A simplified approach for the daily enthusiast

Every day, people turn to coffee as a means for comfort, a source of energy and a social connector. I have come to realize that even though coffee is this universally sought-after beverage, it is not perfectly understood by many. The truth is that the path to a great cup of coffee is chemically complex, nonetheless, one that is easily accessible to anyone seeking it. Coffee professionals from all walks of life take pride in preserving the qualities of the coffees given to them. Once you get your hands on that special bag of coffee, what ends up in the final brewed beverage can be a magical expression of all the hard work that had touched the coffee. If coffee is important to your daily life, this publication is meant to act as a simple reference that will guide you through your approach to brewing a better beverage.

As complex as coffee is, I have found that there are a handful of easy-to-control variables that take on the brunt of the work when it comes to crafting a quality coffee beverage.

It doesn’t have to be this complicated to get the best coffee you have ever tasted :)

It is as easy as starting with fresh whole coffee beans, picked up from a local quality focused roaster, and then following a few best practice principles of brewing.

Picking up a bag of properly roasted coffee, with a recent roast date, is very important to the final quality of your brew. One of the amazing things about coffee is being able to experiment and excite your palate with the vast flavours it offers. Once you have your delicious beans, considering and understanding the following variables will set the groundwork to brew consistent, trendy coffee shop quality results.

1. Quality and Freshness of ground coffee — Freshly ground coffee before every brew is a critical step to producing a great beverage. Equally as important is the size and consistency of the ground particulates. Most decent burr grinders are very convenient, and can quickly produce the quality of ground coffee needed. The utility received from owning a burr grinder is undeniable. The grinder serves the important function of giving you the ability to make the necessary adjustments that control the way water interacts with the bed of coffee, and ultimately, the taste of the beverage. More times than not, a grind size adjustment will suffice to produce a positive perceptible difference to the taste of your coffee. Below, we will discuss a few scenarios of when an adjustment is necessary, as this is important to extract the best out of your roasted coffee beans.

2. Water Quality & Temperature — Often, I see brewing water overlooked. However, the quality of your brewing water plays an important role in the perceived flavour profile of your coffee beverage. The fact that your water tastes great is not enough to conclude that it will be useful as a solvent for ground coffee. If you are looking to brew great coffee, then water needs to be treated with the same level of importance as the quality of the coffee itself. Different compositions of drinking water will extract different compounds into the final beverage. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has published water quality standards for brewing coffee, which is a guideline to the acceptable ranges of specific parameters of your brewing water that will allow you to extract optimal flavours in the final cup. Check the water quality reports for your municipality to see how it compares to the standards published by the SCAA, as this will equip you with the necessary information to make decisions on how to optimize your brewing water.

The chemistry of your drinking water that makes it useful for brewing coffee is a complex subject and not the purpose of this writing. If you find that any part of your drinking water does not fall in the ranges set by the SCAA, this may be a possible reason that your coffee is not exactly the way you want it. In many cases, a good filtration system will allow you to produce the results you expect. In some situations, more aggressive water treatment may be necessary. If you are looking for an easy solution as a home brewer, products such as third wave water allow users to easily mineralize RO or distilled water to achieve the standards set by the SCAA.

The temperature of your brewing water is also very important, as it will affect which compounds get extracted into your brewed beverage, as well as the rate of extraction. The extreme case is cold brewed coffee, where fanatics will notice that it lacks the same vibrancy as the identical coffee brewed with hot water. The point is that degrees in water temperature matter. When brewing your favourite hot coffee, a single degree difference in water temperature will offer a different profile, all else being equal. Consider the temperature of your brewing water when crafting your coffee recipes.

3. Measurement & Consistency — To control your brewing recipes, using a scale to measure the coffee and water weight is a precursor to a consistent high-quality brew. Dial in on a few specific ratios of coffee to water, and from here, you can fine-tune any recipe for any brewing method by understanding what the final taste profile is telling you. A key component of measurement for brewing coffee is the length of time the coffee and water interact with each other, known as the brewing time. Having a target or acceptable range for brewing time to go along with each recipe will give you the majority of information needed to craft a consistently delicious cup or batch of coffee. A great starting point for your brewing ratio is 16.5 grams of freshly ground coffee for every 250 grams of freshly filtered water. You should be able to take this coffee to water ratio and adjust it based on what you are tasting in the cup, which I will explain in more detail below. Once you have your recipe dialed-in, stay consistent with your methods and process to replicate your intended profile.

Manual filtered drip coffee with an ideal end brew time of two minutes and forty-five seconds

Empirically, these above variables, controlled in conjunction with your method of brewing, will do the majority of the work for you. All methods of brewing coffee will introduce distinct variables, and your technique will play a role in fine-tuning the taste of the beverage. Coffee extraction is an intricate process with many different parameters to consider. The purpose is not to dig deep into all the variables, as I assume that most coffee enthusiasts have an effective routine with their favourite brewing method. The idea is to give you easy to follow guidance on the main contributing factors of a well-brewed coffee beverage, no matter what your technical or coffee brewing background is.

Even after managing all the fundamental variables discussed above, there may be an opportunity to improve the sweetness of your coffee by making specific size adjustments to your grinder’s settings. I will discuss a few common scenarios that are easy to identify. First, it is helpful to have some information on how coffee extraction works, and how it affects flavour, to understand when an adjustment may help you improve your taste experience. On the most basic level, during the evolution of the cup throughout the brewing process, the flavour profile goes from being aggressively sour to a balanced sweet beverage, and at some point, bitterness begins to manifest as over-extraction occurs. If you are seeking that naturally sweet coffee, then your grinder needs to be set so that your brew ends in the optimal range.

With your ideal coffee to water ratio and all other brewing parameters held constant, the length of time that the coffee and water should interact with each other to produce the optimal profile is a function of the grind size. Note that this relationship is easier to see with espresso or drip methods of brewing, as the length of your brew will be directly affected by the grind size, where you can visualize a taste experience with a particular brewing time. For full immersion methods such as the French Press, you will set your brewing time and make adjustments relative to taste. Specifically, what adjustments are we making? When you are experiencing a beverage with a bitter overtone, grind your coffee beans coarser to extract less from the ground coffee, working towards a sweeter profile. If your beverage is on the sour side, you can grind your coffee beans finer to extract more solids, moving to a sweeter balanced cup. We are talking about small changes in grind size here that can virtually look identical but can be enough to get your coffee exactly the way you want it.

A slightly different perspective for you to consider is that another general solution to bitter coffee is to add slightly more coffee so that the same amount of water passes through more ground coffee and extracts a bit less from the individual coffee particles. I would consider making one change at a time so that you know how each affected the taste of your coffee.

In my pursuit of mastering the art of coffee brewing, the following are scenarios I have encountered most frequently that require being mindful of possible adjustments to the grind size of the coffee:

1. The continuous aging of the coffee

I have found that as a coffee continues to age after it has been roasted, with no adjustment to the grind size the flow rate with a drip method of brewing will slow down, causing longer brew times. I suspect that as carbon dioxide releases from the beans as the roasted coffee ages, the coffee becomes more soluble, making it easier for water to penetrate its structure. With the same coffee-to-water ratio, the water will begin to extract more from the coffee and tend towards an over-extracted, bitter tasting beverage.

Solution: Adjust the grind setting coarser to speed up the flow rate, so that the brew time reverts to that of your ideal beverage profile.

2. The roast degree, origin and variety of your coffee

You may need to adjust your grinder’s setting coarser or finer depending on the coffee you are brewing.

All else being equal, two coffees that differ in degree of roast will require two different grind sizes. Consequently, the difficulty for your brewing water to pull solids from the ground coffee will vary depending on the length of the roast. Things become even slightly more complicated when two identical coffees have identical roast degrees but differ in the trajectory of the roast.

The origin and variety of the coffee matters as well. Each coffee has its own story, with different growing and processing conditions. The unique conditions a coffee is exposed to before it is ready to be roasted could lead to different chemical structures and bean densities that may require different approaches to brewing.

Solution: Sometimes it can be difficult to identify how to approach a new coffee. I believe realizing this is half the way to a solution, as the understanding is that calibration may be necessary. It is great practice to develop new recipes and acceptable ranges of brewing time for new coffees. Analyze the taste of your beverage and make the necessary adjustments based on the understanding of how the beverage evolves during the brewing process as noted above. Based on taste, adjust grind setting to speed up or slow down your extraction. Calibrate any new coffee to maximize the sweetness of the profile before determining whether it is right for you.

3. The number of cups you are brewing

As a starting point, scale your brew ratio linearly with the number of cups you are brewing. As the number of cups increases, increase the coarseness of the ground coffee. If you allow more water to pass through the same size coffee particle, thus not changing the grind setting, the individual particle will have more extracted from it, causing an over-extracted final beverage. Therefore, the more cups you brew, the coarser you want your relative grind setting to be.

Solution: Here I start by multiplying my coffee-to-water ratio by the number of cups I am brewing. For each additional cup I brew, I adjust the grinder to a coarser setting. Your brew time will increase as well for each additional cup you brew. Therefore, I typically come up with a variety of recipes that sets a brew time to a particular multiple of my coffee-to-water ratio.

Remember that taste prevails all! Consider the taste of all your brews, and make adjustments if necessary. I hope you never have to drink a bad coffee again :)