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The Basics of Brewing Great Coffee

The Basics of Brewing Great Coffee

Words Erin Meister

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’re kicking off a new series on how to brew great coffee, no matter your brewing method. We’ll show you how to brew great coffee in your French Press, Pour Over, or whatever other brewer you’re using. 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.

 

Coffee-to-Water Ratio

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.

 

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

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.

 

Final Thoughts

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.)

 

As part of this series, we’ll be highlighting different brewing methods and how to brew the perfect cup for each method. Stay tuned for our first guide featuring the Pour Over next week!

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By Erin Meister

Erin Meister is a freelance writer for OXO. She is a specialty-coffee professional with 15-plus years as a barista, café manager, wholesale account representative, speaker, and educator; she currently sells green coffee for the Minneapolis-based importing company Café Imports. You can also hear her on weekly episodes of "Opposites Extract: A Debate Podcast about Coffee," available on iTunes.

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