I’ve developed quite an intimate relationship with coffee, having worked in two coffee shops back in college. I long for it more often than I’d care to admit. Even just hearing that familiar hiss of the steam wand frothing milk or getting a noseful of newly roasted beans is enough to give me that extra jolt.
Now that I’m a writer, and will probably never be a barista again (although I wish I could), I still try to apply what I know about coffee when fixing a cup at home. The good news is that you don’t need to own a fancy espresso or drip machine to enjoy barista-quality coffee of your own making.
Mastering these few fundamentals will change the way you brew coffee at home.
What Makes a Good Cup of Coffee?
Making the perfect cup of coffee is like a science project. It’s all about precision, timing, and consistency. The sheer sensory experience with each cup is best explained by the complex chemistry behind it. The steam, aroma, taste, texture, and even the look of it are meant to be savored simultaneously.
To unravel all its secrets, you must first look into the chemistry of coffee. What happens at each stage of the beans’ journey, from roasting, brewing, to preparation, will define its flavor, aroma, texture, and body.
It starts at roasting, when the beans heat up, signaling hundreds of organic compounds to form complex, often random but always profound, flavor and scent profiles. This process is called the Maillard reaction. During this process, over 800 different compounds crop up and react with sugar, starch, and proteins to form volatile compounds, resulting in a sensory experience like no other. The unique aromas produced during the roasting process actually matters more than the taste. It is the scent of coffee that defines its taste.
Use the Right Water
One of the keys to making a good brew at home is using clean, good-tasting water. The better the composition of water, the more flavorsome the extraction will be. Avoid temperature extremes when infusing and brewing coffee. Infusing grounds with boiling water will only burn the coffee and release bitter oils. Likewise, using warm water will only weaken all those volatile compounds that make coffee so delightful.
Brewing and Extraction
A combination of factors will affect the finished product, namely the coarseness of the grind, coffee to water ratio, water quality, the temperature and duration of extraction, contact time, amount of turbulence, coffee bed depth, and water temperature. Even the weather can have an impact. With water temperature, the ballpark range is between 90 to 96 degrees Celsius.
Keep a thermometer within reach if you use pour-over brewing or Chemex methods. With old coffee machines, you can’t control the temperature. But there are newer models that let you set the proper temperature with each batch you make.
For pour-over or drip brewing, completely saturate the grounds with water first to fully extract the flavor particles. Once each grind particle is soaked in water, you may start percolating. If you’re using a French Press with a medium-coarse to coarse grind, pre-infuse the grounds a bit longer to allow the coffee to “bloom.”
Timing is Everything
The duration of extraction matters just as much as any other variable. Even if the water temperature and particle size of your coffee grounds are just right, but the period of extraction is slower or faster than recommended, you will still end up with a bitter or sour taste.
For instance, an espresso shot should be extracted in just a matter of 18 to 21 seconds. With espresso, a mere three seconds could make a huge difference to your Americano, and possibly your entire mood for the day.
How You Store Your Beans Matter
If you leave your coffee jar open by the window, and it’s sweltering or raining outside, you’ve basically killed every good thing that gives it depth and character. This is why it’s crucial to store coffee beans and grounds in an air-tight, opaque container, and place it in a dry, dark spot in your pantry, away from the elements. A mere 10-second contact with air or humidity can greatly affect its flavor.
Customizing Your Coffee
Once you’ve mastered the brewing and extraction process, you’ll never go wrong with customizing your cup. The idea of a perfect blend of coffee is subjective and largely based on one’s personal preference. Some like it black, while some like it sweet and milky. The type of coffee maker you choose is also a personal preference. But, fine-tuning your brewing skills will make it easier for you to add in extra flavors or experiment with different blends.
It is this intricate interplay between so many variables that makes preparing coffee an enjoyable experience. You get a sense of satisfaction knowing that you’ve found your idea of a perfect cup of coffee and knew how to make it yourself.