Open Secret to Brewing Your Best Coffee
Audience: Home Coffee Brewers, To-Be Coffee Brewers
Out of Scope: Instant Coffee, Milk, sugar and other additions to coffee
Wha? If it's an open secret then everybody should know it. Right?
Unfortunately, though this is openly available knowledge and reiterated by experts time and again, it is something that's been lost in the world of marketing and hype.
Brew Selection Hierarchy
The brew selection hierarchy is a rule chart for a coffee brewer to decide how to invest wisely to get the best coffee they can brew.
The chart moves from left to right where the item on the left sets the limiting factor for the items on the right that follow.
e.g. if the coffee A is rated at 90 out of 100, you have a lot more range to extract great taste than a coffee B that's rated at 70. Similarly, water quality will set the limiting factor on the taste within the limits set by the coffee. Say, theoretically the water is rated at 90 out of 100, then it can reach 90*90/100*100 = 81/100 with coffee A as compared to 70*90/100*100 = 63/100 with coffee B.
To explain the logic behind this decision chart, we'll start with some fundamentals.
What is Coffee Brewing?
The simplest way to scientifically explain coffee brewing is:
The compounds in the coffee react with minerals in the water and get absorbed into it.
Thus, coffee and water are the most important elements in getting to a perfect cup.
As we go from left to right we encounter items that are the limiting factors that cannot be overridden by anything to its right. Once you lose the edge from the item on the left, the item on the right cannot enhance it.
The coffee bean itself is the most important factor as it is what imparts the taste in your cup. If the coffee is not good, nothing ahead can compensate for it.
The factors that affect coffee quality
Where and how the coffee is grown.
Picking, sorting, and processing of ripe coffee cherries.
Packaging, transport, and storage of green beans.
Age of the green beans.
Packaging and age of roasted coffee.
Pre-ground or freshly ground.
To put it bluntly, it is Garbage In Garbage Out. Thus be very mindful of your coffee choice. A good coffee will be quite forgiving and allow you to extract more goodness without letting in an unpleasant taste.
The good news is that you don't need to do much, just follow 2 simple rules:
Order from a reputed coffee roaster.
Order freshly roasted( and freshly ground, if you so prefer) coffee.
This may be overwhelming initially but after trying a few options you'll easily understand and figure out the best coffee options for yourself.
Nilgiris - Curious Life Coffee Roasters
Ratnagiri Black Honey - G-Shot Coffee Roasters
Mind=Blown/Let There Be Light/Curveball - Kapi Kottai
Balmadi - Marc's Coffees
The above is neither exhaustive nor an ordered list, just the list off the top of my head. Coffee taste preferences are quite individual and there are a lot of good coffee roasters and coffees in India these days, which keeps changing from time to time making it hard to keep up to date.
Contrary to popular belief, not all water is the same. The quality of water used for coffee brewing can have an immense effect on the taste of your cup of coffee. Without the right minerals in the right quantity or the presence of unwanted chemicals can lead to bad-tasting coffee.
Here's what Specialty Coffee Academy's research has to say about what's the best quality of water for coffee brewing.
Generally, these have been reliably good sources of water around - RO water, Bisleri, and Aquafina(lately they have moved to ~80ppm from ~4ppm TDS).
To go a notch further, one can also make customized water using distilled water and add solutions like Third Wave Water, Zura, or even a DIY using Epsom salt and baking soda.
This is always an important factor and a bit controversial on where it can be placed but IMO, I'd place it between inputs and processing. Knowledge can help fix processing deficiencies but can't overcome bad inputs.
With the right knowledge and tinkering, one can minimize the processing deficiencies in the coffee brewing process. The more you learn, the better your mental model and the better your handle on the tooling limitations.
e.g. if the coffee is under-extracted, it's easier to grind finer at first than adjust the coffee-to-water ratio. Whether to use percolation, immersion, or espresso to get the best out of the given coffee.
Coffee, like any other organic material, deteriorates faster when exposed to air. The whole bean has the least exposed surface area and is slowest at oxidation and ground coffee, oxidizes way faster.
Oxidation leads to quicker loss of taste. Especially the cliff is much steeper after the first 7 days. Don't believe me, try it for yourself. Get the pre-ground and beans of the same coffee, same batch. After about 10 days, freshly grind the beans. Brew both the coffees with the same recipe. Do a blind tasting.
Filter + Espresso
Filter + Espresso + Turkish
Often this is what people prioritize as the top choice as it is the "coffee brewing equipment". But, it is far from being the most important factor in making a good coffee.
Without all the above factors being handled correctly, the brewing device is quite limited in its impact.
The main purpose that a good brewing device serves is to offer consistency and repeatability. Its role is to ensure that it doesn't spoil the coffee and offers ease of brewing to the user.
Bialetti Moka Pot
Bialetti is preferred brand due to it's quality. Moka pot generates a lot of pressure while brewing and you'd want to ensure safety is taken care of.
Hario French Press
There are 2 important factors in choosing a good French Press - quality of the glass, to retain heat and quality of the filter to ensure that it filters out the coffee grounds as cleanly as possible.
There are a lot of choices of great drippers, filter papers in the market. It is overwhelming thus I have kept it compact and stick to easily available option.
Lelit Anna PL-TEM51
This is a entry level home espresso machine with a boiler. The TEM version has PID in addition to manometer. This is critical to ensuring you get a reliable water temperature and pressure on every brew. This is a very important thing to take care especially in the entry level machines. Also, prefer a boiler based machines for better consistency over thermoblocks.
Simple, handheld and portable. Does a pretty solid job of producing near espresso quality coffee for much cheaper price and being easy for those who move around a lot.
Breaking the Rules
Now that we know the rules, we should know when to break them. :-)
Quite often coffee is an emotional item rather than a logical one, a fancy coffee brewing gadget can motivate and encourage the coffee brewing habit and in the long term can also lead towards the optimum experience. It's quite important that one enjoys the experience, else the best of the coffees is quite worthless too.
At the end of the day, we all drink coffee that pleases our taste buds. What kind of coffee we like is shaped by our palate, habits, and experiences. There is no right taste and thus there exist so many options in the world that are rejoiced by several people.
Money isn't an unlimited resource and neither is high-grade coffee. Thus optimizing for what is sustainable, meaningful, and affordable is a judicious choice.
Your tongue can taste the coffee at its best when it is between 60 and 70C. You don't need to measure it, just ensure it is lukewarm when you start consuming it.
Be mindful when you are consuming the coffee. Take in the aroma, slowly sip, and feel the taste. You don't have to get the exact taste notes described on the packet, you need to relate it to what your mind can imagine and see if you like it.
If you are looking to enhance your coffee experience and wondering how to decide. This article should provide you with a framework.
Evaluate your limiting factors, balance them with your motivation and work on finding the right set of things to level up.
Still feeling overwhelmed or lost, we have a vibrant and knowledgeable community at IndiaCBC on Discord, feel free to join in with this invite link: https://discord.gg/MqmEvHg