couple of weeks after it hits the shelves it's just not fresh anymore. Not compared to Peet's, anyway. It's still usually very good, though. Some of the best.

    freshness bubblesOne way to tell how fresh your coffee is (besides the flavor) is by looking at the grounds immediately after brewing. There should be many little CO2 bubbles resting on top of the grounds. The more bubbles, the fresher the coffee. If there are no bubbles, your coffee is dead. Bury it without ceremony and get some fresh stuff. Your taste buds will thank you. I learned that from the US public radio show, The Splendid Table. From Peet's Coffee & Tea website (see sidebar above on left) I learned that this characteristic is called "bloom." Bloom includes the bubbles in the brewed coffee, too. The exception that proves the rule, here, is aged coffees. Sometimes, a roaster will recognize that the beans need some time for the flavor to mature. Raw beans may be aged for months or years, with just a handful being roasted now and then to see how it's coming along, before the whole lot is roasted and sent to market. Well aged coffees are special. They are likely to be very mellow and yet robust tasting. 

    Other characteristics of freshness (info courtesy of Peet's) are:

    • A deep, fragrant aroma that swells up to greet you when you open the bag.
    • Essential oils on the surface of the beans look wet and glossy.
    • A complex, lively flavor.
  3. Keep it fresh

    The enemies of freshness are oxygen, heat, and time. The old adage, "Store in a cool, dry place" applies here. Reseal your container as well as possible, and keep it away from anything that produces heat. This is how I treat the vacuum-packed, plastic-coated foil bags of beans that I usually buy:

    • Open it immediately before putting the beans in the grinder, and close it back up immediately thereafter. Carefully fold the top back down, squeezing out as much air as possible, and fold the tabs around the bag to keep it folded down properly.
    • Put the sealed coffee bag into a one gallon zipper bag, squeeze the air out of that, and zip it shut.
    • Put the zipper bag into an air-tight ceramic container. My container is not quite big enough for a double-bagged, full pound of coffee beans; so, until I've made a few pots, I store it in the door of the refrigerator instead; the coolness slows down the oxygenation. Some purveyors say never to put beans in the fridge because the condensation that can collect on them when you take them out can cause them to go stale quicker. But I've found that if you get the beans out and back in quickly, and grind immediately, they don't have time to change temperature and so condensation has no chance to build up.

    Once you open a vacuum-sealed bag, use it up within about a week, two weeks at the most (one day if pre-ground). Don't open more at once than you can drink in that time. Buying a giant can of Folgers™ that lasts you three months may save you a few cents but it costs you dearly in flavor. 

  4. Use fresh, pure water

    This comes recommendation of all fine coffee purveyors and is confirmed by experience. In most places, tap water has a lot of minerals, chemicals, and other impurities that will adversely affect the flavor of your coffee. Moreover, impure water will grunge up your water tank and pipes much more quickly, requiring more frequent maintenance. This can be as true of well water as of city water. If you have a whole-house or on-tap filter, you may be OK, as long as you keep it changed on schedule. A better (or additional) solution is a filtering jug, like those made by Brita™ and PUR™. (I'm partial to the latter.) artsy coffee cup Commercially sold spring water may be even better, though it's about 10 times more expensive. The harder your water, the worse coffee it will make, because the alkaline minerals react with the acid in the coffee, reducing the "snap" of the flavor. Water softeners actually make the situation worse, since they add salts and do nothing to remove the alkalies. The only cure is to remove the alkalies (and softening salts) with a filter.

    If you use the more common type of drip brewer, you can simply start using pure water with your next pot. If you have a Bunn™, remember that it stores water in a heating tank; you'll need to power down, empty the tank, refill it with clean water, then power back up. Otherwise, you're just mixing clean water with dirty. It's probably best to clean it out with white vinegar first, anyway. 

  5. Use the correct ratio of grounds to water

    All coffee experts seem to agree that the best coffee flavor is obtained with six ounces of water for every two (level, true) tablespoons of ground coffee. With a deep coffee scoop labeled "1 Tbs," I've found that one heaping scoop of whole beans yields nearly two level Tbs, of the kind you use for baking. If you use less water for that amount of coffee grounds, you haven't extracted the full coffee flavor from the grounds. If you use more water, you begin extracting too many of the oily substances. If the result of brewing with this ratio is too strong for your taste, simply add a little clear hot water to the pot. Running more water through the grounds will result in coffee that is not only weaker, but also more bitter.

    One of the benefits of using a Bunn™ is that you can simply pour water through the brewer after emptying the grounds, and you've immediately got coffee diluted with water of the perfect temperature. My wife likes it diluted about 8 or 9 parts brewed coffee to 5 parts plain hot water. Unfortunately, the filter in my brewer tends to overflow if I use more than 10 Tbs of grounds at once, which means I can only make 30 ounces of full-strength coffee at once. My routine, when brewing for just the two of us, is to make 30 oz, pour myself about an 8-9 oz cup of full strength, then dilute the remainder with 12 oz of water (which is as little as can be poured through at once on the kind I have), yielding about 33 oz of diluted coffee for my wife. That means my second cup is diluted, too, but that's OK. 

  6. Buy whole beans and grind them yourself

    It's quite possible to make a very bad pot of coffee with fresh-ground whole beans. Believe me, I've done it many times. On the other hand, with a clean brewer, fresh pre-ground coffee, and clean water, it's possible to make very good coffee. The problem is, ground coffee only stays fresh for an hour or two. If you want fresh coffee, but want to buy it pre-ground, you will have to buy a new package every day.

    The two keys are:

    • To minimize the time between grinding and brewing, and
    • To minimize the amount of time that the container is open.

    Clean your brewer and get your water ready first. Then open the bag of beans, grind them (resealing the bag while the grinder is working), dump the grounds immediately into the basket, and pour the water through without delay. That way, a bag of whole beans will stay relatively fresh for a week or so, although you will notice the freshness beginning to flag after the third or fourth day if it was really fresh to start with.

    There is more than one kind of grinder, and the differences are important. The cheapest kind has a spinning blade at the bottom of a small compartment. Frankly, you're probably better off using pre-ground coffee than grinding beans with this type. The blade has to spin too fast, which burns the grounds, and it's impossible to get a consistent grind size with it.

    You really need a burr grinder of some kind to get a grind that is consistent and not over-heated. There are a few out there that you can operate by hand, but that's an awful lot of work. A good quality electric burr grinder can be expensive -- beginning around $70 US and going for as high as $400 -- but they're worth it. There are a few kinds of burr grinders, offering different quality and features. The least expensive kind is a high speed direct drive. They heat the coffee a little bit during the grind process, which is less than ideal, but they are far superior to a blade grinder. More expensive are the low speed gear reduction type; they avoid heating the coffee, and are quieter than high speed grinders. The most expensive type is the low speed direct drive. They consistently provide the ideally even, cool coffee grounds that a true connoisseur will appreciate, and their operation is whisper quiet.

    Once you've decide what features you want, see if somebody's selling one on ebay. You can usually get it for a lot less that way, and never leave the house! :-) Search under Home > All Categories > Home & Garden > Kitchen > Small Appliances > Coffee, Espresso Making > Coffee Grinders.

    Once again, cleanliness is important. Good burr grinders tend to keep themselves fairly clean, but you should wipe them out now and then. Follow the cleaning instructions that came with yours, and use your nose to tell you when a stale or rancid smell is beginning to build up on the hopper or catcher. That will happen more quickly with more oily beans. A little warm, soapy water and a rag will quickly put them back in new condition. 

  7. Shy away from the really dark roasts

    In the words of one master roaster, you might as well brew charcoal as french roast coffee. Italian roast is even worse. The darker the roast, the more the coffee is charred, and the less distinct its coffee flavors will be. You may be familiar with the way good chefs set aside the worst pieces of steak for well-done orders, and the nicest ones for rare and medium rare orders. There are a couple of good reasons for that, and they have a parallel in the coffee world. A good roaster will save the best flavored beans for the lightest roasting, and use the commoner beans for dark roasts. Heavy roasting replaces coffee flavor with charred flavor, so why waste good flavored beans on a dark roast, right? Stick with medium and light roasts for the richest, coffeest flavors.

    plain coffee cup

    In my opinion, Starbucks™ does the best job of roasting toward the dark end (but not dark enough to be "French"), enhancing the flavor as much as possible without charring the beans. I have yet to find coffee anywhere else that consistently has both a sensuous smokiness and rich coffee flavor. However, I buy most of my coffee from Peet's™ now because they get it to me as fresh as is humanly possible every time, and they roast it masterfully every time. Peet's™ tends to be less intensely smoky tasting but freshness is more important to me.

    A more comprehensive understanding of the subject of roasting can be found online at Lucid Café. 

  8. Stir it in the pot with a wooden spoon

    This tip, given by the Gevalia™ coffee company, helps marginally. If you don't have a wooden spoon that's free enough of other food flavors, use the handle as a stirring stick. At the very least, slosh the coffee around in the pot good before you pour the first cup, and you'll get a more balanced flavor. 


  9. Finally, brethren,...drink it straight

    Don't add a thing to it. In my opinion, most people who put cream and/or sugar in their coffee do so because they've never tasted really good coffee. Stale coffee beans/grounds make bitter coffee; a dirty pot makes bitter coffee; typical city water makes bitter coffee; using an incorrect ratio of coffee grounds to water makes bitter coffee. Naturally, most people are going to ameliorate and obscure the bitterness with extraneous substances. But coffee made according to the directions above should almost never be bitter, and thus may be enjoyed just as it is. Of course, some people drink coffee because they like milk so much, or because they want a sweet treat. That's fine, but understand that in the process you're obscuring one of the world's most wondrous flavors. Try it straight for a week -- you'll never go back!

Peet's Coffee & Tea

Why Bother?

Why go to all this trouble over coffee? Wouldn't our time be better spent doing something useful? Something helpful? Educational? Spiritual? I would answer that the pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee is all of the above. How so? Fundamentally because "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein" - Psalm 24:1.

First, coffee is made by God. That means it is inherently a good thing. (Goodness, here, must be distinguished theologically from righteousness. This is the goodness that God affirmed during his act of creation and preparation of the earth in Genesis 1.)

Second, God made coffee for us to enjoy. If you buy a toy for your child, and they treat it with disinterest or take it for granted, how does that make you feel? It gives parents pleasure to see their children enjoying what they provide for them. So, when we enjoy God's good gifts, we are doing something inherently good. Taking care with the making of coffee, then, is part of our service to our Creator, part of our worship -- our acknowledgment of the worth of his creation tacitly acknowledges his worth.

Third, as to educational value, the determined pursuit of something elusive educates us both about the details of the subject explored and about human nature. It provides an intimately understood analogy for life's less concrete pursuits.

So, then, God is pleased by our enjoyment of his goodness as manifested by coffee; and we find some fulfillment and understanding of the world through taking care to make it well and enjoy it fully. That's what makes all the work and the ensuing pleasurable olfactory and gustatory experience worthwhile practically, educationally, and spiritually. Plus, it tastes good.


Copyright © 2004-2006
David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL, USA

Background image scanned from a bag of Starbucks™ Special Reserve coffee, available only in the late fall. I think this was a 2002 bag design.