Daily Obsession: Building a Better Cuppa, Part 1

It’s dead simple to make a truly awful cup of coffee. Let’s see if any of the following sounds familiar to you…

First, grab that bag of ground Dunkin Donuts House Blend in your freezer. Extract one (maybe two) scoops of coffee and drop it in the basket of your drip machine of choice. Fill up your carafe from the kitchen sink faucet and pour that in the machine too. Hit start, wait a few minutes, and, Viola! You’ve got an awful cup of coffee that tastes like day-old dishwater!

Now, I’m not here to say that you’ve been making coffee the wrong way all these years…but you’ve been making coffee the wrong way all these years.

Let’s start with the most important part of the equation, the coffee. Now, despite what some would tell you, you don’t have to buy the most expensive coffee in the world. In fact, this is the part of the equation where you can let frugality reign supreme and just buy what fits your budget. Sure, there is a difference between that bag of Eight O’Clock Coffee and Kopi Luwak Coffee (fermented in the bowels of Indonesian civets…I wish I was making that up), but what really matters is if you get it pre-ground or whole bean. Pre-ground coffee is a ticking time bomb. Once you break a coffee bean down, it starts to oxidize. The oils released during the roasting process are no longer protecting the wee bean and are, instead, mixing with other compounds released during grinding, creating all kinds of bitter nastiness that just gets more intense as time goes on. And this is all happening before it even hits your grocery store shelf.

The solution? Grind your own! It only takes a few seconds and, even if you do nothing else in this series, it will significantly improve the flavor of your coffee. When you hit Target, you’ll be tempted by the $20 blade grinder sitting next to all the drip pots…don’t be. It’s cheap for a reason – it shreds your coffee beans into uneven shards. This doesn’t make a lot of difference when you look at it, but when you’re trying to get the most flavor out of a few tablespoons of powdered beans, it can mean the difference between a smooth cup and a face-puckeringly awful one. Cheap blade grinders are awesome for slicing up spices – relegate them to that task and treat your coffee right.

Remember all that money you saved by not buying civet-shit coffee? Conical burr grinders are where that cash should be invested. Models like this Capresso aren’t inexpensive; but they’re going to do a considerably better job of evenly grinding your coffee so that you’ve got the maximum amount of surface area exposed to the water. There are a lot of bitter compounds that lurk inside your typical bean. Those big (microscopically-speaking) chunks left by the typical blade grinder lock away the flavor compounds that make coffee taste like, well, coffee. Without a conical grinder, you’ll end up with a weak-tasting brew that you’ll either try to brew longer, which will only extract that bitter turpentine taste, or add more grounds to when you brew, which wastes your coffee.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We’ll talk about extraction methods tomorrow.

Oh yeah, last thing for today. You know that crinkled up bag you have in the freezer? Toss it. The cold isn’t doing your beans any favors. In fact, it’s introducing ice crystals to the mix every time you take it out. These crystals are only going to break your coffee down faster and speed it towards paint-thinner status. Get a nice airtight glass jar, stick it in the back of your pantry, and fughedaboutit.

See you in part the second (in which we’ll actually get around to brewing something…promise).

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3 thoughts on “Daily Obsession: Building a Better Cuppa, Part 1

  1. While I agree that a burr grinder is a better way to grind beans, I must say that you can get a good cup from a blade grinder. The problem is most blades’s rotate at the wrong speed or sit too high in the well. By far the best blade grinder to date is the little Krups grinder. Yes it’s a cheaper grinder, but it has the right height and speed to grind beans. The main point is that you don’t just mash the button down, and cook the crap out of the grounds with friction. You must and I repeat MUST pulse when grinding (the button is spring loaded for a reason).

    I should know I proudly own a blade grinder, and I’ve created countless fantastic pots of joe using my little Krups grinder, and I would also argue that beans make a lot of difference. While you’re right that you can get a good cup of coffee from 8 O’clock beans, it must be said that your battle starts with the selection of the right beans. Each roast has it’s own flavor,acidity, aroma, and body (aka: FAAB). These four elements hit everyone’s palate in a different way. (see link) http://coffeeuniverse.com/university_taste.html

    Second you want to make sure that you’re buying arabica bean coffee and not robusta.

    Arabica beans are the good cornerstone to most of your good cups of coffee. The plant is much more difficult to grow, but can produce amazing flavor depending on what region it grows in.

    Robusta beans are the Dodge Dart of the coffee world. The plant is hard to kill, grows like kudzu in warm areas (like Vietnam which is the worlds 2nd largest coffee grower), and much cheaper to grow. For this reason all your pre-ground (and even some whole bean) big box coffee companies like to use it. This is one of the main reasons why brews like Foldgers taste like fermented donkey piss.

    So my advice is to take time to learn what kind of beans you like. Take into consideration the foods you enjoy and the beers and wines you like to drink. A good rule of thumb is if you like dark heavy red wines, most likely you will like dark heavy roasts. If you like light airy white wines you will want to try a lighter roast first.

    You’re right though Bro, it doesn’t have to cost a lot. For example I buy my beans at the local farmer’s market where the prices are low, but the quality is high. You can even find good stuff at Costco and Sams, but knowing what FAAB you like can make a big difference.

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