Though millions of Americans drink it every day, many don't know what a truly great cup of coffee should taste like. Far from the burnt, bitter flavor many associate with coffee, a properly brewed cup will be sweet and almost fruity, with a balanced, bright profile. If you’ve had coffee from a world-class cafe—perhaps pour-over or vacuum-brewed—you know what I'm talking about.
But unless you’ve been taking barista classes on the weekends, the coffee you make at home probably doesn’t match up. Most people settle for subpar coffee simply because they don’t know any better.
Here's the thing, though: It doesn’t have to be that way.
At last month's SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, a group of renowned coffee experts got together to talk about the future of coffee. Along the way, they dropped some pro tips for how everyone can make a great cup of coffee in the comfort of their own kitchen.
The experts included Counter Culture Coffee's coffee educator Erin Meister, Invergo coffee machine inventor Cameron Hughes, and Food & Wine Deputy Digital Editor Lawrence Marcus. Each brought a slightly different perspective to the discussion.
Extraction: You’re (Probably) Doing It Wrong
Before we get into brewing tips, let’s talk a little about the most important coffee term you’ve never heard of: extraction.
Meister explained that properly extracting the water-soluble flavors from ground beans is what brewing coffee is all about. Using the wrong amount of grinds, the wrong amount of water, or the wrong water temperature can lead to over- or under-extraction, which can ruin coffee’s taste.
Under-extracted coffee occurs when you have too much coffee grounds, too little water, or water that’s not hot enough. The result is a coffee that’s too sour. Meister likened it to the experience of biting into an underripe banana, including the dry-tongue sensation.
Over-extracted coffee happens when you use too little grounds, too much water, or water that’s too hot. It’ll taste bitter, heavy, and oily, with the bitterness lingering for a long time on your tongue.
(For an in-depth analysis of the above chart, check out this article from Mountain City Coffee Roasters.)
To get a feel for how easily extraction can be compromised, Meister recommends the following:
- Find a base recipe that tastes the way coffee should—clean, bright, slightly sweet and fruity.
- Brew it again, adding 5g more grounds than usual. The result should be a sour, under-extracted coffee.
- Repeat the process, using 5g less grounds than the ideal. You should have a bitter, over-extracted brew.
Now you should have a good idea of what you want, and what you don’t want.
Top Tips from Coffee Pros
Okay, so you know what coffee should taste like, but how do you get the best flavor on a consistent basis?
It should come as no surprise that coffee educator Meister had more tips to offer than anyone else. Here’s what she had to say:
- Start out with the best stuff: good beans, a good grinder, and a brewing device you’re comfortable using.
- Always grind your coffee at home. Roasted coffee is volatile, and the fresher it is, the better it will taste. Don’t put it in the fridge or freezer. Aside from the question of taste and freshness, frozen coffee will develop condensation that can cause rust in your grinder.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment and get things wrong. Comparatively taste and make adjustments (grounds, water quantity, temperature) to your recipe and parameters. Don’t just assume that your first try is correct!
- Try other brewers and coffees. Don’t get stuck on just one way of doing things.
- If all you have is an automatic machine, you can still experiment. “Your car can operate in cruise control, but that doesn’t mean you get to take a nap behind the wheel,” Meister concluded.
Surprisingly for a guy who invented a (granted, brilliant) $200 drip coffee maker, Hughes advised that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to make great coffee. Most of the pricey coffee gadgets out there, he suggested, are designed to automate the brewing process—his own Invergo brewer included.
There's nothing wrong with convenience, but automating the brewing process is more or less antithetical to the spirit of experimentation Meister espouses. Hughes said the quickest, cheapest route to a good cup is an accurate thermometer, a good grinder, and a cheap manual brewer like an AeroPress.
For his part, Marcus added that every serious coffee aficionado should own a digital scale. Bakers know the difference that precise measurements can make, and coffee is no different. Coffee grounds are best measured by weight, since volume can vary drastically by grind. A “scoop” isn’t a serious way to measure your coffee.
Ultimately, the lesson here is that you shouldn't be afraid to experiment—to mess up, make some gross coffee, and try again. Don't resign yourself to bitter, sour, or otherwise unappealing brew just to get your daily caffeine jolt.
Coffee should taste good, and you can make it happen.