You can spend $20 a pound for premium coffee, but unless it’s fresh and you’re using proper brewing techniques, it’s a waste of money. Here's what you need to know to make the perfect cup.
How to Make Coffee
- How to Buy Coffee Beans
- How to Store Coffee Beans
- Are Your Coffee Beans Fresh?
- 5 Pro Tips for Making Coffee
- How to Make Coffee in a French Press
- How to Make Pour-Over Coffee
- Best Coffee Equipment
How to Buy Coffee Beans
Buy loose beans in small quantities no more than a few days from the roasting date (ask before you buy); our testing has shown that roasted beans are ready for the compost pile after just 10 to 12 days. Buy from a local roaster or a store that sells a high volume, upping your chances of buying beans from a recently roasted batch.
Don't rely on expiration dates. We’ve found some supermarket coffee brands with expiration dates as far as two years out from the roasting date.
Don't buy preground coffee. Grinding speeds oxidation and the deterioration of flavor. When we compared coffee brewed from just-ground beans with coffee brewed from beans ground 24 hours earlier, tasters overwhelmingly preferred the coffee brewed from freshly ground beans. Grinding the night before is also not optimal: Studies show that the exposed coffee cells begin to break down within an hour.
How to Store Coffee Beans
Should you keep coffee beans on the kitchen counter or in the freezer? If you will finish a bag of beans in less than 10 to 12 days, store them either in the original bag or in a zipper-lock bag away from heat and light. If you plan to keep beans longer than this time frame, store them in the freezer to limit contact with air and moisture. (Never store coffee in the fridge, where it will pick up off-flavors.)
Are Your Coffee Beans Fresh?
What is the lifespan of a freshly roasted coffee bean? To determine how long coffee maintains ideal flavor after roasting, we bought 30 bags of beans (all from the same batch, packaged within hours of roasting in one-way valve bags). Over two weeks, we used our haul to prepare two pots of coffee daily: one made with beans from a just-opened bag, the other using beans stored on the counter in a sealed zipper-lock bag with the air pressed out. A few very discriminating tasters noticed a change in taste after just a few days of storage; many tasters noticed a deterioration after 10 days; most tasters agreed that the coffee tasted markedly less fresh after 12 days. Bottom line: Opened beans stored in an airtight container should be used within 10 to 12 days.
Does it Pass the Freshness Test?
To check if your beans are fresh, scoop 1/2 cup into a zipper-lock bag and press out all the air, then seal the bag and leave it overnight.
5 Pro Tips for Making Coffee
For perfect coffee, the goal is to extract 18 to 22 percent of the soluble solids—coffee brewed below this range tastes sour and weak; above this range, it tastes harsh. Here are tips to ensure ideal extraction and flavor.
- Use Filtered Water. A cup of coffee is about 98 percent water, so if your tap water tastes bad or has strong mineral flavors, your coffee will, too. We found that the test kitchen’s tap water masked some of the coffee’s complexity compared with coffee made with filtered water. Don’t bother buying bottled water—just use a filtration pitcher.
- Heat Water to the Proper Temperature. The most desirable flavor compounds in coffee are released in water between 195 and 205 degrees. A panel of our tasters judged coffee brewed at 200 degrees as having the fullest, roundest flavor. Once water has boiled (212 degrees), let it rest for 10 to 15 seconds to bring it down to this temperature. (Read our review of electric kettles.)
- Use the Right Grind; Brew for the Right Time. These two components go hand in hand. Brewing time will dictate how you grind the coffee. In general, the longer the brewing time, the coarser the grounds should be. As a rule, brewing should take 4 to 6 minutes. Don’t try to adjust strength by changing the grind; grounds that are too fine for your brewing method will result in overextraction, while grounds that are too coarse will be underextracted. (Learn more in our guide on how to grind coffee.)
- Add the Right Amount of Coffee. The norm is 2 tablespoons of ground beans for every 6 ounces of water. If you prefer stronger or weaker coffee, adjust the amount of grounds per cup; changing the amount of water can easily lead to over- or underextraction, because the less water you use, the shorter the brewing time and vice versa.
- Keep the Pot Clean. Since coffee beans contain oils, every time you brew a pot, some oil is left behind. Over time, that oil will make your coffee taste rancid. Rinse your pot with hot water after each use and scrub all brewing apparatus with hot soapy water at least once a week.
How to Make Coffee in a French Press
How it Works: A French press (or plunger pot) directly infuses ground coffee in just-boiled water. Once properly extracted, the grounds are pressed to the bottom of the carafe.
Why We Like It: Because the coffee’s oils are not filtered out, this method yields coffee nearly as full-bodied as espresso. It also allows you to control water temperature and brew time.
Downside: Cleaning requires taking apart the pieces.
The Right Grind: Medium-coarse (a little coarser than couscous).
How to Make Pour-Over Coffee
How it Works: Place ground coffee in a wedge-shaped filter holder and pour water over it into a container below.
Why We Like It: The manual drip allows the natural acidity of coffee to shine through, yielding bright, flavorful coffee. As with the French press, you control water temperature and brew time.
Downside: Since you have to add water in batches, you can’t leave the kitchen during brewing.
The Right Grind: Medium (like coarse cornmeal) for paper filters; medium-fine (like fine cornmeal) for metal filters.
Best Coffee Equipment
While we can’t dispute the convenience of an automatic drip coffee maker, we’ve learned that most models brew crummy coffee—they don’t heat the water to the ideal temperature, and the brewing times are too long or too short. Unless you’re willing to splurge on the one coffee maker we really like, the Technivorm Moccamaster, we recommend a French press or manual drip. (Learn about more types of coffee makers.)