Coffee: One Broke Gastronome’s Primer

I don’t always come to a blog’s recipe to read a book, I just want the goods. If that’s you, click on the method link here.

Coffee has grown on me. It has replaced beer as my favorite non-water beverage within the last year or so, and much like beer, there is an entire world of coffee out there to explore. For me, it began when my old roommate bought a cheap drip coffee maker and some Folger’s, where without any consistent measuring we made morning cups of mud. Fast forward a couple years and I now own 4 coffee making devices and am on my way to designating an entire cabinet to the pursuit of being perpetually caffeinated. But for anyone new, or just interested in simply elevating their coffee experience – where do you begin? The methods and information below is geared for the individual who drinks their coffee cheaply but still cares for the taste. If you are loading your coffee down with creamer or milk and sugar, then maybe buying less expensive grounds works for you and a drip machine is fine. But me, I’ll stay a bit bombastic about my coffee.

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It isn’t listed below, but a favorite mug is important to this process as well. Morning rituals are important, I believe, and a well-made mug that reminds you of a happy time is an easy way to set off on the right foot.

Being an acute personal finance nerd, most decisions for me begin with cost and then are followed by preference, food is no exception. I love cooking, and approach the hobby as fiscally responsible as I can while yielding the best results. Therefore when diving into the world of coffee, frugality acted as a compass to guide me. Do I enjoy the experience of having a barista conjure up some delicious rocket fuel in a hip setting that’s somewhat of a cross between a drug den and a library? Yes. Yes I do. Do I understand the overhead that can cause that said cup of rocket fuel to run a couple bucks, even in it’s simplest form? Yes. Do I want to pay for that? No, not always. My coffee at home tasted inferior to the product of the shiny equipment that buzzed under the menu chalkboards at the local shop and I thought there was no changing that without taking out a loan… I was wrong.

I will spare you all the long story of how many mistakes I made and the hours wasted Googling and sifting through Reddit for advice. The coffee world is huge. A million people want to tell you their own recommendations and they’re all probably great. But what I wanted to know, and what I know now, is…

“How do I make the best cup of coffee at home, at a reasonable price, with the least amount of effort?”

Do I sound lazy? I kind of am. I enjoy processes, but I don’t always want to take the scenic route to work. Sometimes I need to get from point A to point B consistently and quickly, but still not hate the commute. So below are the two best methods, in my humble opinion, to give you the best cup of coffee (non-espresso, I will cover that another day) without tacking on 20 extra minutes to your morning routine. Or afternoon routine. I don’t know when you drink coffee.

Before I go on, I want to mention the fantastically wasteful technology that’s appearing on more and more counter tops – the Keurig.  They are incredibly convenient and make a very consistent cup of coffee for small batches, but a combination of price and wastefulness makes me cringe at their widespread usage. Fortunately, they do now offer refillable k-cups that reduce waste, but the inability to control many variables and brew more than a single cup at a time rules them out completely for me. It’s an expensive machine but if you value the <10 minutes you’d lose in total to the methods I suggest here, then maybe you can justify it. Below is a quick table addressing the costs per serving for a black cup of coffee.

Starbucks French Press ($10, 12 oz. whole bean) Keurig
per 12 fl. oz. serving  $1.85  ~$0.20  ~$0.62
5 cups per week  $9.25  ~$1.00  ~$3.10
5 cups/week annually  $481 ~$52.00  ~$161.20

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the French press and pour over systems.

The Hardware

The French Press

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This guy sees constant regular use and holds up well. Notice the metal frame, glass carafe and rubberized grip.

This is my favorite no-fuss method for coffee, and probably your best choice if you are going to be drinking several cups or are serving multiple people. A French press is made of few parts and I find them to be easy to clean and maintain, despite what many say (for those that struggle with cleaning them, the trick is to fill the carafe with water when done and pour the remaining grounds into a fine mesh strainer, then dump the contents out in the trash or compost). One of my favorite features is that they use no paper filters – less waste! They’re also rather inexpensive. I have had two French presses in my lifetime and neither one cost above $15. I bought them at Ross and the only reason I purchased a second was because I cracked the glass on my first.  And most importantly, the French press holds the reputation, in my experience, of producing the best tasting cup of coffee from a manual process with the least amount of input.

Some things to look for in purchasing your French press:

  • Look for a glass chamber. Don’t buy plastic ones and if you can afford them, some are vacuum insulated and are made of stainless steel – they will keep your coffee warm longer.
  • Try to get the least amount of plastic parts (plunger knob, handle, etc.) possible. I don’t find that plastic breaks all that quickly, but metal holds up to the wear and tear a little better and looks pleasant on your kitchen counter.
  • Commonly they are found in 1/2 liter and 1 liter sizes. I drink at least two cups every morning so I prefer the 1 liter, which makes a little over 4 cups. Make your purchase accordingly.

The Pour Over System

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I use this Hario V60 02. It does the job, has nifty estimated measurements on the side and is holding up well to wear and tear. It’s also super inexpensive, check it out here.

If you prefer black coffee and aren’t throwing it back like the $2 light beers at your local dive, this is the method for you. Let me start with some cons, though. These tend to perform better when serving in small batches. I make no more than two cups at a time with my pour over dripper, and for two reasons. First, many pour over carafes are small and often barely hold 2 cups of coffee. Second, glass carafes don’t seem to keep your coffee hot very long so it’s best to get the cups moving. Pour over is also a little bit more involved of a process. While these cons may seem to defeat the purpose of morning coffee for some, the rewards are very much worth this extra care.

Pour over coffee has some room for error, but even some of the less desirable cups of coffee I have made in a pour over were better than that of prepackaged Keurig K-Cups and auto-drip machines. Essentially, pour over coffee is the method of placing a cone and filter over a vessel, filling it with a certain amount of coffee grounds and pouring water into the grounds at a controlled rate. Pour over coffee is famous for its reduced bitterness and acidity and evenly extracting oil into the grounds. This method allows you to control a number of variables, such as water temperature, grounds/water ratio, pour speed and grind size, among other things.

Here are some things to consider when making your purchase of a pour over kit:

  • There are some pour over systems with larger carafes options, such as the Chemex and V60. Personally, if I’m drinking coffee in bulk, the French press is my method of choice but if you’re sharing with someone and serving quickly, the larger carafe size could be beneficial for you.
  • Some pour over kits only have the brewer cone and are made to fit over a container of your own. These are more portable and great if you want to pour directly in your cup. Purchasing a pour over kit that has a server will make it easier to pour into other vessels.

 

But wait! What about the Aeropress? The Aeropress has gained popularity the past few years and with just cause. It’s a very simple device that’s easy to maintain, easy to use and allows control over many variables. But for the volume of coffee that it makes for someone who drinks a minimum of two cups, I’d rather have my coffee in a server. Not to say the Aeropress can’t do that somehow or is bad, it’s just not as viable for me right now.

Also, before we take a look at the recipes, here are a few variables and tools to consider. Of all the gear and options out there, these are the things most worth paying attention to or having.

Beans

BUY GOOD BEANS. While the French press and pour over methods produces some of the best coffee, your brews can be limited by the quality of beans. You don’t necessarily have to buy the $15-$20 bag of specialty coffee from a nearby roaster, but the cheap pre-ground coffees just will not do. You will discover what styles you prefer, but at this point we need only pay attention to two things: the roasted date and the price. When you’re at your supermarket, take a look at WHOLE beans in your price range and find the freshest ones possible. Most bags will have the roasted date printed somewhere on the packaging. Local roasters will have the freshest beans. My mass distributed supermarket favorite is Peet’s Coffee and it frequently goes on sale, but I find that for pour over I like to splurge and buy something special. Check your town for a local roaster. If you can’t afford local specialty or you don’t have anyone nearby and are interested, order online. Happy Mug Coffee has very reasonably priced coffee (the 2 lbs. bag is a great deal if you drink regularly enough) and they roast before shipping.

Grinder

An electric spice/coffee grinder works fine, although a ceramic conical burr grinder is ideal and makes a noticeable difference no matter what brewing method you’re using. They more evenly grind your coffee and give you finer variable control, so that you may get a more even extraction. Burr grinders are more expensive but worth the investment if you have the capital at the moment. If you grind spices too, use a separate grinder as you probably don’t want your coffee tasting like cumin and mustard, unless you do. If so, stay away from me.

Scale

If you’re following the rest of the blog, you’re going to see plenty of measurements by weight. Buy a scale for baking. Buy a scale for coffee. Buy a scale because they’re fun. The most accurate way to measure your grounds is by weight, so let’s create a consistent cup by weighing our coffee and water. I have this one, and while it is super inexpensive, it’s likely not as precise as some higher end ones.

Kettle

This is kind of a “duh”, but it is important. Pour over coffee NEEDS a “gooseneck” kettle. They’re pricier than regular kettles but they allow so much more control in your pour. My girlfriend found a great one at World Market that runs a little less than your “premium” kettles. The French press method just needs a vessel for heating up water, so no need to go crazy here just yet.

The French Press: The Method

This is tried and true. You’ll find most “casual” french press recipes (yes, they’re still recipes!) are similar to this with few variations.

Makes 1 cup. Multiply for desired batch size.

Ingredients:

2 tbsp coffee, medium grind

6 ounces water, preferably filtered

kosher salt

Procedure:

Bring 6 ounces of water just short of a boil. While waiting, place coffee grounds into chamber, and add a scant pinch of kosher salt. Now place near boiling water into chamber with grounds and place lid on, pushing plunger just to the top of the water line. Set a timer for 4 minutes. When 4 minutes is up, press plunger down slowly, taking 10-15 seconds.

Pour Over Coffee: The Method

This method is somewhat based off of George Howell’s guide here, and is more involved than the french press but still less so than what some other die hard pour over drinker will endorse. I use a Hario V60 for this. Some swear by the Chemex, but for the price I’ll swear by the V60. For consistency, it’s important to do this by weight. If you don’t own a scale yet (I’m saying “yet”, because I know you’re going to buy a scale because we take the kitchen seriously, right?), I’ve provided volume estimates.

Makes 1 cup. Multiply for desired batch size.

Ingredients

  • 13 grams (~1 tbsp) coffee, medium grind
  • 200  grams (~6.75 oz) water, preferably filtered

Procedure

Place water into kettle and bring just short of a boil. Wet your filter on the cone to wash the paper taste away and help keep the filter in place. Place grounds into filter and level out. When water is ready, do the following:

  • Pour 1/3 of the water into the grounds, concentrically. This should take about 20 seconds. Wait until the water is nearly drained, then
  • Pour an additional 1/3 of water into the grounds, concentrically. This should take about 20 seconds. Wait until water is nearly drained, then
  • Pour remaining water into the grounds and stir grounds a bit with a spoon while it drains, just enough to help wash some grounds off the walls of the filter.
  • When nearly drained, remove filter and grounds and serve coffee.

Note: It’s important to avoid pouring directly onto the paper of the filter, keep your pour directly on the grounds.

Conclusion

This was a pretty brief guide whose function was to introduce you to two tried and true methods for really caring about your morning routine of brewing coffee. Whether you’re an aspiring coffee nerd or a casual drinker who wanted to better control acidity and bitterness, I feel that these methods are enough to get you started. In the coming months I plan to write about the different types of coffee, the roasting process and the why these two things should matter to you.

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