[Current as of March 2021.]
I’m a big fan of coffee.
I’ve been asked by a number of people over the years how they can make better coffee. Here’s a summary of what I’ve been telling them.
Level 0: Drink it black. Stop with the cream and sugar. Good coffee stands on its own, and nothing can save bad coffee. And don’t get me started on capsules; that just makes me sad.
Level 1: Fresh grounds. The most important thing (IMO) for good cup is to start with freshly ground coffee. Ground coffee becomes stale within minutes, so you want to grind your beans right before use, which means buying whole bean coffee rather than pre-ground.
It also means you’ll need some equipment to grind your beans. In a pinch, a spice grinder can do, but it heats up the grounds (which is not ideal) and the blades cut more or less at random, which results in unevenly-sized pieces. That’s not ideal for extraction, but still much better than stale grounds. As you get more serious, you’ll want to invest in a proper burr grinder; manual travel models can be found for 30-40$, and such models served me well for years.
Level 2: Fresh beans. Roasted beans also get stale, but less quickly than grounds: you have about a week before they start to lose flavor. And after a couple of weeks, things get sad. You can typically get freshly-roasted beans from specialty coffee shops or directly from roasters. In Chicago, you can find some at coffee shops like Coffee Lab or Colectivo, or at roasters that sell to consumers like The Coffee and Tea Exchange.
When you shop for fresh beans, look for a "roasted on" date (NOT a "best before" date!) that’s no more than a couple days before. If you can’t find a "roasted on" date on the package, that’s a bad sign; you’re getting old stuff.
Level 3: Explore roast levels. Now we’re getting into things that are more a matter of personal preference, so my advice is less absolute, and more about encouraging you to find what you like best. Even at mediocre coffee-like products chains, you may have encountered light vs dark roasts.
Generally speaking, light roasts let more of the beans’ specific flavors come through: the sweetness, the acidity, floral or fruity notes, etc. With darker roasts, the flavors of the roast itself come to dominate and mask some of the subtler flavors the specific bean would be bringing to the party. I personally only drink light roasts, but it’s a matter of preference.
Level 4: Explore origins. There’s many varietals of coffee out there (going beyond the arabica/robusta divide), and coffee is grown in a wide variety of climates and soils all over the world, and different regions have different techniques and traditions when growing and processing coffee.
So it’s no surprise that, say, an Ethiopian coffee is going to be very different from, say, a Colombian coffee. These differences are especially noticeable at lighter roast levels, but some coffees also shine more at darker levels than others.
That item has probably the widest range of possibility of the list, and it’s also the most subjective. So the important thing here is really to explore: try different things, see what you like, and go for it. There aren’t any right or wrong answers. I have my preferences, but even then I like to try different origins every once in a while to shake things up.
Level 5: Explore brewing methods. You may be surprised to see this this far into the list. Thing is, I personally don’t think the brewing method makes as big of a difference as some of the other items earlier in the list. You can still get good results with a plain old drip coffee machine, so long as you get other things right. Still, I think you can get better results if you try other brewing methods. Plus, the tools you need for most other methods don’t take as much counter space!
Some people swear by pour over, and I can certainly enjoy the results, but I personally find it a little too time intensive. I like using an Aeropress, but I’ve gotten good results with french presses and moka pots in the past, too. All of those can be bought for about 40$, or less; you don’t need to break the bank with a crazy expensive espresso machine. For an Aeropress or a french press, you may also want a kettle with temperature control: boiling water is not ideal for those.
Different brewing methods also work best with different grounds coarseness: you’ll want a pretty coarse grind for a french press, but a pretty fine one for an aeropress, for example.
Level 6: Roast your own beans. Now we’re getting into serious coffee aficionado territory. Roasting beans sounds hard, but it’s pretty quick to get the hang of it. And while dedicated coffee roasting appliances can run a couple hundred dollars (or more!), it’s possible to get started with a plain old popcorn popper! (You need one with the right design, though; do some research before you buy.)
When you roast your own beans, you can have fresh beans whenever you want. And you can roast small batches, so you don’t end up with stale beans by the time you finish a batch. You can also control the level of roast that you want, and have access to a much wider variety of beans than you can find pre-roasted at most stores. Green (unroasted) beans also don’t really go stale (except maybe on the scale of years), so you can buy them in bulk. Green beans are also much cheaper than roasted beans of similar quality: you can get good stuff for under 7$/lb at Sweet Maria’s (the Mecca of home coffee roasting).
I didn’t start roasting my own beans until maybe a decade into my coffee journey; so don’t feel rushed to get to this point. There’s a lot to enjoy before getting here.
Levels 7+: ??? I’m not there yet, so there’s a big of a Blub paradox situation going on here. I know I can definitely up my roasting game; I can definitely get good results, but not always consistently. And I know there’s lots more to explore in terms of getting specific with origins: exact varietals, altitude, processing methods, etc. But I’m not yet sophisticated enough to tell the difference. Ask me in a few years.
I’ve been brewing with an Aeropress for the last few years, and I’m pretty happy with it. I’m still on my first one, too, so it’s pretty durable.
I find it gives best results with water at around 175F, so I also use a variable-temperature kettle. I use an Epica kettle at home and a Bonavita kettle in the office, and they have both served me well. But anything can do.
I use the inverted brewing method with a rest of about 50 seconds. I generally go for about 23g of grounds for 140g of water; I like to use a scale (rather than volume measurements) for better precision. That makes a pretty strong cup, so I generally stick to one cup a day, two if I’m splurging.
My current grinder is a Capresso grinder and it’s working great so far (only about one week in, though). It’s a burr grinder (important, see above). It’s an electric grinder, which makes it more expensive than manual options, but it’s comparatively simpler and less effort; no more obligatory pre-coffee workout. For the usage I make of it (at least once a day), I consider it worth the investment.
I tried upgrading to Hario’s Skerton model, which fixes that issue, but it trades it for a whole host of different design issues instead (that’s a whole conversation). Turns out I got an older version of that model, but the newer versions instead have a yet different set of issues (including the piece that wears down), so I just decided to give up on those and move on to a proper electric grinder.
After a few attempts, I think I found a roasting setup I’m happy with. Specifically, I’m now using the Fresh Roast SR540 roaster.
It’s a pretty simple roaster to operate, yet it still offers nice flexibility (and so room to experiment). It’s more manual than my old Nesco (see below), and needs a bit more care to get uniform roasts, but you get a lot more control (which is more fun!).
I’ve had it since December 2019, and there’s no sign of wear or anything, so I’m optimistic on durability. The fact that replacement parts are available is also a good sign. It doesn’t have any smoke suppression mechanism, so it may trigger a smoke detector. I’ve been sealing off my smoke detector with a plastic bag while roasting; just don’t forget to take it off when you’re done!
I started roasting with a plain old popcorn popper (just get the one Sweet Maria’s sells). It’s a simple and cheap way to get started, and there’s just enough manual control (timing and stirring, basically) to make things interesting. Roasts would not be very consistent (higher highs, but lower lows) or very uniform, though. Without any chaff collection or smoke suppression (it’s a popcorn popper), I would only roast outside. So roasting during the winter was not an option, and the weather (temperature and humidity) would affect the roast.
Chaff collection: no more chaff flying all around.
Smoke suppression: I could use it indoors without setting off my smoke detector.
It made pretty consistent (if unexciting) roasts with very little effort.
Unfortunately, it was not the most reliable of appliances, breaking down three times over maybe two years and change. The first time was during the warranty period, so I got it repaired. The second time, my father and I managed to repair it. The third time I just gave up. For what it’s worth, Nesco doesn’t sell it anymore.
Update March 2021: I think I figured out what is wrong with it, so I have a theory for how to repair it. But since I got a new roaster, the point is kind of moot. I still have it in a closet, though, so if someone wants a Nesco roaster to repair (along with a theory for how to do that), get in touch.
I’m partial to Ethiopian beans, in particular Yirgacheffe beans. In a pinch, other Ethiopian or East African varieties work too. Lightly roasted, of course.
I get my beans from Sweet Maria’s. They have pretty good prices (even with shipping from Oakland, CA), and a great selection.