Making the perfect coffee

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November 21, 2012 by Beans Ahoy

By waferboard (Flickr)

Making coffee is not always easy. Many believe that pouring hot water into coffee and waiting a short while is all it needs, and while that is broadly true, there are far more variables that you have to take account of to get a good cup.

The Bean

We start with the beans, as one naturally does when making coffee. The beans are of course up to you, and there is plenty of material out there to decide what coffee you want, but we should start by saying that this article addresses making coffee French press style. We are not looking at espresso, or drip (heaven forbid), or any other type of coffee. We are only going to consider that morning coffee that goes in a pot (usually a Bodum) and gets ‘plunged’ after a little while.

The Hardware

Grinder

This is perhaps the biggest single way to bugger your cup of coffee. It is the second most important issue after the roast in many respects because too fine, and you are going to extract more of the taste of the chemical compounds and oils in the coffee than you will of the bean. Too coarse you are going to be drinking dish water as not enough of the coffee particles and oils are present in the water.

However, luckily for us grinding is pretty simple. There are some fantastic machines on the market that produce really consistent grinds and you need not spend a lot of money. Any of the major brands like Cuisinart, Krups, and KitchenAid are good. The KitchenAid Burr grinder especially given the high level of adjustability. If your budget won’t stretch to a large grinder then one of the smaller Bodum grinders is adequate, you will just have to take more care when grinding.

A word of warning on the hand grinders. They may look great and antique-y on the kitchen counter, but the results are not great. Their consistency is not brilliant and as anyone who has used one will attest, your wrist will get sore before you actually manage to grind enough coffee for a pot.

Pot

By pot, I mean a French press. There are lots of different styles and lots of different sizes, mainly from Bodum, BUT, and it’s a big but. I have gone through more glass Bodums than I care to recount. They will eventually break and it will be when you are least expecting it, like when taking it out of the dishwasher. Therefore, I suggest a full metal one. They are harder to come by but won’t break. They wash just as easily and you can chuck them around all you want. John Lewis have a good double wall one (http://www.johnlewis.com/200534/Product.aspx) which helps keep the coffee warm, and your hands from being burnt.

The Grind

Now that we have decided on our grinder it is time to grind. As was said above, grinding is important. So here are a few pointers. If you are using a machine grinder you are likely going to want to use a setting between 2 and 3 for something like the KitchenAid, but its important to test your own grinder as these numbers mean different things depending on the brand. To give you an idea, the consistency you are aiming for is similar to coarse sand. You don’t want to grind as small as something like plastering sand, or leave it as course as grit. If anything, it is worth keeping in mind that the majority of people over grind coffee, rather than under grind. The coffee should never really begin to feel smooth to the touch, if this is the case, you have usually ground too fine. 

The other tip is that if you are using a small stand alone grinder (the one with only one button), don’t pick it up and shake it while grinding. The blades will usually do a decent job at moving the coffee around the grinder in a consistent manner and by shaking or flipping it back and forth you usually land up with varying levels of coarseness. 

The Water

Don’t use distilled water. Many people believe that by removing all of the minerals from water, you will be left with the pure taste of coffee, but if anyone has ever tasted distilled water they will be able to tell you that it actually tastes slightly odd. As a result distilled water is unlikely to extract the flavours of the coffee. At the same time however, tape water is not the best. There is too much variation in the taste of tap water which can adversely effect the taste of the coffee. The best way to tell if your tape water is okay, is to pour a glass and allow to warm to room temperature. If it tastes okay at room temperature it is usually okay to use for coffee. However, if you live in the UK you are probably not going to have very nice tasting water. In fact if you live anywhere near London, or another big UK city the water is simply filthy, and has on average been used 7 times previously. Yuk! As a result it has high levels of chlorine and other chemicals in it, as well as a lot of minerals from the very old pipes and processing plants.

I find the biggest influencer on water taste is the quantity of Calcium, Hydrogen carbonates, and Magnesium. City tape water can have very high levels of these minerals. Calcium is usually the main culprit behind that floating scum on your coffee, and Magnesium gives the water that slightly tart taste (think Vittel water).

What you want for you coffee is not a lack of taste from the water, but consistency and good level of purity. The best result I have found with Volvic water, and also water that has been through a Brita water filter. While the Brita filter does not remove all the minerals, it cleans the water really well. It also does a pretty good job of dealing with the high levels of chemicals in tape water. Brita is therefore probably the best bet. You can get a lot of water out of a single filter, and it’s much more convenient than keeping a stock of bottled water.

Brewing

You need the right amount of coffee for the right amount of water. It is sometimes a matter of personal taste. If you prefer stronger coffee, rather than grinding it finer, you simply use more. Generally speaking you should use 7g of coffee for every 125ml of water. That works out at about one heaped table spoon per small cup. If you are using a mug then obviously adjust accordingly. Again, like grinding, the amount of coffee will impact on taste, so it is best to experiment what works for you and make a note of it.  

Coffee needs time. Just like tea needs time to brew, so does coffee. The best flavour is extract from coffee when allowed to brew for 4 minutes, sometimes a little shorter.

The next important thing is the water temperature. You don’t want to pour boiling water into coffee. The temperature should be off boiling at about 88°C. If in doubt, boil the kettle and wait until there is no more noise coming from inside, then give it a minute and you should be about there. Water does drop off from boiling temperature quite quickly once the heat source has stopped, so as long as you are giving it a little time, the coffee should be okay.

The Cup

Now this is a personal thing. I always taste my coffee from a thinner walled, big cup, or what most people would consider a small cappuccino cup (and strangely enough usually with a spoon, but more on that later). I will even use this cup for espresso, but there is good reason. The larger cup allows me to get my nose right inside the cup when tasting (yes…it can look odd). If you only have a small, espresso shot type cup, you miss many of the aromas that make up the taste of the coffee.

Tasting

What can I say? It’s hard to tell you how to enjoy your coffee, so long as you do. Most tasters use spoons to sample coffee and then slurp (some very loudly) to pull both coffee and air into the mouth to extract the more delicate and complex flavours over the tongue. You don’t need to do this to enjoy coffee (and people in cafes might look at you strangely), but it’s always good to take a little time to actually taste the coffee in your mouth rather than simply swallowing immediately. You may be surprised at the flavours that come out, especially when you have enough air in your mouth to include the aromas in the flavour.

So really the advice is to savour the taste. Don’t try and swallow as fast as you can to get your caffeine fix. Part your lips slightly drawing air into the mouth, and move the coffee around your mouth (avoid dribbling, never good).

There you have it. Tasty coffee.

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