Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In search of the perfect cup of coffee, part deux

In 1721, R. Bradley published a work entitled "The Virtue and Use of Coffee with Regard to the Plague and Other Infectious Distempers."

Never mind. I don't want to talk about the plague this morning. I want to talk about how to make good coffee. What you use it for after that is up to you. I read and read and read, and here are the secrets I uncovered. First, this little tidbit from something called "Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters":

"What happens when a pot of coffee is brewed? The scientific explanation is that the water extracts the water-soluble material from the coffee bean. The chemical reaction starts when the hot water wets the coffee grounds and releases the gasses that fill our kitchens with the sweet smell of brewing coffee. As water flows over the grounds, a hydrolytic reaction [Lidian the chemist will be excited with this] takes place in which the water-soluble components dissolve from the grounds into the water. These soluble proteins and sugars give coffee its flavor. Practically speaking, the factors we can control at home are: water quality, water temperature, grind size, ratio of coffee to water, and cleanliness of equipment."

So, it turns out these are pretty much the only things you have control over when you brew coffee, and the proper attention to and adjustment of those things is what makes a good cup of coffee. Here we must acknowledge that "good" is completely subjective. That means if, to you, "good" means weak and bitter, then you can still use the below information to make your personal "good" cup of coffee.

Again, the things are: Water, Coffee, and the equipment you use to brew the coffee.

1. Water.

Coffee is 95% (at least) water, so use the good stuff. If your tap water makes you gag when you drink it, use something else. If you want truly good-tasting coffee, use filtered or spring water instead of plain tap water. Why? Because they don't contain chlorine (used to purify the water that comes out of your tap) or fluorine, put in your tap water to help you fight cavities in your teeth. Both are necessary and good to have for their purpose, but not for making coffee. Unless you DO like the taste of chorine and fluorine in your coffee. Do NOT use distilled water because it lacks the natural minerals which help make your coffee taste good. Distilled water is blah.

The second thing about water that you can control is the temperature. This is SO much more important than you think. It is also why coffee from a percolator tastes better than coffee from your common drip machine. Temperature. Very hot. 200 degrees or more. Remember that. Mr. Coffee just often doesn't get it up to 200 degrees or hotter, especially when the inlet tube and outlet head are as dirty and corroded as you've allowed them to become. (Me too.) The best-tasting coffee can be made in the most primitive way: by pouring boiling water slowly over medium grounds in a cone-type filter device. More on that later.

The reason the temperature is so important is that in the coffee grounds there are good things and there are bad things. The water must be hot enough so that the liquid can pass through the coffee grounds fast enough (but not TOO fast) so it absorbs the good tasting stuff but doesn't hang around long enough to absorb the bitter stuff. Cooler water has to hang around too long. Three things are involved at this point: very hot water, correctly ground (medium) high quality coffee, and the speed that the hot water is allowed to soak up the flavor from the grounds. Too fast means weak low-flavored coffee, and too slow means bitter coffee. Coffee from common drip machines often tastes a bit bitter, incidently, because the water is usually not hot enough AND the water soaks in the grounds too long, bringing out the bitter things in the grounds. Not always, of course.

2. Coffee.

In my reading, I found evidence, or at least testimonials from people who claim they know, that the very best coffee beans on earth come from Kenya. Here I stop and chuckle at Jack Nicholson in the recent movie "The Bucket List" and his rare coffee. You will have to see the movie to understand. But Kenyan coffee is good. Most of us use either Folgers or Maxwell House. Both are good. South America, I think. Good enough for me anyway. But get the medium grind unless you have special equipment. Fine grind is only for pressing espresso (or if you like your coffee VERY strong) from what I can see, and coarse grind is for French Press. This latter should not be disregarded. French Press method produces a really nice flavored cup of coffee. As long as you don't mind spending a lot of time making coffee. (Boiling water poured over coarse grounds and then allowed to steep in the grounds for 6 minutes before pressing a filter through it to remove the grounds.) The longer the water is in contact with the coffee, the coarser should be the grounds. The below information assumes MEDIUM grind coffee.

The second thing you can control with respect to the coffee itself is using the right amount of coffee. Try to be more accurate than your plastic Mr. Coffee scoop. Because it varies. Experts say to get a kitchen scale and weigh the coffee rather than trying to guess the number or scoops. Later, after you have discovered the actual right amount for you, you can then go back to the scoop method or else you can devise your own scoop which you know contains exactly the amount of coffee you want. Do not neglect to experiment here.

Again, how much coffee should you use? This is highly subjective of course, but most people use too little coffee. They think too much makes it bitter when the opposite is true. "Too little coffee= too bitter coffee." Force yourself. Start with 2 ounces (not two scoops) for each 10 cups of water and adjust from there. That's a lot of coffee. That's the point: the water doesn't have to stay on the coffee grounds forever. It stays long enough to absorb the flavor of the coffee, but not long enough to absorb the bitterness aspect. On the other hand, if your goal is coffee that is so bitter it makes your eyes clamp shut, then throw an unmeasured amount of coffee in an open enamel pot of creek water, plop it on the campfire, and walk away for a half hour. You will get what you wanted.

Let the water steep in the grounds for only a precise amount of time (6 minutes, very hot water, medium grounds) and then get the grounds away from the water. If there are grounds floating around the bottom of your pot, such that you have to sip your coffee through your teeth, you may be sure your pot of coffee is getting more and more bitter with each passing minute. There is an old saying that "the first cup of coffee is always the best." That's why.

3. The equipment.

Most of us today use automatic drip-type coffee makers. I have gone back to an old fashioned percolator, which tastes better to me, but has the problem of grounds swimming in it, making it more and more bitter if I don't drink fast. I don't. They used to make donut-type filters with the coffee already inside, with holes in the middle to fit over the percolator's center tube. You just dropped them in the basket and you were good to go. I can't find them anymore, at least not at Walmart. I'm guessing their extinction came with the demise of the percolator. Duh.

There are several other choices, some of them pretty fancy, and I am looking into those specialized machines right now, and will report later. The main thing you need to remember with ALL of them is that you must take the trouble to keep them clean or your quality will begin to go down. With a percolator, cleaning is done with each pot you make so that's not a problem. With a drip maker, we tend to let the tube get corroded and dirty so that the water temperature, already pretty low, becomes only luke-warm and eventually stops working altogether. Then you finally get out the distilled vinegar, but it is usually too late. If you are microwaving your coffee because it isn't hot enough, consider cleaning your machine or getting a percolator. The water well in drip machines is usually nearly impossible to clean quickly. I'm not using mine anymore. For the time being, anyway. And don't forget to clean the head where the hot water comes out and runs down onto your grounds. That old sticky stinky coffee will make for bitterness as well (because it has already been brewed several times.)

Finally, we should mention the simple cone-type filter. This is as primitive as it gets. It also will produce VERY good-tasting coffee. You boil the water and then slowly pour it over the grounds manually. See pictures. I don't yet have a system to recommend. I remember this was the very first system we used as newlyweds. Because it was about all we could afford, mainly. You have to find a way to keep the coffee in the container warm after you make a pot of coffee. I'm guessing you can figure that part out on your own.

I'm going to stop here, even though I haven't talked about other types of equipment I found out about. I will post an update on that later on.


  1. You do me great honor to call me a chemist - in fact it has never occurred to anyone else ever to call me this (other things, yes).

    This is all quite elucidating re coffee, though. Although how I am supposed to remember it all before any infusion of caffeine, is not so clear.

    I do get the main points though - especially having witnessed the making of ersatz coffee with instant powder + hot tap water. I did have to pretend to drink it however, which was traumatic.

  2. I love java, sweet and hot
    Whoops Mr.Mmoto, I'm a coffee pot
    Shoot the pot and I'll pour me a shot
    A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup

    Strong, hot and steamy.

  3. @Lidian - Okay, I won't call you a chemist anymore if you like it. And Taster's Choice with hot tap water is better than nothing. A little better than nothing. Thank you for at least wading through this long post. I always muck things up when I try to be serious.

    @Sheila - Mr. Moto? What are you on today? Not coffee, I'll bet. :) Strong, hot and steamy. Sounds erotic if you ask me. Do you not appreciate all my hard research? Shall I go back to the groundhogs? You unnerve me, Sheila.

  4. And Lidian, I have no clue why I signed in the wrong entrecard account and dropped Wayharsh on you. It's probably an omen of some kind. Watch your back.

  5. This has been quite helpful. We use the automatic drip method, because we require something that will turn itself off after 2 hours (so does the iron - now if only the oven . . .).
    The Mountain Man also has a French press that he likes, but he forgets to clean it, and I get stuck with it one moldy week later, so I've hidden it.

  6. @Janet - I didn't even know what French Press was until I read this article in my research. Sound hard to do. It didn't say anything about mold. I guess that is extra :)

  7. Well, aren't you the informative one. I enjoyed reading this, and I learned some new things.

    One of the best cups of coffee came from my mom's old Guardian Service coffee pot. You poured boiling water in the top half, and it dripped through. Your explanation of water temperature now makes me understand why it made such good coffee, and why my mom said you needed to take the top half off the pot as soon as the water dripped through to keep the coffee from becoming bitter.

  8. Your mom's machine sounds intriguing. You should try to get it out and use it just to see. I'll bet the taste would be fantastic. (Can't believe you read this long post. Flattered.)

  9. HonorĂ© de Balzac was a self confessed coffee addict, his writing was utterly dependent on a constant intake of extremely strong black coffee, 40-50 cups a day, or in extremis:- "Finally, I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink - for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder."
    Unsurprisingly, he died at the age of fifty one.

  10. I found that out, by the way, after reading a Guardian newspaper reviewers piece on a book about the history of coffee, which contained these wonderful lines, which made me eager to read Balzac, "Starbucks is the apotheosis of modern consumer society and its management of the pleasure principle. In 1971, three men set up a shop called Starbucks in Seattle, selling a wide range of fresh-roasted whole beans to local customers - a celebration of a simple pleasure. Thirty years later, Starbucks is a form of anti-pleasure social conditioning in which coffee has become just another learned reward in a dreary shopping experience. Balzac, the coffee drinker's coffee drinker, wouldn't pause mid-sentence to piss in a grande latte."

  11. While I'd love to have ideas quick-march into action, I don't think I have the requisite legs like bowling pins, otherwise I'd try. Bowling pins, which way up?

  12. Commenting now is the equivalent of showing up to a party after it's ended and licking dirty plates but oh well.

    I love that Balzac bit and I love the bit about how he wouldn't pause to piss in a latte.

    I use a stove-top percolator for coffee and it tastes like undiluted Happy.

    The best is using a percolator atop a wood stove in the wee hours, with the coffee getting warmer at the same rate as your house, ushering in the day in sync. I am a hillbilly with fond memories of this...

  13. How wonderful for our paths to cross again, Danielle. I have missed you and your friendly wit terribly, and so have many other people.

    I hope you will take the time to discover or rediscover the eccentric Balzac. I am.

    You have left an irreplaceable void in the blogosphere. I haven't found another voice that even approaches the bubbling purity of your thought processes and vivid metaphoric descriptions. Thanks again for passing by in the night.



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