There are many different ways to brew coffee, from french press to the pour-over method and everything in between.
Making coffee the "correct" way can seem to be overwhelming, especially with all the information out there. There are a lot of different things that need to be monitored and controlled; and a lot of ways to mess up and end up with a bitter flavored cup of coffee.
And don't even get me going on the "upscale" coffee shops with baristas that make it sound extremely complicated to get that great cup of coffee. They partially do this so that you feel like you need to rely on them when with the right know-how, you can make the same great cup of coffee at home.
Rest assured, you can make a great cup of coffee at home, and in the following article we will show you how.
I will provide a guide (think of it as a coffee brewing roadmap), with the basic fundamentals of coffee brewing.
And all this without the industry jargon, snobbery, or confusing incoherent rambling. By the time that you are finished reading through this article, you will have every tool at your disposal to make a great cup of coffee; and from the comfort of your own home.
Start With Fresh Beans
The number one most important thing to keep in mind is that your coffee beans must be fresh.
Remember, fresh coffee makes the best brew. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that coffee beans have a peak freshness of only 2-3 weeks before they start to break down and lose their bold flavor. By the fourth week, the best flavors that have been lingering will vanish, and they are replaced by the more sour and bitter flavors that nobody is a fan of.
Ground coffee is another story entirely as relates to the amount of time that it will stay fresh. It only has roughly 20-30 minutes before the quality of flavor takes a major downward turn.
The reason for this is oxygen, believe it or not. It does not take long for oxygen to penetrate the center of the ground coffee and start to make it lose flavor and boldness. It is much harder for oxygen or air to penetrate the coffee beans, which is why there is such a huge discrepancy in time.
To put it into perspective, would you find it appetizing to eat moldy bread or an apple that has browned and gone soft?
No, neither would I; food should be fresh, full of flavor, and appetizing. Coffee is not different from food, you want it to be full of flavor, fresh, and crisp. For this reason, I always encourage (and sometimes insist) that you buy fresh coffee beans that are roasted after ordering and shipped to you on that same day.
When beans are roasted, packaged, and shipped with this turnover time, you are generally receiving them within 2-3 days after they have been roasted.
This provides you with a great peak flavor for around 10-15 days (roughly 2 weeks), and this is perfect for most people.
Coffee Brewing Stages
As with most things in life, if you want to get good at coffee brewing, its important to know the whole process.
By understanding, you will know what you are doing right, and what you are doing wrong. Trust me, this will put everything into perspective in the best way possible. By understanding the stages of brewing, you will be able to adjust your method to manipulate the flavor of your coffee; making it taste better and have better flavor tones.
This is how the professional baristas make coffee at your favorite coffee shop, and it isn't even that hard (if you know what you're doing).
The Stages of Coffee Brewing
Let's start by listing the stages of coffee brewing to walk you through.
1. Acids will be extracted first - although there is a lot of chemical compounds and reactions in your coffee beans, the acids will be the first to be extracted. During this stage, the coffee will be sour and concentrated; not the more palatable yet.
2. The Mellowing Period - At this point, more organic compounds will start to break down and dissolve from the bean. This adds darker notes, and the coffee will begin to taste more smooth and less concentrated, or bitter. You will also begin to smell the pleasant aromas that signal your coffee is brewing.
3. Sweeten it Up - During this stage, the natural sugars that are organically found in your coffee beans will begin to dissolve to enhance the overall flavor of the brewed coffee. The acid content is balanced correctly, the natural aromas are enhanced, and the rich flavors are naturally sweet. The coffee concentration is just where it should be, and the strength of your coffee is ideal with this step.
4. Bitterness - From here, the natural bitterness that can be found in coffee will start to break through and it will become less sweet and well, bitter. The coffee will also start to taste weaker. You know at this point that the coffee is starting to turn into something that will be far less tasty than it was in the third stage.
5. Dull and Bitter - continue to brew from stage four, and the coffee will be overpowered by the bitterness. You won't be able to taste the sweet natural sugar or the crisp acids as well, and the aroma will be more bitter and dark. Your cup of coffee will have a dull and boring flavor with few positive distinguishing attributes.
Regardless of who is brewing the coffee or the brand of the coffee maker, this is the process that coffee goes through when it is brewed. By understanding this, you will have a far better grasp of the coffee brewing process than before.
Stage 1 and stage 2 we like to refer to as "under-extracted"; there are not enough compounds that have been extracted from the coffee to have that full-bodied flavor and undertones.
For reference and perspective, under-extracted coffee will almost always taste:
- A little on the sour side
- Thin (almost as if there is too much water)
Stages 4 and 5 are considered to be over-extracted because too many compounds have been extracted from the coffee. This adds a burnt aroma and more bitter undertones; overpowering the sweetness from stage 3. Over extracted coffee will generally taste:
- Way too bitter
- Dull and empty; a lifeless cup of coffee that nobody will enjoy
- Sandpapery (you will notice this, it will have a scratchy feeling on your tongue, and can be dehydrating for your mouth
How Much Coffee Should You Use?
A lot of individuals are not educated on how much coffee they should use, or how the flavoring process works. They will tend to believe that if they add more coffee they will get a stronger flavor, with more caffeine content. That isn't the truth, and that way of thinking will almost always leave you disappointed (and can start to add up in price).
How Much Coffee to UseKnow that it is imperative to have a healthy coffee to water ratio, this is incredibly important to have a delicious cup of coffee. The ratio of water to coffee that you use will determine two main aspects of your cup:
- Flavor - How you get the sweet stage of the coffee brewing process (remember step 3 from above)
- Concentration - How strong or weak the overall flavor and characteristics your coffee will have
By having the ratio off with too much ground coffee in your brew, what you will be left with is an ultra-concentrated cup of coffee (and believe me when I say when it comes to coffee, there is such a thing as too strong). This also means that there won't be enough water to go around, so each coffee ground will not be able to achieve stage 3 sweetness, which will not be nearly as satisfying. Remember, this will lead to a cup of coffee that has not gone through all the necessary extractions.
Too little coffee and your cup will taste far too weak; like a watered-down cup of coffee. This also means that the water content will speed up the extraction process, which can lead to steps number 4 or 5 listed above; over-extraction. This will leave you with a bitter cup of coffee that has surpassed the necessary step for natural sweetness.
The science behind measuring coffee can be complicated, but we are here to help you with this process to make it easier.
The good news is that measuring coffee right for every brew is pretty easy.
In this next section, I will show you how you can do this easily.
How to Measure Coffee by Volume (measuring cup/spoon method)
Most likely, you will already have a measure cup and spoons (or one of them) around your kitchen, so this method should be pretty easy. Usually, 3.5 tablespoons of whole beans are the perfect amount for one 8-ounce cup of coffee.
For your reference, here is an easy table to remember:
- x1 12-ounce cup of coffee - 5.3 Tablespoons of whole beans
- x2 8- ounce cups of coffee - 7 tablespoons of whole beans
- x3 12-ounce cups of coffee - 16 tablespoons of whole beans
Alternatively, if your coffee beans run on the smaller side, it can be easy to remember that 3 tablespoons are adequate for an 8-ounce cup of coffee.
This can be somewhat inconsistent simply because not all coffee beans will be the same size or weigh the same. Depending on the size of beans, you may need to utilize the trial and error method to get this perfect.
How to Measure Coffee by Weight (Kitchen Scale)
Not everyone will have a kitchen scale, but if you do, this is the preferred method for measuring out coffee before brewing.
The reason why this is a better method over using utensils to measure by volume is that it doesn't' matter what size the coffee bean is; weight is the weight.
When you measure anything by weight, especially coffee, you are measuring the most accurate amount of coffee that you are using.
If you are measuring by weight, you should use a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water. This means that for every 1 gram of coffee, you will want to use 16 grams of water.
So if you are brewing one cup of coffee, which is roughly 250 grams of liquid, here is how you will want to measure this out:
250 total weight - divide by 16 - 15.6 grams of coffee
This allows you to separate your coffee weight from your water weight before adding it together to get the most accurate measurements.
I would recommend experimenting with ratios and writing down a few of your favorites for your morning routines. For your reference and as an example, here are just a few of my favorites that I always keep in rotation:
- 16G coffee - 272 G water = One full mug of coffee
- 32g coffee - 544g water = two full mugs of coffee
- 35 g coffee - 600g water = two extra big mugs of coffee
Like any equation or ratio, once you have done this a few times then you will be able to repeat the process with relative ease. And you know that you won't need to ever worry about using the wrong amount of coffee per water ratio again.
How to Pair your Brewer with the Right Grind Size
Every coffee maker works differently; for instance, the french press uses a steeping method, while espresso can be done in 30 seconds flat.
To get to stage 3 of the brewing process, you will need to have the right grind size for your brewer. And here is an explanation:
- Small grounds will brew faster; as it does not take long to get water-saturated
- Larger grounds will brew slower; as it takes longer to get saturated and hit the sweet mark
For instance, if you tried to use "normal" coffee ground that is pre-ground in a french press, you would be left with over-extracted coffee. In an espresso, the water would flow through too fast and there would not be enough extracted.
Quality Water: Missable but Important
I used to manage a coffee shop, and would get customers asking what they did wrong; sure that they did everything correctly. More often than not, the issue was the water that they were using.
A lot of coffee lovers tend to forget how much of a role their water can play. It is easy to fix, and you will never need to worry about it again. Two main things to keep in mind are:
The Coffee Water TemperatureEasily fixable; the best water temperature when brewing coffee is around 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit.
- If you live at sea level, water will boil at 212 degrees, give it 1-2 minutes to cool
- For mountain dwellers, water will boil under 200 degrees, so brew it at boiling point
If you live anywhere else, you can simply brew your coffee without worry.
As you know, coffee is a delicate flavor.
If there is too much calcium hardness (hard water), these flavors can pick up more of the mineral; leaving your coffee dull and bitter. For this reason, many coffee shops will have water filters installed. That said, you want some minerals in your water, so while RO water may be better than hard water, it is still not ideal.
Here are some ways to make sure you have the right amount of mineral content for your water:
- Filter your tap water
- Use bottled water
Tasting Coffee: Most Don't' do it Correctly
A lot of coffee drinkers can miss some of the flavor undertones simply because they don't know how to look for them. I would love to teach you how.
Well-brewed coffee has an amazing flavor that you could be missing out on. These flavor notes can be separated into the following categories:
- Acid content
The problem lies in the fact that a lot of people just simply aren't good at mindful tasting...at first.
Simply sipping your coffee or gulping it down for the caffeine will lead to you re-training your brain to miss out on these. For this reason, we recommend taking the first full sips of coffee with focus.
Take a sip, swish it around your tongue to activate your taste buds, and ask yourself:
What does this remind me of?
The simple act of asking yourself this question will allow your mind to stop racing and experience the coffee. Enjoy and ask yourself these questions:
- Does the bitter undertone remind you of chocolate or licorice?
- Does the Acidity remind you of a green apple or citrus?
- Is it sweet or flowery?
- What is the nutty undertone?
Learning to taste coffee will turn your daily caffeine routine into something extraordinary. We cannot recommend learning this technique enough.
How to Troubleshoot a Bad Brew
Even the best coffee brewers will make a bad batch of coffee sometimes. If you can learn to troubleshoot your coffee brew, you can change things up next time to avoid the same mistake. Most don't learn this, but it is a very important skill to have.
Utilizing what you already know about the different stages of brewing coffee, let's go through some common fixes you may run into. (try only one at a time, to pinpoint what the issue was).
Bitter CoffeeAssuming you are already filtering your water and not using stale dark roast coffee, this will usually mean over-extraction. You have pulled too much stuff from the grounds, and you are getting a bitter flavor. Next time, make sure you are brewing the coffee less. Some things that you can do to avoid this from happening:
- Brew for less time
- Use coarser grounds
Sour Tasting CoffeeStale coffee can take on a citrus flavor, but for this, we will assume your beans are fresh. Generally, this sounds like a classic under-extraction. There was not enough balance between the acids, oils, and sugars. To fix this:
- Brew for longer
- Use finer coffee grounds