Thursday, March 07, 2013

Terrific coffee: at home, simply, and on the cheap

I recently started drinking my coffee black. Why? Because I went to a shop that roasts and brews coffee with more care than any place I’ve ever been before, and it turns out that coffee actually tastes pretty good without cream and sugar, when it’s done right. I have since learned that you can prepare fantastic coffee in the comfort of your own home for a fraction of what you’d pay at the local pour-over cafe.

There are a hundred different ways to get from A to Z, but you have to know how coffee works before you can decide which method is right for you. Naturally, I do have a specific recommendation, which I’ll get to in a moment (or you can get in an Amazon list here). But first, there are two non-negotiable rules that you must follow regardless of your brew method.

Rule 1: You need to use whole beans, grinding them evenly and per use. Ground coffee is not remotely shelf stable; it stays fresh for about 15 minutes after grinding. This is why bags of pre-ground coffee, to say nothing of K-cups and pods, yield such poor results. So you need your own grinder if you’re going to go down this road. And it needs to be a burr grinder; blade grinders turn some of the beans to dust and leave others in chunks. Not good.

This is going to be the most expensive part of the process, but it is also by far the most important. Even poor quality coffee beans, if they are ground per use, will taste better than just about any pre-ground coffee you have been using.

Rule 2: You need freshly roasted coffee beans. Coffee stays fresh for about two weeks after it’s roasted. The unavoidable consequence of this fact is that it’s basically impossible to produce quality coffee beans at enormous scale. This is why Starbucks coffee will never taste as good as what you can get at a local shop. More on beans and how to procure them below.

Really, that’s most of it. Those two rules can take you from “cafeteria swill” to “much, much better than Starbucks” in no time. If you’re an 80/20 rule kind of person, you’re done. But if you want to see a little deeper down the rabbit hole, here is the most complicated rule, the one that accounts for most of the debates and confusion about coffee (and a lot of the fun, too!):

Rule 3: Understand the chemistry. Or at least understand that it’s chemistry. You don’t need to know all the details, but the basic idea is simple: when hot water contacts ground coffee, it acts as a solvent, dissolving solids from the coffee into the liquid that ends up in your cup. This process is called extraction, and everything else about brewing coffee is related to it: brew time, coffee-to-water ratios, temperature, agitation method, etc. The various brew methods simply introduce different variables into the extraction process. For example, you can agitate the mixture by stirring (e.g, French press) or pouring (e.g., Hario). Again, you do not need to understand everything about this, but it helps to know that the variables matter.

“At home, simply, and on the cheap”

You don’t have to go to a fancy coffee bar to drink amazing coffee; you can make it yourself. And although it is certainly possible to get lost in the weeds searching for the perfect method, I strongly recommend my system, which favors simplicity over utter perfection. You don’t need a $230 grinder, a $50 pouring kettle, or even a $45 French press. My version is much more affordable: you can get everything you need for less than $100 out the door, and that includes your first bag of beans. Even better, you can do it in steps to spread out your cost. Here’s how:

If you only upgrade one thing, make it your grinder.

I recommend you start with a hand-turned coffee grinder, specifically the Hario Mini Mill Slim ($35). Why a hand grinder? Simple: it’s by far the cheapest way to get a quality burr grinder. You are going to make one cup of coffee at a time, and that only takes a minute or two of grinding—less time than it takes the water to boil.

If you want the best value for an electric grinder, my recommendation is the Capresso Infinity ($90). We’ve used one of these in the kitchen at Artisan Church for years, and it produces very good results. Of course, if you have money to burn, by all means get the Baratza I linked above. Get one for me while you’re at it.

If you upgrade two things, find a way to get fresh beans.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a quality coffee roaster, this is a breeze. For me, it’s Joe Bean Coffee Roasters, just down the street from my house. Now: lots of coffee shops sell whole beans, but they are not always what I would call “quality” beans. Generally speaking, if the coffee is labeled by its country of origin (e.g., Guatemala) instead of a cutesy name (e.g., Moose Prints), you are good to go. If you’re not sure, just ask someone behind the counter where and how long ago the beans were roasted, and notice whether their eyes light up or glaze over.

If you do not live near a quality roaster, my recommendation is to get a subscription to Tonx Coffee (click for a free sample). Think of Tonx as the Columbia House Record Club for coffee beans: they select, source, and roast the beans and ship them to you on a schedule. Tonx removes the mystery and the hassle from the equation. It’s pricier than buying your beans locally, but for many and possibly most people, this is the best option right now.

That covers Rules 1 and 2. And again, that’s most of what you need to know. But if you’re still reading, you probably want to know my brewing method. Here you go:

For the simplest, most consistent way to brew a stellar cup of coffee, I recommend the Clever coffee dripper ($22). The Clever is sort of a hybrid between a pour-over method and a full immersion method. (Experts will quibble with this definition. Let them.) It’s very easy to use: put a cone filter in the brewer, measure out your coffee grounds, put in all the hot water at once, stir, cover, and let it steep. When it’s finished, you place the Clever dripper right on your cup, and (wait for it…) a clever little valve is released, and the brewed coffee drips into your cup. Clean-up is the easiest of any method I’ve used: pull the filter and grounds into the trash or compost bin, rinse out the brewer, and you’re done.

Now here’s the last thing. You can measure out your beans and water by volume, i.e., by using measuring spoons and cups. But remember, this is chemistry, so precision matters. If you want to go the extra mile, you need a kitchen scale that measures in grams. (A common coffee-to-water ratio is 1:16.) I use and recommend the Eat Smart Precision Pro ($25). It’s quick, simple, unobtrusive, comes in a range of colors, and—importantly—it uses AAA batteries, not weird watch batteries.

To sum up: buy a Hario hand grinder, a Clever dripper, and an Eat Smart Precision Pro gram scale. Get yourself this modest gear and some great beans, and you’ll be drinking the best cup of coffee you have ever had at home!

Here is everything but the beans in an Amazon list.

Here is the link to get a free trial of Tonx Coffee.

Epilogue: Why not an AeroPress?

Marco Arment, the Internet’s gadget researcher, has long recommended an AeroPress as the best method for brewing coffee at home. Partly because Marco is an influencer (and deservedly so), the AeroPress preference has practically become coffee gospel among online geeks. Just watch this delightful video by Adam Lisagor to see how people feel about the AeroPress.

I felt the same way at first. It does make great coffee. But I no longer think it is the best method, and it’s definitely not the easiest.

There are three problems with the AeroPress. First, it makes a concentrate—the manufacturer claims that it makes espresso, but that’s absurd—which has to be diluted unless you like very small amounts of very strong coffee. Second, it requires a fine grind, which takes much longer by hand or requires you to buy a more expensive grinder than what I recommend for people just starting out. And finally, the method is comparatively complicated and fussy. It’s too easy to miss the narrow tube when you’re pouring in the coffee or (worse) the hot water, and the timing of the plunging/pressing process is hard to get just right. Skip it for now.

For further reading:

1. The Wirecutter: Gear for making great coffee. This is what turned me on to the Clever dripper. (The Wirecutter is a definite bookmark for find the best gadgets to buy, by the way.)

2. Sweet Maria’s Tips on Brewing Coffee. A little more info on the chemistry.

3. Lifehacker’s Morning School,” a series of very helpful articles by the founder of Tonx Coffee.

4. Marco Arment’s review of Tonx Coffee, wherein he makes his now-famous 3-part recommendation about how to make great coffee.


Avila said...


1) Besides clean up and having a valve how is the clever coffee dripper different from the two french presses that are currently in my kitchen?

2) Can I go back to enjoying my fancy loose leaf tea now?

SJ Austin said...

1. The main difference is the filter in the Clever. Filtered coffee does not contain insoluble solids that you will find in unfiltered coffee. This is neither good nor bad, except that some people prefer one way over the other, or prefer certain beans brewed one way over the other.

2. By all means! Pet your cat while you're at it. ;-)

MrJavaMath said...

Thank you for your insight, Scott! We've been percolating since September in search of "the best cup of coffee!" [a la Elf ;) ] and while satisfied with it (and the occasional French press cup], I am going to try your recommendations! :-D

Todd Chamberlain said...

Nice summary! Definitely use freshly roasted beans (i.e., within two weeks) or it should be called something other than coffee.

laura said...

You mentioned Tonx Coffee as a source for your beans. My cousin helped to start up an organization called Direct Trade Coffee Club. They work with roasters who work directly with the farmer. I've sampled coffee from some of their roasters (Madcap coffee is one) and it is super fresh, of highest quality and ethically sourced.

SJ Austin said...

Thanks for sharing that link, Laura. Direct trade is really the best way to go for ethically soured beans. "Fair trade" is not always actually "fair," so it's not really as reliable a term as it might sound.

Here's what the Tonx folks say about it, for what it's worth:

"All of the larger certification programs have some flaws and limitations in what they represent for the product and what value they bring to the farmer. Broadly we believe that a better thrust for true and durable sustainability is in building the consumer market around exceptionally high quality, seasonal coffees sourced from producers who are putting the most work into the long term value of their crops and communities, irrespective of third-party certifications.

Supply chains look different across different regions and we aim to be opportunistic in finding the best producers. Sometimes we are sourcing through direct linkages with the grower, sometimes in partnership with other like-minded roasters, sometimes with a mill or exporter, and sometimes working with boutique importers. While we support the underlying causes of many certification authorities and many of the coffees we bring in carry third party certifications, we do not as of yet participate in any of the licensing schemes."