Making Great Coffee:  Background and Basics

Coffee Overview Part 1


The question I get asked most often is, “I want to buy (some kind of) coffee equipment, what should I buy?”  So, it only seems fitting that my first two posts cover my background in coffee, and an overview of the answer to that question.  That question, which I generally interpret as really asking, “how do I make better coffee?” is one that I have helped answer enough that it was suggested I start this blog and/or a consulting business.  It is also a situational and complex question that will take a number of ongoing posts to cover.  To try and explain why you should read my guides of working through the answer, or to provide some context as to who I am, I’ll start with a very quick run through my background with coffee.

First, I do not claim to be an expert on coffee, in fact, I’ve really only been into specialty coffee for a few years now.  I have loved the taste and smell of coffee since I was a kid.  I grew up eating coffee ice cream, coffee yogurt, and coffee flavored candy.  My coffee journey began using store bought, pre-ground coffee and a cheap Mr. Coffee auto dripper.  That progressed to brewing up double strength batches and cooling for use as iced coffee (Phoenix summers are hot man), and then getting a French Press and a blade grinder, using whole bean, grocery store bought coffee. 

A few years out of college, and relying more heavily on my coffee habit to fight the daily grind (no pun intended), I began questioning if this was how coffee was supposed to be, if this was as good as it got.  I had heard people wax on poetically about amazing coffee, and had drunk a few decent cups myself.  But, I just never felt like the olfactory experience ever matched up with the flavors I was getting at home, so I started to research how I could improve my coffee or make better coffee at home.  Little did I know how deep the rabbit hole goes. 

I learned the basics; that like cooking, coffee needs good ingredients to produce a good result.  Those basics or ingredients being what the Italians refer to as the 4 M’s:

               Miscela, or the “mixture”.  This refers to the coffee.  To make good coffee, you have to start with quality, fresh, coffee.  In general, fresh means between 3 and 18 days post roast.

               Macinacaffe, or the coffee grinder.  The coffee grinder is the most over looked, yet extremely important component.  Coffee must be uniformly ground to the appropriate grind size to provide an even extraction.  The common adage in espresso is that you can make better espresso with a $1500 grinder and a $300 machine than you can with a $300 grinder and a $1500 machine. 

               Macchina, or the (espresso) machine.  Although the 4 M’s are usually brought up in reference to espresso preparation, I think they can be applied to all brewing methods.  The machine typically gets most of the attention, and it is important, but it is worth noting the grinder is listed before the machine.

               Mano, or the skills of the Barista or preparer.  This is the easiest part, because it is free.  All you have to do is learn how to properly use or apply the previous 3 M’s.

Still using my simple French Press, I started with better quality, freshly roasted coffee.  I paid more attention to the proportions of coffee to water, brew time, and water temperature, not weighing and measuring quite yet, things got better, but I knew I was still missing something.  I started to question if press pot coffee just didn’t produce the flavors I wanted, so then I started to look into espresso.  Having used a super automatic espresso machine (an all in one machine that grinds and brews for you at the push of a button) at my local bike shop and enjoying what I got out of it, I started to look into those.  Researching super autos lead me to the conclusion that they weren’t right for me, and that I wanted more control and a more manual experience that would come from a dedicated machine and dedicated grinder.  So, I started down the grinder path, and landed on one that I could use to improve my coffee in the short term, but also keep should I end up buying an espresso machine later on.

For a combination birthday/engagement/valentine’s day gift from my then Fiancé, now wife, I received a quality coffee grinder.  I purchased a cheap .1g resolution digital scale from Amazon and started weighing out the proportions of coffee to water, and things got much better in the press pot.  My coffee was smoother, more flavorful, more balanced, and more enjoyable.  More on why that is in a future post, but as you can probably guess, this had me wanting more and I had my first espresso machine a few weeks later.

Fast forward three and half more years, and I’m on my second espresso machine, still using that original grinder as a brew grinder, have added a dedicated commercial espresso grinder, and have added; a hand grinder, an AeroPress, a V60, an Immersion Brewer, and a PID kettle.  I make coffee that I enjoy every day, and I also get a lot of satisfaction out of the process of making it.  So, I’m not an expert, I have never worked in a café, and I’m not a competitive barista.  I have done and continue to do a ton of research and learning, am continually trying new coffees, methods, devices, etc., all in search of the next great cup.

Speaking of that great cup, my second point is that what is a “great cup” to me is not necessarily a great cup to you.  There are right and wrong practices and generally accepted methods of preparing coffee. But at the end of the day, it’s what tastes good to you that is important, and you need to drink what you like.  All of the different brewing methods can lead to different types of flavor, texture, and some are easier to prepare than others.  Throughout this series of posts I will try and cover as many of those different brewing methods as possible with instructions, the pros and cons of that method, and the equipment needed and where to purchase.  Below, is a list of the basic brewing methods and drinks to get you started and make sure we’re all on the same page.

Manual Brewing Methods (the main or most common)

Pour over:  Brewing method of pouring the water directly over the coffee grounds contained in a filter (paper or mesh), in a (typically) cone shaped brewing vessel such as the Hario V60, Kalita Wave, Bonmac dripper, Bonavita V Dripper, etcetera, etcetera.  This is a great method to brew a “clean” cup that highlights a coffee’s subtle characteristics, flavors, and dimensions.  Adjusting the grind size and the rate and distribution of the poured water will control the flow to manipulate the extraction.  A Chemex is also a pour over device, but does produce slightly different results due to its design, more on that later.

Immersion Brewing:  Brewing method that holds the coffee in contact with the water for a set duration of time.  In general, immersion brewing will lead to a bolder cup with more body due to the greater degree of extraction from the longer contact time, as compared to pour over.  The variety of results from immersion brewing is much broader as the coffee can then be passed through a paper (or metal) filter such as with the Clever Coffee Dripper or Bonavita Immersion Dripper, forced through a paper (or metal) filter as with an AeroPress, or separated with metal filters as with a French Press or press pot.  This method is generally less complicated than pour over as you mainly just want to control the contact (brewing time) to control the extraction.  (Grind size, brewing ratios, and other brewing factors will affect the results – still broad level here though.)

Espresso based beverages

*I should start by clarifying that espresso is not a type of coffee or roast level, but rather a method of brewing coffee by forcing a small amount of near boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee. 

Espresso:  This is the straight nectar, also a referred to as “a shot” which in modern, Western context typically refers to what is technically a “double shot” of espresso. 

Americano:  Espresso with hot water.  The amount of hot water can vary by taste, but I would generally define it as a double shot of espresso to 5-7oz of water.

Macchiato (Café Macchiato):  Macchiato translates to “stained” or “spotted”, an espresso macchiato is a shot of espresso with a small amount of steam milk and milk foam added.  Typically a 3oz or less beverage.  (Uncommon in the US but fairly common in parts of Europe is the oppositely proportioned beverage, the latte macchiato.  This is a large glass of steamed milk “stained” with a shot of espresso.)

Cappuccino:  5-6oz beverage consisting of a double shot of espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam (microfoam is used in place of dry foam in more modern applications). 

Latte (café late):  8oz “drink of thirds” – a double shot of espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, 1/3 microfoam.

Determining what brewing method to use will depend on your preferences, your budget, time and space available, and some coffees work better when prepared in certain ways than others.  

Those are the basic drinks and a very brief overview of my coffee experience, read on to see part 2 of the coffee overview discussing the 4M’s more thoroughly and how each are important and impact your coffee experience.