A Foundational Guide to a Good Cup of Coffee
Anyone Can Brew
You don’t need to be a coffee aficionado to improve your daily cup of coffee! Everyone wants to enjoy their coffee, but we may lack some basic coffee knowledge to make a great cup of joe. Without the fundamentals, we coffee drinkers can turn a quality coffee bean into an average (or even unenjoyable) cup of coffee.
The goal here is to help you learn how roast types, brew methods, and a few other factors affect your cup of coffee and how you can use that knowledge to improve the flavor of your daily cup (or cups) of coffee! By the end of this, you will have a solid foundation to make your cup of coffee taste amazing.
Before we start, I should mention there is no proper cure for poor-quality beans (outside of loads of cream and sugar perhaps). You’ve heard the old adage about putting lipstick on pigs. The same thing applies with coffee. You can tinker and adjust your coffee brewing, but without good beans you won’t get the enjoyable flavor you’re searching for. If you’ve adjusted your brewing and the coffee still doesn’t taste right, it’s not your fault, it’s just not the right bean for you. Now let’s dive in!
Roast Types: Helpful Facts
If you’ve drank coffee before then you know there are different levels of roasts. You often hear light roasts, medium roasts, and dark roasts tossed around in conversation or on coffee packaging. But what’s the main difference between roasts?
The basic thing you need to know about roast levels is this:
- Lighter roasts trend toward brighter and citrusy flavors and have a more dense structure than dark roasted beans.
- Darker roasts trend toward rich and savory notes and have a less dense structure than light roasted beans.
This has to do with the chemical transition that happens as a bean stays in the roaster for longer amounts of time. Think of it like caramelizing an onion on your stovetop. You start with a more pronounced and sharp flavor of a raw onion. But as you sauté that onion, you break down the chemical structures, emulsifying the onion and creating a richer taste.
Not only does the flavor of the bean change as it stays in the roaster, the structure of the bean also changes. Lighter roasts maintain more density, while darker roasts are slightly less dense and more porous. Think of a piece of wood that stays on a campfire for an extended amount of time. As the log continues to burn, it turns into a less-dense chunk of charcoal that is more frail and prone to crumble. Hopefully your coffee isn’t being roasted to the point of charcoal, but I think you understand the analogy! The longer you roast, the less dense and more porous the bean gets.
These variations in chemical and physical makeup of different roasts brings us to our second and very important topic: brewing variables! Because different roast levels have different chemical and physical makeups, you will want to brew your coffee in such a way that complements those differences.
Brew Variables: Getting the Most From Your Roast
I’ll kick off this section with a disclaimer. There are no definitively correct and incorrect ways to brew your different roasts. But, there are guidelines on how to brew different roasts that will create flavors that are most desirable to your taste buds. Of course, taste will always be subjective and that is why we are sticking to the foundational guidelines of coffee brewing. These guidelines will produce flavors enjoyed by the vast majority of coffee drinkers.
Regardless of the brewing method you use (and many methods exist), there are a few main variables you can manipulate while making your coffee:
- Grind size
- Brewing duration
- Water temperature
Matching your grind size to your brew method is highly important for two main reasons:
- Different brew methods have different levels of filtration.
- Different brew methods have different brewing durations (which we’ll talk more about in the next section).
With regard to filtration, when you use a brewing method with a paper/fibrous filter (like pour over) then you have the ability to filter out very small particles of finely ground coffee. If, however, you are using a French press, then the holes in the metal press would allow those same finely ground particles of coffee to pass into your cup, creating a very gritty and unenjoyable cup of coffee. For that reason, you would want to use a more coarse grind for a French press.
Here are the basic guidelines for matching grind size to your brewing method:
The duration you brew your coffee is important because it is part of the equation that dictates how much, and which flavors, you extract from your coffee. When you extract too much flavor from a dark roast, you run the risk of getting a highly burnt and bitter taste in your coffee. When you extract too little flavor from a lighter roast, you may end up with an acidic cup of coffee. This is why brew duration is so important in the grand scheme of coffee brewing.
As I mentioned above, brewing duration and grind size are very related. The reason they are related has to do with the amount of the coffee’s surface area that is exposed to water. We won’t get too scientific, but think about it like this. If you have very finely ground coffee beans sitting in hot water, you are able to extract a lot of flavor from that coffee in a short amount of time because so much of the coffee’s surface area is exposed to the water while it brews. On the flip side, if you had whole beans or beans that were crushed into a few pieces sitting in hot water, then it would take a much longer duration to extract the same amount of flavor from the coffee.
As a general rule, the longer the duration of the brew method (the amount of time the water is in contact with the coffee grounds) the more coarse the grind size should be. The reverse also applies. The shorter the duration the finer the grind size. In some methods of brewing, you can actually manipulate the brew duration.
If you are using a machine (drip, automated espresso, etc.) you likely won’t manipulate the brew duration. But if you are using a method like pour over, aeropress, french press, etc. then you will want to be mindful of how long your coffee is exposed to the water. Darker roasts (because of their more porous nature) as well as finer grinds will release flavor more readily and therefore need slightly less time to brew. Lighter roasts (with their higher density) as well as coarse grinds release flavor slower and generally need slightly longer brew times.
Because brewing duration is a factor of both grind size and roast level, you should do some experimenting to find out what length of brewing produces the most enjoyable flavor for your specific coffee.
The temperature that you brew at is important, but is subject to some debate in the coffee community. Some folks hold that 200 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number, while others say that you should adjust your temperature depending on the bean type and level of roast you are dealing with. 200 degrees is a good ballpark number for most coffees, but what’s the harm in experimenting a little bit? If you are brewing at 200 and notice that your coffee tastes a little off (or if you just want to channel your inner mad scientist) then you should change up the temperature and see how that affects flavor.
Note: Certain brewing methods allow you to change up your water temperature, while others have a fixed temperature. This is part of the reason that those who are particular about coffee taste choose brew methods like French press or pour over which allows for water temperature manipulation and greater control over the end flavor.
If you do decide to experiment with the water temperature, the general rule would be to increase temperature for a lighter roast (remember lighter roasts are more dense and harder to extract flavor from) and keep dark roasts around 200 degrees or slightly below. Here are the safe ranges to play around in for the various roast levels, though you can always experiment:
- Dark roasts: 195 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit
- Medium roasts: 200 Fahrenheit, give or take a couple degrees
- Light roasts: 200 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit
The Big Picture
All of that to say, have fun and experiment with your coffee a little bit until you dial in the flavor! You’ll need to start with a quality bean, but from there the world is your oyster.
If you have quality beans and aren’t getting the flavor you want, it is possible that you should try a different coffee bean altogether. But before you do that, adjust some of the variables we talked about and see if there is a hiccup in the brewing process before you write that coffee off as undesirable. I hope you go on to create an amazing cup of coffee after reading this. Cheers!