Essentials to making great coffee at home (Part One - Coffee)

January 30, 2019

Intro and what's important about the coffee?

Do you remember the first time you had a truly remarkable cup of coffee? The cup that changed your perception of coffee and what it could taste like?

A great cup of coffee can seem like magic.  But you don’t need to follow a complicated procession of oddly precise steps to make great coffee. You don't even need an arsenal of expensive equipment. Brewing a better cup of coffee is easy once you know what’s important.

We founded Slow Wave Coffee on the idea that coffee isn't complicated. You CAN brew your own amazing coffee at home, no matter where you are in your coffee journey. We start by looking at the basics: the essentials to a great cup of coffee. Armed with the fundamentals, you can begin to filter out some of the noise and the nonsense.

In three short posts, we’ll explain what to look for in coffee, water, and the brewing process. I’ll include a TL;DR (too long, didn’t read) for those of you who are in a hurry, want a summary, or who don’t like all them wordy words.

Let’s start with the ingredients.

Brewed coffee is made of only two ingredients: coffee beans and water.

Earth-shattering, I know.

Because of this simplicity, each ingredient has a big impact on taste. Start with quality coffee beans and quality water for a successful coffee journey.  So what should we look for?

roasted coffee beans

First, the coffee:

A great cup of coffee starts with quality coffee beans.

What is a quality coffee bean? Does it have to do with how much it costs? Who roasted it and how? The cupping score? Where it was grown? How it was processed? What certifications it holds?

The answer is a big fat “it depends.”

Each of these considerations can matter a lot, or very little, and get complicated fast. Don’t fret. Let's focus on some accessible data points you can consider when evaluating a coffee. None require any advanced study on your part, only a calendar and your taste buds.

Freshness.

Freshness is the most important consideration impacting taste. Put simply, fresh coffee has the most flavor, and flavor disappears as the coffee ages. If you buy coffee from the supermarket - especially from a plastic display case or floor barrels -  you are not drinking fresh coffee.

The only way to know the age of a coffee is to look for a “Roasted On” date. Always select coffee with a recent roast date (read: within the past week or two). Don't stock-up. If you grind when you brew, buy no more than you can consume in the next one to four weeks. If you're buying pre-ground coffee, buy only what you can consume in a week or two. The freshness of ground coffee fades quicker than whole bean.

The complex and subtle flavors in coffee are most prevalent in the first two to three weeks after roasting. Coffee beyond these dates is still very drinkable, but many subtle flavors will be long gone. By six weeks after the roast date, the lack of freshness will be noticeable.

You can preserve the freshness of coffee longer with an appropriate storage container.  Don’t leave your beans one of those inexpensive tin-tie bags that you fold over! Select a roaster with a resealable bag or use an airtight storage container to keep opened beans as fresh as possible.

Avoid coffees that use a “Best By” date or lack any date whatsoever. It will be difficult to impossible to determine how old the coffee actually is. The realities of distribution make it difficult for coffee roasters to ensure the stock is always fresh at grocery stores or Amazon. If possible, buy coffee directly from the roaster. Many roasters, like Slow Wave Coffee, roast to order to ensure you get a freshly roasted bag of beans every time.

Skillfully roasted.

Have you ever tried a very bitter, super thin, or overly sour coffee? Although these tastes can come from improper brewing, they may also be a product of a roasting error. Coffee that is not roasted well is not going taste good, no matter how you brew it.

Coffee roasting is a profession and a craft full of complexity.   Talented roasters accentuate different flavors and adjust the sweetness and acidity. Coffee from the most talented roasters is quite magical and somewhat rare. As a start, seek out coffee that lacks obvious roasting errors. The most common roasting mistakes include coffee that is under-roasted or over-roasted. Under-roasted coffee tastes sour or green and produces a watery cup without much body. Over-roasted coffee tastes bitter or rubbery. "Baked" coffee is another roasting error. Baked coffee tastes like cardboard steeped in hot water. Yuck.

Is at least some of how you judge the quality of a roast personal preference? Absolutely. A roasted coffee may be free of errors but not be something you enjoy. Conversely, you may enjoy a coffee that is technically under- or over-roasted. Overlap between a roasting mistake and personal preference does exist. However, let's assume that if you're reading this post, the grey area is rather narrow.

So how can you identify skillfully roasted coffee? The answer is both complicated and simple at the same time: Trust what you taste. If a coffee or coffees from a certain roaster consistently fail to taste good to you, try another roaster. Of course, make sure you've addressed the other considerations in this series first, but don't automatically assume it's you. And don’t assume that big company equals good coffee or small company equals bad coffee or vice versa. There are large and small companies putting out excellent coffee. There are just as many companies, of all sizes, selling lousy coffee.

cup of coffee

Characteristics you enjoy.

When it comes to food and drink, I am not a picky person. I like most styles of beer. I appreciate most types of wine. There are tastes I avoid. I’m not a fan of oaky white wines, barley wine beers, peaty-scotches, or savory flavor notes in coffee. Even though this reads like a strange dating profile, I share this to illustrate that tastes are personal. There’s nothing wrong with thinking tomato flavors are weird or with liking dark roasts. You may simply just not enjoy certain characteristics in coffee… and that’s just fine. One key to enjoying a great cup of coffee at home is to select coffees with characteristics that you enjoy.

Your coffee preferences may include specific flavor notes, body, and levels of sweetness and acidity. What if you don’t know what you like? Try lots of different things until you figure it out! That’s part of what makes coffee today so magical - there are so many different and unique coffees to try. Discover your preferences by trying many different origins and roasters.

And if you do have coffee preferences, I encourage you to branch out, at least every once and awhile. Think you only like dark roasts? Or light, acidic roasts? Or dislike certain flavors? On occasion, try something very different from what you normally buy. You might find a new favorite in unexpected places! I sometimes select a coffee with notes of “tomato” just because. It’s a pretty low risk way to be a little adventurous.

TL;DR: A great cup of coffee starts with quality coffee. Quality coffee is fresh, skillfully roasted, and includes characteristics you enjoy. Buy coffee fresh, don’t dawdle in drinking it, and trust what you taste in the cup.

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