Introduction: I get asked several times a week week for advice on a few of my non-photographic interests, from people who are frustrated and want to "up their game." I've been meaning for some time to run through some specifics so I don't have to answer people individually—which I certainly wouldn't mind doing, in principle, except that it takes up a lot of time.
Today I'll talk about the number one thing you can do to improve your morning cup of coffee.
With most things, there are infinite improvements possible. But with most things, there's a ratio that describes the relative benefits. People have a tendency to focus obsessively on a few aspects of quality to the detriment of others. For an example, look no further than the endless online comparisons about system resolution in digital cameras. But really, who suffers from a lack of sharpness with today's digital? A few people legitimately do, but for the overwhelming majority, common equipment is simply sharp enough. Getting the last little driblet of resolution out of existing equipment just doesn't matter to the making of better pictures. There are much more important things we can, um, focus on.
These recs, then, are in the spirit of "what helps most?" when it comes to the taste of coffee.
So you want a better cup of coffee? Coffee and OCD go together like bread and butter, as my friend Gabi amusingly observes, and I've gone halfway up the fanaticism scale (but just halfway), roasting my own beans at home using a Behmor 1600, an inexpensive roaster that resembles a toaster oven rotisserie. But you don't need to roast your own beans to improve your morning cup—or at least, that's not the place to start. Also, using better coffee (I assume you've experimented) or replacing your standard automatic drip coffeemaker with another model might not the best thing you can do either.
No—the single best thing you can do to improve the taste of your coffee is to get a good burr grinder and grind your own coffee from whole beans.
Good burr grinders for drip coffeemakers include the Breville BCG800XL Smart Grinder ($199), the Baratza Virtuoso ($229), the Capresso 560.01 Infinity ($100), and the Cuisinart DBM-8 ($48). For those of you who don't mind hair shirts and want to try out burr grinding for less cost, there's even a good old-fashioned hand grinder, the dishwasher-safe Hario Ceramic Coffee Mill ($33—and similar hand mills are sold under a variety of names.)
Here's why it helps: coffee brewing is an extraction process. Doing it well depends on controlling the time that each particle of ground coffee is steeped in the heated water. If the chunk of roasted coffee bean is too large, it will be underextracted, the brew will taste weak and watery, and you won't be getting your money's worth from your expensive coffee. If the grind is too fine, the coffee will quickly become overextracted, which is the main cause of bitterness in the cup (brewing too hot, reheating, or keeping the brewed coffee on a heated surface are secondary causes of bitterness).
The huge advantage of a burr grinder is that it will grind the coffee into uniformly sized particles, allowing the same level of extraction for all the grounds.
A side note: This comes as a surprise even to some longtime coffee drinkers, but good coffee isn't bitter and doesn't need sweetener. The reason we add sugar and chemical sweeteners to coffee is to counteract the all-too-common bitterness that shouldn't be there in the first place!
This is the reason why the "spinning blade" coffee grinders such as the infamous and unfortunately ubiquitous Krups F203 are so awful (and they really are bad—you're better off using the communal coffee grinder at the supermarket). They pulverize the coffee, resulting in everything from a fine dust to large chunks. Every cup brewed from such a grind will be both partially underextracted (wasted) and partially overextracted (bitter)—no matter how well you control the temperature of the water or the time of brewing. (Or how good the bean is that you start with.) It guarantees a bad cup of coffee, unavoidably, every time.
A conical burr grinder like this elegant Baratza Virtuoso is the single biggest improvement you can make for home coffeemaking. They help you by grinding the coffee to uniform particle sizes for consistent extraction. It's usually the biggest improvement for the least cost you can make.
A good cup of coffee really starts in the middle of the process—with a good grinder. Moving back in the process (bean quality and type) and forward (brewing controls) are both useless if you don't get a nice consistent grind.
A quality grinder is the best investment you can make in the taste of your coffee, and the place to start if you want to up your game.
Next steps: From there, you can experiment with finding better quality beans, more freshly roasted beans, and beans roasted to your individual tastes (i.e. light, medium, or dark). Check out local coffee roasters in your area, or try various gourmet brands from where you buy your food. Avoid Starbucks.
Another side note (Soapbox alert): It's extremely important to buy Fair Trade coffee. Worldwide, coffee is the second most valuable legal commodity exported by developing countries (oil is first), and coffee growers, who do most of the work and contribute the most to your morning drink, are ruthlessly squeezed out of their fair share of the profits by middlemen, often earning a ludicrously tiny portion of what you pay for a cup. The Fair Trade program is not as good as dealing with specialty roasters who buy their beans directly from growers, which is the best option, but it multiplies growers' profits many times and is possibly the largest/easiest regular contribution you can make to social justice from the First to the Third World.
And if you hear someone generalize about "the" quality of Fair Trade coffee, you should stop listening. Fair Trade coffees come in all types and levels of quality, just like all coffees, except that most of the worst mass-produced beans never make it to Fair Trade status. If you don't like one Fair Trade bean you try, don't draw a sweeping conclusion, just go try some different ones. /Soapbox.
I use the Breville, which can be used for espresso or drip grinds. Like all burr grinders, it needs occasional cleaning (with a brush and by running a small amount of dry oatmeal through it, followed by a bit of coffee to clear the oatmeal out). Note the Breville products are designed in Australia but made in China and have a fairly high initial failure rate, so make sure you buy from a vendor such as Amazon that allows no-questions-asked returns for a decent trial period (Amazon's return period is 30 days). Just as you test a new lens thoroughly while you can still send it back to B&H Photo, you need to use your Breville product heavily during the trial period—don't let it sit in the box. My Breville grinder has served me faithfully with zero trouble for a handful of years now—I'm at about $35/year, in daily use, right now, so a future failure won't trouble me. I'll buy the same grinder again next time.
Long-necked kettles are ideal for pourovers. Many kinds of automatic drip coffeemakers works well, too, and are usually not the first thing you should think about replacing.
I like "American coffee" and don't drink espresso or faux-espresso. I brew coffee using a Clever Coffee Dripper ($22), which allows you to steep the coffee in the filter holder for 2–4 minutes before draining. I pourover using a long-necked electric kettle ($47). There a fancier one ($95) that allows for temperature setting, as well as a less expensive stovetop version ($41).
UPDATE: To answer a few questions from the Comments: I only grind the amount of beans I need at one time; I never store beans in the grinder. Roasted beans do not need to be kept in the refrigerator but do need an airtight container. The poor man's storage container is a Mason or Ball canning jar, which is what I use; however, outgassing from freshly roasted beans can cause pressure to build up in the jar. The more elegant solution is called a Planetary Airscape container. It doesn't allow air in but allows gas buildup to escape. It can be ordered in several sizes and colors. If you buy storebought whole beans, they should be in vacuum-sealed packages, and as soon as you open them you should transfer the beans to the Airscape container or an airtight jar.
Coffee generally loses its freshness within 8–12 days of roasting. It doesn't "go bad" per se; what happens is this. In freshly roasted coffee, the flavor notes distinctive to the particular cultivar and the "burnt" flavor of "roastiness" are both present in the brew, proportionate more or less to the darkness of the roast. The lighter the roast, the more flavor notes; the darker to roast, the more roasty flavor. As the coffee ages from the roast date, the distinctive flavor fades, and what you're left with is generic "coffee-tasting" coffee that doesn't have any particular distinction. So although there's nothing "wrong" with drinking coffee that was roasted weeks ago, you also won't be tasting much of the quality or flavor of the bean. So the better the bean was originally, the more you lose. Keeping roasted coffee in a vacuum-packed package or an airtight container delays this loss of freshness somewhat. I think coffee is generally best from about one day old (i.e., from the roast) to four or five days old. Or maybe I just think that because my coffee never gets older than that! I usually roast every 3–4 days.
To answer Christopher's question about decaf: the idea that decaf is inferior coffee is a myth. (One of the best-tasting coffees I ever roasted was a decaf. I wish I could remember what it was called.) The decaffeination process is expensive, and consumers' expectations are that decaf should cost the same or less than regular coffee, so most decaf is made from inferior beans to start with—that way, once the cost of decaffeination is added, the final cost stays the same as regular coffee. So decaf often tastes worse for a very good reason: because it was made from poor quality beans. If you start with very good beans and use a top decaffeination process, the results can be excellent—but are going to be more expensive than the same bean without the caffeine removed. I recommend contacting your local coffee roaster to see if they offer a high quality decaf bean. Most do. You'll just pay a more for it, is all.
["Open Mike" is the weekly off-topic editorialization that appears on Sundays, when Yr. Hmbl. Editor remembers.]
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jim in Denver: "When you make espresso, the grinder becomes even more impressively important. The trick in espresso is adjusting the grind so that the espresso machine pumps a set amount of water through the ground espresso in a set period of time. Specifically 2 oz. in 27 seconds. (Your exact numbers may vary a bit from those depending on your religion....) Anyway, the water volume is fixed and the time is the target. The only thing to adjust is the fineness of the coffee's grind, and for that you need a very good grinder with an infinitely adjustable range. The difference between a really, really good espresso and one that makes you step back and say 'wow' is about 0.5–1 sec. of brew time. You thought camera hobbiests were neurotic? They gots nuthin' on Espresso geeks. :-) "
William Flowers: "I totally concur with your opinion about using a burr grinder to grind your own beans. One should also store the beans properly and grind them just prior to brewing.
"I have not used pour-over devices because they simply don't brew enough coffee at a time to satisfy my morning needs for quantity—about six five-ounce cups over a three hour or so period. I do know, however, that both the pour-over device you mention, and a few other similar pour-over devices, produce a cup or two of superior coffee.
"There are a few, but only a few, drip machines that can produce similar results to either the pour-over method or the various press methods. The plus to using one of these fine drip machines is the greater quantity of coffee produced. For those interested in drip machines of this quality, they should look for the few that are certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. I'm very happy with the one produced by the same manufacturer as the roaster you own and mentioned, Mike. Make no mistake, though, these are not the typical hot-brown-caffienated-water machines that are the common fare at discount stores or department stores.
"In addition to the quality of the roast and the grind, water quality is also important. If it doesn't taste good to drink, it's not going to be improved by brewing coffee in it. And if you use a drip machine, even if you have water that tastes good, you also have to be concerned with the total dissolved solids in the water you use. Too many, and you muck up the inner workings of your machine very quickly."
Mike replies: These are the six drip coffeemakers certified by the SCAA (only the first four are available from Amazon):
Bonavita BV1800TH 8-Cup Coffee Maker with Thermal Carafe or glass carafe version
Steve Smith: "Better coffee? That would be tea!!"
Gordon Lewis (partial comment): "As much as I enjoy drinking a delicious cup of coffee, I'm getting just as much enjoyment from reading how far others will go to produce one."
Daniel: "Completely agree, the grinder is easily overlooked but is by far one of the biggest first improvements one can make in improving their coffee. My friends are micro-roasters, so I've been blessed to learn the art of good coffee from them (I'm currently favoring an inverted Areopress). Like many I was surprised to learn good coffee isn't bitter if done properly!
"I've used a Baratza grinder for several years now. I started off with a Maestro I bought at a coffee shop and now have recently upgraded to the Virtuoso. Their customer support is as excellent as their grinders. Plus they're easily serviceable. They offer replacement parts on their site at very reasonable prices if the need ever arises. Highly recommend."
Robert Fogt: "A year or two before we were married, I gave my wife a wall mounted, hand crank coffee grinder—an Arcade Crystal No. 2 that I discovered in an abandoned Wisconsin farmhouse. The crank was wobbly, so I re-drilled the body and pressed in a new bronze bushing, cleaned and painted it all, and hung it on her kitchen wall. For thirty-five years now, the sound of her at that machine has been my daily wake up call, and I cannot be convinced that this alone does not make it the best cup of coffee in the world!"
Mike replies: Lucky guy. How about a picture, Bob?