The ultimate guide to making cafe-style coffee in your own home
From pour-over brews to quality lattes at the touch of a button.
To brew a delicious cup of coffee, there are certain variables you need to master: the ratio of coffee to water, brew time, water temperature, and the grind size of your beans. All of these factors have to come together to create a balanced cup. When the coffee grinds are introduced to hot water, the water begins to extract compounds from the coffee beans. The goal? Liquid that is not too bitter, burnt, or sour. To get there, you need to extract the right compounds from the beans at the right time. This can take experimentation, and will change depending on what product you use to concoct your brew.
And while there are standard recommendations, coffee making is really all about personal taste. For example, I (a coffee enthusiast, clearly) prefer the pour-over method and use a Chemex to brew my coffee. But that’s just one way to get a pitch-perfect cuppa. During my college barista years, I picked up some tips of the trade—and worked with some quality gear—that I still use daily. Read on.
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Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Factors like where the coffee is grown, the blend of the beans, and how long they’ve been roasted for dictates the flavors of your fluids. If you don’t know what kind of coffee you like, get tasting. A decent way to do this is to try out a subscription service that will ship multiple taster roasts. I personally like Bean Box, which offers a sampler of single-origin coffees—coffees from one country or farm—from 20 roasters around the world. Instead of committing to a larger bag, the service sends four 1.8 ounce bags, each roasted within 48 hours of being shipped. Each box comes with tasting notes, tips on how to brew the coffee, and a bonus treat like a piece chocolate.
The first step to fresh-tasting, yummy coffee is to start with whole beans. You want to grind your coffee as close to brewing as possible. The longer your beans are exposed to oxygen, the quicker the compounds will break down. Pre-ground coffee also removes control over the grind size, so you won’t be able to tweak your recipe until it’s time for a new bag.
The key to coffee grounds is achieving the correct-size grind with a uniform surface area. Ideal coarseness depends on how you brew your coffee. A Chemex does best with a medium grind, while beans going into a French press can be coarser—here’s a simple guide to the “ideal” textures for various apparatuses.
The long and short of it is that if you change the size of the coffee grounds, you affect the rate at which compounds—volatile oils that account for the aroma and taste and bitterness-causing acids—are removed from the beans. For example, if you are making a pour-over coffee, the water is flowing through the grounds relatively quickly, so the grind size should be smaller. Because it takes a relatively short amount of time for water to pass through your grounds, you’ll want more surface area exposed to get a strong-enough brew. If you’re making cold-brew or using a French press, you can grind your beans pretty coarsely. Because the grounds get a proper bath in the water, full-immersion methods don’t do well with fine grounds. Too much surface area for too long means over-extraction.
Basically, you need a good grinder that will give you a consistent grind for a uniform and repeatable taste. The Baratza Encore (pictured above) has 40mm burrs that provide 40 coarseness settings and is fairly easy to clean. Burr grinders use two revolving surfaces to crush your beans into equal-size grounds. Being able to change the size of the grind makes you able to use any type of coffee maker.
Keep the beans away from sunlight and make sure to get an airtight container. Try to drink your coffee within two weeks, but if you cannot finish it, you can also freeze or refrigerate your beans.
In addition to grind size, you should be cognizant of the temperature of your water. The “right” temperature depends—of course—on your grind size. If given enough time, water of any temperature will extract compounds from coffee beans, but finding the right combination of water temperature and grind size and coffee maker is the difference between complex coffeehouse flavors and, well, not that.
If you pour very hot water on coffee grounds that are too fine, it’ll extract a lot of the bitter compounds. If you pour warm water over coarse grounds, you’ll be left unexciting murky water. Cold brew, to illustrate, is ground course and the beans are fully immersed in cold water for a solid 24 hours. Here, less surface area and colder temperatures don’t matter because the beans are bathed in H2O for a good long while.
For what it’s worth, when using my Chemex, I do a medium grind and heat up my water to 202 degrees. I adjust from there.
You’ll want to pour the water over the grounds steadily and slowly. It’s important not to agitate the grounds too much while you’re wetting the coffee. Agitation speeds up how quickly the coffee is exposed to fresh water. Too much agitation can pull out unfavorable flavors. My pouring routine goes like this: pour just enough water to wet all the beans and let them “bloom.” The bloom allows the grounds to expand and release gases trapped during the roasting process. This process should last 15-20 seconds. When finished, begin pouring again from the outside and slowly work your way in making smaller and smaller circles until you reach the middle. Keep the stream of water slow and steady until you have poured the desired amount of water.
My kettle of choice? This BonaVita kettle, which lets me keep hot water at my precise specifications for up to 60 minutes. The gooseneck spout allows for a slower and more controlled pour, too.
Brewing coffee is all about ratios. You need to be able to measure two things: how much coffee you’ve ground and how much water you’re using. Most suggested ratios are around 1:17. This means 17 grams of water for every one gram of coffee. (I use 18 grams of water for every gram of coffee because I am a rebel.) One thing to consider is that adding more water doesn’t mean you will make your coffee weaker. It can also affect how many compounds are extracted, changing the taste rather than the strength of your cup.
This Hario scale will make it easy to track the weight of your elements as well as how long your coffee’s been brewing. If you are making a pour over coffee in a device like a Chemex, you’ll be able to see how quick or slow the coffee is running through the grounds and the filter. It’ll help you measure your proportion of coffee to water.
To me, a Chemex is the simplest pour-over device. Its clear glass body can brew several cups at once, and makes it easy to see how much water you’ve poured. It’s easy to clean, too. Toss the filter in the trash—or wash out a metal one—and rinse it under the faucet.
These bleach-free filters fit every size Chemex. They reach above the glass lip making sure no grounds make it through to the bottom.
If you’re trying to cut down on waste, these stainless steel filters work fine. It’s a little messier to clean and you’ll need to adjust the grind size on your grinder, but this reusable mesh filter keeps the grounds from getting into your coffee and has saved me many times where I’ve run out of paper filters. It also has a washable, removable silicon ring to prevent scratches to your apparatus.
Now for a breezier, hands-off option. With six brewing modes—including a “fast” option, “strong” presets, and a custom “my brew” function—Breville’s Precision Brewer will make you a great cup of coffee at home. There are customizable flavor and taste settings, a cold-brew function, and a separate shower head adapter used to make a single cup of pour-over coffee with Hario V60 or Kalita Wave coffee makers.
This whole-bean Breville machine is expensive, but if you’re into espresso drinks like lattes and cappuccinos, it’s worth at least checking out.
What makes this device so pricey? It’s got a built-in automatic grinder, an automatic steam wand, and the digital temperature gives you the right temperature coffee with every cup. The touchscreen display lets you pick settings for the grind, brew, and milk froth level. I’ve tried it and love it.