While doing research for my posts I noticed that a lot of people have the right equipment to make great coffee, but aren’t following the right process to make great coffee. If your process works for you, then keep it, but if you think you have room for improvement, here are some suggestions:
- Buy better coffee, but better doesn’t mean more expensive. Great coffee doesn’t need to cost a lot, it just needs more thoughtfully sourced. For less than the price of coffee pods, you can get amazing specialty coffee. Read our full guide on buying coffee and also our guide on green/specialty coffee. Fresh and locally roasted whole bean coffee consumed 3-18 days (generally) post roast will have peak flavor. That doesn’t mean coffee is undrinkable after that, but I would not buy coffee that is over one month post roast. If your coffee doesn’t have a roast date and only a “best by” date, then don’t buy it. For this reason I don’t recommend buying coffee online unless it is from a specialty roaster with recent roast dates, otherwise you could be getting coffee that is months old. Explore light and medium roast coffee as that is where most of the origin flavor will come out, the darker you roast coffee the more they all start to taste the same. If you have the time, roasting your own coffee can be the most economical (and fun) way to get fresh specialty coffee, learn how here.
- Brew with quality water. Brewed coffee only has two ingredients being water and coffee, so make sure you are using good quality water. I use tap water for my coffee, at a minimum I recommend you run your water through a pitcher filter. You can get a decent under sink filter for pretty cheap also. What I use is this under sink filter which connects directly to my faucet. The filtration is good, and I don’t suffer a reduction in flow rate like you do with the other types of under sink filters and reverse osmosis system, these systems will do a better job with filtration, but have limitations such as using more water or having to have a second faucet with low flow rate. If you live in an area with hard water, it might be worth considering a water softener for your home, it will help with more than just better coffee, but help with soap scum and washer and dishwasher efficiency. If you really want to get crazy you can buy distilled water and add these Third Wave Water mineral packets for what they claim to be the optimal blend for coffee, I haven’t tried this as I really don’t like buying bottled water other than for emergency use.
- Measure your coffee by weight. This one is huge, I wish coffee companies would stop recommending using scoops and cups to measure coffee. See our coffee recipe charts for information on how to dose coffee and check out our post on why we should measure by weight. Also check out our recommended kitchen scales.
- Grind your coffee as close to your brew time as possible, preferably right before you brew. Coffee needs to be ground in an even and consistent manner for best results, blade grinders do a bad job at this so it is recommended that you get a burr grinder. I have a friend with a good coffee maker and a good burr grinder and was buying whole bean coffee and grinding the entire bag at once for the week, this is not recommended. For this reason, do not buy pre-ground coffee as it starts to become stale right after grinding. Now, the other day I had to wake up at 4am, so I ground my coffee the night before and put it in the coffee maker with a dry filter paper and scheduled a 4am brew so I didn’t have to wait for it.
- Adjust your grind size. Not all brewing methods use the same grind size, not all coffee types use the same grind size. Even between the same exact model, two grinders may not produce the same grind size. You could be using the same brew method with the same coffee beans and need to use a different grind size due to the size of the brew. For example with pour over, everything else being the same if you are brewing a smaller batch you should grind finer, and if you are brewing a larger batch you should grind coarser. These may just be one step difference in either direction, but the recommendation is keep grinding finer until the bitterness starts to come through, then adjust it back coarser for optimal extraction. If your coffee is coming out too weak or sour, that likely means you are grinding too coarse and should grind finer. For most brew methods, grind adjustment should be your primary method for modulating taste, not adjusting the ratio or other factors.
- If you are using filter paper, rinse it with hot water first. This can be hot tap water if you don’t have a water warmer or extra water from your kettle. You’ll get better results from bleached/white filters papers than the natural/brown ones. The brown ones are compostable which is good, but the white ones have less paper taste and are are bleached using a process called oxygen bleaching and are safe to use. Many coffee makers come with reusable screen filters, however I find that using paper filters has the best results, if you are worried about waste you can also try a cloth filter. As I mentioned above, only rinse the filter if you are going to brew right away, if you are setting an auto brew then leave the filter dry. This will also help to pre-warm your brewer which many people suggest.
- Use the right brew temperature. Another huge one. For a home coffee brewer, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) recommends a brew temperature between 197.6F and 204.8F or 92C and 96C. For methods like pour over, French Press, AeroPress and Clever Dripper, we recommend you use water that is fresh off the boil. You can save yourself money on buying a kettle without variable temperature and just use water fresh off the boil. If you are using a coffee maker, you can try to measure your brew temperature as close to the source as possible with a probe thermometer. Water loses temperature very fast, when I was testing coffee makers sometime I would think something was off with the temperature because I would run a brew without coffee or filter into the carafe, and by the time I tested the water after a brew it was 15-20F colder than what I measured when it was coming out of the filter basket. I would say, if your coffee maker is putting out water more than a few degrees lower than 190F, may be time to consider a new brewer. We have reviewed many brewers, both SCA and non-SCA certified, check out our recommendations here.
- Stir, not swirl, before drinking. I know it sounds like a cheesy James Bond quote, but it does make a difference. Coffee tends to stratify during the brewing process. Swirling doesn’t work as well as stirring with a spoon or stick to eliminate the stratification. Some coffee makers like the Ninja or Moccamaster have a brew straw or tube in the carafe to prevent stratification, but most don’t.
- Try the coffee black first. Especially with fresh roasted specialty coffee, drink it black before adding milk, dairy alternative or sugar. You may be amazed by some of the notes and aromas you will get. Also, if your coffee is too hot you may not be able to taste it properly. Coffee may taste better between 122F and 129F or 50C to 54C, so try to drink it as it cools a little. If you are fancy you can get an Ember Mug to keep your coffee at an ideal temperature, or worst case you can microwave your coffee to reheat it. A thermos is a great way to keep coffee warm, but I know some people don’t like the feel of drinking from a thermos vs a mug. We don’t recommend keeping your coffee on a hot plate as it will cook your coffee and the taste will suffer, for this reason we recommend a good thermal carafe or that you transfer your coffee off a hot plate within 20 minutes.
- Take good care of your equipment. With the exception of grinder burrs (just use a dry brush for these and never wet them), you can hand wash most of your coffee equipment, such as your carafe, filter basket, french press and pour over drippers with mild soap and water. Clean your grinder regularly, use a dry brush and/or an air blower to clean out all the grounds and burrs. If you are using super dark and oily coffee (which we don’t recommend), you can try grinder cleaning tablets. Make sure to descale your coffee maker regularly with white vinegar or descaling solution. I like to keep the filter basket holder and shower head on my coffee maker open to promote faster drying. Even your Moka Pot should be hand washed with mild soap and water, many people believe you should not wash these with soap similar to what people said about cast iron skillets. Never place aluminum, like a Moka Pot, in the dishwasher because dishwasher soap is different than regular dish soap and will cause aluminum to oxidize and damage/discolor it. Random fact, for those of you who were taught to never use soap on a cast iron skillet, the guidance is now that it is ok to use soap and water with a cast iron skillet. Don’t believe me, see for yourself.
One last tip – Take notes. I know this sounds crazy to some people, but use your phone or take down some notes on the coffee and what you thought. Did I like this roast level? Did I like this origin? Should I adjust the grind the next time I brew this coffee? Only change one variable at a time to dial in your best brew, for example don’t change your grind size and change the ratio at the same time. Coffee is very personal and there is no right answer to what is the best coffee. I tend to really like coffee from Africa and Central America. Someone else could really like coffee from Indonesia and South America, so try different kinds and keep notes as to what you like.