Brewing Coffee

Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.
The Women's Petition Against Coffee, 1674
July 11, 2013

Check this out, a whole page (a whole site!) devoted to the various methods for brewing coffee:

Many many serious coffee drinkers are into expresso machines. I have not taken this plunge, and am still happily using my french press. (Even though my family bought me an expresso machine several years ago, which my younger son has gladly adopted).

It has been said that a good grinder can do as much to make (or wreck) a great cup of coffee as anything else. I have long been using a Braun blade grinder, and have been surprised to learn that these are generally despised by coffee freaks. Well, I have a lot to learn.

It pretty much boils down to this. You need to grind uniformly sized coffee to have any control over the process. Finer coffee requires shorter extraction times. Too long of an extraction time yields bitterness. With a mix of coarse and fine coffee you cannot pick a time suited to either. If you do what most people would, you pick a time suited for the coarser material, and then get bitter stuff from the fines.

I have been using finer that recommended coffee, ground in a blade grinder, and putting up with sludge and bitterness -- perhaps all this will change.

Grinders

One essay suggested that if you have a budget for an expresso machine, you would divide it in half and spend half of it on the grinder, and half on the machine. So you could spend $500 and get a $200 grinder and a $300 machine for example. If you had a $1000 budget, spend $450 on the grinder and $550 on the machine. The best machine will do poorly with badly ground coffee.

You want a burr grinder, and ceramic burrs seem highly regarded. Cuisinart burr grinders are affordable, noisy, and widely hated.

Breville "Smart Grinder" BCG800XL

This is a very well rated machine for $200 and it is what I ordered. You can read and learn a lot about these online. At one time you had to request a "shim kit" and install the shims to get this grinder to grind fine enough for decent expresso. The word is that sometime (in early 2012) they began shipping machines that do not require the shims. Some think that they have shifted things so that while it now grinds finer for expresso, it won't grind as coarse at the other end. Fine grinds and dark oily beans can clump up and jam the machine. Some people say that it won't grind coarse enough for good press coffee, but others say you can just shorten your extraction time a bit.
See this link: One fellow suggests that at the coarsest setting, the grind may not be a uniform as when set a few notches finer. Better to be consistent and slightly finer and then adjust your extraction time.

Baratza Vario

This grinder sells for $450 and is very well regarded. The only thing negative I have read about it is that it uses a belt drive and one user had trouble with it. The price scared me away, but it is reported to do an excellent job on everything from expresso to drip. It has ceramic burrs. Customer service from Baratza is reported to be superb.

Baratza Virtuoso

This grinder sells for $220. It is a good alternative to the Breville, and from a very well regarded company. Probably the main reason I didn't buy it was that with a 20 percent off coupon from Bed, Bath, and Beyond I could get the Breville for $160 and reviews on this and the Breville were neck and neck.

Other grinders

These are candidates for further study. The last two are clearly professional level machines.

Hand crank grinders

There are a lot of these and apparently they can do a very very good job. It typically takes as long to grind the beans as to bring your water to a boil. Some say it is therapeutic, but not for a person with arthritis.

One well regarded hand grinder is the "Orphan Espresso Pharos", which sells for about $250. It uses really big conical burrs:

How much coffee

There are a number of variables you can fiddle with when making coffee: This section deals with the last variable, namely how much coffee to use for a given quantity of water.

At this time I am making coffee in a french press. My press holds 4 cups (32 ounces) of water -- about a liter. This size press is sometimes referred to as an 8T press, where T stands for "Tasse" (german for cup). A mighty small cup. Some people discuss using some measure like 2 tablespoons per cup, usually referring to a 6 ounce cup. The moral of this story is that the unit "cup" is ambiguous and almost meaningless when talking about coffee brewing.

The more intelligent people will talk about weights, of both coffee and water. I am all for weighing coffee (measuring the volume of coffee, either as whole beans or ground coffee is imprecise and variable). Measurements like a "heaping tablespoon" are much too crude and subject to individual interpretation. So lets weigh our coffee. I can't quite bring myself to weigh my water. I figure that 1 milliliter of water is almost exactly 1 gram. So my press (which holds 1 liter) will hold 1000 grams of water. But lets talk about 500 grams (half a liter, or my press half filled).

Someone recommended a 17.2 to 1 ratio of water to coffee, which would be 29 grams for half a liter. Other sources recommend 34 grams. Another source recommends from 26 to 32 grams per half liter. There certainly seems to be a concensus in this range, and the sensible thing to do is to experiment with the exact amount.


Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's coffee pages / tom@mmto.org