Coffee Brewing Basics
Regardless of how you brew your coffee, there are some basic guidelines to follow that will help you make better coffee, every time.
1. Keep your coffee maker clean
Sounds fairly simple, but residue from both water and coffee can build up in your machine over time and detract from the natural characteristics of the coffee. Since this generally happens slowly, from pot to pot, it's hard for you to notice it. But it can, and certainly does, happen.
2. Use fresh, clear, clean, cold water free of impurities
Coffee is 98% water, so the quality of your brew is heavily dependent upon the quality of the water that you use. Freshly drawn tap water is fine in most cases. However, if you are not happy with the quality of your water consider using filtered or bottle water. Remember, the "harder" your water is the stronger your coffee will be. "Hardness" minerals in water can, however, impart peculiar or undesirable tastes in your coffee...not to mention hard water wreaks havoc on your coffee brewing equipment.
3. Buy fresh coffee and keep it fresh
Enemies of storing coffee are air, light, heat and moisture. When you're using pre-packaged coffee pillow packs and filter packs, your coffee is kept fresh until you're ready to brew. They lock out the air, the light, and the moisture. All you need to do is store your coffee at room temperature.
Store your whole bean coffees in a cool, dark, dry place. And preferably in an opaque, airtight container.
4. Use the right amount of ground coffee
The "right amount" of coffee is different for everyone. The golden rule of coffee is to use one slightly rounded tablespoon of ground coffee for every 6oz. of water. Feel free to experiment, though. Start with about 1.50 ounces of coffee for a standard 12 cup pot of brew, then add to or subtract from that amount if you think your coffee is too weak or too strong, respectively.
5. Brew at the right temperature
The ideal brewing temperature for coffee varies depending on the type of coffee you are making. For "regular coffee" the ideal brewing temperature is between 195&0176;F and 200&0176;F (just below boiling). Espresso is brewed under pressure, and at a slightly higher temperature.
6. Keep your coffee fresh AFTER brewing, too
Once coffee is brewed, the coffee begins to lose flavor and aroma. Contact with air and heat cause the coffee to break down and can impart a burned (bad) taste. This decomposition of your brewed coffee becomes noticeable after about 15 minutes on the "burner". To avoid this, transfer your coffee into an airtight insulated carafe, thermos, or airpot immediately after brewing. This will keep your coffee fresher for a longer period of time, and help retain the brewed coffee's heat (though it will still slowly cool off without an external heat source).
Coffee Brewing Methods - What's Right for You?
The drip method is by far the most widely used coffee brewing method. The concept is simple: Hot water (almost boiling) is poured or sprayed over the ground coffee, contained in a filter, and allowed to drip into a container of some sort.
This process can be performed with an electronic automatic drip machine, which sprays the water over the grounds, or manually by pouring the hot water over the grounds in a cone-shaped filtered funnel. Some automatic drip coffeemakers even allow you to preset when you want to brew coffee, so you can wake up to coffee that's already made for you. The vast majority of coffee drinkers, as well as restaurants, use the drip method to make coffee - it works and it makes a good cup of coffee consistently.
Keep in mind, though, that the coffee filter tends to absorb some of the coffee's oils, robbing your final brew of some of its flavors. Also, it is important to use high quality filters that are oxygen whitened (not chemically bleached) to avoid tainting your coffee with a chemical taste. Also, be sure to grind your coffee coarse enough to avoid clogging the pores of your filter.
Percolators, known for their ease of use, were wildly popular in the 1950's. Since then, however, the popularity of the percolator has dwindled because percolator coffee isn't very good. In fact, the percolator method is considered the worst way to brew coffee. Why? Because a percolator reboils the coffee as it brews. Recirculating the coffee over the grounds over and over again, results in an extremely bitter brew. Furthermore, when the coffee boils the ideal brewing temperature is exceeded and the good-tasting oils and flavors turn into bad-tasting ones.
The percolator has two chambers: the top chamber holds the coffee grinds on top of a filter of some sort, the bottom chamber is the water chamber and is closest to the heat source. Percolators are really, really simple to use. Just put some coarsely ground coffee in the top chamber and fill the percolator with water. Then place the percolator over a heat source (usually a stove). The water in the bottom chamber boils and is forced, through a tube, to the top of the percolator and drips down over the coffee grounds. This action is repeated over and over again until you turn off the heat source and pour out the percolated coffee.
Steeping (French Press, Unpressurized Infusion):
Conceptually, steeping is the simplest way to make coffee. Just mix hot water (almost boiling) with ground coffee, allow the two to "get happy" together, and separate the brew from the spent coffee grounds. The french press (A.K.A press pot or plunge pot) works exclusively on the steeping method.
Many coffee gurus claim that steeped coffee, with its unique flavor characteristics, is the best way to make coffee. Steeped coffee tastes very much like drip coffee, except steeped coffee may be more richly flavorful when metal screens are used to filter the coffee grounds out instead of paper filters. The chemistry of extraction is a little different with the steeping method also. Since the coffee grounds remain in contact with the hot water longer, difficult to extract flavors are more concentrated in steeped coffee than in drip coffee. This speculative advantage is pretty subjective, however, and your mileage may vary.
The main drawback this manual infusion method is that the brewer must control the brew time. Wait too long to "plunge" the grounds out and you'll have bitter coffee. Jump the gun, and you'll have weak coffee. Either way, be sure to use a coarsely ground coffee, or your brew will be full of suspended coffee dust and colloids. Get the coarseness and the brew time right, though, and you've got a great way to brew coffee.
Decoction (Boiling, Cowboy Coffee):
Cowboy coffee can be pretty decent, but drip filtration or the steeping method is generally better. Decoction (the act of boiling coffee to extract the flavor) has been around for centuries, and may be the oldest extraction method. Cowboy coffee got its name because while on the trail cowboys, out of necessity, used to make coffee in a pot on the fire. Here's a classic cowboy coffee recipe...
1. Bring one quart of water to a boil in a saucepan.
2. Add 3/4 cup of ground coffee.
3. Return to boil.
4. Immediately remove from heat and cover.
5. Wait till the grounds sink (about 5 minutes)
6. Serve the liquid off of the grounds
The vacuum brewer has three parts: a lower chamber for serving, an upper chamber for extraction, and a filter. The apparatus is assembled with a steam-tight seal between the upper and lower chambers, with a filter right in the middle. The filter allows hot water to pass through, but the mesh size prevents coffee grounds from penetrating.
To brew, fill the lower chamber with cold water and place coarsely ground coffee in the upper chamber. Next place the entire apparatus over a heat source (usually a flame or an electric hot plate). As the water heats, near-boiling (ideal) water is pushed up a tube, through the filter, and into the upper chamber. The force of rising water accumulates hot water in the upper chamber, extracting coffee from the grounds.
When the heat source is turned off, the lower chamber cools faster than the upper chamber, creating a vacuum. This vacuum "sucks" the brewed coffee from the upper chamber back into the lower chamber as ready-to-serve coffee. It's a little complicated and dramatic, but the vacuum filtration method makes wonderful coffee.
Pressurized Infusion (Espresso):
Espresso is usually brewed using extra fine ground coffee and either a pump or steam espresso machine. To make espresso, super-hot water or steam is infused into packed espresso grounds under pressure to maximize extraction. The hot water is allowed to remain in contact with the espresso grounds for a little bit, until the shot is "pulled" all at once into a demitasse cup.
The finely ground coffee combined with the pressurized infusion method yields a boldly flavorful cup of coffee with lots of crema (foam that results from the pressurization). Often, steamed milk is added to the espresso to increase the richness of the beverage. Pulling a perfect espresso shot can take quite a bit of practice. In fact, the art of making espresso can require years of experience - in Italy, a Barista is typically a well-trained older person and is well respected by the people.