Seven Steps to Brewing Better Coffee

by Don Holly

Pic of Don Holly The aim of brewing coffee is to extract from the roasted and ground beans a combination of the finest flavor compounds the coffee can potentially offer while avoiding the extraction of less desirable components. About 30 percent of ground coffee is "soluble," meaning it can be dissolved in water. Every coffee is different, and what compounds are extracted will be affected by the roast development, brew water used, and all of the conditions of the brewing process - most notably the water temperature, the particle size distribution of the coffee (the grind), and the uniformity of extraction. It must be also noted that every coffee drinker has his or her own preference for coffee flavor, based upon physiology, past experiences, and socialization. From a professional's perspective, the process to be followed for brewing coffee is one that combines diligence and consciousness, with a goal of attaining the flavor profile preferred by the intended consumer.

Step 1: Gather the necessary equipment. You will obviously need a high-quality brewer and grinder. In addition, a good thermometer (one that reads temperatures within one to two degrees Fahrenheit in accuracy, refreshing every second), a good scale (accuracy to within one gram and a suitable range), a large measuring pitcher, a stop watch, paper, pencil, and a small ruler. It is also recommended that you have a total dissolved solids (TDS) meter, a pH Analyzer, and several small sealable sample cups that are impervious to boiling water.

Step 2: Analyze the brewer's performance. With your thermometer, stopwatch, and pitcher, do several brew cycles without any coffee and measure the temperature, time and volume of the water flow from the brew head. Also notice the pattern of the water coming out of the spray head and compare that to the geometry of the brew basket. Does it look like it will uniformly soak the brew basket's contents? The temperature of the water should average between 195 degrees and 205 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the brew cycle, never falling below 190 degrees and never exceeding 209 degrees. Adjust the temperature of the water as needed. The time of the flow should be between 3.5 and 4.5 minutes.

Step 3: Analyze your brew water. Is it clean tasting and smelling? Great coffee brewed with bad water will, unfortunately, make a bad cup of coffee. Preferably, the water should be neutral pH (7.0) with a TDS of 100 to 200 parts per million (PPM) with no volatile odors like chlorine or ammonia. If you are uneducated about water filtration systems, call an expert (someone local who is familiar with the standards and challenges of coffee brewing).

Step 4: Break out the coffee. Using a ratio of 3.75 ounces of coffee for every half-gallon of water for the brew cycle, weigh out the whole bean coffee into a paper filter and then grind it at a noted setting. Shake the coffee slightly until it is evenly distributed in the basket with a flat top. Measure the depth of the coffee bed. If it is greater than two inches thick, you will need to reduce the amount of coffee in the basket and adjust the quantity of brew water to keep your proportion at the 3.75 ounces of coffee/64 ounces of water ratio.

Pic of full cup Step 5: Evaluate the brew. Stir the brewed beverage so that is homogeneous (most brewers will create a beverage that is more concentrated at the bottom of the pot than at the top). Taste the coffee. Does it have a broad range of flavors that are all pleasurable? How intense is the aroma? What is its mouthfeel? Try to have your palate as conscious as you can, making note of everything the beverage is communicating to your senses. Use your sight also, looking through the beverage at its color and opaqueness.

If the coffee has a metallic, astringent, or bitter flavor, chances are the coffee was over-extracted. If the coffee tastes flat and characterless or is lacking in aroma or mouthfeel, chances are the coffee was under-extracted.

Step 6: Evaluate the spent grounds. Is the top of the coffee bed uniform in appearance? Are there "drill holes" from the spray head? If there is a lot of variation in the color, consistency, or shape of the grounds in the brew basket, chances are there is a `turbulence' problem, and the coffee in the basket was not uniformly extracted.

Step 7: Make an appropriate adjustment. If all the issues mentioned above (water temperature and quality, bed depth, and uniform extraction) are within standards and your coffee still does not taste like you want it to, the last thing to adjust is the coffee grind. If your first batch was under-extracted, you need to use a finer grind. If your coffee suffered from over-extraction, the grind should be adjusted so the grounds are coarser. Make a small adjustment and brew another batch. Taste and compare the difference with the first batch. Hopefully, you will enjoy immediate return on your effort by noticing a significant improvement. If you do not, be patient, and try again.

Continue to make small adjustments to the grind, coffee quantity and possibly the water temperature, changing only one factor at a time and tasting the differences in the beverage quality with each change. Eventually, you will achieve the ideal parameters for the coffee you are using. Sometimes you may stumble across this standard early and subsequent changes may not be favorable in flavor or aroma. Back up to the earlier standard and test again to learn whether that quality is the best so far and then change other factors to see if they have any impact on improving quality.

Your senses are the best judge of quality. The tools like the thermometer, TDS meter, and pH analyzer are very helpful, but do not let the objective measurements overwhelm what your taste buds and nose are telling you. If you recognize the brewing of coffee as a craft, as it should be, and you dedicate yourself to developing personal skill and consciousness, keeping your tools tuned, and committing your passion, your coffee will go from being ordinary to magical.

Don Holly is administrative director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, CA. He can be reached at 562.624.4100.

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