Improving Coffee

No, this isn’t a blog post ranting about Starbucks. Rather, it’s about cost-effectively making the best possible coffee at home. The machines that grind and brew coffee are tech gadgets, after all. In some respects, there’s no right or wrong here. If you prefer Folger’s instant, that’s cool (although you probably don’t get out much). Coffee snobs, however, frown on such bourgeois concoctions. But how, exactly, does one affordably produce great coffee at home?

I asked myself the same question toward the end of 2013. I was using a cheap $20 Hamilton Beach machine I had purchased at Walmart. Because I knew that freshly ground beans improved quality and flavor, I also had a $20 blade grinder. The value proposition was high: For $40 in hardware, I was enjoying thoroughly mediocre coffee. Even when I purchased top-shelf beans.

What to Get? What to Get?

So when my kids asked me what I wanted for the holidays last year, I said a good coffee maker. After a few hours of research and watching customer reviews on YouTube, I finally decided on a model. And what did I learn? That good coffee is about much more than simply a good coffee maker. It’s also about the particular type of grinder you use and how you store your beans. Um, you do purchase fresh roasted whole beans and toss them in a grinder, right?

Ultimately, I went with the $160 8-cup Bonavita with a thermal carafe (I drink coffee for several hours in the morning and bonavita_1often into the afternoon, so the thermal carafe has been invaluable for my particular use case). Granted, you can spend much more than this on a fancy coffee maker. A buddy of mine has a $300 espresso machine (but he’s into latte fraps; I’m not). Like most areas of life, you can spend literally thousands of dollars on a high-end coffee maker. But this is Middle Class Tech: This stuff has to be affordable.

Where I really gained some schooling was in terms of the basic science behind good at-home coffee. First, most coffee makers don’t heat water to a temperature high enough to properly extract the oils and all of the coffee goodness from the ground beans. The Bonavita, like only a few other moderately priced consumer models on the market, heats the water to 205 degrees F (96 celsius). If the water isn’t at least 200 degrees, forget extracting the best flavors from even the most luxurious coffee beans. So I had taken care of the temperature problem exhibited by the majority of coffee makers on the market—even some of the more expensive models.

Bean Grinders are Critical

What really blew my mind was the important, albeit critical, role of a coffee grinder. There are two types of grinders: Blade and burr. You want a burr grinder.

Blade grinders are bad for a few reasons. While they’re good in that they’re the least expensive variety, they’re bad because they produce an uneven, coarse product. Also, blade grinders, based on the physics of how they operate, generate too much heat. Your coffee beans are already roasted. A blade grinder basically roasts them a bit more, adversely affecting the flavor. This is a pain because you want to thoroughly grind your coffee (depending on your particular brew method), but you don’t want powder. But the more you grind it, the more you harm the flavor and quality due to the heat you’re creating. It’s a primitive double-edged sword, and your taste buds are the victim.

Enter the burr grinder. These types operate much more slowly, crushing the beans between stainless steel conical burrs. This both alleviates the heat produced by blade grinders and results in a much more uniform grind (avoiding the chunks and dust of their bipolar blade-based cousins). About the only downside of a burr grinder is that some models can be loud. Like holy-crap-wake-the-family-loud (I actually used mine on my outside deck one morning in an attempt to not wake my kids and their sleepover guests).

Tonx Talks

If you want to watch a short, humorous video about this topic, check out Tonx Talk: Making Do With A Blade Grinder on Vimeo. Within the video, an employee of Tonx coffee, a high-end roaster based in Los Angeles, states: “Coffee nerds hate blade grinders, and for good reasons. Burr grinders…[allow] you to make small adjustments and to dial-in your brew method. Blade grinders are like really cheap food processors; they hack away at your beans and leave you with [a] chunky mess. They really suck.” She adds, however, that “A crappy blade grinder can still give you a decent cup if you start with fresh roasted whole beans.”

There are two types of burr grinders: Conical and flat plate. Grinders featuring flat plate burrs are superior, but typically cost-prohibitive for consumers. They’re found on the commercial models at your local coffee shop and overkill for almost all at-home coffee drinkers. Conical burr grinders are much more affordable, don’t produce unnecessary heat, and deliver a nice, even grind.

I chose a Bodum Bistro conical burr grinder I found on Amazon for $130. I know. Nearly $150 for a grinder—not even a coffee machine—is a steep proposition for many middle class consumers. My overall investment to improve my coffee burr-grinderexperience was about $330. But when you consider how much you pay for good coffee beans—and how much Starbucks and other shops want for a decent cup, especially if you drink it on a daily basis—it’s an investment that pays for itself over time.

Probably the best thing most people can do is purchase whole beans, not pre-ground coffee and acquire a nice burr grinder. If nothing else, this will elevate the quality of your coffee by leaps and bounds. If you really want to hit a home run, get any coffee maker that is guaranteed to heat your water to at least 200 degrees.

Final Advice: Storage

The final advice for good coffee is storage. First, understand that storing your raw beans in the freezer to maintain freshness and quality is a myth (this can lead to nice debates with your parents, who may have been doing this for decades). Why? The freezer removes the moisture from the coffee, something that’s critical to its freshness and flavor. No, you don’t want your beans to get too moist or humid, but you also don’t want anything near what a freezer will do to them—especially over time. It’s about a fine balance, grasshoppa, and the freezer blows it. The rules are simple: Store your coffee beans at room temperature and away from light and air. Personally, I use a BeanSafe stainless steel storage container that I got on Amazon for $25.

If you’re tired of the crappy java your Mr. Coffee or Hamilton Beach model delivers, try spending a few more bucks and getting one that heats the water properly. Then get a good burr grinder and a purpose-built storage container for your beans. And don’t forget the advice of Tonx: Always use freshly roasted, high-quality beans.

You may love the results.

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Curt Robbins

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, check out his car-related articles on CarNewsCafe, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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