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What's Behind a Great Cup of Coffee?

It's not just the quality of the coffee we brew that matters but also the way in which we brew it. Getting a cup of coffee with all the flavor we want but without the harsh, bitter taste we don't is a delicate process that relies on timing, size of grind, water temperature, and brew method. We discuss several factors below.

1. The Species of the Coffee Plant

Coffea arabica

Arabica coffees are often labeled by country, region, and estate. Most experts consider this species to have superior flavor without the bitterness of robusta.

Coffea canephora (robusta)

This high-production, disease resistant species can be cultivated in areas where arabica cannot survive. Due to its lower cost, most commercially canned coffee is of this type. Compared to arabica, robusta tends to be bitter and have inferior (often less) flavor. It also contains significantly more caffeine. It is possible to remove some of the undesirable elements using a steam treatment process. In some cases, high-quality robustas are used in espresso blends, partly because they produce a better crema.

2. Water temperature

Water temperature is crucial for proper extraction. The recommended temperature is 93 degrees celcius (199.4 degrees Fahrenheit). If the water temperature is too cool, some of the desirable elements are not extracted, leading to a weak, watery, or underflavored drink. If the water temperature is too hot, undesirable elements will be extracted, leading to a harsh, bitter, or overextracted taste.

3. Grind & Brew Method

The size of the grind and the brew method are closely related. If the grind is too fine for the brew method, this can lead to overextraction. If the grind is too coarse, the full flavor of the coffee will not be extracted.

Brew methods that expose coffee grounds to heated water for a longer duration require a coarser grind. Brew methods that expose coffee grounds to heated water for a shorter duration require a finer grind. For example, an electric percolator requires a coarser grind than a drip brewer, because the water passes over the coffee multiple times. The total immersion brewing style of the French press requires a coarse grind to avoid bitterness from overextraction and also to reduce excess, often bitter sediment from passing through the filter.

Although matching the correct grind and brew method is important, matching the right brew method for your taste is equally important. There are many different brew methods that are popular, and not everyone agrees on a single method as being the best or worst. Methods include automatic drip, drip, electric percolator, cold-brewed, Turkish, espresso, using a sock, moka pot, aeropress, cowboy style, vacuum brewers, coffee bags, and simply mixing hot water and grounds in a cup. Some brew methods are widely considered superior over others. For example, many coffee aficionados frown upon the electric percolator brew method because it is a multiple-pass process, yet others argue this method produces a richer cup.

It can be difficult to match the taste of coffee produced by high-quality commercial brewers, because these expensive machines contain internal water reservoirs and can be set to brew with optimal water temperature and speed. However, with a little experimentation, we're confident that you can brew a high-quality cup that meets your expectations. For home use, we suggest starting with a good drip brewer or French press and experimenting with the grind size and amount of coffee used.

4. The Roast

Coffees are inherently different, largely due to the variety of the tree, region of growth, knowledge of the farmer, and care taken during the farming process. The roasting process has a considerable influence on the taste of the final product. A roaster has the crucial job of deciding how dark to roast each type, in order to bring out its full range of unique qualities. When coffees are roasted too dark, these subtle differences are often lost.

5. Choosing the Right Type of Coffee

Coffees from different countries, regions, and estates have different qualities. These coffees can differ in flavor, aroma, body, and acidity. The differences are sometimes a matter of personal preference.

6. Freshness

It's always best to use fresh roasted coffee. Coffee deteriorates when exposed to oxygen. Once coffee is ground, it deteriorates at an even quicker rate due to the increased surface area exposed. You should always store coffee (whole bean or ground) in an airtight container. We do not suggest storing coffee in the refrigerator or freezer. Although it's probably best to grind the coffee shortly before brewing, there's nothing wrong with having it ground in advance, as long as you store it properly and don't let it sit too long.

Finally, it's best to drink coffee shortly after brewing. Never leave it on the burner for very long, as this causes a severe deterioration in flavor. If you need to keep it hot for several hours, you might consider using an airpot. If you need to store brewed coffee for a long time, you should use an airtight container. Brewed coffee in sealed containers (oxygen free) can last almost indefinitely.

7. The Right Amount of Coffee

This is largely a matter of personal preference. The grind and brew method also play a role in choosing the right amount of coffee. However, as a general rule, you should use about 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 ounces of water.

Quick Tips

  • Use high-quality beans
  • Use fresh roasted coffee. It's preferable to grind the coffee shortly before brewing.
  • Store ground coffee in a sealed, oxygen free container (not in the refrigerator or freezer)
  • Use the right amount of coffee. Although the amount of coffee is dependent on grind, brew process, and individual preference, the general rule is to use about 2 tablespoons per 6 ounces of water.
  • Choose the correct grind for the brew method. If the coffee is too fine for the brew method, it will probably taste bitter.
  • Choose the right brewing process for you. A long brew process can cause overextraction. We suggest a quality drip brewer or French press.
  • Use the correct water temperature. If the water is too hot, overextraction occurs. If the water is too cool, it results in a weak cup without full extraction of flavor.
  • Don't leave brewed coffee on a burner. You should drink it shortly after brewing. If you want to keep coffee hot for several hours, consider an airpot.
  • If you want to store brewed coffee for consumption much later, it is best to store it in a sealed, oxygen free container. Coffee can last almost indefinitely like this.