Something About Coffee

And why it's so good, and how to get from a non-carer to a coffee person.

by DAN TASSE

A bit about you and me and the goal of this post

am into coffee, but I'm not into wine. I get that there's something special about really great coffee that plain old blah coffee doesn't have, and that it's possible to do it yourself, and that it's worth it. I don't get these things about wine. So here's the post about coffee that I wish someone would write for me about wine.

You don't really see what the big deal about coffee is, or you know that there's probably something to the art of good coffee, but you have no idea how to get started, or if it's really worth it. If you're already making good coffee or work in the business, this is probably too basic for you. If you don't really care, then this might be a waste of your time. (It might be surprisingly interesting, though.)

I'll try to avoid extensive detail to keep this short. Once you know what to do, you can google around for how to do it, or of course ask a local barista.

What can you get from good coffee?

Better taste, a better moment, accidental community, and a slight positive effect for the world around you.

Benefit 1. Better Taste

This is the most obvious reason to care about coffee, so I'll talk the longest about it. Let's assume you're drinking Folgers from a Mr. Coffee at home or a Big Old Pot at work. Here are some steps that will make it taste better:

  1. Get better beans. This is, I think, the most important thing you can do, and if you don't do it, the coffee won't taste better. And probably the most important thing about the beans is that they're lightly roasted. Most mass-market coffee is roasted dark. This makes it consistent, which is why Folgers and Starbucks like it. It also makes it bitter. Get light roasted beans, and you'll cut the bitterness already.

    Bad signs: French, Italian, Vienna, or other place-name roasts. Beans that look dark and shiny. Good signs: Beans that look medium brown and not shiny. Packages with roasted-on dates that are within the last few days. Beans bought directly from a local coffee shop with "roaster" in the name.

    If you can't find any good coffeeshops locally, try a service like Mistobox, which will source and send you good coffee directly.

  2. Grind them fresh, so they're more flavorful. Now that you've hopefully got less bitter coffee, you might get some nice flavors out of it, but you won't if it's all old and dusty. Grind them right before you use them.

    You can get a blade grinder for $15. But spring for a "burr" grinder for about $100, and the quality goes way up, mostly because the grounds are a lot more consistently sized. Most baristas I talk to recommend the Baratza Encore (~$130) as a good first grinder.

 

  1. Get hotter water, so you extract more flavors out of the coffee. Most Mr. Coffee machines or Big Old Pots use water that's about 160 degrees Fahrenheit (70 C) to avoid people spilling it on themselves, but coffee should ideally be brewed at about 200-205 (about 96 C). You can get a cheap electric kettle, let it boil, and then let it cool for about a minute.

  2. Measure the beans and water, so it's not too strong or too watery.

  3. Try it without milk or sugar, at least at first. It's possible that when the coffee tastes better, you won't need it. That said, don't let anyone tell you you can't add it. Do you.

  4. Brew it yourself. This is not so much because the Mr. Coffee is terribly flawed, but mostly because you can't control points 1, 2, 3, and 4 with a Mr. Coffee. The easiest way to do this is called a "pour over", and it's just what it sounds like: pour hot water over a cone full of grounds that drips into a cup.

To do this:

  1. Buy: beans ($10-20), a grinder ($15-130, the 130 is worth it), a dripper (the $7 Hario v60 is popular, as is the $15 Bee House), corresponding filters (probably $8), a cheap gram scale ($7), and a cheap electric kettle ($15). Even better: go to your local coffee shop and buy them all from them.
  2. Boil water.
  3. Grind 18g of beans. (Probably medium-fine, but do whatever your grinder suggests for pour-over.)
  4. Put a filter in the cone. Run some hot water through it so it's wet, or it will taste papery.
  5. Put the grounds in the cone, and put the cone over your mug. Pour a little water on it so the grounds are wet.
  6. Pour more hot water over the beans. You want about 285g water total. Let it drip through.
  7. Ask any questions to a local barista. It's good to get to know them anyway.

What will it taste like?

All kinds of things! I can honestly tell you that I've tasted coffees that taste a little like berries, plums, chocolate, nuts, flowers, herbs, and tomatoes. A way to develop your taste is to taste your coffee and then look at a chart like this one from Counter Culture Roasters and see if you can get any hint of any of these flavors. It's okay if you're making it up a little bit.

Benefit 2. A Better Moment

Now that your coffee tastes better, you might enjoy it more. But, you may say, it takes longer! That is fine. Enjoy it. Maybe you'll start to enjoy the ritual of it. Get all zen and stuff.

This is a side benefit of coffee shops: they are often nice places to spend a little time. Some coffeeshops are worth it despite the coffee. But coffeeshop atmosphere is a subject for another post.

Haus, San Francisco

Haus, San Francisco

Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Victrola, Seattle

Victrola, Seattle

(Haus, Voluto, and Victrola, three of my favorite shops in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Seattle respectively.)

Benefit 3. Accidental Community

You might find that you meet other people who are also into coffee. You might find you can teach other people about coffee. And with little extra time and effort! It's this sort of phatic action; your day could go on just fine without a fancy coffee, but you can all pretend it's a quite important thing for a minute.

Really, that's kind of the best part about coffee snobbery, or any other snobbery for that matter. You and I both know that nobody's going to die if they drink bad coffee, and drinking good coffee is not really this rapturous experience that transports you to another plane. But it gives us this chance to play the role of the aficionado, in as high or low fidelity as we like, while doing this thing we were already doing.

Benefit 4. A Slight Positive Effect For the Rest of the World

That said, it sure doesn't hurt to buy sustainable coffee. Some good words: single origin, direct trade (better than "fair trade", though that's also fine), shade grown, and organic I guess. Ask a barista what any of these mean when you see them on their coffee.

Try not to flinch at the prices. Cheap coffee is artificially cheap through a bunch of crummy environmental and labor practices. If it helps, figure a 12oz bag will get you about 20 cups of coffee, so if it costs $15, that's only 75c/cup.

Finally

Enjoy it, and don't be a jerk. You don't get cosmic bonus points for drinking good coffee, much like you don't get bonus points for drinking good wine. Yes, there are professional sommeliers and coffee tasters; you are not one of them. Make and drink fancy coffee because you like it and because it's fun.

***

Dan Tasse: CMU HCII PhD student. Using public geotagged social media data to make cities better. Also: bikes and coffee.