How to Brew the Best Coffee

coffee beans in cupI had a bad cup of coffee at a great restaurant the other night. It made the point that even a good kitchen can put out a poor product if they don’t pay attention to details. I’ll tell you about what went wrong at the restaurant in a moment. More importantly, I'll give you some tips on how to brew the best coffee every time.

We coffee drinkers love to savor the perfect cup. Naturally, we all have our idea of what exactly perfect is, from the brand we use, the depth of roast we favor and what we put in it.

I like it black, my wife has to have a splash of half and half. Milk won’t do. An empty half and half carton on a weekend morning is a family emergency.

But regardless of the coffee you use and what you put in it, the final cup will vary greatly depending on how you brew it. There are lots of different brewing methods. We talk about those on other pages. Here I’ll give you some basic principles on how to brew great coffee that apply regardless of the brewing method.

Like any product, the quality of the final results depends a lot on the quality of the ingredients that went into it. Fortunately, the ingredients for coffee are pretty simple: water and coffee beans. But simple doesn’t mean you can’t mess it up. Let’s start with the water.

It’s should be pretty obvious that if you start with water with an “off” taste it’s going to be difficult to get a great cup of coffee. Yet despite this, most people just use the water that comes out of the tap without giving it much thought. Chances are that’s fine, but there’s also a chance that it’s not.

My wife and I are lucky. We pump own own water. It’s clean, low-mineral and pure to begin with. We only treat it by filtering it and exposing it to UV light. it is great tasting water and I enjoy lots of it every day. It’s perfect for making coffee.

However, a lot of people aren’t so lucky. They either don’t have the same quality water coming out of their wells or they get their water from a municipal system that adds chlorine and fluoride. While these additives may be a good idea from a public health viewpoint, they’re not the best idea for making coffee.

Here’s the restaurant story that reminded me how important it is to start with good water to get great coffee.

My wife and I visited a restaurant out in the country. The restaurant has been there for years and is a bit of a destination. Because it’s in the country, It’s not on a municipal water system. They got their water from a well. It’s a very nice restaurant with a good kitchen and we had a great meal there.

Like a lot of restaurants these days, shortly after we sat down the waiter asked if we preferred bottled water or (said in a slightly condescending tone) “is tap OK.” 
I suspect that the primary reason they do this is to pad the check. My standard response is to assure them that tap water will be just fine because  a)  I don’t like the environmental impact of putting what is often just filtered tap water into bottles and shipping it all over God’s creation and b) to show I’m not going to be intimidated into upping the check by buying water.

In this case, though, they really were doing us a favor offering bottled water. The tap water they poured wasn’t good at all. Admittedly, my wife and I are spoiled by the water we have at home, but this water was hard with maybe even a tinge of sulfur. I gladly sprung for bottled water.

As I said, we had a great dinner. That is, it was great except for the coffee. It seemed flat and almost metallic. I suspect that it was because they brewed it with water out of the tap.

If you start with crummy water, you don’t have a chance of getting good coffee.

If you have problem water at your home, you have two solutions when it comes to making coffee: use bottled water or filter the water first. I recommend the latter approach for a few reasons.

First, it’s less expensive. It really seems silly to pay a high premium for such a commodity, especially since at least half the brands on the market are no more that filtered water from a municipal system. Filter the water yourself and invest the money you save in quality beans or that fancy coffee machine you lust after.

As important, filtering your own water is a better environmental choice.  The bottling process uses a lot of resources, including all the bottling material. As anyone who has carried a bucket of water knows, water is heavy. Transporting it is expensive with a huge carbon footprint. Does it really make sense to have tractor-trailers hauling loads of water across the country when the same or better product is available locally? I don’t think so either.

If you don’t have a whole house filter, most counter-top filters do a fine job. Briata filters are reliable and affordable.

Don’t go overboard on the pure water thing. Distilled water is a little too pure. Some minerals in the water enhance the flavors of the coffee.

The next factor to pay attention to is the temperature of the water. Too cool and it won’t extract all the flavors you’re looking for (at least not in a quick brewing process - cold brewing is another matter). Too hot, though, and it will extract oils that will make the coffee bitter. The Godlilocks point is around 200 degrees. there are a few ways to get water at this temperature.

The most accurate, old-school, hard-core way is to use a thermometer. I really don’t know anyone who does that regularly.

You can also bring water to a boil, take it off the heat and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Since water boils at 212 degrees that gives it time to cool down to the 195-205 degree range suitable for making coffee. The first few time you do this, you can check with a theremoter to get a better idea of how long it takes to cool down with the amount of water you usually use.

The third way is to use a coffee maker. How accurately and consistently a coffee maker heats the water is an important factor to consider when you buy a coffee maker.

Now that we have the water issue covered, lets get the star ingredient - the coffee. On to How to Brew the Best Coffee Part 2


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