I’m a coffee lover, but I just cringed when those “coffee achiever” TV ads aired because I thought they were so silly. But there’s nothing silly about enjoying a robust cup of coffee. Especially on Sundays, when you’re savoring a cup while reading the newspaper or your favorite blogs.
But if what you’re drinking was brewed using tap water and pre-ground coffee from a big plastic container you found at the bottom shelf of your grocery store’s coffee section, then you’re only drinking coffee flavored water. Which is fine if you’re just looking for a caffeine boost….
But I’m not just looking for a caffeine boost. As with wine, I drink coffee for flavor and since I drink only one 12-16 ounce mug a day, I insist on quality. And it can be so much more affordable than a cup from Starbucks or similar “premium” coffee house. So why not cut out the overhead and get more for less?
Unlike wine (unless you’re making your own), you have considerable control over how your home brewed coffee ends up tasting. There’s coffee bean variety, its roast level and brewing method to consider. Since this is about flavor, and we all have different tastes, what you enjoy is right. Just as with wine.
So if you want to liberate your coffee taste buds from the usual suspects and enjoy coffee at the “steak” level rather than at the “hamburger” level, read on…
First, forget about buying coffee locally – you won’t find the price or the variety. My source is Coffee Bean Direct, which offers an excellent variety, generous quantity pricing on five pound vacuum sealed bags and free shipping on any order of at least 25 pounds. (Get with some friends and share an order.)
I won’t spend much time on coffee variety or roast level since they are personal tastes you’ll have to discover on your own…and will have a lot of fun exploring! In time, you’ll develop the Pavlovian association of country and bean, such as Brazilian Santos, Costa Rican Tarrazu and Kenya AA.
Generally, I prefer the “high altitude” grown coffees, especially the ones from Mexico which are generically called “altura.” (The super elite “high altitude” varieties such as Jamaican Blue Mountain or Hawaiian Kona run $35 a pound.)
The roast choice can vary depending on when you’re drinking. I prefer a dark or espresso roast in the morning for its “wake up” quality and a lighter roast in the evening. A medium roast can be a good “all purpose“ selection.
I do encourage you to buy whole bean rather than ground. First, whole bean is slightly less expensive. Second, whole bean stores longer. Most importantly, when you do the grinding you can adjust it for your brewing method. Start with a “blade” grinder which you’ll find for about $20.
At some point, you’ll have to decide whether or not to stay with a blade grinder, which has “issues” such as inconsistent grind to overheating the beans and undermining that coffee flavor we’re trying to achieve. Theoretically, a “burr” grinder, particularly the conical type (as opposed to a wheel type) can produce the most consistent grind. I say “can” because unless you purchase a grinder that may cost more than some cheap dishwashers, you can also experience problems such as inconsistent grind (surprise!), overheating the beans (surprise!) and some “special” problems, such as static.
Bottom line: even the cheapest blade grinder will give you a better coffee than any pre-ground coffee. Once you grind that coffee, if you don’t use it in a few minutes, then you may as well be using that pre-ground coffee on the bottom shelf at the grocery store. So when you see someone at the grocery grinding a pound of stale coffee beans from that plastic keg of “gourmet“ coffee, what you are seeing them really do is grind their money into what will become… coffee flavored water. Don’t you do it!
Also, just as you can buy a vacuum pump for wine bottles, you should seek out a vacuum pump container to store those beans, which I first place in outer and inner zip lock bags for additional protection. Air is not good for your beans! (Which is why you don’t want to buy those whole beans sitting in a clear plastic “keg” in your grocery store even if you‘ll grind them.)
Also, I’m not a believer in freezing coffee because once you open that bag to get some beans, some condensation on the beans has to occur (even if you can’t see it). The time for water on your coffee is during brewing, not before it.
As for preparation, I have three types of brewers. For guests, I use a standard, cone-type coffeemaker because my two other brewers can’t make enough for company. (OK, OK… so I’m shorting them to an extent but at least it’s not Maxwell House. And I have a gold mesh filter, although there is some issue whether the gold filters let certain oils through that may not be good for some folks.)
The typical brewing method when it’s just me (which it usually is since my wife doesn’t partake), is a French press (a/k/a “press pot“), which you can find at places like World Market. You put the coffee in the bottom of a small “pitcher” of glass or maybe polycarbonate, pour in the near boiling water, and then use a plunger with a fine mesh screen to push the coffee down to the bottom. After brewing, you pour the coffee and later toss the grinds into your tomato or hot pepper garden, which like those grounds.
The advantage of a French press is that you decide how long to steep the coffee. You do need to be careful that the grinds are just a bit larger than the size of the mesh screen openings; otherwise, you’ll get more “sludge” at the bottom of the cup, which some folks like. That’s where the coffee grinder comes in.
When the mood strikes for a “strong” cup, my third brewer is a stovetop “moka” pot, also available at World Market. It uses steam to force water under pressure through the grinds to make a form of espresso. A moka pot cannot produce the level of pressure needed to blast the grinds for “true” espresso, but for the price it’s a great “value” choice. A moka pot will normally produce a stronger brew than a French press since the pressure extracts more caffeine. (When I use a moka pot, I typically prefer to drink it Spanish style – “con leche.”)
Of course, no matter what brewing method you use, don’t undermine the final taste by using tap water. I use purified water that you can buy from vending machines like Glacier for less than 50 cents a gallon. I’ve also tried distilled water but don’t like that as much as purified water. Your taste may be different, so experiment.
So get over to Coffee Bean Direct and explore some coffees. Then find a deal on a French press and/or a moka pot. Start hanging out at Coffee Geek. Life is short… for the price of maybe two cups of Starbucks, you can buy a pound of “real” coffee and drink much more than two cups. That’s why you won’t see me in any local Starbucks!
And for enquiring minds…here’s what coffees I have on hand right now, in alphabetical order:
Belize organic dark roast (picked up on a cruise)
Costa Rican Tarrazu
P.S. Here’s a link to a NY Times article on coffee myths and facts.