Up until today, I was proud of my coffee-brewing abilities. I’d splurge on the Starbucks espresso roast at the grocery store and store it in the freezer for maximum freshness. I scoffed at the suggested measurement on the back of the bag, and heaped twice the amount of grinds in the filter, for what I always imagined was the strongest, most Rotorooting cup of hot, homemade, over-the-counter drugs a girl could ask for.
Now I know I was doing it all wrong. Ask a real coffee-brewing professional (and I did), and you’ll find there are some things you just have to do when brewing coffee—none of which were part of my morning regimen.
The good news is there are also some “don’ts”: You don’t need to buy a $15,000 brewing system, the kind now found in “third wave” coffee shops and select Starbucks around the country, for a solid cup. You don’t even need to buy the fanciest grinds in the grocery store.
According to the pros, all you need for the perfect morning coffee are a few low-cost tools and some guidelines on the basics of brewing.
Do: Read the Labels
I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for coffee art. Show me an exotic looking logo or the words “espresso blend” and the bag is going in my shopping cart. But according to Matthew Marks, co-owner of Forty Weight Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn, I’ve been looking in all the wrong places. “I would steer clear of an espresso blend if you’re not brewing espresso,” Marks tells Yahoo! Shine. Just because the word is Italian, it doesn’t mean it’s going to make the best cup of drip coffee. He recommends spending more time reading the fine print. “Look for signs of single-origin brewing from one particular region or farm,” suggests Marks. “A lot of companies will have generic blends, and you don’t know what’s in them. More specific information on the bag is a sign of higher quality.”
Another tip: Fair Trade isn’t always the best fare. The New York Times’ Matt Richtel learned this at coffee boot camp with Verve Coffee Roaster’s Chris Baca. “Just because the bag says “fair trade” or “locally roasted” does not mean the highest-grade beans have been selected and put through meticulous roasting,” writes Richtel.
Don’t: Buy pre-ground beans
My fellow lazy coffee-brewers, it’s time we face the facts. Freshly ground beans make for better coffee. “Your best bet for coffee longevity is always whole beans,” says Marks. It doesn’t matter if you grind the beans in the grocery store, the minute you’ve mashed your java it’s already losing its flavor. Blame oxidization or the cruelty of nature, but the fact is a cheap grinder is a better investment than a pricey bag of pre-ground coffee.
Don’t: Store your beans in the freezer
Shoot. For a few dollars, Marks suggests purchasing an airtight container at any home-goods store. That’s your best bet for storing beans. Keep the tin on a shelf, away from sunlight, and definitely don’t let it near the fridge. Both freezer and fridge add moisture to your beans, cutting down the flavor and replacing it with remnants of that stale Chinese food from last week.
Don’t: Eyeball your measurements. Get a scale.
The best tool for a perfect cup of joe, aside from a coffeemaker, is a scale. “A $10 scale is the best investment you can make for your coffee game,” Baca told the New York Times.
It may seem like an oddly scientific step between getting grinds into a filter, but Marks agrees, you’ve got to weigh your key ingredient. “Scoops are not very accurate, so you need to weigh things out,” Forty Weight’s Marks says. A ratio of 16 to 1 water to coffee creates the maximum rounded, full-body flavor. That translates to 11.25 grams of coffee (about 2 tablespoons) to 3/4 cup of water, creating 6oz of coffee, a standard small cup in the industry. And adding more grounds won’t make your coffee taste better. “If you use too much ground coffee relative to water, everything tastes bitter and over-extracted,” explains Marks. “If you use too little, it’s going to taste weak and underdeveloped.” If your measurements are accurate, and you’re still not satisfied, try adjusting the settings on your grinder. “If your coffee tastes too weak, try grinding the beans on a finer setting,” suggests Marks, “and if it’s too strong and bitter, try a coarser setting.”
Don’t: Use tap water
Got a Britta? Use it. The Specialty Coffee Association of America found that minerals in tap water taint an otherwise decent cup. Filtering your water (which should be brewed at a temperature of 195 to 205 degrees if you want to get really technical) makes all the difference.
Don’t: Add milk
If you’ve just put all that hard work into making the perfect coffee, why not show it off? “I don’t think milk helps coffee,” says Marks. “I think people are used to dumping tons of milk and sugar because they’re used to bad coffee, but if you’re brewing good coffee, you’re basically covering up all the nuances with milk.” If you’re a latte lover, however, milk is part of the show. Just don’t make it skim. “The more milk fat the better the coffee steams,” says Marks. “Whole milk, not skim, is industry standard.”
Do: Make coffee before you make coffee
This is just my suggestion. I don’t know about you, but before I take measurements or listen to loud bean-grinding noises, I usually need an average cup of coffee coursing through my veins. It doesn’t need to be perfect.