Posted on: JUN 23, 2020
Posted by: STOKES COFFEE
Stokes Master Coffee Roaster Tom, Shares His Secrets to Brewing Better Coffee at Home
Roasted coffee has been around since as far back as the middle of the 15th century. Back then, brewing a cup was an incredibly simple process which only involved mixing hot water with ground beans and hoping you didn’t end up chewing too much of it.
These days things are not as easy, the level of passion from people within the industry has led to brewing being approached almost as a science, with new brewing methods and revelations coming out on a regular basis.
This article is the first in a (hopefully!) long-running series which aims to pull back the curtain on the wonderful world of coffee and give you the tools and know-how to brew incredible coffee at home.
Future articles will focus on the ‘ins and outs’ of specific brewing methods - but for now, I’ll take you through a series of simple steps you can take to improve your brewing process.
! Buy whole beans
There is no other change you can make to your coffee routine that will have as much impact as using whole beans, I can’t emphasise enough how much of a difference doing this one simple thing will make. Pre-ground coffee certainly has its place, and I understand that for a lot of people grinding coffee beans might not always be feasible, but if you’re looking to improve your home brewing then this is a necessary step.
The reason for this is simple - freshness. Roasted coffee is absolutely packed with aroma and flavour and most packaging is designed to keep it that way, however the second you open the bag they begin to degrade. At that point it’s a simple question of surface area- ground coffee has more of it than whole beans do by several orders of magnitude and will therefore lose aroma and flavour much faster. Grinding a small amount of beans and immediately brewing with them is going to ensure you get to taste as many of these compounds as possible, bringing out all the wonderful complexity coffee has to offer.
You don’t need to spend hundreds on a professional level grinder, a simple hand-grinder can be found relatively cheaply these days and will be good enough for most needs. Obviously, the more you spend generally, the better the grinder you’ll end up with. As long as you make sure it’s an adjustable burr grinder (not blades!) you can’t go far wrong.
This is a subject I’ll hopefully be devoting a whole article to in the future, but while we’re just talking about the basics, I’ll leave it at that.
! Measure everything
Working with coffee poses one key challenge at every step - consistency. Right from cultivating and harvesting, through to processing, roasting and finally brewing, there’s a constant battle to manage the countless variables present. Obviously, there’s little you as a consumer can do at most of these steps, but there’s plenty of ways to solve this problem while brewing.
In my opinion, this variance is one of coffee’s most exciting aspects, every coffee you drink is going to be different to the last. The roast obviously has a huge part to play in this, but country of origin, soil quality, climate and processing also has a big impact on the final product. What this means when it comes to brewing is that every coffee is going to act slightly differently, a brewing ratio and time that works for one may not be ideal for another. This is where measuring comes in. To get the best out of your coffee consistently, you should be weighing the coffee and the water, (we use weight rather than volume to measure water because it’s far more accurate), and then timing the entire brew.
This sounds like a lot of messing about for a cup of coffee I know, but it doesn’t add much time to the brewing process and the results are fantastic. If you brew a cup and it turns out perfectly, but you didn’t measure or time anything, then you’ll never drink that coffee again. It doesn’t take much change in ratio or time to bring out completely different flavours in a coffee, so giving yourself as much information as possible lets you repeat perfect brews time and time again. It will also allow you to more accurately make changes to a brew to get the absolute best out of a new coffee.
The next articles in this series will focus on specific brewing methods where I’ll cover a bit more about brewing times and ratios. To tide you over until then, a good starting point for filter machines and cafetières is 1-part coffee to 15-parts water.
! Buy better coffee
It feels a little bit ridiculous writing that, but it’s genuinely something that in my experience a lot of people don’t properly consider. Not all coffee is made equal! Obviously, your personal taste is going to play a huge part here, but don’t be afraid to experiment because you might be surprised at what you’ll enjoy.
The first step here is to find roasters that you can trust. The key things to look for is how much information they’re giving you about the beans. A good roaster will be listing country of origin, varietal, altitude and processing methods. You’re not looking for these to make any real assessment of the coffee yet, (we’ll get to that!), but if a roaster can’t tell you where their coffee comes from, they’re less likely to be giving it the care that it needs. It goes without saying this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a very good starting point.
The next step comes down a lot more to personal preference - learn to evaluate tasting notes properly. I used to feel that the detailed tasting notes on things like coffee, wine and whisky were a bit ridiculous, often sounding more like a marketing reel than anything reflecting reality. I’ve since spent the last three years tasting coffee in a professional capacity and I understand tasting notes a lot more.
As a quick example, take our Brazilian Monte Cristo. We list the tasting notes for this coffee as pear, almonds and chocolate. The important thing to remember here is that not only is taste a subjective, personal thing, but the flavours you pick up are largely dependent on your past experiences. If you’ve never eaten a pear, then you aren’t going to taste it here! The best thing to do is try and evaluate what general flavours or sensations each of those notes may be known for. For example, a pear has plenty of acidity, but more mellow than something like citrus, and with a nice juicy sweetness to back it up. Almonds have a neutral taste, but a very rich, creamy texture. Chocolate has a robust sweetness and sometimes trends towards a mild bitterness on the finish. Put all this together and you end up with a coffee that has mellow, juicy acidity backed up by a rich, creamy body and possibly a little hint of bitterness to round it out.
From here it’s just a case of experimenting to find out what general flavour profiles you gravitate toward. Your preferred brewing process is going to play a large part here, but at the risk of repeating myself again, we’ll save that for another article.
I’m going to repeat myself again immediately, water absolutely needs its own article. A cup of filter coffee will contain somewhere between 1%-2% dissolved coffee solids, which means that almost 99% of the cup is just water. It is critical that the water you’re brewing with is right for the job to get the best out of the coffee.
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut and no easy fix here. Properly evaluating your water quality as it relates to brewing coffee is going to require tests with a refractometer and ph. testing strips, which is a little over the top for most people.
There are some simple things you can do that may well have an effect even if it doesn’t result in absolute perfection. The key here is to make sure the water you’re using tastes nice. A cup of coffee is mostly water, so if your water tastes bad then your coffee is going to suffer. For most people, a fix for this is just to use any of the commercially available water filter jugs on the market. It’s not a perfect solution, but it can improve things at least a little bit. Just make sure that you don’t use a filter designed to pull everything out of the water. Using water with little to no mineral content will only produce bad coffee and is a quick way to degrade the internals of a coffee machine.
The points I’ve covered here herald the start of most coffee lover’s journey to better brews and are the first steps on a joyous trip into the wonderful world of coffee. I hope this first instalment helps you get the most out of your coffee.
Stokes Master Coffee Roaster x