Why Your Coffee Sucks (and How to Drink Great Coffee for a Fraction of What You're Paying Now)
Written by Brett Kelly of the Cranking Widgets Blog
For more than a millenium now, people have been drinking coffee. You can hardly drive down a major street (in the US, anyway) without encountering one or more Starbucks establishments. For all of it's forms and varieties, it's one of the most-consumed beverages in the world. I'm sure many of you reading this are probably doing so with a hot cup of joe within arms' reach - which is what makes what I'm about to say all the more meaningful and pointed:
Your coffee is, most likely, crap.
Yep, even you with the Venti Skinny Vanilla Latte (that probably cost you upwards of $5). The fact is, the vast majority of the coffee consumed, especially in the US, is either of poor quality or simply stale. The good news is, this is a fairly easy situation to remedy. And, if you're willing to invest a bit of time and elbow grease, you can save a whole heap of money in the process.
First, here's a couple of glaring facts about coffee that reinforce my claim that you're drinking bad coffee:
Roasted coffee beans are partially stale after 2 weeks
That's right - and you can bet your bottom dollar that the pound of coffee you bought at the grocery store or at your local Starbucks was roasted weeks (or perhaps months) ago. It was likely roasted in a huge roasting facility (where the batch size can be in the hundreds of pounds) several weeks before it even hits the shelves at your local store.
Ground coffee has lost much of it's flavor 20 minutes after grinding
You may think you're saving time by buying pre-ground coffee, but you're sacrificing what little flavor was left in the probably-stale beans.
But don't lose heart, fellow lovers of the brown nectar! In a few simple steps (and for considerably less money than you'd expect and quite possibly less than you're spending now), you can enjoy some of the finest coffee the world has to offer.
A quick aside - for those folks who drink coffee purely for the caffeine and don't care about it tasting good, you can stop reading here :) Personally, I think of coffee as so much more than just something to slug back in the morning to wake up. When prepared properly, it can be just as flavorful and nuanced as a fine wine or whiskey. That said, my point in making and drinking coffee is to create a fantastic beverage, and only secondarily a caffeine delivery system.
So, let's get down to brass tacks - how do you make a great cup of coffee?
First, you need clean water. I use bottled water to make my coffee - something that many people think is a waste, but whatever. Once you try this, you'll definitely notice a difference. Even purified water (using one of those pitchers you put in your refrigerator, for example) will do the trick. Water temperature is key here - you want it between 195F-204F for optimal extraction.
Second, you need good coffee. If you want to roast your own, a whole range of options exist from a coffee roasting machine (I use the iRoast 2, retails for about $180) all the way to using a frying pan on your stovetop. It's really easy, too - only takes about 15-30 minutes depending on the batch size and roasting method. I won't go into the finer points of homeroasting, but if you're interested please get in touch with me and I'll point you in the right direction. Suffice it to say, this is an option for just about anybody. Oh, and did I mention that the coffee will probably cost you between $2-$5 per pound?
If you don't want to spend the time roasting your own coffee, there are plenty of places to buy fresh roasted coffee. Personally, I'd look for local mom-and-pop coffeehouses in your area that might roast their own coffee. You'll get small roast batches probably roasted by people who really love it - and you'll taste the difference.
You can also buy your fresh roasted beans (surprise, surprise) on the Internet. Personally, I like to buy from Sweet Maria's. Tom, the proprietor, flies all over the world sampling different coffees from all sorts of different farms, hand-selecting what he thinks are the best coffees around. A pound of roasted coffee (shipped) will run you roughly $12-$13, about what you'd pay at Starbucks - but it was roasted the same day it was shipped!
Now, brewing methods - your first order of business is to pick up your $20 Mr. Coffee brewer and drop it into the trash can. Yep, I'm not joking - these things make truly lackluster coffee and can be replaced by a far-superior solution that'll cost you approximately $6. Next, head down to your local grocery and pick up a pour-over brewer and a set of paper filters - my local store keeps these supplies right near the coffee, I'd imagine yours will to. Read this excellent article by Mark Prince for more information on how to use a pour-over brewer.
My personal favorite (by a damn sight, I must say) is the Aeropress. This one is slightly more expensive at $25, but worth 10 times that, if you ask me. Makes a fantastic, smooth cup of coffee and I'm confident in saying that if you haven't tried it, you won't go back once you do. This thing produces small amounts of high-octane, perfectly smooth coffee concentrate and you just add some hot water!
The last thing we'll need to talk about is grinding. If you stopped to peruse the pour-over brewer article linked above, you probably got a taste of how important a grinder is to making a great cup of coffee. While this is true, please don't be dismayed if you can't spend the dough. A blade grinder, while definitely subpar compared to a burr mill, will still do the job well enough. The point here is good coffee for little money, right?
The grinder I use is called the Solis Maestro Plus (retails for about $160). It's a fantastic grinder for all types of brewing methods from espresso to french press. If you're lucky, you can get your hands on a Zassenhaus mill (accept no substitutes!). A manual, hand-crank grinder that produces a show-quality grind. A quick glance of eBay and Craigslist shows a few of these guys available.
Really, the only potentially big expense you're looking at for great coffee is a grinder - and really, the coffee nerds aren't going to take your coffee if you don't have an industrial-grade grinder ;) The important thing is that you enjoy it. Honestly, since I've become what my friends and family affectionately call a "coffee snob", I actively anticipate my morning coffee instead of just making it as part of a routine. Perhaps you might venture down the same path?
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