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Grad Student's Guide to Good Coffee
September 23, 2012 - 7:47pm

Jason Heppler is a History PhD Candidate specializing in the history of the North American West and twentieth century US history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a permanent author at GradHacker. You can follow him on twitter at @jaheppler.

Friends, it's time for a serious conversation. We need to talk about your coffee.

Bad coffee is a common affliction. With our busy lives we tend to seek out the things that are easy to use. We believe that grabbing that giant container of Folgers pre-ground coffee and paper filters and tossing everything into the drip maker in the morning will give us the shot of energy we need to start our day. But for too long I've watched my friends and colleagues suffer under the tyranny of stale, bitter, over roasted coffee. I seek to change this.

So here's how to do it.

Beans

Start fresh. The beans are going to make all the difference in how your coffee tastes. There are a few things to watch out for:

  • If it came from a grocery store, they're stale.
  • If they've been exposed to air for too long, they're stale.
  • If they look dry, they're stale.

Coffee beans are only fresh for a few days after they've been roasted and tend to reach the peak of their flavor on the third day. Short of roasting the beans yourself (a step I haven't taken . . . yet) is to buy your beans from a local roaster. Anything from a grocery store, including your favorite organic foods establishment, is stale. Those beans sat on pallets and shelves for months. Ask around and find a good local roaster and buy coffee in small sizes (I usually get a pound at a time), which ensures you're getting a fresh roast and also keeps a fresh supply of beans on hand.

Storage

Keep the beans in an airtight container. The bags with those air values in them won't help you since they're designed as one way valves to allow air out but not in.

There's no need to freeze or refrigerate the beans. In fact, you probably shouldn't -- the condensation that forms on cold beans means you're trapping moisture with the beans. The beans need to avoid air and moisture to maintain their freshness.

Grind

Grind the beans when you're making your coffee, not the night before or the week before. Once beans are ground you expose their surface area and increase the chance of going stale or losing flavor, even within twelve hours. Your type of brew method will determine the grind size that you need (more on that below). If you can, use a scale and weigh your beans. Depending on how I'm brewing my coffee, I tend to use between 9 and 24 grams of coffee beans per brew. This is roughly one tablespoon of beans per cup. Some people will use less because they don't want bitter coffee, but brewing does not work this way. Flavor is extracted unevenly from beans, so the amount of beans makes little difference about the coffee's bitterness (but will influence it's strength and flavor). If you want weaker coffee, add hot water to dilute after brewing.

There are a variety of ways to grind beans. The cheapest is to pick up a blade grinder, which uses flat blades to chop the beans. Although this solution is cheap, your grind is inconsistent and you have little control over the coarseness or fineness of the grind. If you can afford it, pick up a conical burr grinder. Note there is a difference between conical burr grinders and burr grinders. Burr grinders offer a more consistent grind, but has flat burrs that can ruin the bean. Conical burr grinders have burrs that are cone shaped and also spin at a slower speed. High speed grinding can heat up the flat burrs and burn the coffee bean, thus ruining your grind. Conical burr grinding offers much more control and consistency.

Brewing

Throw or give away your drip maker. Now. I'll wait.

 

 

Okay, now that that's taken care of, lets talk about ways to brew those excellent beans. There are many ways to brew a cup of coffee. I own a lot of ways to make coffee, but I swear by two: the French press and the AeroPress. Both are inexpensive devices and can get you a fresh cup of coffee within eight to ten minutes from the time you start boiling water to the time the brewing is complete. (And, there's something to be said for taking some time for yourself in the morning while your coffee prepares. Meditate, catch up on Instapaper, go sit outside. I also enjoy the process of preparing my coffee by hand).

Here are the methods I have had the most success with for each device.

The French Press

Here's what you do:

  • Measure out 5.5 ounces of water into your kettle (I use an electric kettle).
  • While that comes to a boil, grind 24 grams of coffee (measured on a scale) to medium coarseness. I set my Capresso Infinity to the most coarse setting.
  • Dump the beans into the French press.
  • The water should be boiling around this point. Aggressively pour in the water about half-way up the press, making sure the grinds are all achieving contact with the water. Wait about one minute (the bloom phase), give it a gentle stir, then pour the remainder of the water in.
  • Place the top on the press and set a timer for three minutes.
  • When the timer goes off, press the beans slowly.
  • Drink.

The AeroPress

The AeroPress has replaced my French press as my go-to method of brewing, because the AeroPress is easier to clean, results in a cup of coffee more quickly, and extracts amazing flavor.

Here's what you do:

  • Measure out 5.5 ounces of water into your kettle.
  • While that comes to a boil, grind 9-12 grams of coffee to fine coarseness (get espresso coarseness if you can).
  • Rinse the filter with hot water, allow to drain, and place the filter on the end of the press chamber. Place the press on top of your coffee mug.
  • Dump the coffee grounds into the press.
  • When the water is boiling, pour the water in quickly to ensure the beans are evenly wetted. Fill to about level 3 on the press.
  • Wait ten seconds, then stir the coffee for ten seconds, then wait another ten seconds.
  • Place the plunger into the press, and slowly press down. The press should take 15-20 seconds. If it's too easy to press down, the beans are not ground fine enough. It should take a little effort to get the plunger down. You want the combination of hot water, fine grind, and pressure to extract maximum flavor.
  • Wait a moment for the last few drips, then remove the press, throw away the puck, and rinse the press.
  • Drink.

Drinking

Try to avoid adding much to your coffee, if anything at all. Good coffee has a complex flavor that's masked when you add creamer, milk, or sugar. Most people add flavorings to cut the bitterness or strength of the coffee. (Ever wonder why Starbucks brews the coffee to strongly? It's so their customers can still taste coffee after milk, flavors, and sugar are added). Try your coffee black. If you need to add anything, try just a bit of heavy cream.

There you have it! Coffee may not have the same social use as wine, but can be a nice way to start your mornings.

 

What advice to you have for making great coffee? Do you find pleasure in making and enjoying a good cup of coffee? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

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