I’ve been a coffee drinker since I was 18 or so, though then I was into the syrupy, surgary coffee drink that may or may not have contained actual coffee. In college I occasionally had coffee but often was too cheap to pay for real coffee from a café. And I didn’t want to taint my ramen maker either, a $12 Mr. Coffee 12-cup coffee maker.
Before I really went overboard with coffee, I got married to a lovely furniture builder and honeymooned in Hawaii. We rented a quaint one-room house buried deep in the tropical forest on a collapsed volcano tube and only half-a-mile from the ocean. A few times I would see locals in our bushes around the house. After a little investigation, I discovered we were staying in the middle of a functioning coffee plantation, at the peak of season! But alas, I didn’t really care much about coffee as it all tasted the same with enough sugar and milk.
Now I’m a bit of a coffee snob. Shameful, I know, but it’s true. That doesn’t mean I won’t drink your average cup of coffee, but I really enjoy a great cup of coffee. Below are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.
Better Beans, Better Coffee
You want to start with fresh beans—the fresher the better. Generally the beans you find in the grocery store are a few months old at best. It’s worth your time to track down a local roaster and try everything they have.
If you’re brewing espresso, bean freshness is even more important. A bean approaching 3-4 weeks old will have noticeably less cremé and start to have a bitter finish.
Drip coffee can be more forgiving, though you can still usually taste stale coffee.
Fresh Beans in the Mail
If you don’t have a roaster near by, try ordering freshly-roasted beans online; most roasters will ship the day after roasting. Below are a few roasters with subscription services (except the last) I will be trying in the near future. I left off a few popular roasters because they do pre-paid 3, 6, 12 month subscriptions which I don’t care for.
- Tonx — Drip coffee only, no espresso roasts. $19/12oz bag.
- Intelligentsia — This is quite a popular roaster, known for their prized Black Cat espresso. With shipping, it works out to be $26.72/12oz bag.
- Terroir Coffee / George Howell Coffee — Huge selection of beans. With shipping, it works out to be $23-$27/12oz bag.
- Ritual Roasters — $20-$22/12oz bag.
- Equator Coffees & Teas — Equator is interesting because they grow and roast their own beans. Equator has 9 different espresso roasts alone (decaf doesn’t count). Works out to be ~$21/12oz bag depending on bean and shipping choice; no subscription service available yet, but they’re such an interesting roaster it’s worth putting on the list.
Grind for the Best Extraction
For most people, the grinder should be the most expensive piece in a coffee setup. Blade grinders dull quickly and tear the coffee which makes for an inconsistent grind. Burr grinders are your best bet, such as the Baratza Preciso or any of the Mazzers. A grinder like this is key to get a fine enough grind for espresso.
Espresso Yo Self
I still find it’s quite hard to make a great espresso, though it gets easier when your budget increases.
Grind size is important. Too coarse and your shot will be thin, go too fast, and blonde too early. Too fine and you choke the machine and no water can get through.
Ideal temp is 195º, plus or minus a few degrees. Too cool and the flavors won’t pop; too hot and you’ll have a bitter-tasting espresso. It’s hard for some espresso machines to keep this temperature. Your more expensive machines have an incorporated PID to keep the temperature more exact. Other machines can be modified so you can add one yourself. Those of us not willing to risk machine surgery might opt for temperature surfing.
On average, you want to use 19.5 grams of coffee for a double espresso, though it might vary based on your beans and grind. Experiment to find what you like. The amount of coffee in your basket will have a direct result to the amount of pressure pushing through your grinds, which affects taste, consistency, and creme. Too much coffee and the water can’t make it through, or more likely, you won’t be able to fit the portafilter into the grouphead. Too little coffee and the water will blast through the grinds creating a thin and cloudy shot.
This is a bit of controversy, oddly enough. The idea is that once you put filled portafilter in the grouphead you turn on the water for just a few seconds, then turn it off, let the water infuse in the grounds for a few seconds, then flip the water pump back on and finish the shot.
The idea goes back to lever machines where pulling the lever down released water from a boiler into the portafilter, then the barista would lift up on the lever to force the water through the grounds creating the 9 bars of pressure. Automatic pumps now force water through the grinds immediately without this few-second transition period. Some of your higher-end machines that have the E-61 grouphead or similar have a optional pre-infusion option. Personally, I can’t tell the difference.
The perfect shot takes between 20-25 seconds. Some people suggest 30 seconds, but I find that’s a bit long and results in an overly-bitter shot.
Now go forth a make ye great coffee.