When it comes to making coffee at home, we all start somewhere. For most of us, that means we drank instant stuff of doubtful origins at some point in our lives. And then we taste coffee at a coffee house or at a friend's dinner table that makes our eyes fly open with discovery. Coffee can taste AMAZING!
But getting started in making your own amazing coffee at home can look pretty daunting and as murky as the afore-mentioned instant questionable stuff.
The good news is, a few changes make a massive difference in coffee quality. The biggest one?
Stop buying pre-ground coffee and invest in a coffee grinder.
Coffee beans are sorta like an egg. The outside protects the inside and keeps it fresh. Once a coffee bean is crushed or ground, a whole lot more surface area is exposed to oxygen. And oxygen is an enemy to the freshness factor in nearly any edible. The aromas and oils in a coffee bean are actually fairly fragile, and the loss of aromatic properties starts immediately after grinding. It's estimated that 15 minutes after grinding, coffee has lost up to 60% of that wonderful aroma. And aroma absolutely affects your enjoyment of your morning cup.
The oils in the bean are the flavor components. They're water soluble, which is a very good thing when you're pouring hot water through your grounds while roasting. Otherwise, extracting the flavor from the bean would be tremendously difficult. But, as a result of being water soluble, the oils are pretty delicate. They're quick to absorb moisture and the aromas and flavors of their environment. Moisture will dilute and deplete these flavor oils, and your grounds may start to taste like the bananas next to them in your shopping cart. Keeping the bean whole until immediately before brewing does a lot to protect the flavor oils and ensure you're not cheated out of a whole spectrum of tastes.
During the roasting process, a lot of CO2 gas is produced inside the bean. The beans aren't airtight, so some of the CO2 escapes before the bean is ground, but again with the egg comparison... The "shell", while porous, keeps the important stuff inside. CO2 is vital to the transfer of the coffee's oils into the liquid during your brewing process. Here's a sweet little side note: you know how the coffee rises, bubbles, and "breathes" in the first few moments of your pour-over or french press brewing? That's the CO2 gasses escaping. The higher, more active, and longer-lasting that bloom is, the more CO2 is present and the fresher the beans. And, again, grinding your beans too early exposes a whole lot more surface area and starts depleting the CO2. In fact, 60 seconds after grinding, 80% of this gas has merrily released into the air.
So, what we're trying to say here is this: grinding your beans immediately before brewing means you're getting the maximum enjoyment from them. You could buy the highest quality beans in the world, but if they're ground days or even hours before you brew them, your coffee will taste sub-par. (Which, for enthusiasts like us, seems like a terrible waste.) Conversely, cheaper beans, if ground immediately before brewing, will taste far better than their pre-ground relatives simply because their oils and CO2 are intact and they haven't been as exposed to moisture and other influences.
So, the next question is, what sort of grinder is right for you?
It's a trick question, really, because buying ANY grinder and grinding your beans before brewing is going to make a huge improvement in the quality of your coffee. But here are the two grinders we have experience using:
A blade grinder identical to this one was Rebecca's first grinder. It was a trusty little thing, and served valiantly for nearly ten years. The cool thing about blade grinders is that they're cheap. The downside is that they're not awesome at producing an even grind. While the blades fly around like a mini blender, there's no way to ensure they hit every bean the same number of times. Grabbing the whole grinder and shaking it while it's grinding helps a little, but even then, you end up with pieces that are larger than they should be and will be under extracted during the brewing process, and pieces that are ground into fine powder and will be over-extracted. The result is a cup that tastes a bit muddy, with no clear distinction between flavor notes and only teases you with hints of what it could be. Still, if price is a deal-breaker, a blade grinder is better than no grinder at all.
So, what's the upgrade?
A burr grinder, instead of cutting the bean, crushes it between two revolving abrasive surfaces. Only a few beans are ground at a time, and this type of grinder produces a beautiful, even grind. It's far easier to change the size of the grind to fit your intended brewing process, and the same grinder can give you a consistently even fine espresso grind as well as a beautifully consistent coarser grind for a pour-over or french press. There are many makes and models of burr grinders available, but we love our Bodum.
Ryan had this grinder before we got married, and I (Rebecca) was extremely happy when it migrated over to our house. Ryan's parents and siblings, however, were not so jubilant and quickly replaced it with one of their own.
It may be a bit of an up-front investment, but if you're into good coffee for the long haul, it's worth every bit. It's small enough to not take up much counter space, but works like a locomotive. We use it to grind our beans for every brewing method we own: Aeropress, Chemex, espresso machine, french press, bialetti moka... (Yeah... we may be a bit fanatic over here.) For each method and size of grind, it works like a charm. Your method really is only as good as your grind.
Next time, we'll delve into some how-to's on our favorite brewing methods.
Any questions you'd like to hear addressed? Leave them in the comments! We're as excited about making sure you're getting the most our of your coffee as we are about making quality beans available. Ask away!
Cheers and carpe coffee!