Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

You Suck at Making Coffee

That Folgers you had this morning? Those grinds were sitting around for weeks in that can, losing all their oils, aroma and flavour. That Starbucks you got at work? Some decent beans and some really shitty ones were blended and roasted until they resembled charcoal. Also, the barista probably steamed the milk until it was burned. That espresso you made when you got home? You tamped it wrong and the shot was either weak or really bitter.

It’s a simple fact: if you make coffee yourself, chances are pretty good that you’re doing it wrong. If you hit up a major coffee chain, they’re probably doing it wrong in new and exciting ways. Today, however, I’m feeling charitable, and I’ve prepared an introduction to making your caffeine buzz tastier, more enjoyable and generally better. I will help you (or, at least, your coffee making skills) un-suck.

The mentioned distributors and locations in this post focus on the United States and Canada. Though I’m sure there are some amazing roasters elsewhere, I don’t have enough experience with them. Following the body of the post are some places where you can read more — I highly recommend checking these out if you’re interested in modern coffee craft and culture.

First, though, a short history lesson. North American coffee movements are often separated into three “waves”, the first of which is the aforementioned Folgers. It introduced people to the idea of a daily cup, and put coffee in the hands of millions. The second wave brought a proliferation of chain coffeehouses, including Starbucks, Peet’s, Seattle’s Best and the like. More interesting than either of these is the third wave.

The third wave focuses on elevating coffee from basic commodity to artisan craft, and brings with it a more personal, localised customer experience. That’s not to say that third-wave coffeehouses cannot be chains — in fact, many are — but their customer service is more akin to a familiar mom-and-pop store than a purely retail feel. It describes both coffeehouses and roasters, a list of which is provided near the end of this post. Many of the third-wave techniques are things you can do at home, and they focus on the beans, the grind and the brew method.

Beans

The first thing you need is better coffee. This should not shock you, and yet most people are still buying crap like this. One of the cardinal “rules” of better coffee is that it should be fresh and locally roasted. Both of these points are arguably wrong. Beans are not best immediately, but rather after having a day or two after roasting to “rest” (though they shouldn’t sit around for weeks, either).

Your local roaster might also suck, or you might not have a lot of choice. Just because they roast in small batches a few blocks away from where you live, that does not necessarily mean that you will get a high-quality product. That’s not a problem, though, when you consider the above suggestion for allowing your beans a couple days’ rest. Some of the best roasters in the US and Canada have online stores that will put a fresh bag of coffee on your doorstep in 2-4 days.

The kind of roast is also important. Darker roasts are often used to mask bad batches of beans, as it’s more difficult to discern between taste qualities. They’re often perceived as “stronger”, but often that’s just higher levels of bitterness. To fully experience many of the unique flavour profiles various blends can offer, look for light-to-medium roasts. Since the flavour of these beans is immediately apparent, it’s harder to mix bad and good beans; therefore, you end up with a batch that has a higher likelihood of tasting amazing.

Try getting a light roast from a well-regarded roaster (a selection is listed below). You’ll notice subtle nuances, clarifying the difference between “roasted” and “torched”.

Grind

Don’t buy pre-ground coffee. Don’t grind your beans in advance. Grind only as much as you need.

Those three sentences (sentence fragments, really) summarize the most important things you need to know about grinding your newly-delivered beans. Grinding your pound of coffee all at once (or, worse, buying pre-ground) reduces the amount of oil in the beans, dries them out and causes them to lose flavour. A good-quality grinder will help you get the best out of your beans. There are three main kinds of grinder available: blade, burr and hand-powered.

It’s best to grind only as much as you need immediately. Don’t bother saving any extra (though try to minimize waste by being careful and precise). You’ll need a coarse grind for most brewed processes, including French press, pour over, siphon, Chemex, and many of the rest. Espresso requires an extremely fine grind. [/column]


Grinder Types

Blade Grinder

A blade grinder is the cheapest kind of grinder one can buy, and is the most inconsistent. The grains can vary in size significantly when on the same grind setting. However, it works fairly well for coarser grinds, as they don’t necessarily need to be even (though it helps get a consistent extraction).

Burr Grinder

The next step up is a burr grinder. A good one will set you back between $150-$400, but these grinders are essential for espresso, and produce a much more even grind even for brewed methods.

Hand Grinder

These are really only for the most demanding connoisseur. They produce an even, highly-controllable grain, but tend to be extremely expensive. If you’re reading this guide, chances are you probably don’t need one.


Methods

There are two major classes of making coffee: brewed and extracted. While the extracted class only really contains espresso, there are many ways to brew coffee. The two simplest methods are arguably pour over, and French press.

Pour Over

First, start boiling some water. You’ll need a coarse grind, so set your grinder to somewhere between French press and drip (about the same consistency as salt, but feel free to fine-tune it to your liking). You’ll need about 2g of coffee per fluid ounce (or per 30 mL, if you feel like keeping your units consistent). For a standard mug, that’s about 16g of ground beans. Put your filter in your drip cone, and pull the water off the boil. Let it sit for about 20-30 seconds. Pour a small amount of hot water in the filter, just to neutralise the flavour. Add your ground coffee to the filter, and gently pour water overtop in a circle. You only need enough water to saturate the grounds for now, so don’t let it pour through yet. When the water is absorbed, continue pouring gently, stopping as needed (don’t let the water level in the cone get above two-thirds). It should take about 3-4 minutes to complete the brewing process.

French Press

Brewing with a French press is probably the loosest method around. Everything is adjustable and every aspect responds well to your personal tastes. Try the following steps first for a general guideline, and tweak as you wish.

Again, boil some water and take it off the boil for about 30 seconds. While it’s sitting, you’ll have enough time to coarsely grind your coffee. You’ll need about two tablespoons per six ounces (convert to metric on your own). Gently pour the hot water overtop the grinds, trying to saturate them all. Let it sit for about 30 seconds, and give it a stir with a plastic or wooden spoon (you don’t want to break the glass). Put the lid on the beaker, unplunged, and let it sit for another 3-4 minutes. Don’t let it sit around much longer, because it won’t be stronger – it’ll just taste like crap. After 3-4 minutes, gently plunge the screen through the coffee. Pour what you’re going to drink immediately into your mug, and if you have any left over, pour it into an empty glass container for later to prevent it from continuing to brew.

Feel free to experiment with this method, in particular. Add more coffee if you like a stronger cup, or try a blend of grounds (just make sure they’re all coarse).

Side note: I prefer my coffee grind-free, so I pour it through a tea strainer.

Espresso

Probably the most difficult method of making any kind of coffee is espresso. Instead of having 3-4 minutes of brew time with 12 (or more) ounces of liquid, it is condensed into 30 seconds with 1-2 ounces. Instead of gently brewing and interacting with the beans, the water is forced through a fine-ground puck at 135 pounds-per-square-inch. Every aspect is important, and everything is variable. You could pour two shots, one after the other, with the same beans, grind and weather, and the results might be completely different. But practicing is worth it, as every flavour is amplified and intense.

To begin, turn on your espresso machine and allow it to heat. Some machines (especially the non-professional kind) require a little bit of coaxing – once they indicate the correct temperature, run water through the group head until it indicates that it’s heating again. Also, add a little bit of hot water to your espresso cup, to heat it up.

Set the grind on your burr grinder (seriously, don’t use a blade grinder) to a very fine setting. Grind just a little bit into your hand to feel it. The grinds should be soft, with an almost powder-like consistency. Grind your beans directly into the portafilter, tapping it against the metal grinder support every so often to distribute the grinds. Once there’s a small heap of grinds, remove it and level it with your finger. Try not to apply pressure at this point. Tamp the grounds once in the portafilter with about 40 pounds of pressure (use a bathroom scale to figure out what 40 pounds of pressure feels like). Attach the portafilter to the grouphead with a tight fit. Dump the water from your now-warm espresso cup and put the cup below the spout(s). If it’s a manual machine, you’ll need to time it yourself. Some home machines are automatic, and will stop pouring after 2 oz. of water has been passed through (for a double; 1 oz. for a single).

A proper espresso shot should take somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds. If it takes more time, your grind is probably too fine, there’s too much ground coffee in the portafilter or it was tamped with too much pressure. If it takes less than 20 seconds, it’s the converse for each point. Even if it took between 20 and 30 seconds, the shot might still suck. Espresso is finicky because even the most minor adjustment can have a massive impact on the final product, due to its condensed nature. Keep experimenting and tweaking, however, because the perfect end product is absolutely worth it. Since espresso is so concentrated, every flavour becomes pronounced and immediate. Obviously, this concentrated nature makes it the perfect base for a myriad of other drinks as well.


Third-wave locations

Roasters & Locations

Calgary Calgary

Be’ato Coffee – small-batch coffee, loose-leaf tea and accessories. No physical café, but they distribute to many local coffeehouses in addition to the online store.

Phil & Sebastian – relatively new store, with a location in Marda Loop and a new one in Chinook Centre. Three daily brewed coffees, expertly brewed in the best method for that blend.

Roasterie – located in Kensington. Beans roasted in-house, in the middle of the store.

Seattle Seattle

Caffé Vita – according to a Yelp reviewer, “[t]heir drip coffee explodes the pants off of everyone else.” Sounds great.

Espresso Vivace – Nicholas Lander of the Financial Times thinks it’s “the finest coffee bar in the US.” I’ve never been, but that’s because I’ve never visited Seattle. Give it a try.

Victrola Coffee – described by Imbibe Magazine as “the very model of a third wave café”, Victrola roasts in-house, and their owners regularly group together for cuppings and tastings.

Portland Portland

Blue Kangaroo Coffee – in researching for this entry, I discovered these guys. I’ve never tried their coffee, but I’ve only heard great things about it. I suggest checking it out if you’re in the Portland area.

Ristretto Roasters – surprisingly decent prices for such a quality product. Two physical locations in Portland, and an online store.

Stumptown – one of the originals of the new generation of coffeehouses. Online store with a myriad of blends, locations and roasts.

San Francisco San Francisco

Blue Bottle Coffee – highly-regarded third-wave coffee place based in San Francisco (though with locations elsewhere).

Ritual Roasters – widely regarded to be some of the best espresso in SFO.

Sightglass Coffee – yet another fantastic third-wave coffeehouse, with an online store, in addition to the physical location.

New YorkNew York

Bluebird Coffee – though they don’t roast their own beans (they buy them from Counterculture Coffee), Bluebird’s espresso might be the best in New York.

Cafe Grumpy – how grumpy, you ask? They refuse to let customers take espresso to go in a paper cup: either you drink it there, or you bring a porcelain mug. Minor frustrations, quibbles and peculiarities aside, Cafe Grumpy has a high regard in the New York area.

Gimme – Gimme roasts their own beans, unlike most New York cafés, and they’re well-regarded for their “Leftist” blend.

Other Roasters

Intelligentsia – their “Black Cat” espresso is pretty famous, and for good reason: it’s impeccable. Intelligentsia is based out of Chicago, but they have locations across the country, in addition to selling to other cafés.

Kafka’s – well-known in Vancouver for their coffee and tea. One of very few places which seems to offer siphon-made coffee on a regular basis.

Lili and Oli – cozy, with great coffee to boot, Montreal’s Lili and Oli is well-regarded locally.


Further Reading

  1. Brew Methods – over fifty ways to brew coffee, with some decidedly more intricate than others.
  2. Glossary of espresso terminology – group head? Portafilter? This is a great list of terminology.
  3. Intelligentsia espresso video – a great primer.
  4. Third-wave coffee in Calgary – fantastic talk from TEDx Calgary.
  5. Yield vs. Strength vs. Ratio – how many grams should you use for the perfect cup? Great guide.