Photo by Jess Eddy via Unsplash
There’s no excuse for making bad coffee at home (unless you’re using instant grounds). With the right gear and a bit of experimentation, you can reliably brew a better cup than most cafés. It just takes a bit of research upfront to work out what you like, some practice to dial in the technique, and you’re good to go.
It’s All About the Beans
“The quality of coffee you start with sets the limit for how good your coffee can be,” says James Hoffman, author of The World Atlas of Coffee and my favorite YouTuber on the subject. “You can improve cheap coffee, but there are no tricks or hacks to make it taste of anything but cheap coffee.”
Coffee is kind of weird. For a long time it was treated as just a commodity: A cup of coffee was a cup of coffee, and it didn’t matter where the beans came from, as long as they were small, green, and ready to roast. Now, though, it’s both a commodity (think gas stations and diners) and a specialty drink (small coffee shops and independent roasters) sold on its flavor, origin, and story. If you want to get a truly great beverage, it’s those specialty coffees you need to explore.
“Find a coffee shop that is passionate about what they serve,” Hoffman suggests: They’re the best place to buy quality beans. The staff should be able to talk you through the options, give you a recommendation, and offer tips and brewing advice. “Taste some different stuff and ask about why you might like one more than the other,” Hoffman explains. “A good barista can easily guide you around origins and help you understand your preferences.”
You can also buy fantastic coffee online—most small roasters will ship their stuff directly to customers—but if you don’t already know what you like, the process can be a bit more hit-or-miss.
“If you want to start brewing great coffee, then the brewer isn’t the essential,” Hoffman says. What you really need is a stand-out grinder.
Coffee is made from roasted beans, which have to be ground down to a powder before you can brew a cup. Grinding the beans lets more moisture in and releases CO2, which is important during the brewing process. It also increases their surface area, however, accelerating the speed at which they oxidize and go stale. This is why it’s best to grind your beans immediately before brewing—and why using pre-ground coffee will almost always lead to a worse cup.
The quality of your grinder matters, too. Hoffman recommends a burr grinder over a blade grinder. The latter tends to smash your coffee into slightly different-size pieces that brew at different speeds, giving you an unevenly extracted, not-very-tasty drink. Burr grinders, meanwhile, use two rotating disks to yield a more even grind—and a smoother cup. Just make sure you get a model that lets you control how coarse or fine you grind. “I’m happy with a cheap French press or an old pour-over set, as long as I have a good grinder,” Hoffman explains.
With grinders, you also have a choice between hand-powered and electric. Hand-powered grinders are cheaper but mean you have to manually grind your coffee, which, depending on how much you’re using and how fine you go, can take between one and five minutes. Electric grinders are significantly pricier, but do all the hard work for you. Personally, I like the ritual of grinding by hand, but I’m usually only making coffee for myself; if you have a large family (or drink a ludicrous amount of coffee), an electric one will work out better.
For more information than you might possibly ever need, Hoffman’s done two manual-grinder showdowns on his YouTube channel: one on cheap manual grinders and one on the best manual grinders overall. He also has video reviews of some of the most popular electric grinders, like this head-to-head of the Wilfa Svart and Baratza Encore.
Find a Brewing Method and Recipe You Like
The brewing method you use matters less than being able to do it consistently; you want to reliably produce a great cup of coffee, not occasionally get lucky. Three of the most popular at-home methods are the French press or cafetière, the AeroPress, and pour-over brewers like the Chemex and Hario V60.
The French press may be the method you’re most familiar with—almost every home has one tucked away in a cupboard somewhere. They have a bad reputation among coffee snobs because a lot of people tend to use them imprecisely, but they can reliably produce excellent drinks.
The AeroPress is an extremely popular choice—there’s even an annual competition dedicated to finding the World AeroPress Champion—and while it has more moving parts than a French press, it’s still easy to use.
There are also a wide range of pour-over brewers, but the method is much the same. You douse the grounds in water as they sit in a cone of filter paper, and coffee flows out into a carafe for you to drink. It’s the hardest of the methods to perfect, but to many people, it’s the best.
Whichever method you pick, the key is to find a suitable recipe that explains the coffee-to-water ratio, which grind to use, whether to bloom the grounds, how long to brew for, and so on. Grab a coffee you know you enjoy and then play around with different approaches. Hoffman’s video on the ultimate French press technique is a great place to start; he also has a similar video on the ultimate V60 pour-over technique. The AeroPress is a little different as there are more variables to play with, but European Coffee Trip, another YouTube channel, has a series of videos demonstrating a few winning recipes. I use a variation on the recipe that won in 2016.
You’ll notice that all the recipes call for a certain ratio of coffee to water. To hit those levels, you’ll need a set of weighing scales. Your kitchen scales will work fine—although you can get dedicated coffee scales.
Troubleshooting Your Coffee
Once you have a recipe that works for you, you should be reliably making good cups of coffee. If you aren’t, it’s time to reassess your life.
First, make sure you’re actually sticking to your recipe and weighing everything correctly. “The most common error is using too much coffee,” Hoffman says, especially when you’re trying to make a strong cup.
If you use the right amount of ground beans but end up with a weak cup of coffee, you’ve under-extracted it. “Under-extracted coffee isn’t usually just weak,” Hoffman explains. “It is often a bit sour and hollow tasting, too.” The solution is simple: Grind a little finer. “This gives the grounds more surface area,” Hoffman adds, “and makes it easier for water to extract the soluble, delicious flavors that are locked in there.” Simply adding more coarsely ground coffee will make a stronger, more acidic cup—not a better one.
On the other hand, if your grind is too fine, you’ll over-extract your coffee and make it taste dry and astringent. In that case, use a slightly coarser grind.
Another factor you might not have considered is the water you’re using. After all, it’s 90 to 95 percent of your drink. “Soft water, free of tastes like chlorine, is the best place to start,” Hoffman says; if your pipes spout hard water, you might need to consider filtering it. A simple way to see the nuance is to brew two identical cups of coffee side-by-side, one with your tap water and another with bottled water; the cup made with hard water will taste less smooth and more bitter. For more on how water affects your coffee, check out Hoffman’s extensive introduction on the subject.
Drink, Enjoy, Repeat
And there you have it: how to make great-tasting coffee at home. Once you start, you’ll find it hard to go back to mundane brews and overpriced lattes. Your self-brewed coffee should offer the same depth and variety as whiskey or wine—and it won’t give you a hangover, unless you count the post-caffeine jitters.