10 Things to Know about Coffee

Get more gusto from your grinds with our top coffee tips.

Coffee Fundamentals

Photo: John Autry

To Stir, With Love

The warm perfume of fresh beans in the grinder, the morning thrill of the French press plunge: After a quarter-century of coffee mania, it's as important as ever to get the bean-to-mug fundamentals right, and avoid the tragic little crime that is a bad cup.

Coffee Bean Plant

Photo: Randy Mayor

The Weight of Soil

1. Much depends on the soil—but not everything. Coffee talk is all about the terroir, the taste derived from the soil. And flavor profiles follow continental patterns. But processing and freshness tend to have a bigger effect on taste than they do in the case of wine, because beans, after roasting, are volatile. Time between roasting and packing is important, as are the quality of the package and the time between opening the package and brewing the beans.

Coffee Bean Roasting Freshness

Photo: Randy Mayor

Roasting Freshness

2. So, when were these beans roasted? That's when the clock starts ticking, and you've got about two weeks before flavor starts to fade. There are no guidelines for coffee labeling; some vendors list the roasting date, and some don't. Open bins of beans are not promising; nor are bags without valves. Some vendors, like Peet's Coffee & Tea, roast to order.

Coffee Bags

Photo: Randy Mayor

Bagged Coffee

3. Is the bag good? Freshly roasted beans off-gas carbon dioxide. Valve-sealed bags let the gas escape in transit. Cans or vaccuum-sealed bags contain beans that have been aired out. And note what air does to beans in point #4.

Storing Coffee

Photo: Randy Mayor

Storing and Grinding

4. Store well; grind as you go. Store beans in an airtight canister away from light, then grind just before brewing. Once ground, more of the bean's surface area is exposed to air, causing the oils (and the flavor) to evaporate faster. Ground coffee lasts just a day or two; whole beans, up to two weeks.

5. The blade vs. burr debate. Blade grinders chop beans into bits, yielding grounds of varying sizes, leading to an inconsistent brew. Burr grinders, little millstones, grind beans to a uniform size between two plates. And you can adjust grind size according to your own brewing method. Coffee aficionados like the more costly burrs for that reason.

Coffee Water and the French Press

Photo: Randy Mayor

Coffee Water and the French Press

6. The water matters. If your tap water tastes weird, it's doing your brew no favors. Filter it. Then, pay attention to temperature. The water needs to reach from 195° to 205°, and many automatic-drip coffeemakers don't reach that mark. The best way to control temperature is to use a brewing method that requires you to heat the water yourself. Two words: French press. The extra work is worth it.

Coffee Water Ratio

Photo: Randy Mayor

The Winning Ratio and Check the Math

7. Try the coffeehouse ratio. Using better machines and higher-quality beans makes for richer, more intensive flavor. But good coffeehouses use more coffee when brewing, too: 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 ounces of water.

8. Check your pot's math. A standard cup measure is 8 ounces, but it's obvious to the eye that many 8- and 10-cup coffeemakers use a different measure. Some use a 6-ounce standard; some, even less. Check the manual or test your pot because you want to use the right coffee to water ratio. See #7 above.

Raw Versus Roasted Coffee Beans

Photo: Randy Mayor

All About Grinds

9. Know your grinds. Raw beans keep a long time and ship well to distant roasters. Roasting, light to dark, moves beans from terroir notes to deep-roasted notes.

Fair-Trade Coffee

Photo: Randy Mayor

All About Grinds: Part 2 and Fair-Trade

Coarse Grind: best for a French press.
Medium Grind: best for auto-drip machines.
Fine Grind: best for espresso or cone filters.

10. Who gets fair-trade dollars? Fair-trade coffee is certified to come from small farmer cooperatives that are paid a premium of 10 cents per pound (20 cents for organic). You absorb that cost—plus another 5 to 10 cents for the certifying agency.


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