Tips to help you brew a better cup of coffee


If convenience foods turned Americans into strangers in their own kitchens, imagine the damage that automated home brewers have done. Many of us have no clue how to brew a good cup of coffee.

But we have tips from roasters, from baristas and from The Washington Post Food staff, for both beginners and the more advanced home coffee brewer.

For the beginner:

• Buy freshly roasted coffee beans. Look for a roast date on the package. If there is none, be suspicious. You want coffee that’s no more than two weeks off the roast. “Typically if it starts to hit 10 days, we’ll find some other use for it,” like iced coffee, said Ryan Jensen, owner of Peregrine Espresso.

• Invest in a good conical burr grinder. You will get better extraction from coffee beans that are evenly ground. You can get a Baratza Encore grinder for as little as $129.

• Don’t grind the coffee beans until right before you’re ready to steep them.

• Make sure your water is hot enough, between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit, which leads to optimal extraction. Water about 15-30 seconds off the boil should be ideal; don’t let it go longer than a minute off the boil, however.

• Study up. You don’t have to read the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s science-heavy “The Coffee Brewing Handbook,” but you can scan the association’s Facebook pages, which offer tips on various devices: French press, pour-over cones, Clever dripper and AeroPress.

• Don’t get hung up on techniques. “It’s fascinating that we have these parameters that we’re set in,” said Judith Mandel, a barista formerly with Peregrine, now with Blue Bottle Coffee in the Bay Area. “It’s fun to push them, because coffee can taste great if we go outside them.”

For the advanced home brewer:

• Preheat your brewing vessel, whether a Chemex or a French press, so the water does not cool on contact and drop below the ideal brewing temperature.

• Pre-wet your filters with hot water. It will help eliminate any “paper” taste in the finished coffee.

• Let fresher coffee “bloom” (that is, let it degas with hot water) longer than older coffee. There’s more carbon dioxide in coffee that’s only a couple of days off the roast, said Joel Finkelstein, owner and roaster at Qualia Coffee.

• If you’re trying to calculate ratios for the ideal cup, start with 1 ounce coffee to 16 ounces water. “I just tell people, ‘Start there, and based on what you get, go a little bit up or a little bit down” on the ratio of coffee to water, said Alex McCracken, co-owner of the forthcoming Wydown shop in D.C.

• If using a siphon brewer, don’t place the upper glass chamber into the bottom chamber until the water starts to reach the ideal temperature. (You’ll need a thermometer, of course.) Otherwise, water will begin to push into the upper chamber and extract coffee before the water has reached the proper temperature.