The Basics of Coffee Brewing: Just The Tip(s)

This is a SUPER fun post to write — I’m beyond excited that this is something you all love and want too!

As you might’ve heard/read, we’re opening a coffee shop (and Jake already owns a specialty coffee technician business called Technico). In fact, we’re opening the shop inside of Jake’s shop — the coffee shop will be housed in the front third of Jake’s workshop and will be named Matryoshka Coffee as a nod to the shop-within-the-shop like a Russian nesting doll. You can follow these links to read all about the coffee shop plans and our experience buying a commercial property during a pandemic.

That being said, this post is all about the basics of brewing drip coffee at home and not espresso. Perhaps one day we’ll do a post about our favorite home espresso equipment, but that’s such a niche market and it’s very expensive to get into (not to mention tedious and, quite frankly, super annoying). So, for now, I’m going to cover everything drip coffee.

Drip Coffee vs. Espresso – What’s the Difference?

Drip coffee is made via a brewing process that involves larger batches of medium-ground coffee over the span of a few minutes with a steady flow of water using gravity to pull the water through the grounds. Espresso, on the other hand, is a brewing method that involves brewing smaller amounts of water over finely-ground coffee in a high-pressure environment over the span of about thirty seconds. Drip coffee leaves you with a traditional cup of coffee, while espresso effectively leaves you with a concentrated form that can be made into drinks like lattes, or enjoyed as-is.

You’ll notice I said “finely ground coffee” when talking about brewing espresso and not “espresso beans”. This is because contrary to popular belief, you can use whatever type of coffee you want when making espresso. Sometimes, roasters will fine-tune the flavor of a batch of beans with espresso in mind and so they slap ‘espresso’ on the bag, but you can manipulate the flavor of espresso with heat, pressure, and time.

Again, maybe I’ll delve into espresso one day, but today we’re focusing on drip coffee. That being said: the first thing you’ll need is whole beans.

Care More About The Damn Beans, OK?!

Science says so. Good coffee at home starts with, well, good coffee. The level of roast whether dark or light is a preferential thing and everyone is different and I am not judging you one way or the other. But I will say: most of the specialty coffee industry roasts fairly light (for now, anyway). This is because you’re able to capture a certain flavor profile when roasted on the lighter end of the spectrum. When a coffee is roasted light, the flavor that ends up in your cup will often lend a more “bright” flavor instead of what marketers tend to call “smooth” when roasted darker.

Without getting too far into it, most mass-market coffees (AKA grocery store coffees) are roasted darker for a few reasons. The first reason is that the coffee beans are generally of “lower” quality since they have to produce so much to sell to the masses and a dark roast helps to mask any irregularities and unfavorable flavors. That link will take you to a pretty confusing summation of how green (pre-roasted) coffee is graded, but if you’re curious, go for it.

In regards to coffee quality, think of a mountain where coffee grows. You have a coffee plant that is growing on the base of a mountainside where it has access to more oxygen and can produce the coffee cherry (which contains green coffee beans) at a quicker rate. This is where most consumer coffees are from solely because these quickly-growing coffee plants can keep up with market demand. As you go higher up the mountain, you’ll find the coffee plants produce cherries at a much slower rate due to lack of oxygen. The green coffee beans sit inside of the cherries for much longer due to lower levels of oxygen at higher altitudes, allowing their flavor to develop further on the plant before being harvested. These are where most specialty roasters get their beans, and these higher-altitude coffee plants have a smaller yield, hence why specialty coffees are more expensive than Folgers or Dunkin Donuts at the grocery store (even Starbucks is lower-altitude).

The second reason why mass-market coffees are roasted darker is because most inexpensive, at-home coffee brewers do not reach an adequate temperature recommended for brewing coffee (195-205 degrees F). Without proper water temperature, your coffees will be under-extracted and lack any desirable flavor. By roasting darker, it allows some flavor to come through, even if it’s a little toasty. This is also why a lot of people prefer milk and cream to their coffees — the lactose and/or the creaminess found in many dairy and non-dairy products helps balance the acrid flavor that often pulls through in commercial coffees.

There are a bunch more reasons why specialty coffee is more expensive than commercially-available coffee, but those two have to do with flavor and quality. Something else worth noting about cost is that specialty coffee roasters are often able to pay the farmers they buy from a much higher, sustainable price for their crop and build personal relationships with the farmers and their families. So, the next time you’re wondering if $12-$18 per bag is worth the cost, just consider the journey your coffee has taken from plant to bag and all of the hands that it went through to get to you and the care with which it was grown, harvested, roasted, and bagged.

Sourcing better beans should not be too difficult — many coffee roasters now do wholesale at local retailers and grocery stores in addition to selling in their own shops. If you’re not located near any local roasters, many offer shipping, too! When searching for a good bag of beans, take note of the roast date. Freshly-roasted coffees need a few days to a week to “off-gas” or “de-gas”.

A coffee bean needs to de-gas because during the roasting process, the beans undergo a number of chemical changes, resulting in gases being formed inside the bean (oooooo, chemistry). Allowing the beans to rest for a few days after being roasted allows the beans to release some of the gases that form inside during roast. Not waiting the adequate amount of time for the de-gassing to happen may result in a disappointing cup of coffee. Too much de-gassing, however, can lead to loss of flavor. Generally, this flavor loss is referred to as the coffee going stale.

Grinders. Are. Important.

So, now that we’ve covered why good beans are important, allow me to introduce coffee bean’s long-time partner: the grinder.

You can pick up pre-ground coffee at the grocery store, and you can throw a pod into a machine, and you can not give a shit about your coffee. That’s all fine! I will and would never criticize someone for their form of coffee consumption. That’s just not my business. But I can only assume that if you’re here reading this and you’ve come this far, that’s not what you’re looking for.

As we’ve learned, everything that goes into brewing a cup of coffee is literally science. Its flavor develops while still on the plant via photosynthesis, roasted using chemistry, and wouldn’t you know it? The grind has its own science involved too.

In a nutshell, coffee beans contain components like solubles and oils that give it its flavor and aroma, and these are protected by the outer shell of the bean. By grinding coffee beans, we’re effectively cutting the beans open, thus making us able to expose the inside and extract those flavors from the solubles and oils into our cup. Pre-ground coffee, which is ground in large batches, bagged, shipped, and stored for who knows how long loses a lot of its flavor by the time it’s brewed into your cup at home because the parts that are water soluble and the oils dry up. With whole beans ground at home, we’re able to capture the intended flavor by exposing the flavor components just before brewing when they’re at their freshest.

If you want to go a little more in-depth on why pre-ground coffee isn’t the best, read all about it here.

BONUS: Types of Grinders

Selecting a grinder that’s best-suited for brewing coffee at home can be confusing. If you’re not in the coffee industry, you may even assume all grinders are created equal. How many ways can we grind coffee, anyway?

The two most important elements when choosing an at-home grinder are burr size and burr shape. And, in case you’re like… what on earth is a burr?! — basically, a burr is two plates with sharp teeth on them that cut the the coffee beans into smaller particles, known as grinds. The user is generally able to adjust the distance between the burrs, therefore resulting in either larger or smaller grind particles (the difference between coarse and fine grounds).

Flat burr grinders are grinders in which the burrs sit flat against each other and the grinds are expelled out the sides via centrifugal force. Conical burr grinders are grinders in which a cone-shaped burr sits inside of another burr, and the grinds are expelled out the bottom via gravity. Blade grinders, or most often called spice grinders, are grinders without burrs and instead rely on a blade to cut the beans.

I stole this super cute image from the Coffee Techician’s Guild blog. Thanks, guys!

A conical burr grinder and a flat burr grinder will give you the most uniform grind. You can nerd out here and read about the small details that separate the conical burr grinders from the flat burr grinders if you want. To sum it up: they have their own benefits, and they have their own downfalls. They’re both pretty great for brewing drip coffee at home. My favorite entry-level grinder (and my first grinder ever) is a conical burr grinder, but my current grinder is a flat-burr grinder. We’re currently waiting for our new grinder to ship, which is also a flat burr grinder. A blade grinder, in my humble opinion, should never be used to grind coffee. It’s just too inconsistent, and consistency is key here.

Consistent grind size is important because you want the coffee to be extracted uniformly. If there are too many tiny particles, often called “fines”, or large inconsistencies in your grind, then you may end up with channeling. The goal when brewing coffee is to uniformly disperse the water over the grounds, and channeling is what happens when the water finds its way through the grounds faster in some areas, and slower in others. A computer-generated image of channeling can be found right here:

Think of the white as the coffee grounds, and the green/yellow/red as the water. You can see how the irregular grind size negatively affects the way in which water is able to move through the grounds. The coffee finds its way around the groups of fines and through the areas with larger particle sizes, causing uneven distribution.

In this next image, you can see how the grind size is more uniform, and therefore allows the water to flow through the grounds in a more uniform fashion.

When the water is able to uniformly flow through the grind particles, the flavor is then able to be extracted more uniformly, giving you better flavor profiles.

Don’t Forget About Water!

Water is another piece to this puzzle, and you guys… you wouldn’t believe the amount of research and debate that goes into something as simple as water. I won’t get into it with you, but everything in water from mineral content to temperature plays a key role in coffee brewing. To put it simply: please use filtered water, and please brew using water that is about 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit. When making a pour over, it’s easiest to do this using an electric kettle with a programmable temperature, but allowing water to boil and then letting it settle slightly before brewing should get you to that temperature.

I would highly recommend an electric gooseneck kettle to help with pour control if you plan to make a pour over. Having a controlled pour will allow for even dispersement of water, and as we’ve learned, even dispersement is king. I will go further into my recommendations in a later post (hopefully later this week!) but if you’re chomping at the bit, this is a great introductory electric kettle, and this is a great-looking and highly-functional electric kettle.

I mentioned it briefly before, but most coffee brewers for at-home brewing do not reach 195-205 degrees F, resulting in lackluster, under-extracted flavor. Regardless of how amazing your beans are or your grinder is, the lower-than-average brew temperature will greatly affect the flavor of the coffee. Those pod-based brewing devices that I will never, ever, ever recommend? I can hold my finger underneath the stream of “coffee” while it’s “brewing”. So not only are they charging customers a premium price for a pre-ground, probably-old product, but they also aren’t brewing at the adequate temperature. I rarely get feisty about coffee stuff because it’s easy to sound like a jerk, but those machines physically pain me.

When selecting a coffee brewer, ensure it is capable of reaching a brew temperature of 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit.

Last, but my god, certainly not least: SCALES.

Brewing coffee without a scale is like driving with your eyes closed. Maybe if you get lucky you’ll get there, but jeez… there’s a better way to do it!

I once made iced coffee on my Instagram stories and one of my good friends laughed and messaged me, saying something like “wow, I thought I was a coffee snob — you measure the ice!?” and.. yes! I totally do! It’s water, after all, and it matters greatly; not only for consistency (again, science y’all), but also for repeatability. Brewing coffee is a science experiment, and we want to be able to replicate the results of that experiment every single time.

The golden ratio for water:coffee is accepted to be 16:1. This means 16 grams of water to every 1 gram of coffee. For example, to brew a 40g batch of coffee (about two 12oz cups) you will need 640g of water (40×16=640). To do this accurately, you need a scale. Even with pour overs, you need a scale. French press? Scale. Regular old drip brewer? Please, please weigh the beans with a dang scale! I’m sure you can eyeball wonderfully, but trust me on this one.

You don’t need anything fancy here, and any old kitchen scale that measures in 1g increments will do. If you have a scale that is specifically made for coffee, it will oftentimes have a timer as part of its interface which is useful when making a pour over (I’ll post a brewing guide for the Kalita and for the Chemex in the near future, but yes — time is important too).

In conclusion,

The best thing (and sometimes the worst thing) about coffee is you can really spiral in all of the topics I’ve mentioned so far. Every single component, from beans to water, can elevate and change your experience. There are coffee people who have their own ways of brewing and their own grinder, brewer, kettle, pour over favorites, and it’s all part of the fun.

Keep your eyes peeled for my coffee gear post, and PLEASE let me know if something is too confusing or needs clarification. I am always here to help you.

One thought on “The Basics of Coffee Brewing: Just The Tip(s)

  1. Love this post so much!!! So much awesome information for anyone looking to make their coffee better ☕️ can’t wait til you open up shop

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