Understanding a little more about how coffee is made, as well as the variables that control the quality of the finished cup, will make all the difference when it comes to mastering your morning brew.
That’s why we’ve got a series dedicated to how to brew great coffee, no matter your brewing method:
- How To Brew French Press Coffee
- How to Make Pour Over Coffee
- How to Make Cold Brew Coffee
- How to Brew Drip Coffee
- How to Brew a Single Cup of Drip Coffee
But before we get into recommendations for specific brewers, let’s cover the basics.
Extraction and Strength
Coffee is made using a process of extraction—we use hot water to dissolve, or extract, coffee flavors and caffeine from our ground beans. Since the water extracts incredibly strong-tasting flavors, we also use the brewing water to dilute the coffee to the right strength. To get the right balance and combination of flavors, you'll need to extract just the right amount—too much will taste bitter with a long aftertaste; too little will taste sour and astringent.
Coffee that’s extracted just right will have a natural sweetness and a pleasant finish, and, depending on the coffee, a lively fruitiness that kind of tickles your tongue.
How much coffee and water should you be using? In very basic terms, too much coffee will make a very strong brew; too little coffee will make a weak cup. If the water and coffee ratio is imbalanced, it will also change the water’s ability to extract flavor. Too much water will very aggressively extract flavor from the coffee, so while you might end up with a weaker cup, it will taste very bitter. Too little water won’t extract as much from the grounds, so you will have a strong cup that’s very sour.
To make sure you have just the right ratio, you’ll want to do some experimenting: brew a batch as usual then make another one with just a little more or a little less coffee, and compare them. Which tastes better? You can do this by weight (add or subtract a few grams of coffee, or an ounce or two of water) or scoop—though I recommend making changes in half-scoop increments to avoid too dramatic a variation between batches.
Coffee Bean Grind Size
Like the coffee-to-water ratio, grind size is key to controlling extraction and strength. The finer your coffee grounds, the easier it will be for the water to extract flavors because the water will soak into the smaller pieces much faster than larger ones. This is why fast-brewing methods like espresso call for a much finer grind size than those that need to steep slowly for the best flavor, like pour-over or French Press. Where an espresso grind would feel like fine table salt, a French press would take something closer to coarse Kosher salt, with automatic drip machines somewhere in the middle.
Note: Burr grinders are infinitely more accurate than blade grinders, because they can be adjusted to specific grind sizes.
Brewing time is directly related to grind size—the longer the coffee and water are in contact, the more the water will extract from the grounds.
In many types of coffee brewing, you can gauge the correctness of your grind size by how long the brewing water takes to pass through the grounds. When making espresso, for instance, the brew time should end around 20-30 seconds. In most pour-over or drip methods, your coffee should be done in three to five minutes. If the water flows through too quickly, the coffee is too coarse; if it flows through too slowly, the coffee is too fine.
Keep it Fresh and Clean
One easy to tip to get your coffee tasting better right away is to clean your coffee equipment. The oils in coffee beans secrete onto your gear and over time can leave a residue that can affect the flavor of any coffee you make in it. For a thorough breakdown on how to clean your coffeemakers, grinders, and more, check out How To Give Your Coffee Equipment Some Necessary Cleaning Attention.
Plus, the way you store your coffee beans can make a difference too. If not stored properly, coffee beans can get stale and lose their flavor. It's always best to store beans whole, rather than ground, to retain maximum flavor. And be sure to store them in a cool, dark place, like in your pantry, to keep them fresh longer. For further information, check out Does Coffee Go Bad? How Storing the Beans Can Affect Flavor.
When you’re trying to dial in the perfect recipe, don’t be afraid to make changes—but just change one thing at a time to avoid any confusion or frustration! Take notes on what you like and don’t like, and trust your taste buds. (Or, if you don’t want to worry about all this tinkering and experimenting, you can always get a brewer that does all the work for you. And there’s no shame in that.)
Want to take your coffee to the next level? Learn how to make your own latte art, plus try these fun coffee-flavored frozen dessert recipes. Made too much brew? Check out these 5 easy ways to use up leftover coffee.