Making a Good Cup of Coffee

A fresh cup of espresso

A warm cup of coffee seems a universal morning ritual. Bad coffee seems pretty universal as well. But it's not difficult to make a good cup of coffee. It just takes the right ingredients, a repeatable technique and a little trial and error.

Here are some tips for making a better cup of coffee.

Many people focus on brewing method - tools over technique - but no matter which method you have at hand, materials and preparation are most important.

To make a great cup of coffee you'll need:

  1. Freshly roasted beans.
  2. An adjustable burr grinder.

I can't overemphasis how important freshly roasted beans are to quality coffee. Some people say the first week or so after roasting are the best. More than a month is too old. If you buy directly from the roaster, they should be able to tell you when it was roasted. Many roast to order. If there's no roast date on the bag, assume the worst.

Grinders are available in many sizes and prices, from $50 hand grinders to giant commercial electric grinders costing hundreds of dollars. The most important feature is the ability to adjust grind in small increments. I use a Kyocera CM-45 hand grinder and a Lelit PL-53 stepless burr grinder. The Kyocera is getting hard to find, but I've heard good things about Porlex hand grinders. In electric burr grinders, the Baratza lineup has something at a variety of price points and they have a good reputation as well.

On to preparation...

I prefer espresso, but for simplicity we'll walk through brewing a simple single-serving of drip-brew coffee. This uses a "pour-over" filter holder like those made by Melitta, for example (here are some other options from Sweet Maria's), and paper filters.

First, put approximately 4 tablespoons of the beans in your grinder. The actual amount isn't as important as being consistent in how much you use. Grind the beans.

Put a filter in your filter holder and heat up the water to not-quite-boiling. Put the grounds in your filter and pour in two cups of water. Again, precision is not important, but you don't want to overfill your coffee cup and you do want to keep the beans-to-water ratio consistent from cup to cup. Let the water brew through the grounds.

Here's the important part to making a great cup: Taste the coffee. Prep it with milk and sugar if you like, but taste it.

Does it taste good? Fine, you're done. Do the same exact process next time.

Does it taste watery and thin? Tighten the grind setting on your grinder slightly to make finer grounds. Do everything else the same.

Does it taste bitter, or did the water fail to brew through the coffee after a minute or so? Loosen the grind setting slightly to make more coarse grounds. Do everything else the same.

Brew another cup. Better? You can keep making small changes to your grind settings toward a more coarse or find grind until you get a great cup.

The trick here is controlling for all but one variable: grind. If you change beans, you may have to fine-tune your grind again.

Other brewing methods offer additional variable to tweak, from Aeropress or French Press steeping time to espresso machine pressure and temperature settings. You can imagine, however, that it's easy to get out in the weeds with too many settings. No matter which method I use, I always go back to the basics: fresh beans, hot water, and adjusting the grind until the cup is tasty.

These days I get my beans from Barrington Coffee Roasters and Lucy Jo's, who sell directly at my local farmer's market. I also recommend Counter Culture Coffee who not only sell great beans, but are also leading the charge for direct, sustainable relationships with coffee growers around the world. In NYC you should give Cafe Grumpy a try. Wherever you are, find and support your local roasters.