It’s that time of year again, the kids are back in school, the traffic is getting thicker, the spider lilies are blooming, and thankfully the temperatures are finally beginning to relent. As a coffee roaster, I find this season of the year brings with it a sense of clarity and purpose. With a deeper need to focus I now begin to prepare for the beginning wave of the holiday rush. Like most ordinary folks, I prefer to sit down and plan my day with a good cup of coffee in hand.
One of the questions that I get pretty often is “Why doesn’t my coffee taste as good as it does at the coffee shop?” The answer is, “You get out what you put in.” The point being, if you use high quality ingredients you should expect a high quality product, however, if you use low quality ingredients then you can never expect a high quality product.
Finding high quality coffee here in the greater Birmingham area isn’t that hard these days. If you do an internet search on coffee shops in the area you would find there are around 40 listed online. Freshness is one of the first areas of concern when brewing great coffee. The fresher the better is my general school of thought. What do you mean by fresh? Well, it’s like the difference between cookies baked within the hour versus cookies baked a couple of months ago. You get the idea.
The differences in a home coffee brewer and a commercial coffee brewer are not only financial, but technical as well. First off, the temperature controls on a commercial brewer are set to a standard of 197-200 degrees, whereas home models can rarely get above 190 degrees. In order to extract the correct amount of solubles from the coffee the water needs to be in the higher range or you will have a weak and bitter cup of coffee. If the water is too hot (i.e. boiling) then it will extract too much of the coffee solubles and result in a strong and astringent character. Having the right temperature is essential to producing the best flavor, and while it is not impossible, it is very difficult to achieve in the home environment. This is one of the reasons I suggest using the French Press method at home, where you use water that is just off the boil.
Secondly, coffee is considered to be 98.7% water on average. That means that 1.3% of the flavor is coming from the coffee, but the primary component is water. That said, it behooves all of us to strive for the best water possible. In a coffee shop environment, most owners will spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on water filtration devices over the course of the year to ensure that their coffee (and water) is the best it can be. In the home environment, there are several ways to go about this. I recommend using an in the sink or under the sink filtration device. Never use distilled water for brewing coffee, as this leaves the water devoid of any minerals to help grab onto the coffee and extract it properly.
The third and most tricky point is how to grind the coffee. First of all, it is imperative to grind only as much coffee as you plan to use. I am assuming that you’re willing to get the best coffee possible; therefore, buying a grinder is the next step. The type of grinder is relative to your budget. There are two basic grinders available on the mass market: blade grinders and burr grinders. The blade grinder is a nice introduction to grinding your own beans; however, consistency of grind is not its specialty. That point belongs to the burr grinder. It may cost an additional $40 or more, but it’s well worth it in the long run. Don’t forget to match the correct size of grind to the corresponding method of brewing (Turkish, espresso, drip, French press, percolator, etc.).
Finally, in order to get the coffee to taste right, it must be brewed according to the correct coffee to water ratio. What this means is that you need to use the right amount of coffee with the right amount of water. A common recommendation is to use 2 tablespoons of coffee (or one coffee measuring spoon) for each cup (6oz) of water used. This ratio is really for you to decide, because in the end it comes down to your personal preference.
Brewing great coffee at home really isn’t that hard. The hardest part to duplicate is the experience, smells, noises and ambience of the coffee house environment. However, my hope is that you are able to sit with what you purchased and know that it was you who made the excellent cup you’re enjoying.
Birmingham Weekly welcomes Mike McElwain, who will be writing about coffee and coffee culture. Mike is the head roaster at Birmingham based O’Henry’s Coffee Roasting Company. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.