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A Guide to Great Coffee

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 21, 2016
Category: Food and Wine

Lee Child says he’s had as many as 36 cups of coffee in a single day. His chief rival was Honoré de Balzac, who allegedly drank 50 cups of coffee a day, though they were smaller, each equal to about a third of an American-sized cup. Balzac knew how important coffee is to creative work: “As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move… similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.”

Child and Balzac would reject most of what we think of as coffee. And they’d be right — most coffee isn’t good coffee. You drink coffee that you bought in a can in a grocery store? That’s not good coffee. You store coffee in the freezer? Not good. You pour it from a pot that sits on an electric grid? Terrible. You buy pods by the dozen? That’s pollution. Or, God forbid, you substitute some flavored concoction for a milk product? No hope for that cup.

Inferior coffee is totally unnecessary. Great coffee beans are widely available, as are inexpensive, quality coffeemakers. The ritual of making Good Coffee is simple, even satisfying. And the pleasure of drinking? Beyond.

There are, I’m sure, many roads to Good Coffee. This one works for me. I commend it to you.

l) When you buy coffee, buy whole beans. Once coffee beans are ground, they tend to oxidize — within a few days, the freshness has been seriously compromised. Even when ground beans are properly stored, it’s like opening a bottle of Bordeaux and leaving it uncorked overnight; by morning, it’s on the path to vinegar.

2) Which beans to buy? Thanks to Starbucks, it’s come to be accepted in this country that dark roast = gourmet coffee. Another way to say that: If it tastes burned, it must be good. Rubbish! Over-roasting is a nifty way to disguise second-rate beans. When mass marketers start the hard sell for a “dark, full-bodied” brew, that’s a good time to tune out. For my taste, “lighter” beans — that is to say: Medium Roasts from Ethiopia, Colombia, Guatemala and Sumatra — will do quite nicely, although there is much to be said for a well-calibrated Espresso Roast like Mayorga Dark Roast Cubano, my current favorite. [To read about Mayorga Dark Roast Cubano and buy it from Amazon, click here.] Where do you buy quality beans? Ideally, at a local shop that sells only coffee — and roasts it every few days. How much should you buy? Enough for a week or two.

Did you know that coffee is America’s second-largest import (after oil)? And that America buys about 25% of the world’s coffee crop every year? This is enormous buying power. When used wisely, that’s a good thing. It often isn’t. So look for coffee with these key phrases on the package: “fair trade” and “shade grown.” (Forget “organic.” Many importers don’t tell the truth.) These phrases tell you two things that will warm you as much as a mug of coffee on a cold morning. First, the farmers who grew these beans took the trouble to grow them correctly. Second, those farmers were paid a fair price for the beans.

3) Have you heard that coffee beans stay fresh if you store them in the freezer? Well, they don’t. Freezing your beans will cause the oils to freeze — which changes the taste. You’ll do much better to store coffee beans in an airtight container in a cupboard (away from sunlight) at room temperature.

4) Beans should be ground just before you are ready to pour boiling water over them. Don’t boil pre-warmed water; start with cold water. Some people swear you should only use mineral water; I don’t go that far. Which grinder? There’s nothing wrong with an inexpensive electric grinder. [To buy an inexpensive Krups grinder from Amazon, click here.] Coffee snobs prefer a burr grinder because it coddles the beans. [To read about the wonders of the Capresso Burr Grinder and buy it from Amazon, click here.]

5) Don’t use an electric coffee maker if you can possibly avoid it. I prefer a glass pitcher and a Melitta drip filter, with the coffee ground appropriately (very fine). [To buy a Melita drip coffee pot from Amazon, click here.] Others find that a French press (with coffee ground less fine) not only gets the job done but makes them think of Paris cafes. [To buy a French press from Amazon, click here.]

6) It’s entirely possible to make great coffee — and ruin it in an hour. How? Just keep the pot over a low flame or re-heat it when you want more. Why does fire ruin coffee? Because — attention, class, there will be a quiz on this — coffee is not a liquid, it is a colloid. [Definition: “a substance that consists of particles dispersed throughout another substance.”] Because of those particles, fire will change the chemistry of the coffee. I’ll make it simpler: Fire turns coffee into bitter sludge. Why don’t the makers of electric coffee makers that keep coffee hot all day tell you this? For the same reason the tobacco companies don’t tell you that cigarettes cause cancer — the truth would put them out of business. So what’s the solution? A thermos. It will keep your coffee hot and flavorful for six to eight hours. Good idea: Preheat the thermos by half-filling it with boiling water while the coffee brews — and remember to empty the thermos before you pour the just-brewed coffee in. [The Zojirushi Premium Thermal 1.85 liter Carafe costs more than others, but it’s the best. To buy it from Amazon, click here. To buy a smaller, individual-sized Zojirushi thermos from Amazon, click here.]

Connoisseurs have taken to talking about coffee as if it were wine. There are “top notes.” There is “finish.” There are “hints” and “undercurrents.” I loathe that pretense. Great coffee tastes really good — how’s that for a way of judging it?

There are surely people in your life who say coffee is bad for you. I would say in response: Coffee contains antioxidants. A good thing. And caffeine. A great thing. And when you make it right, it’s the best-tasting, most soul-satisfying drink in the world. So don’t settle….