A perfect cup of coffee

Rule one: the perfect cup of coffee is in the mouth of the taster. Nobody can tell you “THIS” is “THE ONE.”

Rule two: the perfect cup of coffee is unattainable. You can only come close, and though with practice can come very close indeed MOST of the time you can’t quite cross that last little gap. Learn to enjoy the pursuit.

With that in mind, let’s look at coffee making. There are four stages to the pursuit: the bean, the roast, the grind, and the brew. I’m going to take these out of order but will reach each in turn.

The grind has the least impact in your search; but it is not immaterial. The first thing to know about the grind is that the slower the extraction technique you plan to use the coarser the grind should be. I’ll get into this more in the brewing section but basically your extraction technique has an optimal time to work. If the grounds are too fine for the optimum you have a choice of rushing the technique (which may not be possible) or extracting a lot of rather nasty tasting secondary flavor elements. (Keep in mind rule one – some people LIKE these elements.) On the other side of the same coin, too coarse and you miss a lot of flavor elements, usually sacrificing several of the ‘deeper’ (touching on bitter) flavors. AGAIN, remember rule one.

In addition to coarseness there’s technique. The cheapest and easiest grinder isn’t a grinder at all; it’s a chopper. The blades whir around and the beans become grounds. The problem with this technique is two-fold. First, the speed generates friction, and the friction cooks part of the beans. Now we already cook our beans by roasting them, so it would seem you could just account for the little bit of difference and shrug it off. Unfortunately we’ve got two problems. First, the grinding heat is uneven. Second, the grinding heat is too short. We’ll get more of this in roasting but suffice it to say a long, steady, even heat gives us a much better coffee (even with rule one in play).

I said there were two problems with blades. That’s the uneven grind that tends toward dust. The problem with uneven grinding should be obvious – if a certain size is perfect for your maker then you want every ground to be that size. The blade grinder tends to make a lot of dust while getting everything to ‘your’ size. That means we can either sift out the dust or get some over-extracted elements. (Some people like the blended effect. Again, see rule one.)

A second method of grinding is a lot more work and still gives you an uneven grind but it’s simple and won’t give you any heating problems. That’s using a mortar and pestle. Actually, the ‘uneven’ part is unfair. With practice you can get a surprisingly even grind as you learn not to rub the pestle into the mortar too hard during the process. Your grounds stay the original temperature, however, and that allows for a more consistent taste.

The third method could be considered the automated mortar and pestle, or the mill method, but is actually the ‘burr’ grinder. A couple of coarse but slow-moving objects pass near one another and the beans are broken and crushed till small enough to pass through. They don’t stick around to get crushed down further, either. As a result this is the “best” method – a consistent size that isn’t cooked. The downside is that burr type grinders are more expensive. Oh – if you’ve a grain mill, don’t use it to grind your coffee unless you like the subtle taste of coffee in your grain OR you can thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly) clean the grinder between uses. The beans are oily and that oil WILL adhere to the grindstone.

Now here’s the thing: when we get to pursuing the perfect cup, one of the things we’ll check is whether the grind needs to be a bit finer or coarser. Again, changing this will adjust the taste. I just want you to keep it in mind for now.

So much for grinding, and the fact that was relatively inconsequential should give you some idea of what the rest of this is going to be like. Next up: selecting the bean.

Actually, this is the one that causes me to laugh at people the most. The vast majority of people I’ve met turn out to not be entranced with a particular bean but with a particular roast complex – and they can get almost the exact same from a slightly different roast of a different bean.

Do yourself a favor in the search for your perfect cup: make the bean choice last. Pick a bean that you sorta like already; not chosen by cost but by basic taste. Now, for almost everyone that means getting arabica beans. Umm…. There are three subspecies of coffee plant in the world. These are arabica, robusta and liberica. Most coffees are arabica, and the ones traditionally considered “great” come from this (for example Jamaican Blue Mountain). Most of the rest are robustas, and the rest (from parts of the Philippines and from Liberia) are, well, libericas. The difference is distinct but… OK, let’s give an ugly example. Robustas tend to carry more ‘bitters’ than Arabicas. However, you can also get more bitter by extended brewing of an Arabica. Arabicas carry a bit more sweetness that’s almost impossible for the other two to have. And there’s a difference (to the more trained palate) between the respective natural bitter of a generic robusta vs that of an overbrewed arabica. Rule one, rule one, rule one. Still, if starting out relatively ignorant, start with an arabica. If you ‘haven’t a clue’, then use a tricksy sorta cost technique. Find a store, and pick the third, fourth, or fifth least expensive Arabica bean. The bottom two will almost always be, well, they’ll be ok but they’ll rarely be great. After that the reasons for the price are more likely to be from supply and logistics than quality. Once you know what you’re seeking the upper prices can be pursued, though it’s important to remember most are priced that way because of snob appeal and quantity as it is for actual quality. JBM is very, very good, but not (by taste) worth the exorbitant prices it commands – or so goes my opinion.

Now before I close this section I need to note something pretty important. Let’s assume you find the perfect combination of brew technique and time, grind and roast for the bean with which you started. There is a better than even chance that when you go on to try other beans that you’ll find a variation in roast, grind, and/or brew will be BETTER for it. And in fact I suspect that the bean you start with will not be your “bestest favorite” in your pursuit of the perfect cup. That’s ok, I’m just getting you started. Really, I wanted to note there are hundreds if not thousands of variations of bean, and let you know up front it’s fine to stick to one for now. Oh – just to add to the pleasure, remember that beans this year may or may not be as good or better than next year’s beans.

The second most significant place over which you have control of the flavor is in brewing the coffee. Now in simple, when you brew you’re making a tisane. You’re soaking the ground beans in hot water. The heat will cause some of the flavors to separate from the bean and diffuse into the water. You have three points of control here: time, temperature, and water-to-ground ratio (WTG). Each will have an impact on the final taste. In a few cases the change of a few seconds or degrees or tenths of an ounce can have an almost unbelievable impact – and then going just a bit further muddies that experience. Now for most brewing with which we here in the US are familiar the general guide is to be around 2 tablespoons of medium grounds per six ounces of (filtered) water, heated to between 195 and 205 F, and kept in contact with the grounds for 3.5 to 4 minutes. If you’re using a fast-brew device (like the aeropress) you want a finer ground. If you’re using a slower brew like a percolator a coarse ground is probably going to be more desirable.

A counterintuitive mix is turkish coffee. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to prepare, and uses a grind so fine it out-does baby powder. Actually, understanding how it’s made might help grasp a great deal of the rest. You see, turkish coffee is made with extremely cool water (for coffee). While the portions of the water next to the fire get over boiling temperature the temperature of the coffee as a whole barely tops 190 F. The floating grounds provide a cap that traps the very tiny steam bubbles which are too small to burst the surface tension entirely. What you get, then, is a long cold steep and a few seconds of extremely hot water against the grounds to get some of the higher-temperature volatiles released.

(You CAN make turkish coffee in a straight-sided pan instead of an ibrek. The problems are that there might not be enough grounds to ‘cap’ the surface of the water, and further the grounds will not foam up very high as there is a LOT more volume to be filled. Still, if you are watching carefully and know what’s happening anyway you can make it happen. Ummm… use a deep pan in preference to a shallow one, and keep it as small as possible while still holding your water and grounds. Trust me, it helps.)

I want to repeat a message I’ve said before here in the brewing stage: Cleanliness matters. Coffee has several oils. The oils WILL go rancid over time. If you don’t clean your pots and cups the next coffee you have will have a rancid undertaste. In my opinion (rule one, again) if you like this you’ll like the “new” favorite of the coffee snobs, kopi luwak. That’s the one where the civets (a sort of wild cat) eat the whole beans and their manure contains the seed/beans that are then collected and ground – thus the nickname Kafe Katshit (and variations thereon). You’ll pay more for a pound than you will for JBM, due to both snob appeal and logistics. But I digress.

Filtered water will give you a ‘cleaner’ taste, but if you like the mineral taste of your water use it.

In general the hotter the water the more flavor it will pick up; the longer the infusion continues the more flavor it will pick up; the higher the GTW the more flavor it will pick up. In each case the increase in flavors is a bit different – heat adds bitters early, duration intensifies all but gives time for more bitters to come out later, higher GTW extracts more lower (non-bitter) flavors.

Oh, let me mention my preference. I have the strainer basket from a drip percolator coffeemaker, and I made a simple plug for it. I wash out a paper filter, put it in the basket, and put grounds in the basket. I bring water to just short of a boil (about 200F) and pour it slowly over the grounds. After about three minutes I put the basket over my cup and pull the plug, and it takes another minute and a half or so to drain into the cup. On the other hand I really enjoyed my aeropress till it broke (user stupidity, not a flaw in the device). And I’ve enjoyed coffee from other techniques. But that’s what I’m using right now. And with that we’re on to roasting.

Roasting is the most control of the flavor you have immediately available. It can also be the most frustrating, tricky process you can do. Here’s the deal. When you roast the bean the heat gradually causes both caramelization and a maillard reaction in the bean. It also forces water to leave the bean which changes its texture (above and beyond grinding). Finally, it also causes some of the volatile oils to leave the bean, many of which happen to be extremely bitter.

So when you’re roasting the beans you’re balancing the loss of sweetness as the sugars react against the loss of bitterness from lost oils, all against the new flavor gains from sugar reactions, finally minimizing if not avoiding the gradually increasing ashiness of burned sugars and fibers. And no bean will go exactly the same. Wait, let’s embed that in your mind by thinking of popping corn.

When you pop corn – microwave, air popper, stove top, they all give this message – think of how the stuff goes. It’s not “boom” everything pops at once, it’s one then two then a few then a flurry then a gradually decreasing sequence to the last one or two old maids. And if you push the old maids too far those first kernels burn. Congratulations, you now ‘get’ roasting coffee.

Look back at what you’re balancing, and remember the first rule. Now let’s go on with some more roasting discussion before we go to methods of pursuing the perfect cup of coffee.

There are two distinctive events when a bean goes from green to ash, known as the first and second crack. They’re called this because the terms are so very descriptive. The first crack happens when the water in the bean has gotten hot enough to burst out as steam. The second crack is a similar effect from lighter residual oils. Both will cause the bean to expand (see pop-corn, but not as severe an expansion) and will create chaff. The critical point to know, however, is the timing of roasting coffee and these two cracks.

The bean will gradually tan and brown before the first crack, and it can be ground and brewed at those stages. Light roast (of varying technical label) coffee happens during the first crack. “City roast” is coffee in the lull. Your various darks (full city, french, etc) are during the second crack. Second crack to burned happens fairly early – by the time it’s winding down the first few are char, and the drink is… you might as well brew charcoal.

So what should you use to heat your beans? It really doesn’t matter. Cast iron skillet, hot air popcorn maker, small mesh basket over a grill or open fire, all work. The key thing is that your heat be dry and as even as possible throughout the mass of beans. Please know that you’re going to get smoke from these, and the darker you cook the more smoke you’ll get. Ventilate or live with stale smoke; and don’t forget the smoke alarm. (There’s a reason some I know do their bean-roasting on a grill outdoors.)

When the beans are done, however, they are subject to carryover. That’s a cooking term which means the heat accumulated in the object continues to cause a reaction. The more beans you’re roasting the more heat to reduce, but you want to cool them as quickly as possible regardless. Spread over a mesh that’s over a fan works, both stirring continuously and otherwise. Lightly spritzing with cold water works though soaking is not recommended (stirring or not). Some folk will shove the mass in the freezer (stirring becomes difficult). Regardless, either you stop it or it becomes, well, a stage or two further along than you really intended. If you were going for a dark roast this can be particularly bad (grin).

One last thing about the roast before we go into combining these for our actual pursuit. Like many foods, the cooking process causes a number of delayed reactions that develop over time. As a result a roasted coffee matures, and one made immediately after roasting tastes different from one made a day later. Most people who roast their beans think the ‘peak’ of flavor is between 4 and 24 hours after the roast is done. Again, see rule one.

Let’s set up a pursuit mechanism, assuming we’re in relative ignorance to begin. There is no sense beginning with fine adjustments when we haven’t a clue as to the general area. So let’s begin. I’ve already suggested a method of selecting a bean. Get more than a pound but less than ten pounds (unless you’re either a HEAVY coffee drinker or you’re getting a tremendous price break).

We’re going to use a somewhat different brewing method for now – one which will let us experiment. You don’t need a lot of fancy stuff, just a small (1/2 cup size or so) wire mess strainer that will fit into your coffee cup but won’t drop down inside. (Most have a handle and a lip as default construction – no problem.)

Go ahead and get a blade grinder; it’s the cheapest and easiest option. Yes, if you really get into this you’ll want to go the extra distance. If you get a break on the price, get a burr grinder. But we’re getting started, and you may discover the pursuit isn’t worth the cost or effort.

Now if you’ve got (or can pick up a cheap) popcorn popper I recommend that for your personal coffee roaster. Only as a second choice should you go to heavy skillet and wooden spoon on the stove top or grill. Actually, go there if you’ve got a grill and want/need to keep the smoke outside.

Popper, grinder, brewer, and beans. We are almost ready. See, the next thing you need is a log. Each day’s coffee needs a note – if nothing else, “Never again” or “ok”. If you get something – can’t describe it but it hints at that magical taste – note it too. If you can describe it that’s even better. Oh, and when you make the note you will also record the criticals: which bean, details of the roast, the GTW, Temp, and Duration of the brew.

Now I’m going to help you for the first few. You’re going to make one green bean cup. Trust me you’ll probably toss it, but this will give you a knowledge of where you’re coming from. You’ll be able to identify what flavors are leaving and what are coming in later roasts. For now make all your grinds medium. Make all your brews 2 tablespoons per six ounces (if you’re using a ‘standard’ coffee mug it’s between 10 and 12 ounces – that’s 3 to 4 tablespoons of grounds. Measure your cup and adjust appropriately). You’re going to suspend the strainer in the cup, pour the grounds in the strainer, bring water to a boil, take it off the stove, to the cup, and pour it over the grounds till the cup is full. Let it set for four minutes (use a timer), pull the strainer and toss the grounds, and drink your coffee. (Note that when you pull the strainer the coffee level will lower. Fill it right next to the brim when you are making the coffee in the first place.) Later you’ll make changes in all these, but for now use this.

After that green cup – and maybe the same day so you can have a “good” cup of coffee, you’ll be making roasted coffee. Roast the appropriate number of table spoons of beans (it’ll be close enough for now) in the popper, cool them, and put them in the refrigerator overnight. Next morning grind them and brew your coffee. Your first roast should be during second crack, as soon as you think the frenzy is dying. Pay attention to about how long each of the stages lasts – how long is the first crack frenzy, how long does the lull last, and about how long did you dare to wait from start of second crack to your actual pull. DO NOT FORGET TO COOL your first roast or you will be drinking charcoal the next day. Take a moment to jot down the times each of those stages lasted. If you caught interesting aromas during the roast, note them and about when they happened – 2/3 of the flavor of coffee is in the aroma, and if you can release that in your cup instead of the popper you may have found one of those almost perfect cups.

In fact let me repeat this. If you detected a stage which had you thinking “eureka” during roast, note it. The next day make your roast and try to stop JUST BEFORE that stage. Between followon (while cooling) and the brewing those aromas should be released in your cup.

Returning to the basic pursuit, make your second roast barely into first crack. For the next try the middle of the lull. Now take a moment in your journal and play the same game that happens in your eye doctor’s office. From the middle, did you like the light or the dark better? For each subsequent day try to roast halfway between the two and guess again. If you have to (oh, such a hardship) brew the appropriate extreme again – heck, roast up more than one for the day and go back and forth. (Is this better or that? this… or that…?) Once you’ve found your roast for this bean, start playing with the other variables. A bit less (or more) time in the cup. Change the temperature a bit. Try a bit coarser and finer grind. Again I recommend bracketing – mark the extremes, mark the middle, and see if this… or that… is better for you.

At the end of the month you’ll be making a great cup of coffee. At that point you can do more experimenting with those variables, or see if another bean is your preference. Go ahead and try a robusta or a liberica. Try a radically different arabica – one from a different general source. Go back to the start of the process (because not all beans are best with the same roast, much less anything else), and once it’s as good as you can get it – which is better, the first or the second? By now you might even be able to answer why.

By now you might also have realized “today” needs to fit in as well. I like steak, but not every day. I like a light roast Kona, but not every day. Sometimes I just feel like a dark Sumatran. Or a medium (aka City) Kenyan. (Or maybe just a medum Kona).

Still, I have my fallback – where I go most of the time. You will too if you pursue your perfect coffee. Just remember, it is YOUR perfect cup. Rule one, and rule two. Don’t let anyone else tell you something else is better, and take the time to enjoy the pursuit.

Enjoy yourself.


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