An Opinionated Guide to Brewing Coffee at Home
Maximizing your experience with zero choices.
This guide is written to maximize affordability, quality, and simplicity. It doesn’t acknowledge some of the extremely high-end options that result in low marginal return on investment. It also doesn’t acknowledge some of the many standard consumer options available; this is for maximizing the experience without having to make any choices, and doesn’t necessarily optimize for time efficiency. This is for people that have gotten their feet wet and care about taste above all else, but aren’t really sure where to start. I acknowledge that for some, this will still be above their price range; even though I optimize for cost where possible, this still falls in the realm of unabashed privileged luxury.
Coffee is, volumetrically, 99% water, oils, and some dissolved solids. Having good water is non-negotiable. Some will claim that you need to buy mineral supplements and mix it with distilled water, which is both financially and socially expensive. Home water filters can do the trick only if you’re lucky enough to have soft tap water.
For my guide, I’ll be recommending that you buy the largest possible size bottled water from the store to reduce waste as much as humanly possible without needing to perform hydrochemistry at home. Don’t buy mineral water — it has too much dissolved solids and will interfere with the flavors of your coffee. Buying water exclusively to be used for your morning coffee may seem excessive, but this is one of the highest returns on coffee flavor that you can get in the process and is the most convenient.
This is where most of your money in a home setup should be going. This makes or breaks your experience, so go for a hand grinder. Good electric grinders start at triple the price of hand ones. And above all, always use a burr grinder, as a blade grinder will never guarantee the same level of precision. This piece of advice isn’t new, but it’s always good to restate.
Grind accuracy is important, as you want to reduce the amount of “fines.” This is coffee slang for errant finely ground coffee that the burrs accidentally grind too fine, leading to a more bitter cup. The Timemore Chestnut C2 will perform well and you likely will never need to upgrade unless you fall down the coffee rabbit hole.
The nice part about a manual grinder is that it forces you to never pre-grind your coffee. Just as pre-ground pepper lacks the fresh compounds and oils that are released during the grind process, pre-ground coffee will be far less aromatic and less enjoyable. You care about taste if you’re reading this, so don’t do it. The less nice part is that it won’t be the easiest thing to do in the morning when you are lazy and want to mainline caffeine. But guess what? This small piece of manual technology will give you access to freshly ground coffee when you’re traveling, a luxury that electric grinders will not offer.
The cornerstone to a good home setup. We go with ceramic here since it holds heat better than the glass and plastic variants. Retaining thermal mass is incredibly important for optimal brewing, and for those that are scared about placing hot things near plastic, this can assuage those worries.
As for the dripper style, the V60 has a fast drip through and will perform well with nearly every type of coffee bean. The Chemex will filter too much, the Aeropress removes tasteful acidity, and a Kalita Wave performs flow restriction, limiting your ability to hone your craft.
Much to the chagrin of the elitist speciality coffee world, James Hoffman proved that brewing coffee with boiling water won’t have any adverse effects on taste. So instead of opting for a wildly expensive temperature controlled kettle, just buy a standard gooseneck kettle that lets you control your pour. Also, keep some Cafiza on hand to descale your kettle every now and then.
While a boiling brew temperature doesn’t necessarily seem to have adverse effects on the brewing process, you should absolutely wait for your coffee to cool down before drinking it. There are a lot of flavors that aren’t really noticeable above 65° C (150° Freedom Units), so make sure to let it cool.
I recommend this kettle for simplicity’s sake, since build quality does matter to some extent here. I wouldn’t judge you for picking the cheapest option available, but some cheaper kettles pour way too fast, reducing control.
Don’t get sucked into buying super expensive stuff here either. It doesn’t need to be pretty, especially since we don’t need the extreme precision required for pulling an espresso shot.
If you’re looking for unique flavors, go for a single-origin bean. Most people that start drinking specialty coffee tend to drift toward Ethiopian and Colombian coffee, which isn’t a coincidence. A small trick for purchasing coffee is to check the elevation of the coffee farm instead of just the country of origin. Beans grown at higher altitudes are small and dense, leading to more acidity and interesting flavors. It should come at no surprise to you now that most Ethiopian and Colombian coffee is grown 5000 ft. above sea level.
Honestly, even though I’ve been doing this for a while, I doubt my taste buds could consistently hold up to a blind tasting. But it’s fun trying to figure out the differences.
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If you’re looking for a more consistent and balanced brew, go with a blend. Especially in the initial calibration steps of trying out a new bean, you’re less likely to get sour or bitter brews, but you likely won’t extract unique origin characteristics.
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Generally avoid any bag of coffee that indicates the roast level, as most specialty coffee is assumed to be anywhere from light to medium roast. If dark roast is your thing, then ignore this. I will say I have been hard pressed to find flavors outside baker’s chocolate in my dark roast brews, but to each their own. If you’re buying from a store locally, always check the roast date. If there is only an “Enjoy by” or “Best by” date, don’t even bother.
As a general rule, coffee is optimally consumed from 3 days to 3 weeks after roasting.
Everyone has their own version of this, but this is my simple go-to.
- Pre-soak your filters with hot water to avoid the taste of paper.
- Use a medium to medium-fine grind size. For the Timemore C2, start with 20 clicks. If your brew isn’t bitter, go finer by 1 click the next time you brew (19). Repeat this process, grinding finer and finer until you get bitter coffee. Then go back to the setting that didn’t produce a bitter cup.
- Place your mug on the scale and place your dripper directly on your mug. Grind 15 grams of coffee and place it in your dripper. Using more coffee makes it more difficult to brew quickly and can often lead to a more bitter cup. Less coffee will lead to an empty, sad cup. Using your thumb, create a small depression in the middle of the coffee bed, which will allow you to wet all the grounds with less water.
- Start a stopwatch. Pour 35 mL water over the grounds to release CO2 from the grounds. Now wait for 45 seconds.
- Pour 190 mL slowly in concentric circles, moving outward from the center. Give the dripper a gentle swirl once you’ve finished pouring. You’ll know that you did this right if your coffee bed is flat at the end.
- Regardless of how much coffee has gone through, pull the dripper off at 3:30. Any drips past this point will only make your cup less enjoyable.
This guide is purposefully opinionated, as there are way too many variables to control without going insane. If you are going to substitute anything in this guide, switch out the manual grinder for an electric one if you have the cash to spare. But realize that the cheapest recommended electric grinder will produce a far less consistent grind than the recommended hand grinder in this guide. To reach the same performance, you will likely need to shell out at least $300.