A hot cup of coffee is one of the simplest pleasures in life. Nature’s instant-pick-me-up stirs everything from conversations, to ideas that have changed the world. But, do you know what goes into the brew?
In this series of Coffee Brewing Basics, I shall break-down the art and science of brewing a solid cup of Joe. Whether you are a home brewer or a wannabe Barista or a coffee enthusiast, these tips will help you understand your favorite beverage, one sip at a time. This is not meant to be a comprehensive compendium of brewing coffee, and will as such, focus on brewing a good cup of black coffee at home. Why only black coffee? Because, brewed right (and after reading this guide) a cup of delicate and nuanced beverage, bursting with flavours needs little more in the way of milk and sugar.
Nothing else impacts the flavour of a cup of roasted coffee beans as much as the freshness and size of their grounds. There is absolutely no substitute for the aroma and flavour of freshly ground beans. Whilst you could fetch ground coffee beans from the neighborhood store or roastery every day, their matchless quality diminishes by the hour and a dedicated grinder is a worthwhile investment that you shall cherish after every sip.
Bare minimum: Blade Grinders
I will stick my neck out and say that a basic blade grinder (often sold as a spice grinder) is much better than stale grounds. The grinder works by rotating sharp blades in a circular motion, slicing the beans into smaller pieces. The mechanism has two major flaws – firstly, the circular motion draws away smaller pieces of the coffee beans towards the centre on account of centrifugal force, thereby leading to an uneven grind size. Geeks will also point out the friction between the surface of the grinder and beans that heat up the grounds.
However, if you are fastidious with your technique (use short bursts and shake), you will end up with an evenly distributed inconsistency (it is not an idiosyncrasy) in your grounds. Now make up for the lack of precision by doing a small experiment with the amount of water and steep time, to figure out your sweet spot. If you keep doing this right, you shall end up with a perfectly serviceable cup of coffee.
The blade grinders have the advantage of being compact, cheap and easily available – making them the perfect gateway gear into the coffee brewing world.
The Upgrade: Burr Grinders
Burr grinders work by slicing the beans through rotating discs. The distance between the discs is adjustable allowing you to dial in precisely the size of your grounds. Once set, you shall end up with a precise and consistent ground every time. This is what makes it a must-have in any serious coffee aficionado’s kitchen cabinet or at a coffee shop counter. Burr grinders come in a huge variety, ranging from the basic hand cranked models to space-age automatic grinders which can be customised to the levels of parts per million.
A good buy – for a beginner, I recommend the manual coffee mills by the Japanese brand Hario; if you can afford them, electric grinders by Baratza are regarded as some of the best.
Bonus tip: A pepper/salt mill
Yes, you read that right. A salt or a pepper mill also employs the same mechanism as a burr grinder and delivers similar results. Make sure you ditch the peppercorns and run a test batch or two of coffee beans to rid the smaller pepper grounds and their residue. Large mills which allow you to tune the grind size such as ones from Peugeot work best.
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