You may not know a lot about coffee, but you do know a good cup of coffee when you taste one. Being a coffee brewing newbie is nothing to be ashamed of, we’ve all been there. And there is no better place to start your coffee making journey than right here, Brewing Coffee 101. We’ll get down to the science behind the best cup of joe, as well as the different ways to make your best-cup-dreams come true.
First, you need to understand a little bit about what coffee is and where it comes from; it’s not just a bean that was plucked off a plant and tossed in some water. In fact, coffee beans are not beans at all, they are actually cherry pits.
The coffee tree, with its waxing green leaves, is full of coffee cherries, and not at all recognizable as the coffee beans we see and use every day. What we know as coffee beans are actually just the seed from the coffee cherry after it has been removed and roasted. Coffee cherries are red or purple and grow in a continuous cycle, which means coffee plants can have ripe and green cherries at the same time. Each coffee tree only produces about 2 pounds of coffee beans every year.
This little hard-working plant is the beginning of our love affair with coffee.
When browsing through the supermarket or coffee shop, the sheer amount of coffee bean options can be overwhelming. With everything from dark to light roasts, whole and ground beans to mocha java coconut flavors, choosing the right coffee beans can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
To make things a little easier, let’s talk about coffee bean basics.
Essentially, there are two types of coffee beans. Technically, there are four types, but two of them aren’t really that popular in America, so we’ll mostly skip those. The two main types of coffee beans are Arabica and Robusta. I’m sure you’ve seen these words written on numerous coffee bags, now you know, it is the type of bean that has been harvested.
Arabica beans are grown in high altitudes, they have mild flavors and are less bitter and more aromatic than Robusta beans.
Robusta beans are cheaper to grow and harvest, but since the flavor is not as good as Arabica, they are mostly used as a blend with Arabica in light roasts.
The other two types of beans, the black sheep of the bean family, are Excelsa and Liberica. Excelsa beans are usually grown in Southeast Asia and taste more fruity than the beans we use in the U.S. Liberica beans are grown in the Philippines and have a floral aroma and flavor, again these are hard to find in America.
Since coffee plants grow best in hot climates, all of the coffee produced in the world is grown in the Coffee Belt. The Coffee Belt runs along the equator and is about 3,000 miles wide. That’s a lot of farmland, which makes for a diversity in bean production. Where the beans are grown along this belt will affect its flavor and quality. Beans are grown in three main areas along the Coffee Belt. The first is in Latin America, places like the Carribean, Mexico, and Columbia. The growing conditions in these areas produce beans that are light and sweet.
The second region is Africa. The beans grown in Africa and the MiddleEast are syrupy and often darkly roasted to balance out their complex flavors.
Finally, the last area is Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. Beans grown in this area are usually hearty and best enjoyed after being very darkly roasted. These beans usually have earthy or flowery flavors.
The beans are only one part of the coffee puzzle. Yet, most consider them to be the most important piece. If you start out with high quality beans, then you’ll have good coffee. The rest of the puzzle is what takes good coffee and makes it great.
To complete the great coffee puzzle, you still have to consider roasts, grinds, brewing methods, water temperatures, and ratios. Of all these different considerations, not any one is more important than any other. They all must work together, or your dreams of being a coffee artiste will fall short.
Although we’re about to go through what may seem like strict and unyielding guidelines to brewing coffee, remember, they are just guidelines, not international laws. Tweak them until you find your own best cup. Just remember to keep track of what you’re doing, so once you find the elusive perfect coffee, you can recreate it time and time again.
Green coffee beans are harvested and then roasted to perfection. Roasters use dry heat while constantly rotating the beans to make sure they are evenly charred. Beans can be roasted from a light brown color all the way to black, each stage of roasting changes the flavor and aroma of the beans.
Light roasts have more coffee flavor than dark roasts because they have spent less time in the wheel of fire.
However, they are usually more acidic than darker roasts. Only high-quality beans should be roasted lightly because the natural flavors will remain potent.
Medium roasts are darker than light roasts making the beans a chocolate color. They are less acidic than light roasts and usually a little sweeter. They are a great balance of flavor and acidity, making them very popular.
Dark roasts have been churned until they are nearly black. During that long roasting process, the oil inside the beans rose to the surface, which makes them appear moist or oily. Dark roasts will taste smoky because the flavor of the roast has overpowered the natural flavor of the beans. Usually, low-quality beans are used for dark roasts since the natural flavors are wiped out anyway. Dark roasts have less acidity than light or medium, but they usually produce a more bitter cup of coffee.
Blends are very popular coffee choices because they are the best of both worlds. Blends are simply two types of beans roasted to different levels and then blended together. A lot of people find blends to be the perfect mix of flavor and acidity.
The perfect cup of coffee can not be made without freshly ground beans. The convenience of buying pre-ground beans at the store does not outweigh the inferiority of the coffee it makes. That means you need to invest in a grinder.
There are two types of grinders; blade grinders work like a blender, and burr grinders use flat discs to smash the beans like a pepper grinder. While burr grinders will produce more consistent grounds,
they are also more expensive. The key to proper grounds is not the grinder but the size of the grounds. Depending on your brewing method, you’ll need anywhere from peppercorn to powder sized coffee grounds. The size depends entirely on how long it takes the coffee to brew. The longer the water will remain in contact with the beans, the larger the grind needs to be.
For example, with a french press or percolator, where the beans and the water remain in contact for several minutes, you need a coarse grind. The beans should look similar to kosher salt or chopped peppercorn.
For your standard drip machine, you’ll need a medium grind. This is what those pre-ground beans, at the store, look like. They also work well with pour overs.
Finely ground beans look more powdery and are needed for espresso machines.
The important thing to remember when grinding your beans is: less is more. Don’t over grind; not only will you get a bitter cup of coffee, but you’ll also clog up your coffee machine.
The amount of coffee beans and the amount of water you use is just as important to the perfect cup of coffee as grinding. The whole coffee-making process is a science we usually take for granted. But a key element to that science is the bean to water ratio. So how much coffee do you need to make the best possible brew? According to science, you need 1 gram of coffee to every 17 grams of water.
If you are working without a scale, then you can convert these measurements to tablespoons and ounces. 1 tablespoon of coffee for every 4 ounces of water.
If you’re using a full immersion method of brewing such as a french press, then you should go with a 1:14 ratio instead. Since the coffee steeps in the water longer, it has more time to extract the natural flavors. The added steeping time means you need less coffee grounds.
Consistency is key when it comes to coffee; that’s why the recommended ratios are so precise. Once you have made a hundred pots of coffee, you probably won’t have to be so fastidious about your measurements because they will become habit. But if you make a pot every day using a different amount of water or a different amount of beans, your chances of making a great brew will be based on luck alone, and you’ll never be able to replicate it.
With precise and accurate measurements, you can make adjustments to your own tastes. Start will the general rule of 1:17, but if you find it too strong, then reduce the amount of coffee grounds until it suits you. Or, conversely, if it’s too weak, add more beans until you find the perfect cup of coffee for you.
Water is such an underappreciated part of making coffee. Many think if the water tastes good, the coffee will taste good too. But when it comes to making coffee, the chemistry of your water can make or break you. Ph levels and mineral content can have significant effects on your cup of joe.
The chemistry of hard water makes it great for brewing coffee, the amount of calcium and magnesium found in hard water reacts perfectly with coffee beans. However, while it’s great for coffee, it’s a nightmare for coffee makers. Soft water, on the other hand, is high in sodium and low in magnesium, which does a poor job of extracting the flavor out of the grounds.
One thing you can do is make sure your water is filtered before brewing. Invest in a Brita pitcher or the like, and make sure your water is clean and odor-free.
Water makes up half of the ingredients you need to brew coffee, and having the perfect water chemistry means nothing if you don’t use it correctly. As far as extraction is concerned, temperature is key. Water is what pulls the flavor out of the roasted beans and puts it into your mouth. Being able to extract the optimal flavors from the beans depends on not only the type of water
you use but the temperature of the water when it hits the beans as well.
To continue with our science lesson, if the water you use is too cold, your beans will be under-extracted, leaving your coffee weak and sour. If the water is too hot, you will over-extract, pulling not just the flavor out of the beans but the bitterness as well.
According to some real coffee scientists, the best temperature for brewing is about 195 -205 degrees. How do you create and sustain these optimal temperatures? You need a temperature controlled kettle or a fast read thermometer. Staying within the range is necessary to get the most out of extraction.
• Cold Brew
It seems like everywhere you look these days, you’ll find cold brew coffee. It’s definitely the next big thing, and luckily, cold brew coffee is pretty delicious.
Cold brew takes everything we just learned about water temperature and extraction and throws it out the window. With this method,
you don’t have to worry about water temperature or length of brew. Your main considerations are bean quality and grind size.
Cold brews have less acidity than traditional coffee, for many, this means fewer tummy aches, and for others, it means superior flavor. If you doubt the word of so many, try making your own, and compare it to your favorite cup. You might be converted for life.
Unlike traditional brews, cold brew must be made in advance. Using coarsely ground beans, and room temperature water, you make a concentrate that is then warmed up or made into iced coffee. The brewing time is well over 10 hours, so it’s the kind of thing you need to have stocked up when you’re ready, or else you’ll be making a quick trip to the coffee shop to get your daily dose.
Making a cold brew concentrate is easy. Using the same beans to water ratio as traditional brews, add cold or room temperature water and coffee grounds to a large jar or even your french press and then set it aside. All you have to do now is wait until tomorrow when you can strain it, pour it into a lidded jar, and stick it in your fridge. It’s ready to go when you need it. You can whip up an iced coffee or add 1 part concentrate to 1 part hot water for a steaming cup of joe.
Drip brewing is what most of us are familiar with; almost all standard coffee makers use the drip brewing method. This method slowly drips hot water over well-ground beans, the water moves immediately through the grounds and through a paper filter into a warming pot. It is certainly the most convenient method, most machines have timers that can be set up to start the coffee brewing before you even wake up. But what you gain in convenience you lose in quality. However, for many people, the convenience of having a hot cup of coffee ready when they hop out of bed makes the trade-off worth it.
The pour over brewing method is similar to the drip method, sans a coffee machine. With the pour over, instead of a coffee machine, a funnel is placed on top of a cup or carafe. The funnel is then lined with a paper filter and filled with well ground beans. Then hot water is manually poured over the grounds, which trickles down through the filter at the bottom of the funnel and into the carafe. You will need to slowly add more water to the beans as it filters out until you have brewed the whole pot. The pour over method allows you to control the strength of your coffee; for a light taste, you would pour the water quickly, but for a stronger flavor, you can pour the water slowly.
French press coffee is for those who like a thick and robust cup of joe. The french press uses the immersion method of brewing, in which coarsely ground beans soak in hot water for a handful of minutes. After the soaking, a mesh screen is used to filter the beans from the coffee. Since a mesh screen is used instead of a standard paper filter, more oils are left in the coffee, making it more syrupy and robust.
Siphon coffee might be the coolest way to brew coffee. It is like a real science experiment. While it is cool, it’s a bit of a to do. A siphon brewer has two vessels stacked on top of each other. When heated, the vapor pressure forces the water into the upper chamber where it brews. When it is removed from heat, the coffee travels back down through a filter into the lower vessel and is ready to drink.
Espresso is a word used frequently and a little carelessly in the coffee world. It’s what makes up your morning lattes, but what do you really know about it? The basic explanation is that it is not a cup, it’s more like a shot of coffee. It is brewed using very finely ground beans, and a lot of pressure. When you’re done, instead of leisurely enjoying a full cup of coffee, you’ll take a few quick sips and be done. Espresso can easily become an addiction, for many, there is no other way to drink coffee.
The Aeropress method is a relatively new way to brew coffee. It is a contraption that uses cylinders and a small filter to press brew coffee. Typically there are two cylinders, one slightly larger than the other, and they fit together like a syringe. The larger cylinder has a filter at the bottom and also houses the grounds. Hot water is poured into the larger cylinder and is steeped for less than 60 seconds. The smaller cylinder is then pushed down, pressing the coffee through the filter and into your cup. Aeropress coffee imitates an espresso but doesn’t actually replace espresso if that is what you love.
Don’t mistake a Bialetti for a percolator. While there are some basic similarities, a Bialetti’s brew is more sophisticated. Consisting of three chambers, the Bialetti uses pressure to brew espresso-like coffee. Water is placed in the lower chamber, and coffee grounds are added to a funnel-shaped metal filter then placed between the lower and upper chambers. The pot is then placed on a stove and heated until boiling. The pressure inside the pot rises until all of the water from the lower chamber has been forced up through the funnel, and the coffee is collected in the upper chamber.
The Chemex is universally loved by coffee makers everywhere. It is a simple pour over method of brewing, the real difference between standard pour over and the Chemex is in the filter. Chemex filters are bonded and heavier than standard paper filters. The result is a clean cup of coffee. Some refer to it as tea-like, but we just think it’s delicious.
Nel drip coffee is another romantic version of coffee. In its essentials, it is a simple pour over method of brewing, but the ritual of making it heightens the enjoyment. Other than the specific details of how to properly pour the water, the main difference in the nel, from other pour overs, is the filter. Instead of a paper filter, the nel drip relies on a cotton flannel filter to strain the coffee. The use of a flannel filter instead of a paper filter makes the resulting coffee fuller and more flavorful.
Cold Brew Bottle
A cold brew bottle takes the DIY out of cold brewing. It’s simply a large glass bottle with a mesh filter insert. A lot like infused water bottles. You add grounds to the insert, cold water to the bottle and close the lid. A cold brew bottle puts an elegant spin on cold brewing.
New Orleans Style Cold Brew
New Orleans style cold brew is a little misleading. First, the method of brewing is no different from a regular cold brew. The thing that makes this a “style” is the type of beans used. In a New Orleans cold brew, you would use 1 part coffee beans and 1 part chicory, place them in a jar with cold water and wait 12 hours. Chicory, or technically roasted chicory root, was first used in New Orleans during the Civil War when a coffee shortage forced the inhabitants to get creative. Now, using chicory in a brew is fondly term New Orleans Style. As you might guess, New Orleans Style cold brew is a little more woody and nutty than other cold brew coffee.