I’m by no means a coffee connoisseur, but I most definitely am a coffee lover. As long as I get my morning cup o’ joe, I’m good to go — whether it came from an heirloom bean sustainably sourced in Costa Rica or from a 50-gallon bag from Costco, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Still, as such a devoted coffee drinker, I thought it was time to expand my horizons outside of the coffee shop and learn the real, grown-up way to brew a legitimately good cup of coffee. Consider this one of those life skills that’s just genuinely good to have (and will probably end up saving you some cash). Here, coffee pros share the secrets to successfully brewing the perfect cup of coffee. Trust me when I say that you may never have a reason to go to Starbucks again.
Learn what you like
First and foremost, establish and know your coffee tastes. “Coffee brewing is a relationship,” says Todd Carmichael, CEO of La Colombe. “There are all kinds of different coffees for all types of different people.” Broadly speaking, coffee can be categorized into three genres: rich dark roasts, nutty medium roasts, and fruity light roasts. Just like you’d go to a wine bar and sip on a few different glasses of vino, start your coffee brewing journey with a visit to your local coffee shop. Ask to try a few different options to help determine what you’re into (though FYI, try them black, without milk or sugar, so you can really compare flavors). Despite my general coffee brewing naiveté, I did go into this knowing that I prefer light roasts. Check.
Buy fresh beans
“If possible, always start with whole bean coffee, which will stay fresher longer,” advises Joshua Milman, owner of Passion House Coffee Roasters in Chicago. These days, most grocery stores carry a wide variety, and coffee shops are obviously a great place to shop, too. I’ve started buying coffee beans as souvenirs when I travel, so this was the perfect opportunity to — finally — crack into my stash.
Go with the grind
Grinding the beans may be the most important step of the whole process, and in retrospect, where I had often gone wrong. While the exact size grind you want varies based on brewing method (more on that next), you usually want to end up with a grind consistency that looks like kosher salt, says Milman. As far as how you get there, Milman feels passionately about burr grinders (made up of two revolving abrasive surfaces, rather than blades), which he says deliver the most consistent and even grind size. “The more even the grind size, the better the coffee will be extracted,” he adds. Confession: I used a spice grinder, which ended up working out totally fine once I knew which grind size I was aiming for. Seem like a lot of extra work? I get it. Just ask to have your coffee ground when you buy the beans. It’s that easy.
Choose your brewer
The big moment of truth: What kind of coffee machine to go with? Milman is a fan of Technivorm and Bonavita, both of which he says are great at getting the water hot enough and keeping it at an optimal temperature (200 to 205 degrees, ICYW) throughout the brewing process. Carmichael likes the Clever Dripper, which he says, “delivers a consistently delicious brew.” Obviously, though, the options are endless. Because I wasn’t quite committed to buying a new coffee maker solely for the purposes of this experiment, I busted out the old school, electric drip coffee maker I had in the back of my cabinet. My takeaway is that it really is less about the actual machine or method, and more about the grind of the coffee and how much water you’re using. To that point…
Pay attention to the coffee-water ratio
Here’s the part of the process where I’d also been screwing up. I’d always guess-timated — one tablespoon-ish of coffee per cup of water? — yet had gotten results that ranged from super watery to insanely concentrated, in both cases undrinkable. Milman says the ideal ratio to aim for is one-part coffee to anywhere between 16 to 18 parts water (filtered water will give you the best tasting brew). Try playing around with these proportions; I did and found them to be super helpful. Along with tweaking that ratio, changing up the grind can also make a difference. “If the coffee tastes too bitter, make the grind slightly coarser. If it’s too sour, make the grind slightly finer,” suggests Milman.
At the end of the day, be prepared for a little trial and error. It took me a pot or two to fully get the hang of it, and it was admittedly more work than popping a pod into a Keurig machine or placing a Starbucks mobile order, but there’s something truly satisfying about brewing the perfect cup of coffee. I may not have a second career as a barista, but at least I no longer feel totally codependent on mine.