What goes into a good cup of coffee?

I am a recent convert to the joys of drinking coffee.  I grew up in a household of coffee drinkers, but the coffee was so awful that I could not see the attraction. It frequently came out of a Sanka bottle and was bitter and nasty.  Half the time the coffee in the pot was leftover from the day before, just reheated.   But then I started to get into espressos, lattes and cappuccinos  and I was hooked. I’ve since learned a lot about how to make and enjoy great coffee.

If you want to enjoy really good coffee there are two routes that you can take. First, you can simply buy each cup of coffee from a good local coffee shop. This is easy, but expensive. The second way is to brew your own coffee, whether as regular “Americano” style or as a espresso, latte, or cappuccino.

I will skip the option of buying finished coffee.  Here are my quick tips for making great coffee.

1. Great Coffee begins with great beans.  You need to buy roasted beans that will work well for what it is you want to make. If you want a regular cup of coffee, then buy a lighter roast. These beans will be a lighter shade of brown.  For a full-flavored espresso you can go with a dark “french” style roasted bean.  If you want a particular flavor, coffee beans from different regions offer slightly different tastes.  A Kenyan free trade bean I recently tried, has a “tang” taste to it.  It was a bit too much for me but blended with other beans made a good blend for a latte, where you need some stronger flavors to punch through the milk and other flavorings. We buy our beans from Zanzibar’s on Ingersoll and Greene Bean Coffee in Jefferson, Iowa.  To buy Zanzibar’s coffee we go directly to the shop at 2723 Ingersoll. They are continually roasting new batches of beans. Tell them what it is that you want to do with the beans and they will help you choose the best beans, based on your taste preference and the current supply.  One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that there is no prejudice against blending different beans. If you want a more complex coffee, blending different beans is the best way to go.  Zanzibar’s excells at putting together a House Blend that is great for lattes.   We obtain our Greene Bean Coffee from the Iowa Food Cooperative.  As with any good roaster, the bags are all marked with the date that the beans were roasted.

Coffee Bags

Coffee Bags

2. You need freshly roasted beans.  I was surprised to learn that after beans are roasted they go through a fairly rapid oxidation process. After two to three weeks they are not going to taste as good as they did.  One way to can track this process is to look for oil on the beans. If you obtain coffee beans that have been recently roasted they will usually have an oily sheen.  That oil will slowly evaporate away as the beans age.

Oily Coffee Beans

Oily Beans

3.  You need to properly grind the beans. For regular coffee, a cheap blade grinder will do. For latte, espresso, and cappuccino, you need to use a burr grinder. These cost between $50 and $1,700, with  very good grinders in the $200 to $360 range.  The goal for a  latte, espresso, and cappuccino is to grind it down to a very fine size.  For Turkish-stye coffee, where the grounds are added directly to the brew, an even finer setting must be available.

Rancilio MD 40 Burr Grinder

Rancilio MD 40 Burr Grinder

4. You need to properly store and then use the beans.  Seal the beans in an air-tight container.  Grind them up and use them within a week or so for best results.

5.  You need to properly brew the coffee.  For American style coffee, it is mostly about water temperature.  I once worked for the coffee division of a large commercial food company and there really isn’t that much difference between coffee machines that just make regular drip coffee. They are basically a steel pot with a heating element and some mechanism for getting the hot water to drop over the ground coffee.  The only way to go wrong is to put in too much or too little coffee or to use an inferior coffee.  The vast majority of corporate coffee is made from Robusta and inferior Arabica beans. These ingredients will not make great coffee. One way to make a better pot of coffee, in my opinion, is to use a French press.  A French press allows the water to be in contact with the grounds for a longer period of time than with a drip mechanism.

A  In order to make a good  espresso, latte, or cappuccino you need an espresso machine. The cheap ($60)  machines available at department stores are likely to be steam-driven.  These are inexpensive and fairly care-free as they have few moving parts. However, they are not going to make a great product. A better choice is a pump-driven machine, which is what you will see at a real coffee shop.

Professional Espresso Machine

Professional Espresso Machine

Pump-driven espresso machines are available at almost any price from $200 on up to nearly infinity. I will save for later a fuller explanation of all of the different types, but some will do almost all of the work for you, others use “pods” made by coffee distributors, and others are mostly manual affairs (semi-automatics):

Gaggia Classic

Gaggia Classic

6.  Make the coffee, espresso, latte, or cappuccino.

The sign of a properly prepared espresso is the crema.  This is the product of the right beans, the right roast, freshness, and proper temperature and pressing.  Enjoy.

Espresso Crema

Espresso Crema


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