Coffee is both simple—just ground beans and hot water—and complex, with hundreds of volatile compounds that give each roast its unique flavor. Really good coffee is something special, even sublime. And, with so many of us spending more time at home during the persisting novel coronavirus pandemic, a cup of hot, delicious coffee seems especially comforting.
When preparing your favorite style of coffee, here are several points to consider.
The cup—Size and shape do matter. Big wide-rimmed mugs hold a lot, but also cool coffee quickly. Porcelain and ceramic surfaces influence the temperature and taste of the coffee. Both are neutral so you only smell the coffee, not a plastic lid.
The roast—Coffee, like wine, reflects its place of origin and its processing and roasting. Dark roasts tend to have less complex flavor and aromas than medium roasts, but more caramel and tar notes. Some roasters use poorer quality beans because their imperfections—along with overall flavor—are hidden.
Whole versus pre-ground beans—The volatile compounds inside coffee are released when ground and exposed to air. Carolyn Ross, a professor in the Washington State University School of Food Science and the director of the Sensory Science Program, has studied the best method for keeping coffee. According to her research, it’s best to grind beans right before using them. Coffee made from freshly ground beans had a stronger coffee aroma and less bitterness, and it was more preferred compared to coffee made with the beans stored for one or two weeks.
The grind—The most important aspect of the grind is the tool you use. Burr grinders grind the coffee beans in a consistent, uniform way without introducing heat. It’s difficult to get a uniform texture with blade grinders; generally you end up with bigger chunks and powder. Save your blade grinder for spices and get a burr grinder for coffee. Grant Schoenlein (’16 Fin.) of Kamiak Coffee Company in Moscow, Idaho, points out that properly pre-ground coffee, sealed in a package, is better than whole-bean coffee badly ground.
Water—Some coffee drinkers are very fussy about the water they use. A general rule is that if you enjoy drinking the water, it will taste good in the coffee. If the water has off flavors or smells, go for some bottled or filtered water.
Temperature—Consider pre-heating your coffee cup. Add some boiling water, let it sit, then pour it out. When served hot (150 degrees), evaluators sensed more nuances in smell and flavor then warm coffee (122 to 140 degrees), according to sensory research conducted in 2019, Ross says.
Pondering the perfect cup—Take a moment to smell the beans before and after you grind them. Close your eyes and ask yourself: what properties come to mind? Earth, chocolate, fruit, or caramel notes?
My way—My favorite roasts, such as Ethiopian Sidamo, tend to be medium roasts. I use whole beans and prefer a medium grind and pour-over operation. And I always pre-warm my cup. Whatever your favorite roast, enjoy the process and experiment with new beans, grinders, and methods that work best for you.
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On the web
More on pre-heating your cup (Cooks Illustrated)