Everyone is looking for ways to save money. Often, someone will take a financial planning class or read a book on how to save money, and the example is always the same: the coffee shop. If you just stopped buying that expensive drink from Fivebucks (yeah, they actually say that), you could save X number of dollars a month. This is often used as an example, not just because it’s easy to understand, but also because it’s a really easy way to save money.
But for many of us, simply not drinking coffee isn’t an option, and we’re not willing to drink the lukewarm sludge that’s usually available at the office. While some might run out and buy a $4,000 home espresso machine in the name of “saving money,” many are left wondering if there are options that will actually save you money.
The answer is: YES, ABSOLUTELY! You can make amazing coffee at home, and you can get started for less than a week’s worth of drinks at the local coffee shop. It’s easy, but starting with the right equipment and ingredients is vital.
In this article, we’ll give you a breakdown of everything you’ll need to make great coffee at home! Here’s a simple equation that we’ll tease out as this article continues:
Beans + Grind + Water + Brewing Device + Vessel = Coffee!
Choosing Your Beans
Nothing will affect your coffee as much as the beans you choose to brew. The world of coffee beans is vast and growing rapidly, and if you’re willing to look past Starbucks and Folgers, a taste adventure is waiting for you! Like looking through a kaleidoscope, the variation potential in coffee beans is almost endless. What region of the world does the coffee come from? Is it a single origin coffee or a blend? What elevation was the coffee grown at? How did the farmer dry the coffee when it was picked off the plant? Who roasted it? How did they roast it? How dark did they roast it? Like I said the possibilities are endless.
Let’s take a look at a few of the factors that affect the taste of your cup of coffee:
Region: Where’s my coffee from?
Almost all of the word’s coffee comes from close to the equator, in an area that has become known as the “Bean Belt.” But it’s not just being close to the equator that allows a region to produce good coffee plants. For a long time, roasters have touted the elevation of the farm, noting that the best coffee has traditionally come from tropical farms at 3,600-6,300 feet, and sub-tropical farms with an elevation of 1,800-3,600 feet.
So elevation and latitude are extremely important to the successful growth of the coffee bean, but why? It’s all about temperature… both latitude and elevation affect temperature greatly. So before you grab a coffee simply because it was grown at 6,000 feet, let’s take a look at the main growing regions, and explore some helpful tips. To be clear, these are not hard and fast rules, but rather generalizations that will help you develop a flavor profile that suits your palate.
- South and Central American coffees are generally lower in acidity and body, while African coffees tend to be more fruity, juicy, heavy in body, and higher in acidity. To use the idea of tasting notes, your coffee from the Americas is more likely to be nutty, while the African beans tend to taste fruitier.
- South and Central American beans tend to be more balanced, making them a better pick for a new coffee drinker (or a friend whose preferences you aren’t familiar with). Conversely, African coffees are a great way to wow your taste buds and expand your palate.
Process: Washed or Natural?
Once you delve into the world of craft coffee, you’re likely to read a label that touts a washed coffee, and another that boasts itself as natural. This refers to the way that the coffee seed (the part we want) is extracted from the coffee cherry. There are three main methods that farmers use for cherry processing: natural, honey, and washed. Here’s the difference in a nutshell:
- Natural: the seeds are removed after the fruit has completely dried
- Honey: the skin and fleshly pulp are removed before drying, while everything else stays intact
- Washed: everything is removed before drying
Ok, that’s the process… but what does that mean for the taste? Generally, the more a coffee is tampered with before drying, the less intense the coffee will be (in body, sweetness, acidity, and fruitiness). Therefore (again, generally):
- Natural: the most sweet, acidic, fruity, and full-bodied
- Honey: somewhere in the middle
- Washed: the least sweet, acidic, fruity, and full-bodied
Beans: Single Origin or Blend?
When you’re at the shop picking out a bag of coffee, you’ll usually either read “Single Origin” or “________ Blend” on the bag. What’s the deal? Simply put, single origin coffees are roasts that all come from the same region, country, or if you’re lucky, even the same farm. Blends are just what they sound like as well: two or more coffees “blended” together.
Single origin coffees are typically more exclusive, expensive, and distinct in flavor. For the most part, blends will combine some higher and lower quality coffees, making them cheaper and easier to find. That being said, there are some great roasters who show their artistry through their blends. Example: BLUE BOTTLE THREE AFRICAS BLEND
Roast: Light or Dark?
Once the coffee is off the farm and in the hands of the roaster, there is still a lot of flavor left to decide. Green coffee (coffee that isn’t yet roasted) tastes, looks, and smells nothing like the coffee you buy in the shop, but the way it’s manipulated by the roaster decides so much about the final flavor found in the bean.
At its most basic level, there are four types of roasts: Light, Medium, Medium-Dark, and Dark. As you can imagine, the longer a coffee is roasted, the darker it will become. When it comes to flavor, here is a general breakdown:
- Light: more complexity in the flavor, more acidity, less body
- Medium: still some complexity, but less acidity and more body
- Medium-Dark: you begin to taste roast flavors (char, wood, smoky), less complexity, even less acidity, more body
- Dark: bitter, smoky, burnt
Again, there are so many factors that affect the flavor of these different roast levels, like how quickly the beans were roasted, and what method was used to roast them. But as you explore different flavors, these generalizations help in nailing down your preferred flavor profile.
Choosing Your Grind(er)
If you’re serious about making coffee at home, you need a grinder. Sure, you could buy pre-ground beans or have the shop or grocery store grind it for you, but you’re sacrificing taste and quality by brewing beans that were ground more than a day before. Also, as we’ll see later, different brewing methods call for different grinds, and a pre-ground bag with either lock you in to a specific brewing method, or it will make brewing other ways impossible.
There are two main types of grinders to consider, and each has their advantages and disadvantages.
If you’re buying your grinder at Target, you’re likely looking at a blade grinder. Blade grinders do exactly what you’d think: they use blades to slice up your beans until they’re at the desired grind. These are great because they’re usually cheap and easy to use, but they are going to give you a far less consistent grind than the other type we’ll consider: the burr grinder.
Instead of cutting up your beans, a burr grinder will smash your coffee to a specified grind. Burr grinders use two burrs, one stable and the other rotating, that work together to grind your coffee. These are great because they are far more precise than a blade grinder, meaning you can set your burr grinder up for a French press, pour over, or drip brew, and the beans will be fairly consistent. The negative of burr grinders is that they are usually more expensive, and often larger than blade grinders. One way to combat the size and cost of a burr grinder is to buy a manual burr grinder, as opposed to an electric grinder. Here are a few favorites: HARIO CERAMIC MILL “SKERTON” | JAVAPRESSE MANUAL BURR GRINDER.
The temperature of the water you brew your coffee with matters more than you may think. Too cool, and you’re not getting the flavor from the beans. And too hot, you’re burning them. That’s why you always want to make your coffee with water that’s between 195-205 degrees (Fahrenheit). The best way to make sure is to buy a variable temperature control kettle, like the FELLOW STAGG EKG, or the less expensive BONAVITA GOOSENECK KETTLE. These will keep your water at the exact temperature you set.
But what if you don’t want to spend the money on a variable temperature control kettle. No worries. Simply let your water boil, then let it sit for 30-45 seconds before using it for your coffee.
There are many great ways to make coffee, and your brewing device will dictate not just the flavor of your coffee, but also the ease of brewing and clean up. We outline the top five ways to make coffee IN THIS ARTICLE, but in this article, we’ll give just a brief overview of the most popular type of devices.
Drip coffee can be great for those wanting extreme ease and the ability to brew for a larger group of people. On the flip side, low-end drip brewers can be inconsistent, and do a poor job of bringing out the flavors of your coffee. In order to bypass this problem, you’ll need a higher dollar drip brewer, such as the OXO ON BARISTA BRAIN.
Pour over (also called a V60 drip) is a great introduction into the world of craft coffee. The equipment is inexpensive, the brewing process is quick and simple, and the clean up is easy. All you need is a standard V60 dripper (HARIO V60 BUNDLE)and paper filters (HARIO V60 PAPER FILTERS).
If you’re looking for coffee with the least amount of outside factors affecting the flavor of your coffee, Chemex is the way to go. Not only is a Chemex really easy to brew, it also looks really cool on your counter top. The biggest negative of the Chemex is the cleanup, but for an entry price of $40, it’s well worth the extra 45 seconds it takes to get your Chemex ready for its next use. All you need is a CHEMEX and FILTERS.
If you’re wanting to be able to take your brewing system on the go, Aeropress is your best option. The equipment is inexpensive, mobile, and extremely easy to use. From start to finish, it only takes less than 2 minutes to brew, and less than a minute to clean up. You’ll need an AEROPRESS, which comes with a scooper, stirrer, and filter holder. You’ll also need AEROPRESS SPECIFIC FILTERS.
Many people don’t think much about the cup they drink their coffee from, but a bad mug or glass can ruin a great cup of coffee. Here are a few tips when it comes to your vessel:
Never wash your coffee cup with soap
I know this sounds ridiculous, but soaps are full of chemicals that taint the flavor of the coffee you’ve worked so hard to brew. Instead, we recommend simply rinsing your vessel with extremely hot (205-210 degree) water after each use, and then using a dye-free cloth or dye-free paper towel to wipe away any excess build up. If you just can’t stomach that, then wash your vessel with a little bit of baking soda or vinegar.
Consider a double-insulated mug
As soon as your coffee finishes brewing, it begins to cool. While cooling is natural, it quickly affects the taste of your finished product. Vessels like the YETI 10OZ RAMBLER or YETI 14OZ RAMBLER will keep your coffee hot for hours, preserving not just the temperature, but also the flavor.
As you can see, there are so many factors affecting the coffee you make at home, but for just a few dollars, you can compete with the hipster shop downtown. For a deeper dive into the ways you can brew, check out HOW TO MAKE THE PERFECT CUP OF COFFEE AT HOME.
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