The Art of Brewing Coffee

My obsession with brewing a consistent cup of coffee started back in December when Kaleigh bought me a Moka Pot. Up to that point I had been brewing coffee exclusively with a French press and beans from Costco. Having grown up with parents that brewed this way it was pretty much the only way I drank coffee for a long time, with the exception of the occasional cup from coffee shops.

Over the summer I had begun to appreciate espresso. Not being a fan of iced coffee, it offered a nice alternative on hot days or after large meals when a big cup of coffee is a bit too much. However, we have very hard water at our house, and an espresso machine wasn’t quite an investment I was ready for yet, hence the interest in a Moka pot.

When Kaleigh presented it to me for my birthday I jumped online to do some quick research, having no idea how to brew with it. What I realized is that my entire coffee brewing process was far from ideal, even for the French press that I had become so accustomed to.

My first big issue was the beans. Beans are the most important part of the coffee brewing process. You can have the best equipment and technique in the world, but if your beans are old and stale you will end up with a subpar cup of coffee.

The problem with the majority of beans you get at grocery stores is that they often sit in warehouses and on store shelves for months and months after roasting. By the time you go to brew coffee with them they’ve lost a lot their flavour. If the beans are pre-ground this problem is more pronounced, as the small particles of coffee oxidize much quicker than whole beans.

This lead me to make two changes immediately. First, I stopped buying coffee in giant bags from Costco and started exploring local shops that roasted their own beans. Ideally you’re looking for beans that have been roasted in the past three days, or better yet some shops will roast beans to order. I’ve found that beans will remain fresh for two weeks after roasting; Usually into the third or fourth week I begin to notice a drop in flavour. This is not to say the beans are expired, you can still make a cup of coffee with them, they are just past their prime.

The second change I made is I stopped grinding my coffee in large batches. I used to grind my coffee beans a pound at a time, because it was more convenient than having to grab my grinder every time I wanted a cup of coffee. Now I only grind as much coffee as I need immediately, usually after I’ve already got the water going. This means that my coffee is exposed to oxygen for a much shorter amount of time, which results in less oxidization and more flavour. I’ve also changed the way I store my beans. Before I’d just leave them in the bag they came in, which was a big two pound bag that never really sealed completely air tight. Since I learned that air is an enemy of coffee, I switched to mason jars that I keep in a cool, dark cupboard in my kitchen.

When I began digging more and more into coffee brewing, I realized that another part of my grinding process was still holding me back. Up until that point I ground my coffee with a blade style ‘grinder’. These grinders don’t actually grind coffee beans, they chop them up as the blade spins around. There is no way for the grinder to control how the blade hits the beans, so they get chopped into uneven pieces. When the blade hits the beans they just shatter apart, and some of the pieces are small particles of dust, while others are much larger chunks. The inconsistent grind size leads to inconsistent extraction. All the small pieces are over extracted while the larger ones are under extracted, this leads to a cup of coffee with off flavours. The more consistent your grind size is, the more control you have over your coffee brewing process.

This lead me to invest in a burr style grinder. A burr grinder actually grinds the coffee by crushing it between two conical burrs, as opposed to chopping it. The size of the grind is adjusted by increasing or decreasing the space between the two burrs. This results in better control and a more consistent grind size.

I chose to go with what is considered the go to in entry level burr grinders, the Baratza Encore. Although it is not recommended for grinding fine enough or consistently enough for espresso, it is perfect for french press, moka pots and pour overs.

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Since I was taking all these measures to brew a better and more consistent cup of coffee, I figured the final step was obvious. It was time for me to start weighing out my coffee and water. Although eyeballing can be fine in a pinch, getting your water to coffee ratio right has a huge impact on flavour. As does the length of time that you brew it for, and to a certain degree the temperature of your water. Too many beans and not enough water will result in too strong of a brew. Even if you get the ratio right but brew for too long, you’ll end up with a cup of coffee that is over extracted.

I started off by checking the temperature of the water in my kettle. Ideally for a French press you want water between 195-205F. Since I know that water boils at 212F, I used a thermometer to see how long after my kettle turns off before the water cools to that temperature. Once I had that figured out I started brewing coffee with 20g of fresh ground beans and 320g of water, or a ratio of 1:16.

Grind size also plays a factor in the flavour of your coffee. If you grind too fine, your coffee will be over extracted. Generally I see two conflicting  grind sizes recommended for French press. The first group of people say that something coarser than what you want for drip coffee is required, and similarly in my Baratza Encore manual 32 was the grinder setting recommended for French press. The other group recommends something finer than that.

Ultimately this comes down to a matter of experimentation and preference. I found grind size is the variable I played around with the most. Now I brew with my Encore set to 24, which would be considered too fine for French press by many. However this is what tastes best to me.

Another variable of the brewing process is the amount of time you let the beans infuse in the water. I used to let my beans sit for anywhere from four to ten minutes, usually forgetting to look at a clock. Now I use the timer on my phone and I no longer worry about having bitter or under extracted cups of coffee.

I use a total brew time of three minutes and 30 seconds. When I pour the water over the beans, I start by pouring 2/3 of the water, and letting it sit for 30 seconds. When you do this you’ll notice that you’ll have a foamy layer of water and grinds that sits on top of the rest of the water.

These grinds aren’t submerged so they won’t extract properly. After  those first 30 seconds I use the back of a spoon to push that foam down and give it a gentle stir to hydrate all the grinds, and then I pour in the last 1/3 of the water. Make sure to keep the timer running from the moment you first pour the water, and don’t stop it when you’re giving the beans a stir. When the timer goes off, press the plunger down slowly, it should take 30 seconds to press it down, resulting in a total brew time of 4 minutes.

Of course, if you find that this timing doesn’t work for you, you can always try different lengths. It’s all a matter of playing around with the variables in your control and recording them so that you can repeat the process once you’ve nailed that perfect cup of coffee.

When making adjustments to your brewing process it is important to only adjust a single factor at a time, that way you can be sure that the changes in the coffee can be attributed to that particular adjustment. ChefSteps has a great procedure for dialing in all your variables and how to troubleshoot your coffee. There are also alternative ways to use French presses out there, although I’ve yet to try any myself.

If you’re serious about making the best cup of coffee possible, I’d highly recommend going through the process of sourcing fresh beans and dialing in your process. It’s seems like a daunting task and I must admit I thought it was a bit over the top myself when I first started researching. However after all the work was done I was happy to have gone through with it. I drink anywhere from two to four cups of coffee a day, and I’m still amazed about how much better my coffee now tastes.

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