3 Ways To Get The Best Cup Of Coffee (& A Perfect Gift For Your Fave Coffee Drinker)
Take note: the darker the bean, the lighter the kick. ☕
If you’re already making an outstanding cup of coffee — congratulations and hats off to you. A good cup of coffee is a thing of beauty. If not, here are three suggestions that could get you there.
Not coincidentally, these suggestions also make great holiday gift ideas for your favourite coffee drinker — even if that person is you.
One: Buy Your Coffee Whole Bean From A Local Roaster
Roasting creates good coffee but also sets the freshness clock ticking. Green coffee beans can be stored for years, but roasted beans have a much shorter shelf life.
Roasting, or exposing the green coffee beans to high, dry heat, converts the simple sugars and amino acids in green coffee to a complex mix of new compounds. Much of the chemistry is driven by the Maillard Reaction, which is shared with other types of browning in cooking.
The intoxicating aromas of your morning cup and evening ribeye are close cousins. Good roasting is an art that brings out the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between varieties of coffee, the flavours of each are unique — but all are susceptible to the same chemical fate.
Oxidation is the enemy of good coffee
Stale coffee beans won’t make you sick — they don’t go bad the way that the leftover poutine at the back of your fridge will — but they do lose their aroma and flavour. This loss is because the molecules behind the flavours and aromas of a quality roast are fragile and prone to chemical breakdown. Much of the degradation and staleness in older coffee comes from oxidation (literally the combination of oxygen and the compounds in your coffee).
The same reaction that rusts out our cars in the amazing Canadian winters, attacks roasted coffee. The solution is easier for coffee than cars. Buy freshly roasted coffee and store it in sealed containers. Less air, longer life. Sadly, I can’t apply this approach to my Subaru.
Roast and caffeine
An interesting aside, roasting also significantly impacts caffeine content and, no, darker, isn’t stronger. Many of us drink that morning cup to help us wake up. If you’re trying to maximize that caffeine kick, go with a medium or light roast. Darker roasts are typically stronger tasting, but the longer roast times actually break down caffeine. So, the darker the bean, the lighter the kick.
Local coffee is fresh coffee
The bottom line is that you’re going to get your best cup of coffee from beans that were roasted in the last few days or weeks.
Check the “expiration” date on a bag of coffee in the supermarket — they’re expecting to be there for 6 months or more. I did a quick check of beans in my local grocery and expiration dates were July to November 2023, seven to twelve months from now — long after those beans will be at their best. Not mentioning any names, but the best part of waking up isn’t, apparently, the coffee being fresh.
The best way to ensure that the coffee you’re putting in your pot is fresh is to buy from local roasters. My favourite roasters, I’ll list a few at the end, work in small batches to ensure that stock is at its peak. And all, of course, are available online to ship directly to you.
Right now, my three favourite coffees are:
- A Tanzanian Peaberry from Old Rock Coffee Roasters here in Sudbury, Ontario. This flexible bean works in most of my coffee makers. I love it as a morning pour over or Moka pot.
- An Ethiopian bean, Gedeb, from Ambros in Montreal. This bean has been in my morning Moka pot for the last couple of weeks, but I bought it for midday pour overs. It makes an outstanding coffee in both.
- A Brazilian bean, Anahi, from another Quebec roaster, Arvida Roasting Company. This tiny bean is flavourful and complicated. It is not a simple coffee but is absolutely my favourite in a pour over right now.
Two: Grind Your Coffee And Grind It Well
Coffee, the beverage, is simply a solution made by extracting coffee, the bean, with water. The quality of that extraction is, in part, determined by the grind of the bean.
To make a good cup of coffee, your grind has to match your coffee maker. You are matching surface area to time spent in the extraction, course grinds have lower surface areas than fine. The general rule of thumb: the longer your brew brews, the coarser the grind. French Press? Coarse grind. Pour-over? Medium. Moka pot? Fine.
To work well, the grind needs to be consistent with most of the coffee grounds having the same size. Pass-through burr grinders are the way to go. Blade grinders, like the one I used through university, can’t give a consistent size. The blades chop the beans as they bounce around in the grinder creating a mess of under- and over-ground beans. This grind spectrum translates to both under and over-extracted coffee, often bitter and muddy.
With a burr grinder, in contrast, the beans make a single pass between two rotating discs (or burrs), giving a uniform grind size. You can “tune” burr grinders to a wide spectrum of grind fineness by increasing or decreasing the gap between the burrs allowing you to match your grinds to your brew method.
You can spend $50 or $5,000 on a grinder. Avoid the box store cheapies, but you don’t have to invest thousands to get good coffee. I grind almost all of my beans on either of two moderate grinders: a Baratza Encore electric grinder and a Knock Aergrind hand grinder. My Encore has been bombproof and I use it to make a morning pour over almost seven days a week. I also make a lot of coffee off the grid and love the flexibility and packability of the Aergrind. In Montreal, both are available from Cafune, a fantastic online store for coffee-making equipment.
The other reason to grind your own coffee loops us back to oxidation and stale coffee. Ground coffee oxidizes much, much, faster than roasted coffee. Roasted coffee retains its flavours for weeks — ground coffee for hours. The reason is surface area. Coffee flavour loss is driven by oxidation. Oxidation is limited, mostly, by surface area. And grinding increases surface area — a lot. An espresso grind can have 10,000 times the area of a bean and its flavour erodes accordingly.
Three: Make Good Coffee
There are literally hundreds of ways to make a pot of coffee and thousands of voices out there in the coffee world extolling one coffee maker or style. Different styles of making coffee will absolutely highlight one aspect or another of that bean that you have carefully selected and ground. They will also take different amounts of time, care, and practice. Here are two of the ways that I like to make my coffee.
Pour overs are simply the hands-on version of the automatic Mr Coffees so many of us grew up with. Near boiling water is poured over coffee grounds held in a funnel and collected in a mug or carafe. The water pour is slow, but not glacial, and you can make a cup, or a few cups, in a couple of minutes. I literally start almost every day with a pour over; they are a simple way to make a fantastic coffee. The slow regular pour brings out the flavours of the coffee without being too bitter or dark. The coffee tends to be rich and bright. Use a medium grind and shoot for about two minutes of pour time with water just below boiling. There are a lot of recipes, but I use 20g of beans to make 300 ml of coffee. Play with this, and the timing, and see what you like.
There are, without exaggeration, dozens of popular coffee funnels. I count eight different versions on my kitchen counters as I type this. Some pour fast, some slow. Most aim for a uniform extraction by creating a consistent path for the water to flow through your grounds.
The funnel I’m using most right now is a Kalita Wave 185. I like the flat bottom and the slightly slower pour than some other popular funnels. I’m usually making just that one cup of coffee and this funnel does a great job with slowing down the pour and maximizing the extraction of that single cup.
My absolute favourite way to make coffee is with a moka pot — the little stovetop espresso makers that are a staple of Italian, and hipster, kitchens. Water is placed in the lower compartment of the pot. Coffee, finely ground, is packed into a basket in the middle. The top is screwed into place sealing the water in. The pot is heated and as steam forms in the lower compartment, the hot water is forced through the grounds and collected in the top. The coffee is heavy, thick, dark, bitter — and absolutely awesome. I also just love the hissing sound that a moka pot makes. It’s like your own personal coffee dragon.
I make a lot of my coffees outside, along a trail or beside a lake. Moka pots work great on a camp stove. Do they make fantastic espresso? Nope. But I’m not carrying my 40 kg countertop espresso maker into the bush. Do they make a fantastic cup of coffee? Yes, they do.
I’m a big fan of the six-cup Bialetti moka pot. I bought mine from my local Italian bakery (thanks Nadia, you’re awesome), but you can also find them online.
Make the coffee that makes you happy
Honestly, the only bad pot of coffee is the one you are told to make.
Explore different beans, grinds, and coffee makers. See what tastes good to you and fits with your lifestyle. Make a coffee that you like. Take the time, though, to make it well and enjoy it. I love the ritual of making a good cup of coffee. I hope you will, too.