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How to Make the Best Cup of Coffee at Home

Perk up your morning java and save money by slow brewing​

spinner image a variety of methods of brewing coffee
Courtesy Paul Sirisalee/Prop Stylist Ashley Naum

Lots of people make a stop at the coffee shop part of their daily routine. The choice of flavors and options — and the fact that you don’t have to make the joe yourself — can be attractive to those on the go.

But making a home version of that high-test, high-taste brew can be especially satisfying and allow you to keep extra money in your pocket. Athough the advent of single-serve coffee systems and touch-screen espresso machines have made it easier than ever to make your own high-quality cups, more people are now opting for a deeper relationship with their morning coffee.

5 Tips for a Better Cup of Coffee at Home

  • Start with freshly roasted coffee beans.
  • Use a burr grinder to grind the beans, instead of a grinder with metal blades.
  • Use filtered or spring water.
  • Use a scale to measure your grinds.
  • Clean your brewer frequently.

These coffee connoisseurs relish ritual above routine and elevate coffee drinking to an epicurean endeavor without fancy machines.

Although consumption of traditional coffee has declined by 10 percent, according to the National Coffee Association, coffee drinkers age 60 and older are twice as likely to consume it as 18- to 24-year-olds.

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“There is a really big focus on flavor, on the capacity of coffee to not just taste like coffee but, rather, that coffee is capable of a much broader range of culinary flavors and experiences,” says Jordan Michelman, coauthor of The New Rules of Coffee: A Modern Guide for Everyone and cofounder of Sprudge, a website devoted to java culture.

Home coffee basics

spinner image man using a french press to make coffee
Experts say brewing coffee the "slow" way can produce a more flavorful cup.
Courtesy Manual

The recipe for a great cup of coffee is simple: water, ground coffee and a device to brew. The rest lies in variables, including water temperature, grounds-to-water ratio and extraction time. Slow brewing allows you to control these variables in a way that your Keurig won’t.

Approaching your morning java the slow way can also be surprisingly affordable. Most Keurig or Nespresso machines cost more than a pour-over device and grinder combined. The price for K-cups and Nespresso capsules range from 50 cents to $2 per cup. A regular cup of coffee at Starbucks starts at $1.85. You can make a cup of craft coffee for less than 30 cents per serving.

Craighton Berman, founder of Manual, which produces the Manual Coffeemaker No. 3 and other products that encourage people to “slow down and appreciate the moment,” suggests purchasing quality, freshly roasted coffee beans to start. Craft-coffee packaging usually includes the roast date; savvy coffee drinkers buy beans roasted within days. If you can find a date on coffee in a grocery store, it is typically an expiration date, which indicates that the grinds are still safe to drink. Those beans, however, may have been roasted years ago.

“Even if you’re not going to do anything else, the difference between that and something that’s been in the grocery store for a year, if you change it, you’re going to notice,” Berman says.  

Next, get a burr grinder — which grinds coffee between two revolving abrasive surfaces — instead of one with metal blades. Burr grinders produce a more uniform, consistent grind, which helps with flavor extraction and prevents clogging.

“You can use a pretty cheap coffeemaker and still get a decent cup if you’re grinding fairly consistently,” Berman says.

Home Options for Brewing the Perfect Cup

Rocío Salazar, cofounder of Unlocked Coffee Roasters in Greenville, South Carolina, provided information on several home-brewing methods.    

French Press: This manual brewing method makes coffee by steeping grounds in hot water before pressing them to the bottom of your container to separate the grounds from the liquid. You’ll need to invest in a press, a scale (to weigh your beans) and a grinder, but they’ll last a long time.

Pods: More than 40 percent of households have a coffee maker that brews using single-serving pods, available in a wide variety of flavors from many brands. While this method is fast and convenient, one downside is freshness: Cheaper pods may contain grounds more than two months old.

Pour-Over: Preferred by serious baristas, this hand-brewing method is a controlled extraction of flavor and best enjoyed with single-origin specialty coffee. Make it by pouring hot water over grounds in a premoistened paper filter.  

Cold Brew: You can purchase a device with a built-in filter to make coffee this way, or DIY by coarse-grinding coffee beans, adding them to a large jar of cold water and letting the mixture sit overnight. To filter the coffee, use cheesecloth or a fine strainer. Enjoy, full strength or diluted, over ice.

Drip Coffee: This traditional method is a popular and easy choice, with the most common recipe being 2 tablespoons of coffee grounds per cup of water. Don’t buy one with a capacity over 9 cups, as a larger batch may cause your java to lose body and taste unbalanced.

—Kelsey Ogletree

When it comes to making a great cup of coffee, the more variables you can control the more likely you are to produce a consistently solid brew.

To that end, consider purchasing a scale to weigh your beans, instead of relying on eyeballing or “measured tablespoons.” If you enjoyed a brew that used a 1-to-17 ratio of coffee to water, you can replicate that. If you found it a tad too weak, tweak the formula until you hit the sweet spot.

Water temperature is also important. According to the National Association of Coffee, a brewer should maintain a temperature of between 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal extraction. Colder water will result in flat, weak coffee, but water that is too hot will also negatively affect taste.

If you’re using a stovetop kettle without a temperature gauge, wait 30 seconds after the boil before pouring over coffee grounds.

An often-overlooked way to improve java is to keep your brewer clean. “Some people clean their ovens more often than they clean their coffee maker,” Michelman points out. He recommends cleaning the machine after each use and doing some form of descaling every six months.

“You don’t need to go out and buy new products to do it or special equipment,” he says. “Ice and salt will work. Some vinegar mixed with water will also work."

Which coffee brewer to use?

For slow brewing, there are numerous options.

Sharon Welsch, 73, of Homestead, Florida, has a VacOne coffeemaker, a newer pour-over device that uses a vacuuming extraction system. Welsch was devoted to Mr. Coffee before she switched to a Keurig a few years ago. Now she’s hooked on fresh beans and her VacOne.

“It’s just really easy,” Welsch says. “The taste is so different. It’s so fresh. The aroma is marvelous.”

Those who love the flavor of coffee and the caffeine rush may want to invest in a Chemex, a glass carafe that some may remember from the Mary Tyler Moore Show — Mary Richards often poured coffee from a Chemex when hosting guests in her apartment.

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Designed by a chemist, the Chemex uses coffee filters with density similar to a chemistry blotter, which catch more oils and minerals, thereby producing a clean, vibrant cup of joe. The filtration makes the Chemex ideal for cold brews, too.

Greg Morrison, 72, of Atlanta, is a retired CNN assignment editor who uses a Chemex.

“I decided, especially after my retirement from CNN, I’ve got a few extra minutes. I don’t have a clock to punch. Let me just do this right,” Morrison explains.

He begins his morning routine by selecting recently roasted beans. Peet’s dark-roast Major Dickason 's Blend is one of his favorites. He grinds the beans in a burr grinder and places a couple of scoops into the Chemex. Meanwhile, water boils in his electric tea kettle. He slowly pours hot water over the coffee as he monitors the water flow, saturation and emulsification.

“If I’m feeling real frisky,” he says, “I might put a slither of ginger in there. Give it some spice.”

Other coffee lovers might prefer a French press, which uses a plunging method to separate brewed coffee from grinds that have been steeping in hot water (similar to looseleaf tea). A French press produces a heavier, full-bodied coffee with texture.

Many connoisseurs favor the Hario V60, Kalita Wave, Melitta or other dripper pour-overs. These inexpensive drippers produce coffee almost as clean as that from a Chemex. (See the full guide to coffee brewers below.)

If you prefer a more automated approach to coffee brewing but like the results of a pour-over, you can purchase a drip coffee maker that replicates the pour-over method. Look for machines certified by the Specialty Coffee Association, which maintains a list of certified home brewers.

To learn more about slow-brewing methods, Berman and Michelman recommend searching for information online. Lots of YouTube videos can walk you through the process.

And then keep it simple, Berman says. “It’s just combining hot water and ground coffee. If you want to make it complex, you can. But if you don’t, just find your ritual; keep repeating it.”

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett is a contributing writer who covers sports, interior design, business and human interest stories. A former reporter for Sports Illustrated and tennis columnist for Bleacher Report, she has also had her work in Essence and Black Enterprise. She is the author of the biography Serena Williams: Tennis Champion, Sports Legend and Cultural Heroine.

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