Brewing Better Coffee Without Better Coffee Gear
Hello, Harrison here. (▰˘◡˘▰)
2021 was the first year I began to understand anything whatever about brewing better coffee. When I was brought onto the team at Wesley, I knew what a pour over was, and had a general idea that espresso should be pulled within a certain amount of time. Beyond that, I had only ever experienced coffee as a guest to the process, since a barista or a friend would always hand me a cup that they had brewed. Though I noted the difference in quality between a mug of light roast from a local cafe and the 22oz french-vanillin behemoth served over my parent’s countertops, I didn’t actually understand why the drink ever turned out so different.
But now I seem to have become a full-fledged barista—albeit one with a lingering soft spot for the nostalgia of a poorly extracted dark roast hounded with toffee cream (as a Christmas treat, at least). As such, this December is the first in which I have a hope to bring a brew of delicious, nuanced coffee home to family for the holidays. Problematically, the loads of gear that I’ve taken for granted in my daily brews—burr grinders, stacking glass towers, fancy gooseneck kettles—make for a mess of packing suitcases.
So, hoping to uncover how to brew better coffee with only the lackluster equipment I might expect to find next to the tinsel in my parent’s pantry, I went to the certified coffee experts on the Wesley Andrews team, who were gracious enough to set me with some simple tricks to serve a better pot of Cuisinart on Christmas morning.
Obviously, none of these suggestions are assuming ideal conditions, and thus should only be read under the context of being stripped naked from all fancy gadgetry. To be clear, for the best results out of your single-origin beans, we generally do not recommend utlizing any of the following points we are about to discuss. These are intended for the rogue Macgyver’s of the world: those seeking the highest quality cup while siphon-brewing out of a dentist-office hourglass. So take what tips you may need for your trip home, and then promptly forget them when you get back home to your Hario.
Below you’ll find a small list of at-home hacks to treat your beans as best you can without the gear you may be used to. Peruse, consider, and try some out, if you think they may apply. Whatever the case, best of luck, and here’s to a lovely holiday.
Making Better Machine Coffee
While there are a number of things that hamper budget coffee machines from extracting properly, we’ve come across two with incredibly simple solutions:
Heat Your Water Beforehand
Regardless of the brewing method used, a consistent variable that simply needs to be correct for proper coffee extraction is temperature. The ideal range for well-developed coffee notes is between 195ºF and 205ºF (about 90ºC to 96ºC). Many cheaper coffee machines focus too little on brew temp, pushing water through to the coffee bed far before it’s reached the temperature necessary. These machines are designed with speed and convenience in mind, and pulling tap water up to near boiling can take a decent while. We promise, it will be worth the wait. Set a pot of water on the stove, or turn on an electric kettle nearby, and pour a batch of already-scalding water into the basin of your coffee maker. It will drastically improve the extraction—resulting in a more balanced, flavorful brew. Less dry, flat bitterness, and more juicy, aromatic sweetness.
A note of caution—this tip is for the use of budget coffee makers. If you have a fancier machine brewer designed by coffee industry experts (think Moccamaster, Bonavita, Fellow, and the like), you can count on the internal heating elements to bring the water to the proper temperatures. We do not recommend pouring boiling water into systems such as these, as the fancy-pants temperature sensors can be stressed by this sudden shift up to boiling. (We have broken more than one of our shop kettles in this very way—oops).
Use a Paper Filter
If you happen to find some old-school paper filters laying around, opt for them over the industry standard plastic and mesh filters. The mesh material is incredibly difficult to clean fully, which means that years worth of coffee pot oil can still hang around in between the seams. Paper filters will aid in erasing that oily taste so many machines are infamous for. Just be sure to give it a rinse before use.
Force A Bloom
A “bloom” refers to the first moments when a bed of coffee is introduced to heat (water), wherein the ground coffee releases CO2 built up during the roasting process and begins to swell upward. We start every pour over in our cafe with a bloom (and recommend that you do, too), as the quick release of gas allows water to more evenly interact with the coffee grounds, resulting in a better extraction. The better the coffee to water interaction, the better the cup.
And good news: it’s incredibly simple to manually force a coffee maker to do this, too. Simply start your machine, let it brew for about 30 seconds, and then turn it off. Now lift the lid while the water is still sitting in the bed of grounds, and give it a small stir with a spoon—just enough to ensure all of the grounds throughout the bed have been soaked. Now close the lid, let it sit for another 30 seconds or so, and then restart the machine, letting the brew finish as it normall would. Though it a simple trick, the improvements made to the final batch are significant. Try it out!
Figuring out how to grind your beans well without a proper tool may be the most difficult aspect of brewing nonideal coffee to account for. There are a few videos floating around on the topic, though most of them are less useful in actual practice than their internet hits make them out to be. Here, we’re going to give unpopular advice: don’t worry so much about the perfect grind. Without a burr grinder, grinding coffee consistently is very difficult. There aren’t any simple tactics that make it otherwise. And frankly, even if there was some weird workaround that delivered burr-like results, nobody wants to spend twenty extra minutes of a holiday morning finely dicing coffee beans with a blunt paring knife for that extra 15% of flavor. Don’t add stress to the morning—here’s what you might consider instead:
Sift Uneven Grounds
If your parents have any grinding equipment, most likely they’ll have one of the simple blender-style grinders that float around Amazon and the Target aisle endcaps. These little devices are handy for grinding at the speed of light, but the grounds they produce are inconsistent. After one or two cycles of the blades, you’ll find yourself with layers of different sized coffee grounds—a courser layer will remain on the top of the pile while the bottom will likely has been pulverized into a snowy powder. These ultra-fine flecks are incredibly soluble, and will end up in the final cup of coffee, creating an oily, somewhat silty texture as you drink. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.
In order to clean up the resulting cup of coffee, consider sifting out the fine powder from the bottom of the blender pile. This can be done two ways:
If you have a fine kitchen sifter, you can use it to quickly and efficiently in separating the fine grounds from the coarse ground. Simply pour the grounds over it, shaking and agitating the sifter until the fine grounds make it through the mesh. Now you’re left with a coarser, more appropriate grind that can be used for whatever brew method you’ve landed on.
This can also be accomplished by pouring the grounds into a short bowl and gently sliding it back and forth against a countertop. The shaking motion will naturally move the bed, and the finest grounds will fall down through the larger parts—think boulders and sand. Now you can pull the largest grounds out from the top with a spoon. Slightly less effective, but doable if there are no other tools around.
Have Your Barista Grind Beforehand
Now this goes completely against all craft coffee know-how. Like we said, we do not recommend this, truly. The reason we don’t generally recommend this is because, as you probably know, grinding beans drastically speeds up the staling process. Grinding coffee fast-tracks the release of CO2 from the beans—a process refered to in the industry as degassing—and coffee needs to do this in order for extractable flavors to mature. The problem is that grinding will speed the process up too much, and by the time you pull out your beans to brew a fresh cup of coffee two days later, the grounds will have released all their gases, having too little to produce vibrant flavor. This is why preground coffee has a dull, dark palate—the overripened flavor many associate with the standard ‘java’ flavor of the 1st and 2nd wave of coffee culture (think black coffees from Peet’s, Folgers, and Starbucks).
However—and this is a big however—between a bag of coffee that was ground correctly, but slightly too early, and a bag of fresh, yet poorly ground coffee, our money is on the slightly older burr-ground bag to pull out a more recognizable flavor profile. While the preground stuff may be somewhat dull, the poorly ground coffee will be much more likely to speed up or slow down your brew to such an extreme degree that you’ll end up with wickedly sour or drying, bitter result. We’ll take the diminishing returns instead.
So if you don’t have any access to a grinder, or the blades on your blender grinder are pitifully old, it might be worth just having your barista grind the coffee bag you’ve purchased at their cafe along your holiday commute. This isn’t exactly a top-secret tip, but we thought it may be a relief to hear a specialty coffee roaster give you permission to do this. It’s a last-ditch effort in our minds, but nobody should look at you sideways. We all do what we gotta do.
The French Press
The craft darling of the mainstream, the french press has endured years of recommendations and ridicule alike. Nonetheless, it remains the most approachable of all manual coffee gear for the uninitiated, and that’s because it can produce a wonderful cup of coffee under the right conditions. The conditions we recommend, however, are probably somewhat different than the instructions on the side of the french press box.
Because a french press is an immersion brewer (i.e. it extracts coffee by a steeping process similar to tea brewing), it has incredible potential to extract flavors. This can be either good news or bad news, though—as it does not discriminate between the delicious flavors you want in a final cup and any flavor defects the bean has hidden under their skin.
This is exactly how coffee cupping works, too. As roasters, we use immersion brewing to identify the most accurate profile a bed of grounds will produce. It helps us to understand if we’ve roasted our beans properly, or what we can improve. So we can think of the french press as a giant cupping brew. And have no fear, even if you’ve never cupped coffee before, internet-coffee-extraction-extraordinaire James Hoffman has a wonderfully simple video explaining the whole process right here. Just don’t fall down the YouTube rabbit hole before remembering to finish the brew for your holiday buddies.
Follow his guide, or, if you know the cupping process of the industry already, go ahead and crack the crust yourself. Either way, make sure you don’t push the press down at the end as you normally would—we want that cupping bed to stay tucked away at the bottom, as far away from your christmas mug as possible.
Whatever way you end up dialing your coffee, we hope these tips will help you to make a merrier holiday brew this year. Best of luck with any or all of them, and let us know if there are any other tips you’ve stumbled across in your own coffee journeys.