The enjoyment of gourmet coffee requires more than the right roast. Brewing the perfect cup is an art (with the occasional dash of science). A true expert should become familiar with the critical steps and components in the process. Consider the following links in the coffee chain.
The Coffee Chain
Regardless of the brewing method or any varying tastes with regard to the addition of cream or sugar, there are four essential links in the coffee chain.
The process of combining these elements to prepare a cup of coffee is a simple one. And yet like most simple processes, it is not without art. Taking the proper care in the preparation of each step will help to ensure the best result possible. Let’s begin at the beginning.
You can’t brew a cup of coffee without coffee grounds. Use too little, and your coffee is likely to be weak, watery, and lacking in body. Use too much and you may be wasting your precious supply. To land safely in the sweet spot, most guides recommend a ratio of two tablespoons of grounds per 6-8 ounces of water.
Of course before you have grounds, you need beans (seeds, technically). The quality of your grounds will depend on the beans you start with, taking into account the region and conditions where they were grown, how they were harvested, and finally the extent to which they’ve been roasted. Lighter roasts (and they will indeed appear visibly lighter in a side-by-side comparison) undergo the process for less time than dark roasts. This affects not only their flavor, but their caffeine content, since they retain more of the oils that burn off while roasting. This often lends lighter roasts a more pronounced kick in flavor (which can be tangy, fruity, or spicy) as well as in that caffeinated boost. Darker roasts are more rich and smoky, and are often times less acidic than lighter roasts.
Of the myriad regions and varieties used to describe coffee, all beans can generally be distinguished as Robusta or Arabica. Of the two, Arabica beans are considered the premium choice for gourmet coffee and tasting, while Robusta is often used in creating secondary products such as coffee flavors and bases.
The final factor influencing your grounds is how they are prepared or…ground. This is to say that the extent to which beans undergo grinding can have a direct impact on the flavor of that final cup. Determining just how finely coffee ought to be ground depends on the brewing method. Household coffee makers do well with a medium grind (the way that most pre-ground coffee arrives in stores). If you use a French press, a coarser ground is preferable, as it leads to less particulate getting into the batch. Espresso makers use the finest grounds, packed tightly to withstand the high pressure of steam brewing. You can brew great coffee with any of these methods, but it’s important to get the grind right for the method, to ensure the remaining elements come correctly into play.
The main ingredient in coffee may be the coffee itself, but it’s worth remembering that over ninety-nine percent of what you’re drinking is water. Starting with high quality drinking water is a must. If you can taste minerals or other elements in your water, then you can expect them to influence the taste of your coffee.
Once you have a suitable source of water, the key concern is ensuring that it is the right temperature. Water that is too low in temperature will fail to activate the brewing process. Conversely, water that is too hot will affect flavor by further cooking the grounds. The goal is for the water to be hot enough to pass through the grounds, drawing out the coffee’s flavorful oils without unduly altering the taste, and coming out of the other side at a suitable drinking temperature. This optimal temperature range is 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit. When brewing without a thermometer, the most consistent method of acquiring this range is to let the water come to a boil, then remove it from the heat source and let it rest a minute.
The vessel that holds your coffee—whether it be a single-serving cup, or a larger carafe—can influence the taste of your coffee. Metal containers, such as stainless steel and copper can react with chemical compounds, altering flavor. Glass vessels have the advantage of being both inert and transparent, so you can observe the body and color of your coffee. A caveat: glass can develop residue scaling, and will deliver more consistent quality over time if occasionally scoured with steel wool or cleaned with a light acid solution, such as vinegar and water. Glass carafes are also prone to conducting heat, and can cause even large quantities of coffee to cool rapidly. Note that most household machines employ low-temperature heating elements to keep coffee hot for hours after brewing—but that this will also impact flavor since the coffee is continuing to cook over time. For drinking, ceramic cups or mugs with non-porous surfaces deliver excellent results with regard to maintaining flavor and regulating temperature. This leads us to the final link in the coffee chain…
We’ve discussed how coffee can become prematurely cold in the wrong kind of vessel, or overcooked by too much initial heat. The filtration process, wherein hot water passes through the grounds, extracting aromatic oils and other flavors, is also time sensitive. Time is perhaps the most nuanced factor in brewing coffee, since the ideal number changes based on the other elements involved. A shot of espresso brews in under a minute, and is best enjoyed fresh within a similar timeframe. For most household machines and pour-over filtration methods, four to five minutes is a safe amount of time to achieve ideal extraction.
There is also a sneaky fifth element in play here (actually, it’s in play throughout the entire process) and that is air. Oxygen is an oxidizer and inextricably linked to taste. Brewing methods that permit the oxygenation of coffee have the potential to enhance flavor, but be forewarned that too much time exposed to the air will not only make your coffee cold, but bitter.
Not every link in this chain need come out perfectly every time. The beauty of the brew is that if you spare just a little thought for each element, you’re likely to be rewarded with a delicious cup!