Take Your Coffee Experience To The Next Level

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”
–Abraham Lincoln


Growing up in the era where Maxwell House, Folgers and Taster’s Choice were considered coffee, it’s no wonder the world’s most ubiquitous drink became a milk-filled sugary concoction by mid-century with only a vague relation to the complex nuanced taste of real coffee.  It was the space age – the age of Tang, freeze-dried, dehydrated everything.  Something complicated made easy.  Drink it black?  Nearly impossible to do, and so nearly no one did.

But along came three guys – two teachers and a writer – who first met in school at the University of San Francisco who opened a business called Starbucks in Seattle in the early 70s to sell high-quality beans and equipment. The genesis of a coffee renaissance was launched.

And it makes sense.  I first learned to drink coffee to fuel late night term paper writing marathons as a student in college at the University of Georgia in the mid-80s.  And college of course is the place where one begins to question things – namely, why does this taste so bad?  Eventually, deeper questions arise – what are the origins of coffee, and where do the beans come from and how do they end up brown and aromatic?  I asked myself these same questions but evidently became satisfied with the simple solution that the beans had to be ground just before brewing to make the coffee taste like coffee was supposed to taste.

Soon after, I sought out whole beans to use in a newly purchased electric blade grinder.  And to heighten my sensitivity to better coffee, I ditched the creamer and sugar in favor of simple black coffee.  This, I decided, was real coffee drinking.  But as it turns out there was more… much more.  I was ready to take the experience to a new level.

Over the next 25 years, I remained on a quest for the perfect cup, leading deeper and deeper into the coffee-quest abyss.  Where I’ve ended up, it feels pretty much like the only thing left is to grow and process my own beans.  (Check back with me in a few years and we’ll see if I’ve bought a coffee plantation.)  Meanwhile, let me share where I am today and what I use for what I consider to be a very nearly perfect cup of coffee.  I look at it like this – follow this guide and no one, no one will be drinking a better cup of coffee than yours.



Peet’s Coffee (peets.com) – actually Alfred Peet taught the Starbucks partners how to roast coffee in the early 70s – was among the first to market and promote the importance of the freshness of the roast and so for at least 10 years, I ordered beans fresh-roasted by Peet’s and had them shipped to my home in Georgia.  Peet’s always included the roast date on each bag and of course packaged them in special one-way-valve-outfitted bags that allowed the fresh roasted coffee to off-gas properly (fresh roasted coffee produces CO2 for a few hours after roasting and these valves purportedly allowed the CO2 to escape while not allowing O2, which stales coffee, to enter the bag – although this may be overrated).  Then I discovered that most mass-produced roasts are over-roasted in part because the darker the roast the more homogenized the result – contributing to the loss in the variety of particular flavor characteristics of the specific beans.  Ideal if the quality of your beans is inconsistent – or you’re trying to produce large amounts of coffee that can’t possibly all come from the same crop.  Lighter roasts can be found usually at smaller shops or if you roast at home.

*Coffee snob tip: Many people mistakenly think that darker roasted coffee is stronger coffee.  That’s not the case.  Darker roast imparts a different flavor which is usually more bitter and as I discussed above, the individual nuances of the bean’s origin is less evident (or completely lost).  Lighter roasting delivers a brighter cup with more fruit and in my opinion is one of the advantages of home roasting.  Lighter roasts actually have MORE caffeine and could be regarded as stronger in that sense.  Otherwise, the only way to make coffee stronger at any roast level is to increase the amount of ground coffee used to make a cup.

Consequently, preserving the nuances of small batch coffees by doing a good job of home-roasting your own has been an elusive undertaking for most enthusiasts  - quality roasters being large and expensive – until 2007 when a Nevada company invented a $300 drum-roaster called the Behmor 1600 (thanks to my friend James Carson for the introduction).  The Behmor 1600 brings to the coffee-enthusiast the possibility of truly fresh-roasted coffee right in the home.  And given the cost of the green un-roasted beans (around $6/lb), it can actually be a money-saver in the long run.  That is, unless your coffee consumption increases too drastically because of your access to such a quality cup of coffee.  (One note, the 1600 model has now been updated to the 1600 Plus which retails for $369 and isn’t available at the time of this posting.)  I was paying $15/pound, but now roasting my own and paying $6.  That’s a $9/pound savings (not counting other ancillary costs such as electricity to power the roaster)!  Who knew roasting coffee at home could be so easy and affordable?



The Behmor 1600 and a bag of green beans

As it turns out, buying and using the Behmor 1600 to roast small batches of coffee is a breeze and many of the green bean suppliers provide video tutorials for how to use it to roast (a nice preview to what the experience is like too – http://youtu.be/gHPZE3blbE8).  It’s well designed, about the size of a big toaster oven and importantly, affordably priced.  I bought mine at Roastmasters.com.  You simply put your green beans in the drum and punch a few buttons and you’re off.  Coffee beans (or more specifically the chaff) can catch fire if you roast too long or roast them unattended, but it’s easy to get the hang of the different stages of coffee roasts and you end up with fresh roasted beans at your whim.  The total time involved to roast a small batch of up to a pound of beans is about 30 minutes.  And only about 5-6 of those minutes require your full attention and concentration.  You’ll learn roasting terms like “1st Crack,” “City Plus” and “Full City.”  You’ll always have fresh roasted coffee available to you at your whim, and what’s more, you’ll learn to appreciate the grassy smell of roasting coffee beans – nothing like most people’s conception of the smell of roasted coffee.  And besides, buying your own roaster and roasting your own is a great way to up your coffee snob factor.



Sweet Maria's provides handy guides to help you learn the basics of roasting.

Every step of this quest is important and that includes the beans.  Coffee beans come from plantations all over the world and are processed in different ways, usually onsite.  The process takes the raw fruit from the coffee plant and removes the hull and skin and eventually dries the bean or seed to be ready for roasting (to read more about this process – click here).  When buying green beans for home roasting, inevitably it is necessary to put your trust in the supplier to provide you with quality beans.  Most niche green bean suppliers take this very seriously and consider the reputation of their companies to be at stake from the quality of the beans they offer.  Usually each offering is “cup-rated” meaning roasted and tasted onsite at the source to check for quality and taste characteristics.  Some suppliers even engage in cupping monthly after the coffee is imported and while it’s on their shelves waiting to be ordered and shipped.  SweetMaria’s (sweetmarias.com) is one such supplier who does this and their high quality beans are organized for sale on their site by continent with each coffee’s origin rife with details of the plantation, with photos, the cupping scorers detailed score and a summary of the taste characteristics with roast-level recommendations.  Read up and order the beans of your choice and eventually begin to learn about the taste characteristics as described.  For about $100 you can end up with about 15-17 pounds of green beans rather than just the five or so pounds you might get with roasted coffee bought at your local roaster.  And green beans have an exponentially greater shelf life than roasted beans, so no need to worry about their going bad (read more about that from SweetMaria’s here).  Roast 2/3 to 1 pound at a time with your Behmor drum roaster and follow many of Sweet Maria’s roasting guides to get comfortable with the nuances of home roasting.  It’s a rewarding endeavor, and as you get better, you can consider upgrading your roaster to a fancy commercial one.



Many treatises have been written on brewing coffee.  What I’m presenting isn’t meant to be taken to be anything more than a “where-I-have-arrived” exposition – and certainly no treatise.  I’ve tried several of the main kinds of coffee brewing – drip and French press principally – but I have arrived recently at my current favorite, pour over.  If you must use a drip maker, at least use one with a thermal carafe.  No need to put the brewed coffee on a burner (egad!).  And French press is certainly a great way, but it does make a more oily cup – if you like that, which I do on occasion.  My problem with French press is that it’s a messy cleanup and I can’t keep the brewed coffee hot unless I transfer it into a carafe.  For my day-to-day go-to enjoyment, I’ve found that pour over is the only way to go.  But there are some important components to make it easy and awesome.  Without these, you will find the pour over method to be inconvenient.  The rewards of pour over is that EVERY cup, is a fresh brewed cup of most awesome incredibleness.

The ideal setup includes the burr grinder, the electric temperature enhanced kettle and the ceramic coffee dripper



The first important component is an electric burr grinder.  Burr grinders grind the beans and spit the grounds out constantly so that each amount of coffee is ground uniformly.  One of the problems with a blade grinder is that some of the beans get ground to fine dust and other beans remain large chunks.  This doesn’t work well with pour over.  Grounds that are too fine stop up the filter and of course don’t extract the coffee properly.  This is true when using a blade grinder with a drip maker and not ideal even with a French press.  I have a Cuisinart burr grinder that has a whole bean reservoir for approximately 2/3 of a pound of roasted beans and a slide setting for the amount of coffee you’d like it to grind – two, four, and so on up to twelve.  We set it at two and hit the start button to grind exactly the amount needed for a roughly 10-ounce cup of coffee.  There’s no reason to get your measuring spoon and go digging in your coffee tin or bag every time you want a new cup.  You simply hit the button.  If you have to dig in the bag for each cup, you won’t find pour over system convenient enough.  See the grinder at Amazon – here.



As it turns out another very important tool in a pour over system is a kettle with a long precision spout.  These spouts allow you to slowly and predictably pour the hot water over your grounds.  One of drip coffee makers biggest struggles is that it often doesn’t shower the grounds uniformly and some of your basket of grounds may even be dry after brewing.  Precision pouring is important.  I use a BonaVita electric kettle.  What’s great about it is I can set the exact temperature I want the water (I choose 205 degrees F), and the kettle base heats the water with no hot burner.  It’s absolutely ideal.  Other choices are stove top kettles, but those obviously are used on a stove top’s hot surface and have no temperature reading without an external thermometer.  It’s totally worth the extra $30 for the electric BonaVita in my opinion.  So easy and convenient.  See the item at Amazon – here.  Another knock on drip makers is that the water doesn’t get hot enough.  They say 200˚F is ideal for best extraction, and with the electric kettle with temp control you know you’re getting the right temperature each time.



The last remaining accessories are the pour over coffee dripper and filters.  I chose the Hario V60 ceramic coffee dripper (you wouldn’t really consider plastic, would you?) and the accompanying Hario 02 conical filters.  Hario is Japanese company and one of the oldest makers of heat-proof glassware and a big name in pour over coffee.  The Hario has a round opening at the bottom of their dripper that requires a conical filter that comes to a point at the bottom.  Your typical Melita cone filters found at the grocery store, although somewhat conical in shape, have a flat bottom on their dripper and filter, so Melita filters will not work with your Hario dripper.  That means you likely won’t find the correct filters in your local grocery store, unless it’s a specialty store.  Nevertheless, the filters are easy and cheap to purchase on Amazon.  See these at Amazon – here.  I personally am down with the conical Hario V60.  Everything filters down to the point.



Putting it all together for the perfect cup means getting fresh water – we use deionized water we get from the grocery store that we put in BPA-free plastic containers – and pouring it in your kettle.  Set the kettle temperature to 205˚ F and start heating.  Meanwhile, set your grinder to give you 2 cups worth of uniformly ground beans.  Grab your favorite coffee cup and the ceramic coffee dripper, put a filter in place and set it on top of your cup.  Take the fresh ground beans and dump them into the filter.  When the water is heated, take the kettle and pour just enough water over the grounds to wet them but not really start the drip process.  Wait about 20-30 seconds – to allow the grounds to “bloom” – and then use the spout to evenly distribute the water in a circular motion around the grounds.  Don’t overfill the dripper with water, but place the kettle back on the base and wait for the water level in the dripper to filter through.  Keep the kettle at 205˚ F. and continue adding water in a circular motion over all the grounds until your cup is full and perfectly brewed.  Take the cup over near your waste basket and lift out the filter and toss, then rinse your dripper and have it ready for your next cup.  The time this process requires is minimal and the reward is that with each cup, you’ll know that no one, NO ONE is having a finer cup of coffee at that moment than you are.  It’s a great feeling.