The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, and right now I’m going to need you to take a long, hard look at your breakfast nook and get ready for some real talk. You need coffee, right? It course-corrects for a lousy night’s sleep, staves off liver disease, and even fends off Type 2 diabetes. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have coffee, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Still, the sad truth is, you probably suck at brewing even a humble mug of joe.
“Most coffee is horrible,” Kevin Sinnott, author of the Art and Craft of Coffee and the creator of CoffeeCon, which as you can probably deduce is like Comic-Con for java heads. “People think it’s like the wine or beer business — they wish they were, anyway. And in wine or beer, the beverage is completely assembled by the time you get it, whereas coffee is always left to the last minute. All that fine work so many people have done for that beautiful roast, it gets destroyed by bad brewing.”
Sinnott took time out of prepping for his upcoming L.A. Con to tell Inverse how to make the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had, from picking out beans to taking your first sip.
Let’s get right to the heart of this. How do I buy coffee?
Look for the freshest coffee you can find. Most people look for name or the label Columbian. They think, “Oh, that must be good — it’s Colombian.” But go for the freshest coffee. Look for a roast date on the package if you can find one. Most packages just use a best-by date, and they’re real optimists. But ideally you only have a two-week window from the roasting. And that’s no matter how it’s packaged. I know that they say there’s all this special freshness-sealing packaging, but don’t trust them. The best thing you can get is beans. The second you grind it, oxygen gets to it.
Are any companies trustworthy?
Peet’s is pretty good about their shipping. I was in a grocery store the other day, looking at roast dates and things like that while my wife was looking for me, and I noticed they had coffees in there a couple weeks out from their roast date which is admirable since the store was a couple thousand miles away. There’s a trend now, with more and more grocery stores, to carry locally roasted beans. Those are your best bet.
How do I select beans?
I try to go for medium to light roasted coffee. I know that’s a bias and I know there are some dark roasts that are popular, but understand you’re getting the taste of the roast. The roast really takes over. But lighter roasts, you get more complexity you get more taste of the original coffee. And it’s usually marked on the package.
Alright, so I have my beans. I’m home, I’m ready to kick this pig. What’s next?
Get a good grinder. And that’s going to be a $100 or more for a good grinder. I’d spend money on that first. You can get a drip cone with hot water to put on for ten bucks at the grocery store and be better off doing that then spending money on an automatic drip maker. Don’t use a blade grinder if you can avoid it. Use a burr grinder. They mash the beans and ideally that’s how you want to grind coffee. That’s the way it’s always been done. That spinning grinder isn’t good for coffee. The pieces come out irregularly sized. Consistency of grind is very important and makes a dramatic difference in flavor.
Mash the beans, check. Next?
I really like manual drip coffee the best. It’s easy, it uses gravity, and it’s not hard. You just need a separate kettle to boil water, you can see where the grounds in the filter are dry, and it’s all very intuitive. I get the kettle going and it takes five minutes to brew and it’s a great way to make coffee, very simple. And you can use paper, which is easily recyclable. It’s brewed to perfection. If you really can’t tolerate doing something manually there are good automatic drip brewers but they start out at $150. Automatic drip has to be the right temperature. Most of those brewers do not get the water hot enough. Bean coffee is expensive enough, people want to get their value. You want to get to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and with a kettle it’s easier.
How much coffee to a cup do we need? Because I hear people argue over this ratio more than anything other step to making coffee.
They will argue about it! But when they make a cake mix they wouldn’t argue, they’d listen to Betty Crocker. The industry standard recipe is 10 grams (2 teaspoons) to 6 ounces. Every 6 ounces of water you want 10 grams of coffee grounds. If someone says it’s too strong, then I’d say grind coarser. If you’re grinding correctly it shouldn’t be bitter, you should get flavor. Most people, I think, are grinding it too fine. The automatic drip makers are taking too long to brew. Brewing shouldn’t take longer than six minutes, start to finish. That’s all the time hot water should be in contact with your grinds.
So that’s it, I’ve got my perfect coffee. How do you feel about people who put junk in it?
I’m going to stick up for the working man here. Can you imagine going to a farmer’s market and a farmer hands you some lettuce and says, “Hey, you’re not going to put dressing on that right?” Let them enjoy the coffee how they want. And in many ways there’s a long history of putting cream in coffee. In the coffee business, it’s a big issue. If I have an event and have some roasters they say, “We don’t want to put cream out for people.” But come on, let them have it. Nobody wants to drink something if they think it doesn’t taste good. If you brew coffee and get really into brewing coffee, when I’ll people to take a sip of black coffee, often they’re surprised at how sweet it is and how good it feels in their mouth. But people should enjoy it how they want to enjoy it.
What’s the worst mistake people are making?
There’s a lost-dog behavior common in the coffee business. People store coffee in their refrigerator. And if you’re going to store coffee, keep it in the freezer, not the fridge. The second thing is, when they grind, they grind too fine. All they do is get weak, bitter coffee and you want strong, not bitter.
What should we be experimenting with?
If you’re going to buy single origin coffees, coffees from one country, get coffee from some coffees you can’t pronounce. Some of the best coffee I’ve had in the last two years has been from Burundi. Sumatra is good, too. Try something you can’t pronounce. That’s where the bargains are in drinking coffees. It’s just like wine. You look for regions in France. Besides that, I buy by how it smells.
Any final thoughts?
Yeah, you know the most important thing about coffee really is who you drink it with. Sit down, share it, do it with someone you want to be with. For me that’s my wife. That’s the most important part.