How to Brew Better Coffee At Home
Have you ever visited a coffee shop and had a killer cup of coffee, bought the bag to brew at home because you loved it so much, only to be disappointed that it tasted nothing like it did at the shop?
Without having a good understanding of all the factors that go into a good cup of coffee, it's hard to know how to adjust things when your coffee isn't tasting quite right. Using my years of experience working in the specialty coffee industry, I wrote this blog to equip you with the tools you need to fiddle with your coffee brewing routine to get it tasting exactly how you want it.
I've been working all year on this, and am so excited to finally be able to share my top tips on brewing better coffee at home! I've even included a tutorial video on how to brew coffee using a Chemex (my favorite brew method) for all of you visual learners! So buckle up for my nerdiest, most information-heavy post to date.
Whether you are wanting to learn more about home brewing or are already home brewing and just need some tips to take your coffee to the next level - this is for you.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
THE GOAL: Chasing Sweetness.
When properly extracted, coffee is supposed to be naturally sweet. Not burnt and ashy tasting… sweet. Coffee is a FRUIT. If your coffee isn’t delicious and sweet, something’s wrong. This can be due to a whole host of factors.
A couple of terms and things to note before we get started:
Extraction, simply put, is everything that the water takes from the coffee.
Under-extracted: When you haven’t taken enough flavor out of the coffee grinds, leaving the coffee tasting sour, lacking sweetness, and salty.
Over-extracted: When you take too much of the soluble flavors out of the coffee, leaving a bitter, dry, hollow, astringent taste in your mouth.
Properly Extracted: When the coffee tastes sweet and ripe - just like fruit. Like my trainer (coffee dad), Robbie, told me, “If the acidity is so definable and intense that you can pinpoint a variety of fruit and remember the last time you ate it, you’re nailing it.”
“If the acidity is so definable and intense that you can pinpoint a variety of fruit and remember the last time you ate it, you’re nailing it.”
Depending on where the coffee beans are grown - the climate, the altitude, etc. - they can offer all sorts of different flavors and notes. Coffee is very similar to wine in that regard. I love Counter Culture's color wheel of coffee notes. The first time I saw it, I remember my mind being blown that coffee could have so many different flavors and notes other than the burnt and ashy flavors I was used to!
If your coffee isn’t sweet, some adjustments need to be made. Below you’ll find a few factors that go into making a delicious cup of coffee, and how to adjust your coffee routine accordingly.
FACTORS THAT GO INTO MAKING A DELICIOUS CUP OF COFFEE
1. The Beans
The quality (and freshness) of your coffee beans is paramount. Starbucks purposefully burns all their coffee in order to attain a consistent taste in their coffees. Yuck. As far as roasts go, you’ll want to stick somewhere between light to medium roasts. Don’t even touch dark roasts. I used to think that dark roasts equaled more caffeine, but that’s actually not true. The lighter the roast, the more caffeine it has! When you see a dark roast, it literally just means that they’ve burned the coffee, and no one wants ash tray taste in their mouth.
Even in the specialty coffee industry, not all roasters are equal. Everyone’s preferences are different, so experiment and try out some different roasters to find your favorite! My husband and I love Four Barrel Coffee out in San Francisco. We have a coffee subscription with them and get a new bag of coffee delivered to our door every single week. I never have to worry about running out of coffee, and I know I can count on them for delicious, high quality coffee.
There are lots of amazing coffee roasters in Nashville as well. Like I said, it’s completely a matter of preference, so shop around! Some great ones to check out locally:
2. Water Quality
Since water makes up 98% of coffee, water quality can affect the taste of your coffee tremendously. If your tap water doesn't taste good to drink, it's not going to taste good in your coffee either. I'd recommend trying filtered water! Even just using a Brita filter would help!
Most coffee shops use water that is carefully calibrated to make sure their pH levels are just right. So if you're wondering why your coffee doesn't taste the same as it did at the coffee shop - that might just be it. If you really want to go all out, Third Wave Water offers a mineral additive that can be added to your water for optimized brewing water!
The perfect brewing temperature is between 196 and 205 degrees F. There's no need to actually temp your water. To reach the right temperature, bring your water to a boil, and then let it sit for 20-30 seconds before you start pouring. Obviously you don't want to leave it sitting there too long, so make sure to reheat it if it's been much longer than 30 seconds.
4. Brew Method
Your brew method plays a huge factor in how your coffee will taste. We primarily use our chemex to brew coffee in the mornings, so I don’t put a lot of thought into this variable. However - brew method is huge. The chemex is great if you’re buying high quality, fresh coffee beans, because it offers lots of clarity and sweetness to the coffee. But if for some reason we’re having to use old coffee or a lesser quality coffee, we’ll use our French press, because it tends to mask some of the less desirable qualities. Many people prefer the French press because of the bold flavor and thick mouthfeel it gives, due to its long brew time and the fact that it doesn’t filter out any of the oils from the coffee.
There are plenty of other brew methods you can use, all having their own unique offerings and affects on coffee. (Aeropress, v60, etc.) The v60 is the most similar to the chemex. I love this method, and would probably use it more if we didn’t make coffee for two every morning!
The dose refers to the ratio of coffee to water. This determines the strength of your coffee. I usually use a 1:16 ratio, with very little variation from that, regardless of which brew method I’m using. So if I’m making a 12oz cup for myself, I use 25g of coffee grinds and 400g of water (25g x 16 = 400g). If I’m making it for both of us, I use 43g of coffee, and 688g of water (43g x 16 = 688g). I find that using much more than that will cause the filter to fill up too quickly and can result in over-extracted coffee.
6. Grind Size
Grind size plays a huge part in the taste of your coffee. Other than the quality of the beans, this is the biggest thing I pay attention to when I’m dialing in my coffee. (“Dialing in” just means tweaking the coffee to find the sweet spot - the perfect balance - so the sweetness of the coffee shines.) When using a Chemex, you'll want to start by grinding your beans at a medium grind - about the size of sea salt. If the grind size is too fine (small) the coffee will be over-extracted. If the grind size is too coarse (big), the coffee will be under-extracted. The goal is to find the sweet spot - the grind size that is perfectly in between these two extremes. And it looks different for every coffee - especially if you’re switching between brew methods or coffee roasters.
Coarse —> Less extraction
Fine —> More extraction
Every coffee roaster roasts their coffees differently. And every coffee is different. They have different densities, make-ups, roasts, etc. Because of this, you’ll want to consider the grind size any time you open up a new bag of coffee. It might take a couple tries tweaking it to get it right where you want it.
If it tastes bitter (over-extracted), coarsen the grind a little bit. If it tastes sour or empty (under-extracted), fine up the grind. Remember, a little bit goes a long way! Even a little correction can affect the coffee greatly, so go slow.
Your coffee grinder also makes a big difference! Blade grinders are inconsistent and leave your coffee grinds uneven, which means you’ll have some grinds that are really under-extracted, some that are over-extracted, and some that are properly extracted. You do not want that. Burr grinders are the way to go - they help to make sure that your grinds are a consistent size so you have the best chance at an even extraction.
Each grinder is a little different, so you’ll have to feel it out on your grinder and figure out what settings work best for you! We have a wide range on ours, but only use a small portion of it since we use the same brew method consistently. We only change it a notch or two one way or the other usually.
7. Brew Time
If you’ve played around with your grind size and still aren’t getting the results you want, try playing with your brew time. Usually a Chemex is poured for 2 minutes. If your coffee is tasting bitter and over extracted, try a shorter brew time. If it’s tasting sour, or just boring, try a longer brew time. I’d recommend playing with it in 15 second increments.
8. Rinse That Filter
Paper filters can cause your coffee to taste a bit like paper. The solution to this is simple - use some of your already hot water to "rinse" the filter before you begin brewing your coffee. To do this, place your filter in the Chemex (or v60) and douse it with hot water, using circular motions. Make sure the whole filter is soaked. Be mindful of how much water you're using, because you might need to refill your kettle if you're making coffee for two. After you've done this, pour out the water that's now sitting in the bottom of the Chemex. This step also helps pre-heat the Chemex so your coffee stays hot longer.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what goes into making a great cup of coffee, and how to adjust accordingly if your coffee isn’t up to par, let’s get to it!
HOW TO BREW COFFEE USING A CHEMEX
Boil your water. While your water is heating up, weigh your coffee beans and grind them. For a chemex, you’ll want to use a medium grind (it should look like sea salt). I use a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water. For a 12oz cup of coffee, you’ll want to use 25g of coffee and roughly 400g of water. You can give yourself up to 15g of water over or under without affecting the taste much.
Once the water has finished heating up, rinse the filter by placing it in the chemex, and pouring some of the hot water into the filter, thoroughly soaking it. This will remove any unwanted paper taste that the filter might add to the coffee. After that, pour the water from the chemex into whatever cup(s) you’re using. This will heat them up and prevent your coffee from getting cold too quickly.
Next, you’ll want to place the chemex (with the filter in it) onto your scale and tare it out. Pour the coffee grinds into the filter and note how many grams of coffee you ended up with. (Sometimes it changes between weighing it before you grind it and after grinding it, depending on your grinder.) Whatever you end up with, multiply that by 16, and you have the number of grams of water you’ll pour.
Tare out your scale again. Before you start brewing, you’ll want to let the grounds bloom. This is what is called the pre-brew - it allows any unwanted gases in the coffee to be released that might negatively affect the taste of the coffee. To do this, pour just a little bit of your hot water over the grounds - just enough to soak them. This should be no more than double the amount of grams of coffee that you started with. So if you started with 25g of coffee, don’t pour any more than 50g of water for the bloom. As soon as you finish pouring the bloom, start your stopwatch. Wait until the stopwatch hits 30 seconds, and then start pouring.
Pouring with a slow and consistent stream, you’ll want to pour until you hit 400g. Make sure to pour slowly enough that you are pouring until your stopwatch hits 2 minutes. This takes practice getting your pour slow and steady enough to hit 400g right at 2 minutes, but you can do it! (This is way easier when making coffee for two, because you don't have to pour so slowly.) Make sure to keep your eyes on both your scale and your stopwatch as you're brewing!
Start in the middle and pour in quarter-sized circles, and then go out from there, pouring in tight circles, out towards the edge and back towards the middle. In and out. At 1 minute, stay primarily in the middle in quarter-size circles, going out again once every 15 seconds or so. Keep an eye out for any dark spots and make sure to hit them as you continue to pour in circles. Make sure to watch your time and your water weight! Again, the goal is to reach your determined amount of water right at 2 minutes.
If your clock is getting close to 2 minutes and you still have a good amount of water to go, just quickly dump the rest of the remaining grams of water into the middle of the chemex so you don’t risk over-extracting your coffee.
While you’re waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, pour out the water from your coffee mug. Once the coffee has finished brewing, throw away the filter and grinds, and swirl the chemex. Different flavors are extracted from the coffee at different times, so you want to make sure that they’re combined well. Pour into your favorite coffee mug, and enjoy! Pro-tip: be sure to let it cool down a bit before you drink it - you'll be able to taste the notes of the coffee the more it cools down!
What you need:
25g Coffee Beans
Timer (I use the stopwatch on my iPhone clock app)
To make iced coffee using a chemex, you’ll do mostly the same thing as you did to make coffee with a chemex, with a few slight changes. You’ll use the same amount of coffee grinds, but with half the amount of water. The ice will make up the difference.
Heat up your water. Grind 25g of coffee beans at the same medium grind. Add a bunch of ice to your chemex (enough to fill a glass). Put the chemex filter in and add the coffee grinds. I usually don’t rinse the filter for these. Pour the bloom and let it sit for 30 seconds. Then pour for a minute and a half to two minutes until you hit 225g of water. If you need to pulse pour to make sure you reach your time, you can. That just means you pour just like you do for a regular chemex, but you can take 5ish second breaks here and there to prolong the brew time. Otherwise you just need to pour with a very small stream of water, very slowly. When it’s done brewing, throw out the filter and grounds, swirl to combine the flavors and ice, pour into your favorite glass and enjoy!
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