Introduction: The Perfect Cup of Coffee

About: I was born at a very early age...

My wife and I are spoiled coffee snobs, so when we recently decided that we wanted to make excellent coffee at home we had to go through several attempts before we finally discovered how to make a great cup of coffee every morning. To be honest, what we discovered was a wonderful video by the inimitable Alton Brown that spelled it all out with perfect clarity. I'm going to put my own unique spin on the project, and hope to educate/inspire you on the wonders of home brewed, fresh coffee!

Step 1: Required Tools

As with any project, you'll need to make sure you have the proper tools in order to achieve the highest level of success. In order to make a great cuppa joe, you're going to need the following items:
  1. Dedicated Coffee grinder
  2. 1/2 cup whole bean coffee
  3. 24 oz (710mL) cold, filtered water
  4. Container for water - either microwave safe, or cook top capable (more on that in a second)
  5. Wooden spoon or chopstick
  6. French Press
  7. Pinch of salt (optional)
It should be clear that in order to make a hot cup of coffee you need hot water. The reason I say that your container needs to be either microwave safe or cook top capable is because it doesn't really matter how you heat the water, just that you get it sufficiently hot.

Step 2: Water Is the Elixir of Life. Also Coffee.

The water you use is the most important ingredient in your coffee. If your first step in the process is to walk over to your sink and fill your container up with tap water, you've already set yourself up for disappointment. I recommend using cold, filtered water for your coffee as this will remove many of the particulates from tap water that are safe to drink, but can (and do) impart bad taste to your coffee. Put 24 oz. of the COLD AND FILTERED water into your desired container, then add just a tiny bit more to account for evaporation.

If you're going to use a microwave safe container make sure you put something non-reactive (I'd recommend the wooden spoon referenced in the tools step) in the container so that your water doesn't explode in a painful boil over when you jostle it after microwaving. Don't believe me? Check out this video. To get the water to the proper heat you'll want to nuke it on high for about 5-6 minutes. This will vary by microwave, obviously, so you may need to do some experimentation to get it just right.

On a typical morning, I'll heat the water on the stove top. Turning the burner to high will get my pot of water at a high boil in about 10 minutes. This gives me time to measure out my beans, get them ground just right, then sit and stare at the pot until it finally gets to a rolling boil. It is very much like taking a power nap and I highly recommend it. No matter how you do it, the time it takes you to get the water hot will allow you to complete the other steps in preparation without worrying about the water cooling down at all.

Step 3: Spill the Beans!

It is an undeniable fact that a lower quality bean will produce a lower quality cup of coffee. Further, pre-ground beans have considerably less flavor than whole bean coffee you grind at home (sorry, Randy Travis). While I truly believe that this method of preparation will make any coffee taste better than your standard drip maker, without fantastic coffee beans you'll never achieve the level of exquisiteness you're looking for. To that end, I'd recommend finding a higher end specialty shop that sells whole beans by the pound. I live in a very small town in Southern Indiana, so I have to travel a bit to get to the shop, but Sunergoss Coffee is my favorite place. Even if you can't get to a fancy shop, or if you just don't want to spend the money, buy whole beans and grind them just before you prepare your coffee.

My current bean of choice is this El Matazano from Honduras. It has fuller body, a nutty quality, and a nice, rich finish that lasts for a long time. My all time favorite coffee comes from the Kona district of Hawai'i, and is farmed at the Mountain Thunder coffee plantation. It's a bit expensive to buy online, but it is soooooooo good. Totally worth it. In the spirit of fairness, and unbiased reporting, I will say that I have enjoyed coffee that I bought (whole bean, by the pound) from Dunkin' Donuts and it was fairly cheap. The best cup of mass produced coffee I've ever had came from that bastion of Canadian goodness Tim Horton's.

Now! Let's debunk a myth: Keeping coffee in the freezer is the best possible way to store your unused beans. *buzzer sound* WRONG! Coffee is porous so it is very likely going to absorb any odors or flavors coming from your fridge or freezer. Pre-ground coffee will be affected by this even more so because it has more surface area with which to absorb smelly food. Keep your beans in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place. Your pantry will do fine, but the spice cabinet isn't a bad idea either. "But wait," you say! "Didn't you just say that coffee would absorb flavors and odors from the stuff around it?" Yes. Yes I did. However, you should keep in mind that most of your spices are also being kept in airtight containers and for much the same reason. Further, if your coffee is going to absorb the aroma and flavor of something would you rather it smell and taste like nutmeg, or frozen shrimp? Your call.

Step 4: To Level Up, You've Got to Grind

I can't stress enough the importance of waiting to grind your beans until right before you're going to brew your coffee. There are people out there that will tell you that using coffee that has been ground longer than 10 days ago shouldn't be used. At all. I'm not going to go that far, but I can confirm that using beans that I ground as little as 24 hours prior did result in a cup of coffee with less flavor than when I grind right before brewing. It was still a good cuppa, but there was a noticeable difference.

Scientifically, here's why: The longer a bean is exposed to air the more carbon dioxide will escape from the bean. The more CO2 that escapes from the bean, the less 'bloom' you'll get. Bloom is that foamy layer on the top of the coffee when you're pressing it. The less bloom you get, the less flavor your coffee will have. 

Beyond that though, I just enjoy the process of going through all the steps in the morning. It has become part of my daily life and helps get my day moving forward in the right direction. Yeah, I could save some time, but the coffee would suffer and my routine would get thrown off.

As Alton Brown explains, the French Press method is a "medium-slow" mode of making coffee so you want a medium coarse grind of your beans. I have no scientific knowledge of why this is best, but I can say that if you grind too much the finer grounds can get through the mesh of the press and you wind up with cup of sludge. No one likes that. No one.

Once your beans are ground go ahead and dump them into the press.

Step 5: This Step Is Completely Optional (But You Should Do It)

You don't actually have to do this, but adding a pinch of salt to your coffee grounds will ease the bitterness of the coffee a bit so you get a smoother finish. Without it your coffee is going to taste fine but will have a more pronounced bitterness, especially at the end. I'd encourage you to add the pinch of salt but, really, it's up to you and your individual tastes. Experiment for a few days and see which way you like better. I'm confident you'll find that the added salt will result in a much, much better cup of coffee. Let me know!

Step 6: You're in Hot Water Now

Alright, you've got your water to a rolling boil, you've ground your beans, and you added a pinch of salt (or not). Now we've got to add the water to the grounds to make coffee! You'll probably be tempted to pour all of your boiling water into the press at once, but don't! First we're going to add a small amount of water to the grounds, just enough to cover them, and stir a bit. I usually just use the handle of the wooden spoon. This step will serve two purposes:

  1. It will dissolve the salt fully before we add the rest of the water and let it work its magic.
  2. Stirring in a small amount of water will allow the grounds to expand and release much more of their flavor.
You don't have to stir too much, just enough to make a nice slurry. After this is complete add the rest of the water. DO NOT PLUNGE! Just like a fine cup of tea, we want the coffee to steep for a while. Four minutes is the sweet spot for flavor and balance. Any less than that and you won't get the full effect of the coffee flavor, and any more than that and you can run the risk of getting a bitter or scorched flavor out of your coffee. I'd use this time to clean up any mess you've made (and let's face it, you're probably doing this first thing after waking up, you surely made some kind of mess).

Step 7: Take the Plunge

After the four minutes have elapsed, it's time to press the plunger and finally complete the process of making a perfect cup of coffee. Now, you'll probably just want to shove down on the handle and get to pouring the coffee, but that would be a mistake. Great coffee takes patience; don't ruin it now.

When you press down on the plunger you're forcing the coffee grounds through the water and creating an emulsion. This is what we refer to when we mention the body of a coffee: how it feels in your mouth. If you get a good emulsion formed your coffee will have a creamy texture to it and your mouth will thank you. [INSERT INAPPROPRIATE COMMENT HERE]

Using a slow and steady pressure, press down on your plunger until you get down to the bottom. This should take about 30 seconds, give or take a few. Once this step is complete you're ready to pour your coffee and start your day!

Step 8: DRINK IT!

I'm sure that, somewhere out there, somebody has rules and regulations for how you pour the coffee, but I don't know them if they exist. Pour your coffee into a cup. Drink it slowly. Enjoy your perfect cup of coffee!