5 Tips for Better Coffee at Home
Step away from the pod machine! Before you down yet another cup of blah caffeine, know this: You can easily make really good coffee at home. It doesn’t require barista training or expensive equipment, just the desire to have something that tastes better than what your single-serve system spits out. I asked some of the top coffee professionals in the country for advice on upgrading your morning joe. The best part is that most of these steps can be taken independently of the others. Pick the ones that work best for you, or build on them one-by-one as you go.
Buy Better (Whole) Beans
The coffee world debates everything from tools to processes, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that good beans are crucial to a good cup. You simply can’t make good coffee from bad beans, even if you use the best gear. Alchemy didn’t work for Nicolas Flamel, and it’s not going to work for you.
“The beans you buy are the largest factor in the tastiness of your cup, so if you buy cheap coffee or older roasted beans you can't outrun those flavors with a fancy grinder or amazing brewing technique,” says Michael Phillips, director of training at Blue Bottle Coffee.
As for tracking down these “good beans,” Caroline Bell, founder and CEO of Cafe Grumpy, says to, “Look for bags that tell you where the coffee is from, when it was roasted. We also recommend medium roast so you can taste the coffee. There shouldn't be any oils on the bean surface.”
The rule of thumb among coffee lovers is that beans should be used within two weeks of roasting, but don’t drive yourself crazy over that. Fresher is better, of course, but if you’re seeking out higher-quality beans, you’re a step ahead.
Grind Your Beans at Home
Once you’ve purchased whole beans, it’s time to grind—ideally as close to brewing as possible. Coffee pros generally recommended burr grinders over traditional blade grinders, because rather than a blade that hits beans at random intervals, creating grounds of various sizes, a burr grinder consists of two plates that pulverize the coffee. Public Espresso’s head barista Clinton Hodnett says burr grinders make a more consistent size. That’s important, “because as the coffee gets ground to the correct size, it then falls out of the system.”
“And don't forget to grind for your brew method,” says Bell. “Paper filters, French presses, metal filters and stovetop all require different particle sizes and you can really screw up your coffee if you don't pay attention to this step.”
Upgrade Your Gear
There is no shortage of ways to make coffee, or tools to allow you do so. The Sweethome recommends the OXO On 9 Cup Coffee Maker, saying it “makes better-tasting coffee than the vast majority of drip coffee makers, and it’s much easier to use than the other high-end machines” tested. It’s one of only nine coffee makers certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
If you’re willing to experiment and put in a bit more effort, there are plenty of different brew methods available. For one cup at a time, consider the Aeropress, which Josh Briggs, co-host of the podcast Totally Beverages and Sometimes Hot Sauce, says falls in the “sweet spot of speed and accuracy.” Other options include the French press, Chemex, and pour-over drippers such as the Hario V60. The important thing is to find what works for you in terms of output, time required, and price.
Consider Cold Brew
“The age of cold brew is dawning and if you want to be savvy, start checking it out soon,” says Blue Bottle’s Phillips. Cold brew isn’t just another name for “iced coffee,” which can generally be interpreted as hot coffee that’s been cooled. It’s actually a totally different brewing process. Take coarsely ground beans, mix them with water, and let the mixture sit overnight. In 12 to 24 hours it’ll be ready to be filtered, and the concentrate can be diluted to taste. The result, he says, is “lower acidity coffee that is crisp, refreshing, caffeinated, and delicious.”
You can use a variety of vessels for making cold brew. A French press works well, although you’ll probably want to pass the coffee through a secondary filter. Dedicated cold brew makers make the process easier, and can make more concentrate at once. I tested a number of them for the Sweethome and found the Filtron system to be the best combination of ease, price, and, most importantly, taste.
If you don’t have time for cold brew but still want iced coffee at home, try the Japanese method. Take a standard pour-over recipe and split the water component in half between hot water and ice. Put the ice in your vessel, brew with the water, and you’re good to go. “Just remember, if you start with good coffee it will taste good,” says Bell.
Have a Conversation with Your Barista
Many baristas are coffee fanatics and will be happy to talk specifics about your home coffee setup. Phillips told me, “While I fully understand that not all baristas you meet in a coffee shop seem like they are begging to be talked to, most all of them would be glad to give you some insights on their coffees. Most them are doing the job in large part because they are big nerds about those little beans and having someone interested is typically a great thing. That conversation can also can pay pretty great dividends.”
Ask about the beans the shop sells, the methods they use, and the tools that would work best for you. More often than not, the barista will be happy to offer his or her expertise, suggest gear, and might even give you a demonstration on the spot.