February 1, 2013

Seven Ways To Brew My Coffee

I've been drinking coffee for decades. Every day . . . one cup, two cups, an entire pot, etc. . . . good coffee, bad coffee, mediocre coffee, and (recently) really good coffee. Many years ago I started buying whole bean coffee and grinding it at home with a spinning blade grinder, but I stopped doing that after a short while for some reason - probably to save time and avoid the hassle. I would still occasionally buy whole beans and grind them at the supermarket in a half-assed attempt at brewing better coffee (you know, those stale beans that sit in the transparent gravity-fed dispensers for far too long before sliding into a self-serve bag). At other times, I'd splurge and get some beans ground at the local Starbucks or Peet's store. All of the above = rookie moves.

I had a caffeinated moment of clarity several years ago when my mother-in-law made me a great cup of coffee using a French press. The coffee itself wasn't super premium grade stuff or anything (far from it, actually), but the drink was pretty damn good nonetheless. I realized that, as a daily coffee drinker, life is too short to drink lousy coffee. I told myself: "if you're going to drink at least one cup of coffee a day for the rest of your life, then try to maximize the enjoyment and enhance the experience." I've tried, believe me.

After spending far too much time online here and here (and sometimes here), I learned that freshly roasted specialty or artisan coffee beans are a must. I also learned that ground coffee begins to degrade and go stale within ten minutes. So the old "grind the beans at the store" routine is fatally flawed, and the best practice is to grind the beans immediately before brewing.

Coffee brewing. Over the last few years I've acquired and used a variety of coffee making devices and systems, and have experimented with a number of different brewing techniques. All of this effort devoted to the goal of making that perfect cup of coffee. The following is a quick summary of what I have at the moment (listed from the oldest to the newest apparatus):

1. Cuisinart automatic drip coffee maker. This is a decent, well-made machine, even though it has a few annoying design defects. It has a thermal carafe (with a lid that inhibits the outflow of the last bit of coffee), it's easy to use, and it looks nice. The wife uses this every day during the week. I use it on the weekends to make coffee for the wife (after pressing the "Brew" button on the Cuisinart, I'll make myself a cup or two using one of the preferred methods mentioned below).

Old School
2. Melitta Ready-Set-Joe filter cone. The Ready-Set-Joe is a tiny plastic dripper that takes standard "1" or "2" sized cone filters. Inexpensive, virtually indestructible, and easy to clean. If you control the coffee grind size, select the right water temperature, and learn a proper pour-over technique, then you can make an awesome cup of coffee with this.

Melitta Dripper
3. Bodum Chambord french press. Ahh, the classic french press design. I've actually had a few of these over the years because the glass breaks easily. Although I still take out the french press from time to time, I'm not a big fan of the sediment that it leaves in the cup, and clean up can be a pain. That said, many coffee drinkers swear that french press is the best brewing technique because: (1) the grounds get fully immersed in the hot water; and (2) the oil from the coffee does not get filtered out.

Bodum French Press
4. Aeropress gizmo. This contraption was invented by the same guy who invented the Aerobie flying ring! The Aeropress is fun and easy to use, is super easy to clean, and can be used as the foundation for many brewing experiments in the lab (Dr. Svengold, adjust the grind size! Dr. Johansson, heat the water to 96.345 degrees Celsius! You, over there - initiate the timing sequence at precisely 6.3 seconds after we pour the hot water into the brewing chamber!). When I first got the Aeropress, I used it according to the product instructions, but found that I was consuming far too much coffee and the results were somewhat inconsistent. I now use the Aeropress in accordance with one of the many published "inverted" brewing techniques (look it up), and like the results. You can find a ton of Aeropress recipes and tutorials on the Internet, and Aeropress experts gather once a year in an international competition known as the World Aeropress Championship. Not kidding.

5. Hario V60 filter cone. Hario is a Japanese company that makes stellar coffee and tea equipment. Although Hario makes a lot of different items, it is very well known for its V60 dripper cone, which comes in ceramic and plastic versions. Unlike many drippers, the V60 has a huge outlet hole at the bottom of the cone and special spiral features on the interior surface of the cone. These features are intended to promote free flow of the coffee as it brews. Thus, a certain amount of skill is required to make a decent cup of coffee with the V60. For example, the grind size must be carefully controlled and the water must be poured in a particular way to ensure that the brewing time is neither too long nor too short. In addition, care must be taken to ensure that hot water does not flow down the side of the cone without passing over the bed of coffee. Although I love the design of the V60 and the precision brewing concept, I find that making coffee the right way with the V60 is too tedious for me. Maybe I'm just a V60 rookie, but I can't seem to make a consistently great cup of coffee with it.

Hario V60 Dripper
6. Beehouse ceramic dripper cone. The Beehouse dripper is fundamentally very similar to the Melitta Ready-Set-Joe dripper. The Beehouse differs from the Melitta in the following ways: the Beehouse is made in Japan, it has a much nicer design, and it has two drip holes rather than one. The two drip holes mean that the flow of coffee through the Beehouse dripper can be better controlled via grind size and pouring technique. I really like the Beehouse dripper because it's easy to use, easy to clean, and it seems to make a consistently good cup of coffee regardless of the type of bean.

Beehouse Dripper
7. Clever Coffee Dripper. The Clever dripper is basically a combination of a french press and a filter cone. The ground coffee is fully immersed in the hot water for the desired amount of time (about 3-4 minutes) to get the benefits of french press brewing. Then, a valve at the bottom of the dripper is automatically opened when the dripper is placed atop a mug or a cup; this allows the coffee to flow through the filter. The end result is a clean and sediment-free cup of coffee that has been immersion brewed. In this regard, the brewing methodology is similar to the "inverted" Aeropress technique. I don't have much to say about the Clever dripper because it is my newest coffee making toy, and I'm still experimenting with it. Thus far, I'm happy with the results.

Clever Dripper
The Clever's Valve
So there you have it. Making coffee at my house is serious business. It's no laughing matter. If you ask me to make you a cup of coffee, you will be interrogated about brewing techniques, grind size, water temperature, dwell time, and water-to-coffee ratio. Be prepared.

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