How Do I Make a Great Cup of Coffee?

How do I make a really good cup of coffee?

Our favorite coffee house slogan: "Drink Coffee, patriotic beverage since 1773." That's because the Continental Congress declared coffee our official national beverage when the original tea party, a revolt against the British tea tax, began in Boston's Green Dragon Coffee House.

Until the late 1800's, Americans commonly roasted coffee beans at home, in a popcorn popper or stovetop in a frying pan. Roasted beans were ground with hand grinders. Ground coffee was simply boiled in water, strained and served.

Today, America is the #1 importer of coffee ( hey, it's a big country) followed by Germany and Japan. America is lower on the list, at #20, for coffee consumption per capita. The top ranking consumers are in Scandinavia -- must be something about long winters and short days. World wide, coffee is second only to oil/ petroleum products as a commodity. Official beverage or not, Americans and the world love/need coffee.

In spite of all the mechanization and technological development of the twentieth century, the best method for home brewing coffee is still low-tech. Oh yeah, that red Francis-Francis is a sexy beast, and your black American Express card entitles you to a machine with a built-in burr grinder and bar pressure that equals you favorite coffee bar in Venice.

You want it, but do you need it to make a great cup of coffee? No!

So, what do you need to make good -- shall we dare to say great -- coffee at home?

Fresh Beans: The freshest beans are found through small batch roasters. Support our local Phoenix roasters, a few even roast and grind their beans right outside their doors. (Grinders in Phoenix and Village Coffee Roasters in Scottsdale are two we like, add your recommendation in the comments section.)

Purchase what you will use in a one or two-week period. If you buy your beans from a grocery store, buy vacuum-sealed bags that have been dated. Three months is the time frame you are looking for; beans packaged further out loose flavor.

Avoid bulk bins at your grocery; chances are the beans have deteriorated from exposure to air and light. Sample a variety of beans, try different regions and roasts, our favorite is always French roast for depth of flavor.

Keep the lid on: Store beans in an opaque, airtight container at room temperature. Do not refrigerate or freeze beans, added moisture is a detriment to freshness and flavor of the beans.

Water: Purists use filtered water, it's one reason why coffee made at your favorite coffee house tastes superior. Rinse the container with boiling water to warm before you brew. Heat water to 195F-205F, allow to sit for 20-30 seconds before adding to ground beans. Grind the beans moments before adding the water to get the freshest flavor.

Grind: We recommend grinding whole beans, never purchase pre-ground coffee. If you are the artisan type, a hand mill or grinder lets you do the job manually. It has a rotating wheel and a stationary grinding surface, the best ones can be adjusted for the coarse or fine grinds. Quality varies, like a pepper mill the blade is important.

The electric blade grinder is the most popular and economical. It functions like the hand mill, the number of seconds the blade is in action controls fineness. Coffee aficionados do not care for blade grinders, as they create a mix of the size of coffee grinds-fine and coarse. Control the grind and you control the outcome of one factor for coffee flavor.

After a little trial and error to find the right timing, we are content with using the blade grinder for our morning cuppa (8-10 seconds). For the barista wannabe, only a burr grinder will do. Pricier than a blade grinder, the burr grinder guarantees consistency in the ground coffee.

Brew Low Tech: The French or press pot is the easiest equipment to use. The press has a glass or hard plastic beaker and a plunger with a stainless steel mesh strainer.

French Press Method: Rinse and heat the beaker with boiling water. Grind your beans to the size of a medium grain of sea salt. Grinding as soon as you will use the beans guarantees the freshest flavor and aroma. Place ground coffee in the bottom of the press. Boil water to 195F -205F. Wait 20-30 seconds after water has reached boiling before adding to beaker, then pour water to fill line. Stir the grinds and water and steep for 4 minutes. Slowly depress the plunger. You can skim off the foam if you like; we leave it in. Pour into a warm cup and inhale. Ahhh.

Prefer an espresso style brew? Try a "moka" style pot, a three chamber coffee pot, for exceptional coffee. This stovetop espresso maker brews coffee under mild pressure. Water is added to the bottom chamber and ground coffee is placed in the middle chamber. As the water heats, the pressure forces it upwards to the coffee filled middle chamber, then continues to the top of the pot and voila-a flavorful espresso, but without the creama.

Newer on the market is the Aerobie (yep, they make Frisbees) Aeropress. Aerobie uses a similar system as the French press, but with added (higher) air pressure and paper micro filters in its design. The system touts a 30 second brewing time for espresso. Our barista friend recommends this for a fast morning brew.

More Tips:

1. Clean Machine: Keep your grinder and your brewing equipment clean. Sediment and left over coffee grounds will make your coffee bitter.
2. Now or Never: Only brew what you will drink immediately.
Coffee left on the heat will become bitter.
Store in thermal carafe off heat if you must!
3. Proper Measure: Begin with 2 tablespoons of whole beans (before grinding) for 6 oz water.
Experiment with less coffee or less water to get your perfect cup.
4. If result is too strong or for a more American style, add hot water (just off the boil) to the brewed cup.
5. Try roasting your own green (raw) beans 10-20 minutes on a sheet pan in a 425 F oven.

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Carol Blonder