Grinding and Brewing Coffee for Maximum Coffee Quality … and a note on tasting coffee too!

How to get the most out of your coffee -A vintage 1999 Sweet Maria’s tip sheet!

(I found this orphaned “tip sheet” of general coffee grinding and brewing methods, created back in 1999! I was kind of surprised that it was generally accurate and the advice was solid. Well, coffee brewing hasn’t changed I suppose, it’s still hot water added to pulverized coffee. Anyway, here it is, very basic but still relevant 20+ years later- Thompson)

Coffee Grinding Notes:

I want to be very honest: I don’t always make my coffee “by the rules.” I make some pretty awful slop, and sometimes I intentionally make an afternoon cup of “cowboy coffee:” throw the grinds in the water and drink up. What the heck.

But when I do everything right, there is a marked improvement in the “cup quality” of the coffee. Fresh roasted coffee starts it all off on the right foot. But grinding is equally important. Coffee stales after it is roasted, but that staling is accelerated a lot by grinding. Within 2 hours of grinding, you will notice a loss of quality. So here is a very general set of tips for Grinding and Brewing Coffee for Maximum Coffee Quality!

hand coffee grinders
hand coffee grinders

Good coffee grinding practice might look like this:

  • Grind immediately before you brew. Fresh coffee smells great when you grind it! Sadly, if you smell it, you are losing that great aroma to the atmosphere. Grinding right before you brew will help retain more aromatics for the cup.
  • Achieve the finest grind possible without clogging the paper filter, or, if using a presspot, releasing too much sediment into the cup. I find that people do not usually grind fine enough. The purpose of grinding is to effectively increase the surface area of the coffee exposed to the water so as much of the flavor oils can enter the brew. Fine grinds result in more flavorful, economical coffee. BUT … If it’s so fine that it produces undesirable sediment in the cup, or the brewing time is lengthened because the paper filter clogs, you have gone too far.
  • Use a good grinder. While the “whirley blade” type home grinder has helped people like me to grind right before I brew, it does not produce the best results. The whirley blade smashes the bean to bits by rotating at high speeds. The results are an uneven grind: boulders, rocks and powder. Powder clogs the filter, and boulders don’t release all their potential contents into the brew. It is also difficult to reproduce the same results with the whirley blade. That said, here’s the positives: they are cheap, they last, and they actually are a good match for paper filter brewing (especially Chemex) which catches all the powder. They are also pretty good for Turkish coffee … a brew method where you want 100% powder!
  • A better grinding method available to the home brewer is plate and burr grinding devices. Plate grinders clog easily but make fairly even grinds. Burr grinders wear down eventually, but result in the most even grind in home devices. The ideal burr grinder is a hand-cranked unit, like the famous German brand Zassenhaus models. I have had bad luck with electric models that need constant care and cleaning, and tend to break anyway. We think the Solis is the best burr mill out there. There are other excellent models for espresso like the Gaggia MDF.
This teapot-like coffee brewer from Victor and Victoria
This teapot-like coffee brewer from Victor and Victoria uses a metal strainer.

General Coffee Brewing Tips:

As far as brewing goes, here are some general observations:

  • Choose the brewing method that is right for you! Don’t let anyone (including me!) tell you that you’re missing out on something if you don’t try XYZ method. If you are happy with your method, stick to it! For example, a lot of people who like filter drip coffee try French Press and find there’s too much sediment in the cup. It’s true! You can use a Nylon Filter Screen and upgrade to a good burr mill, but you are always going to get a bit of turbid grinds in the cup. I personally don’t mind, and brew French Press coffee daily. I also enjoy Chemex pour-over brewing because it gives you great control of the drip, and you can be sure the water is hot enough since you boil it yourself …something I don’t trust automatic drip machines to do. My favorite method of all is Vacuum Brewing, as you can see by the array of brewers we offer. I think it is the ultimate method! Its an eccentric method, and takes more time. But the results are consistently excellent, and the cup is as clean as filter drip brewing.
  • Don’t use cheap paper filters …there is a difference. I feel that the Filtropa filters allow me to grind my coffee finer without clogging. Mellita is OK. Cheap filters clog easy, forcing you to grind courser, use more coffee and detract from the resulting body of the coffee as well as flavor. I do like SwissGold filters and feel I get a little more out of the coffee with them, But I don’t think they are the solution for everyone. They do let a little more sediment through and they are not as good with Whirley-blade type grinders as a paper filter.
  • Rinse the filter with hot water: I like to place my coffee filter into the filter holder, then run a good 6-8 ounces hot water from my brew kettle over it. This preheats my brewer and carafe, and it reduces any possible “paper taste” that comes from the filter.
  • Use good-tasting clean water… it is extremely important! We are satisfied with city water run through a series of 2 carbon activated filters. It removes chlorine taste and other bad odors but retains the minerally taste of the water. We don’t recommend soft water or distilled water. The goal is this: good tasting water with minerals. Water that is too hard can over-accentuate acidity and sourness. Water that is too soft can make coffee taste dull and flat. So the ideal brewing water is bottled spring water. Coffee is 98.75% water: Bad water can ruin your coffee! Soft water can make all coffee taste dull, effectively muting the good bright flavors in a cup. And the sad fact is that you could take a sample of your favorite, fresh home roasted coffee to cities around the US, and get a different cup and each and every location! It’s a very disturbing thought to those of us who want to get the most out of the coffee we roast. So if in doubt, bottled spring water!
  • Brew at the correct temperature! Ideal water temperature for brewing is 195 to 205 degrees. Bring your water to a boil, wait at least 1 minute, and brew. I much prefer being on the high end of the temperature range, because normally your brewing device itself will have a cooling effect on the mix of water and coffee. If you use something like a thick porcelain filter cone, preheat it.
  • Use enough coffee, and don’t use too much! The rule is 2 level tablespoons for a 5-6 ounce cup. Who drinks a 5-6 ounce cup of coffee these days? Well, actually I do. But my point is this: most people skimp. When you calculate that a cup costs pennies, its really not worth your time and effort to skimp. On the flip side. If you use too much coffee, the flavor and body become unpleasantly strong, and syrupy.
  • Keep things clean! The build up in your coffee-making equipment does not add to your coffee’s flavor (no matter what Grandpa says), it sours it. Lime scale buildup in a coffee maker reduces the temperature the machine can attain. It coats the heating coil and the thing may never get hot enough. The case is also is true for espresso machines. For both we recommend Urnex Cleancaf.
  • Make more: For a somewhat mysterious reason, filter-brewed coffee tastes better the more you make. Ever notice how the coffee from big gas-fired urns at a cafe tastes better than the same coffee you brew at home? Strange! As a side note, I am upset that so many cafes have gone to systems that brew coffee into a pump thermos. The coffee isn’t as good as that made in 2-3 gallon urns. Period! Coffeehouses are doing this because they are offensively frugal, and they want to offer mocha-berry-crunch flavored coffee along with ten other kinds. A conscientious coffee house makes coffee in big urns, and dumps what it cannot sell once an hour.
  • Coffee is fresh for 10 minutes or less. Most people know that coffee tastes bad when its boiled, or left on the burner too long. I guess these thermos-pot people don’t realize it stales when held at temperature by ANY method for too long.
  • Take time each day to enjoy a good cup of coffee!
Not a lot of visible differences on the cupping table
Not a lot of visible differences on the cupping table

A Tip on Tasting Coffee

I hate to tell someone how to taste their coffee. You taste what you taste, you don’t taste what you don’t … nobody should dictate what the experience is. Nonetheless, let me make a suggestion that will make you look ridiculous but helps me greatly expand the ability to taste coffee: CHEW IT! I am serious. Take a swig of coffee once it has cooled a bit, then pretend it is like a solid food in your mouth … chew it twice and then let it leave your mouth. What this does is circulate the coffee around your palate and makes it leave your mouth a bit slower than it would otherwise. It’s amazing how this increases your ability to distinguish flavors and to pinpoint WHERE in your mouth you sense it.

You can find an adaptation of the professional coffee cupping method for home use in Ken Davids book called “Coffee”.

You can also cup by simply brewing 2 coffees in small French Presses and tasting them side by side. Tasting different coffees like this will educate you more about coffee flavors than any expensive sensory training tool you can buy!

But you can also do what we do at work: grind 12 grams coffee into small 8 ounce cups, and pour hot water on top. Wait 4 minutes, and stir (“break the crust”) while smelling. After a minute skim the top of the cup. Wait 15 minutes until all the grinds sink and the coffee clarifies a little. Then use a spoon to taste (don’t dip the spoon into the grinds, just taste from the surface). There … YOU are a coffee cupper! 🙂


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