On Making Coffee

According to legend an Arabian goatherd named Kaldi found his goats dancing joyously around a dark green leafed shrub with bright red cherries in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Kaldi soon determined that it was the bright red cherries on the shrub that were causing the peculiar euphoria and after trying the cherries himself, he learned of their powerful effect. The stimulating effect was then exploited by monks at a local monastery to stay awake during extended hours of prayer and distributed to other monasteries around the world. Coffee was born.

Like many, I drink coffee every day. I have been for 17 or 18 years, and I can’t think of a single day I’ve gone without. I used to drink it by the bucketful, but my consumption levels have tapered off over the past few years, and I’ve started to appreciate quality coffee over quantity. Like millions of other North Americans I used to just buy pre-ground Folgers in giant cans. Boolean, however, showed me the light, demonstrating that it’s possible — nay, easy — to make good coffee at home on a daily basis without much more effort than it takes to make really crappy coffee at home on a daily basis.

Since then I’ve been on a quest to develop a method for making a high-quality morning pot of coffee that meets the following criteria:

  • It has to be as fast, taking no more than 10 minutes from start to cup.
  • It has to be reliable, so a standard coffee routine can be developed and adhered to without variation.
  • It has to be easy enough that I can do it whilst in a pre-caffeinated state. Before I’ve had my first coffee in the morning, I’m essentially a zombie, and my IQ is a good 50-100 points lower than normal. This makes complicated things Very Challenging.

Now, the Coffee Industry (in particular, the Coffee Equipment Industry) will try to sell you all sorts gadgets towards this end — automatic drip machines, an array of grinders (burr or blade), press coffee makers, manual coffee makers, fully automatic drip systems with timers and built-in automatic bean grinders, single cup machines, brew-right-into-your-travel-mug machines, machines with heating plates, machines with thermal carafes, stop-and-pour features, things involving steam or pumps or tampers, machines with built-in water filteration systems, some that you can hook right into your water supply, and so on. Most of these gadgets are a total waste of time and money.

What NOT to do

Do not get an automatic coffee maker. Most are just awful — if nothing else they’re always difficult to keep properly cleaned, and very very few will ever get the water hot enough to make decent coffee. Machines with a “hot plate” to keep your coffee warm are also a No Go. All they do is cook the coffee until it’s just horrifically bitter sludge. Steer clear.

Automatic Coffee Maker = No

What to do

Making good “manual” coffee is not a complicated process. There are only five pieces of equipment for dealing with two ingredients.

Equipment

  1. kettle
  2. some sort of coffee pot
  3. something to hold the coffee filter and grounds
  4. coffee filters
  5. coffee bean grinder

Ingredients

  1. hot water
  2. ground coffee beans

I’ll deal with these in order.

Equipment

Kettle: Any basic kettle will do, so long as it holds enough water. We have a very basic steel stovetop kettle that can comfortably hold about 10 cups of water. Added bonus: it has a steam whistle, which is an important feature first thing in the morning.

Kettle

Some sort of coffee pot: I use a $35 1.5 litre Thermos-brand thermal carafe. It’s not a beautiful piece of equipment, but it’s not ugly, and I can brew coffee directly into it. Being a Thermos, it keeps the coffee piping hot for at least an hour, and hot-enough for a couple more.

Thermal Carafe

Something to hold the coffee filter and grounds: There is no shortage of contraptions you can get to serve this purpose, but the best I’ve found is a simple $4 plastic cone filter holder that you can get at any hardware store. I don’t recommend using bigger than a #4 filter — if you need to make more coffee than a #4 filter can handle, split it between two #4 filters. I explain why (much farther) below.

Cone Filter Holder

Filters: The filters you use will, obviously, depend on what you use as a filter holder. There are two basic types of filter: paper disposables or metal (gold) permanent filters.

Filters

Paper filters: The #4 cone filters we use run for about $6 per 100 filters, and you can get them for less I’m sure. These are a miracle of modern convenience and are perfectly suitable for making good coffee. They’re much easier to clean than the metal filters, they filter out even the smallest sediments, and they’re compostable/biodegradable (get the unbleached ones) but they do absorb more of the coffee oils. Many purists prefer the metal filters.

Gold filters: The last one of these I saw (#4 cone sized) was $16. They’re messier, but many claim they make better coffee. Some time I’ll do a side-by-side test of paper vs. gold and post an actually informed review.

Coffee mill: This is the “big ticket” item in my personal coffee universe. Getting a good, consistent grind on your coffee is pretty essential to making coffee that doesn’t suck. The type of coffee you’re making dictates the grind size: espresso requires an extremely fine grind; regular filter-drip requires a medium-fine grind; and french-press (like you make with a “bodum”-plunger pot) requires a very coarse grind.

There are two basic types of coffee mill: blade grinders and burr grinders.

Blade grinders: These are inexpensive (I’ve seen them from $9 to $40) and ubiquitous, usually available at any given hardware or kitchen store. The problems with these are threefold. First, they hold a relatively limited amount of coffee — the amount of coffee we make on a regular morning would require two loads of beans through a blade grinder. Second, the grind quality is basically atrocious, and often described as “boulders and dust” — the blades whirl around at high speed and essentially pulverize the beans, smashing them into a million (irregularly sized) chunks. Third, they’re noisy as hell. Using a blade grinder is better than using pre-ground coffee, but you can easily get a burr grinder for not a lot more money.

Blade Grinder

Burr grinders: Burr grinders range from $30 to $350 or more. Seriously. It’s insane. The basic concept behind a burr grinder is that instead of pulverizing the coffee beans with high-speed whirling blades, the beans are ground more slowly between two very sharp grinding wheels. Rather than getting “boulders and dust”, the coffee grinds are uniformly sized shavings of the coffee beans. The shavings, like wood shavings, are flat and thin, exposing more of the bean surface to the hot water, ensuring a much more thorough and even extraction.

Burr Grinder

The uniformity of the grind size also ensures that you’re actually using the optimal grind for the type of coffee you’re making. Trust me, you do not want a mix of fine and coarse grind when doing a french press — if the grind is too fine it can clog the plunger filter and cause a godawful (and potentially dangerous) situation if the coffee ends up squirting up beside the plunger plate and splashing all over you and your kitchen.

For years I used a blade grinder. Then we upgraded to a cheap Black and Decker burr grinder. From there we moved up to a $150-$200 pro grinder (which we’re using now). Now I’m seriously considering the $350 Kitchen-Aid ProLine Coffee Mill. Believe it or not, the Kitchen-Aid has some features that would actually justify the expense, but I’ll save those details for a future (“My Life with Burr Grinders”) article.

Mmm, expensive toys.

As a first grinder, however, I recommend just getting one of the less expensive burr grinders.

Ingredients

Hot water: You want really hot water. Water so hot that it’s just below the boiling point. To do this, simply bring your water to a boil, then take it off the heat and let it cool for 10-15 seconds or so. Depending on where you live, your tap water might be fine, but I recommend using filtered water (we just Brita ours). Distilled water is (apparently) no good, although I’m not entirely sure why. Either way, distilled is harder to find and costs more. Just pick up a Brita filter system if you don’t already have one and use that.

Coffee Beans: Coffee beans deserve an entire post of their own. For now I’ll just say: buy the freshest roast whole bean coffee you can get your hands on. I do not recommend StarBucks or the stuff you can get in the bulk bins at your average grocery store, but you gotta take what you can get. Ideally, buy Fair Trade coffee (because it’s the right thing to do). If you’re really stuck, you can mailorder beans from a reputable roaster. I recommend Just Us! Coffee Cooperative. Excellent price, excellent service, prompt delivery.

My Morning Coffee-Making Routine

Ok, enough with the rambling. Here’s how I make our standard regular-drip daily-consumption coffee:

Starting with clean equipment (we wash at least the carafe and filter holders daily):

  1. Put 8 cups of filtered water on to boil.
  2. Grind roughly 1 1/4 cups of beans at a medium-fine grind.
  3. Put filters in two #4 cone filter holders.
  4. Put 7 slightly-heaping Bodum scoops of ground coffee in each filter. A Bodum scoop is slightly more than a tablespoon (to my eye), so a heaping tablespoon would probably be about the same. Tap the bottom of the filter holder lightly on the counter to pack the grounds down a bit.
  5. When the water boils, take it off the heat for 10 seconds or so.
  6. Pour half the water through one filterful of coffee. Chances are you’ll have to fill it a couple of times. Agitate the coffee slurry with a chopstick while it drains. Repeat with the second filterful.
  7. Pour and drink. Yum!

One of the key tricks is not exposing the coffee grounds to the hot water for more than four minutes. More than four minutes of hotness will start to extract the bitter and nasty flavours out of the coffee, and will taint the whole pot. This is why I use two medium filters instead of just one big one. It would take more than four minutes to make 8 cups of coffee using just one filter.

Another trick is getting the water:coffee ratio right. I’ve tried using 7 cups of water to the 7/7 scoops, and it’s too strong; alternately I’ve tried 8 cups of water to 6/6 scoops, and it’s too weak. You’ll probably have to try this a couple of times before you find your preferred ratio, so just make sure you’re paying attention when you finally figure it out 🙂

This, obviously, makes just shy of 8 cups of coffee, which is more than enough for two people (cup at home + oversized travel mugs). And while my coffee isn’t “perfect” (yet), it’s better than the majority of coffee I’ve had at shops and restaurants.

Yum.

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