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

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.

Buy prebagged coffee in a heat-sealed, aluminized Mylar bag with a one-way degassing valve. This valve (sometimes no more than a bump) releases carbon dioxide to stop the bag from inflating while keeping out oxygen, which turns coffee stale. Unopened, these bags keep beans as fresh as the day they were roasted for up to 90 days (the outer limit for beans in such packaging cited by roasters including George Howell Terroir Coffee Company in Acton, Massachusetts, and national retailer Peet’s Coffee & Tea). Of course, as soon as you open the bag, the clock starts ticking on freshness.

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.)

For the best results, portion beans (whether storing on the counter or in the freezer) in small zipper-lock bags in one-day allotments to keep air and moisture exposure to the barest minimum.

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.

If the beans are within seven to 10 days of roasting, they will release carbon dioxide that makes the bag puff up.

if the bag remains flat, the beans are not producing gas—a sign that they’ve passed the point of peak freshness.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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).

1. Add 2 tablespoons coffee for every 6 ounces water (preheat pot first with hot tap water).

2. Add just-boiled water steadily, saturating all the grounds.

3. Using long spoon or chopstick, stir coffee to aid extraction.

4. Add lid and steep coffee for about 5 minutes (4 minutes for smaller pots).

5. With even pressure, steadily press down filter.

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.

1. Add 2 tablespoons coffee for every 6 ounces water to filter.

2. Pour 1/2 cup just-boiled water over grounds, saturating thoroughly; let stand for 30 seconds.

3. Pour remaining hot water over grounds, in batches if necessary, stirring gently after each addition.

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.)

Winning Drip Coffee Maker

If you must buy an automatic drip machine, this is the one. Though pricey, it’s the only drip coffee maker that hit optimal temperatures for brewing and serving in our tests. It’s also fast and simple to operate, and pieces disassemble easily for cleaning. Though not programmable, this machine was so fast and easy to use, we didn’t mind. Tasters described the coffee it producd as “a dynamic and clean cup, flavorful and expressive.”

→ Buy our favorite drip coffee maker: Technivorm Moccamaster 10-Cup Coffee Maker with Thermal Carafe

→ Read our review of automatic drip coffee makers

Winning Thermal Carafe

Our winner is the only carafe that has extra insulation in addition to the standard double-wall vacuum seal. The thin sheets of copper and aluminum foil worked: After 4 hours, coffee was still piping hot at 152 degrees. Testers loved its snap-on lid, which sealed with an audible (and reassuring) click and can be completely disassembled for cleaning. It also boasts a comfortable handle and a responsive button and pours with a steady, even stream that cuts off without dribbling.

→ Buy our winning thermal carafe: Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Carafe

→ Read our review of thermal carafes

Best Buy French Press Coffee Maker

Though it cooled faster than our winning French press made by the same company, this press was simple to use and made coffee with great flavor for a fraction of the cost—and at a lower price than almost any high-quality drip coffee maker.

→ Buy our Best Buy French press coffee maker: Bodum Chambord French Press, 8-Cup

→ Read our review of French press coffee makers