How Not to Mess up a Great Coffee

Posted by Jason Pemberton on

There are 4 main stages at which we can royally mess up a great coffee.

The first stage happens at the farm. The coffee can be harvested at the wrong time, meaning the beans are unripe— or the coffee may be processed or dried incorrectly, which can among other things, make decent roasting nearly impossible.

The second happens during transit. From Origin, to the roaster or middle man. Incorrect storage during coffees often long transit can wreak havoc.

Stage three, is at the roastery. Coffee can very easily be stored in poor conditions here too, and can be over/under roasted and not fully developed. Both of which can destroy everything that was done right before it arrived.

The fourth and final stage begins once the coffee gets into the hands of whomever is brewing it. A lot, a lot, A LOT, can go wrong at this stage. From storage, to flavour contamination and incorrect brewing— even if everything was done perfectly on the farmers end, and the roaster roasted it nicely—this last stage can discount everything.

Here. Here are some common mess ups I’m sure we’re all guilty of in our newbie coffee days—I’ve made the mistakes so you don’t have to.

You’re very welcome!

 

Keep your coffee in a sealed container at all times.

When left exposed to the air, oxygen can wreak absolute chaos on coffee beans.

Oxygen causes things to go stale. Stale coffee = flat, boring tasting coffee.

Keeping your coffee in a sealed container or bag is an effective way of slowing the effects of oxidisation on the coffee. Even better than a sealed air-tight container, is a vacuum sealed container.

Vacuum seals actually pull the air out, so your coffee will keep for far longer.

A number of companies make vacuum seal containers where you pump out the air by hand. Traditional vacuum sealed bags also work a treat.

Note that if you are using a bag of coffee within one week of opening, the bag which the coffee came in will absolutely do the trick. Much longer than a week, I would strongly recommend a vacuum sealed container of some sort.   

 

Choose a filter which has the least amount of taste.

I’m thinking that most coffee enthusiasts have done this. Possibly while bored.

What you do, is you buy a few different brands of coffee filters—whatever you have available to you. Place one of each filter in its own cup, then pour hot water over it. Just like brewing a delicious cup of coffee paper filter tea. Let it cool, then taste the water.

Which water has the least taste? This is the filter you should go with.

The reason behind this, is because we really don’t want any outside flavours affecting the coffee. By making sure we are using the filter that’s flavour we can detect the least, we are mitigating the chance of having the papery taste obstruct the flavour of the coffee.    

 

Always grind fresh using a quality burr grinder.

This again has to do with our love hate relationship with our good friend— oxygen.

When you pre-grind coffee, you are breaking open the bean, making much more surface area for oxygen to get in there and attack. Also, when grinding, you are releasing many aromatic compounds, which will be lost to the ether if you grind too far in advance. Best to grind a few minutes before brewing in order to get the most—to get all the delicious, delicate aromas— out of the coffee you are using.

 Not only is it best to grind fresh, it is also important to use a good quality grinder.

I think the rule here should be; simply buy the best grinder you can afford. Even the worst grinder is better than buying pre-ground bags of coffee. I will always recommend hand grinders. You get far more bang for your buck.

A burr grinder with steel burrs, in my opinion, is the way to go. These will give an even particle size (even particle size, meaning all the little pieces of ground coffee are as close to being the same size as possible. This will be a key factor in brewing coffee which is properly, evenly, extracted) and will last almost forever.

 

Use clean brewing equipment.

Stale, caked on coffee tastes bad, bad, bad.

If you brew with a V60, Kalita wave, or something like, be sure to wash it, and the carafe you brewed into, afterward. Properly wash the cups you drink from. Rise everything out after washing, because dish soap residue can give coffee a strange sunflower kind of taste. Not nice.

Use a (clean!) paint brush to brush out your grinder often, especially between different coffees. You don’t want the taste of one coffee contaminating another.

 Water contains Calcium and Magnesium. When heated, these two break down and form what is known as scale, or limescale. If you are using a batch brewer or espresso machine, you will need to descale your machine occasionally. This is pretty easy to do, and can be done with a descaling solution (apparently vinegar can be used, but I can’t comment on that as I’ve never done it). It is also worth descaling your kettle while you’re at it.

Last but not least, rinse everything that your coffee will come into contact with, (aside from your grinder of course. Please don’t rinse your grinder) with hot water immediately before brewing. This will not only get rid of any dust, dead insects (just me?!) and possible left over dish soap— it will also preheat your equipment.

Well, well, that was a convenient segue… 

 

Preheat all brewing equipment.

Coffee extracts most effectively at high temperatures of around 95 degrees Celsius. Preheating helps keep things hot.

Brewing into a cold (non-preheated) V60 or alike can cause the slurry temperate to drop. Lower slurry temperature will equal lower levels of extraction. Lower levels of extraction will generally mean less flavour. So keep it hot!

The equipment you should be preheating will include:

  • V60, Kalita wave, or whatever brewer you are using
  • Filter
  • Carafe you are brewing into
  • Cups you will be pouring into
  • Pour over kettle if you don’t use it to actually heat the water

  

Use the coffee within its ‘golden flavour window’.

While some coffees peak, flavour wise, at two weeks post roast— most coffees are at their best between one and two weeks. I personally find the 10 day mark to be spot on.

 

Use quality filtered water.

A cup of filter coffee is made of somewhere in the realm of 98% water—making water its main, yet often most overlooked ingredient. There is likely no bigger change you can make in your brewing game that will more positively affect your brews, than looking closely at the water you are using.

Ideal coffee brewing water, in short, is clean and pH neutral with no odour or obvious taste.

There are a few water purifying jugs out there— but most recently (and excitingly) Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood of Colonna coffee has been developing the first gravity fed water purifying jug, specifically designed to optimise water for coffee brewing. The Peak jug is still in pre-order, but keep an eye out, cause this might be a good one.

There are load of other water purification options out there. A Britta or something similar will do the trick just fine.

I’m certain, if you make the switch, you’ll notice a huge difference.

 

Learn to brew.

With the combined powers of coffee professionals across Instagram and YouTube, there has been no better time in history to learn how to brew delicious coffee. What was once available only to people who worked as Baristas, or people who paid for a brewing course, is now made free and in abundance. Regardless of the brewer you have or style you dig, there will be a ton of tutorial videos and tips on how to brew using what you’ve got.

A few of my favourites are James Hoffman’s V60 tutorial, Tetsu Kasuya’s 4:6 method tutorial and Tim Wendelboe’sespresso video. Go on a YouTube journey, you will find hundreds of useful videos.

 

Use a scale and timer.

It’s relatively easy to brew a good cup of coffee, one time. It’s very difficult, however, to brew that same coffee, tasting good time and time again.

The only way to brew repeatable, delicious coffee, every time is with the use of scales and a timer.

We use scales to weigh our dry coffee dose, and to measure our brew weight as we pour. We do this in order to follow our brew recipe. A brew recipe, will look something like this:

  • @0:00 seconds, pour 50g of water and wait 45 seconds
  • @0:45- 1:10 pour water until 150g
  • @1:15 swirl coffee slurry
  • @1:20- @2:00 continue to pour slowly in the centre until 250g target weight is reached
  • Drawdown should be complete between 2:30 and 3:00.

Try and do THAT without a scale or timer! Not a chance!  

Any timer will do the trick; just the stopwatch on your phone is good.

You’ll ideally need a scale that is reasonably fast and accurate to 0.1 of a gram. There are plenty of scales made specifically for brewing coffee. These come in vast varieties of shapes, sizes, features and price points, with the Hario V60 drip scale on the low end, and Acaia scales being the current industry standard.  

 

Keep a brew journal.

This somewhat follows on from the previous point on repeatability.

Keeping tasting and brewing notes, or a brew journal, is a good way of reliably repeating a good brew. Write your recipe and method down in as much detail as you can—from the speed at which you poured—to whether you stirred or swirled the slurry.

It’s a good way of not making the same mistake twice, while continually improving your brews and keeping a nice little memo of all the delicious coffee you’ve had over the years.

It can be as simple or as complex as your like.

At a minimum, I would recommend including:

  • Details of the coffee you are using
  • Grind size (as shown on your grinder)
  • Brewing device used
  • Amount of dry coffee used
  • Amount of water being used
  • Method
  • Tasting notes
  • Notes on how you think you might brew it better next time

 

Don’t drink coffee when it’s too hot.

As I flip through my brew journal (See! It IS useful!), I often note that my brews taste best at around 50°C, with 60°C displaying the most perceivable aromatics. I know this, because (Tyler knows this…if you know, you know) on days where I feel super geeky, I sit with my coffee and measure the temperate every time I sip or smell it. I note my findings in my brew journal.

But see what works best for you. If a coffee tastes a little flat and boring a couple of minutes off brew, wait 5 or 10 minutes. Give it time. As it cools, it may open up with big fruity or floral characteristics, increased acidity and just a whole lot more flavour in general.

 

I know this is far from a be all, end all list— because I’m sure there are a thousand more ways to mess up a good coffee—but this is a good start. Enjoy the learning process which coffee presents and don’t be afraid of a mess up. It’s going to happen now and again. Never don’t try something new.

See what works for you. This is what works for me.

You’re very welcome!

 

 


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