The most frequently asked question right now is: how do I brew coffee at home? I am reluctant to wade into these waters because every single coffee-related Instagram is currently live streaming this very topic and the majority of early ask Lee dispatches tackled the subject. But it is always good to dive into the archive; so, I am going to pull past posts together as an updated guide!
Advice: Look for ‘specialty’ or ‘third wave’ coffee. Organic and fair trade are not great benchmarks for quality.
Rationale: A cup is only as good as its weakest link. Starting at origin, the unique elements of a place will foster a specific flavour profile. Rainfall, sunshine, soil, varietal, tree age, pruning and so on will all contribute to the development of an individual sensory experience. However, this budding crop requires a farm’s deep institutional knowledge along with ethical environmental and labour practices to truly become great.
This is the beating heart of third wave or specialty coffee. It typically (almost always) provides better compensation than Fair Trade certified coffee. Fair trade is a floating modifier based in the commodity market and countless studies show it does not provide a living wage to the farmer, let alone an adequate income. Moreover, it is a third-party certification, which is expensive and often exclusionary to small scale farms.
Advice: Seek light-medium roasts. Avoid dark roasts.
Rationale: While every region, farm, and crop holds the potential for an amazingly unique sensory experience, it hinges on the roast. My pie metaphor: if you have a strawberry, peach, and pumpkin pie, you can really experience the beautiful acidity of berry, the syrupy sweetness of stone fruit or creamy depth of squash.
That is, unless you burn all three. Then you have a uniform taste of burnt char and no dessert on the table. Similarly, dark roasting erases the unique, replacing it with the singular taste of the roast process. You lose the green and simply have one-note bitterness. A well profiled light or medium roast will ‘open the window’ and allow you to experience the ever-changing and evolving array of berries, fruits, caramels and so on.
Advice: When dealing with light and medium roasts, age your coffee. ‘Fresh is best’ is only true for dark roasts.
Rationale: Roasting is a destructive process that both alters the flavour volatiles (the compounds responsible for impressions of taste in food and drink) and breaks down the cellulose structure enough to enable effective brewing. The longer we expose green beans to a hot drum, the more we destroy their structure. At the end of the line, all that remains are fragile beans that are oily and porous. For these unfortunate beans to taste good, we must race the clock. Oils go rancid and flavour easily escape these weakened beans.
In both science and lore, the myth of fresh reigns but emergent science demonstrates the rule does not apply to light-medium roasts. Given the beans are less compromised, they hold onto flavour volatiles and CO2 longer. The former means, no need to fear a ghostly, empty, and muted cup because time is on your side. While the later means you will actually have problems brewing if you try too soon. CO2 will block absorption and inhibit a tasty cup. So, try brewing anywhere from two weeks to four months after roasting!
Side note: Store coffee in dark and dry conditions because moisture and heat will initiate the brewing process.
Other side note: pre-grinding your coffee will unlock and free all those flavour volatiles meaning time is not on your side. Akin to a dark roast, flavour will dissipate quickly.
More: New Brew Rules.
Advice: The best upgrades are a kitchen scale and burr grinder.
Rationale: Brewing good coffee is an act of repetition and adjustment. If you can re-create similar conditions, you can narrow in and get closer to the ‘ideal extraction’. A scale locks in one of the most important variables: ratio of water to coffee. Think baking, you will have an easier time with measuring cups than estimates.
Next: Buy a burr grinder. By design, blade grinders will shatter your beans into a set of random sized bits, while a burr grinder creates more evenly sized granules. Imagine water pouring over rocks. A beautifully even set of perfectly round baseball sized stones will create a uniform and aesthetically pleasing cascade. However, if you mix pebbles with basketball sized stones and even a couple massive boulders, the water will pool in a couple of locations. Coffee is a game of getting water to move those volatiles from bean to cup. Thus, uniformity goes a long way, while over-saturating a small subset of tiny bits and ignoring larger chunks will mean an uneven taste profile in the cup.
Advice: Use Simple Recipes.
Rationale: The more elements you can lock-in, the better. You can re-create your cup and accordingly, make small adjustments. I like 16-parts water to every 1-part coffee. On a V60, I add 20% of the water to bloom, swish at 0:45 seconds. Slowly pour in another 40% of the water at 1:00 minute and then the final 40% of water at 2:00 minutes. Do not @ me. I’ve tried your recipe. There are many ways to get a tasty cup. Given the subjective nature of taste and flavour, there is no shortage of approaches. Start simple, find one that works for you and have fun.
More: How to Brew the Best Cup?
Advice: I have written a great deal about the complexity of flavour and taste with this as touchstone for dialing-in a coffee:
Rationale: To access the unique flavour experience of any coffee, it must past two tests. First, roasting. You can create universal flavours by underdeveloping a coffee. An inability to adequately penetrate a bean with heat and evenly apply those complex changes results in the grassy, herbal, and bitter-sour flavour of vegetables. Conversely, too much time in the roaster, you end up with the spicy, burnt and bitter notes of char in the cup. One can also bake a batch. I often explain it as a loss of stability in a roast that produces a bland cup with low sweetness and an almost papery finish.
The second test is brewing. An over-extracted coffee is always bitter and astringent, regardless of origin or roast quality. Equally, any under-extracted coffee will hit you with sour and the biting impression of salt despite its country, growing conditions, or processing. These sensory experiences are inevitable and inescapable if you grind too fine or too coarse. However, when you manage to dial in that coffee, you wade through the miraculous center pools of the diagram above. You reach the question marks and the rewards of the unique. You taste the flavours tied to the environmental conditions of place, the choices made during processing and the interpretation of the roaster.
I am a great admirer of Phil & Sebastian for many reasons – one of which is the proclamation printed on their bags: ‘welcome to the rabbit hole’. It alludes to the curiosity and fun that a delicious cup can ignite. Great coffee never gets old (and its not just because of C02) because country-to-country, region-to-region, farm-to-farm, and harvest-to-harvest, we face the surprising, the individual and the wonderful. It is a never ending opportunity to experience the unique. And, honestly, that is the part that is always fleeting, ephemeral and magical – the part that is impossible to summarize in any guide.
Trust the Process,