Brewing the Perfect Cup of Coffee

by schaefer on August 3, 2009 · 136 comments

in Food & Drink, Travel & Leisure

CoffeeArmy

Every man should know how to brew a decent cup of coffee.  It’s an everyday skill that should be passed down from father to son, like shaving or mowing the lawn. It’s a manly ritual providing both utility and comfort.  Unfortunately, if you asked most men today for a cup of coffee they would either cast a worried, “help me!” glance to their wife or crank up the jet engine on their latest $300 instant coffee contraption, capable of grinding, purifying, and outputting unnatural amounts of brown acidic liquid, tasting something akin to lava, but definitely not coffee.

There was a time when I fell into the categories of men listed above, but two things happened that forever changed my relationship with coffee: 1) I joined the military and 2) I moved to the Seattle-Tacoma area.

For those unfamiliar with the military, from the darkest corner of a tent in Afghanistan to the desks of generals sitting at the Pentagon, coffee has always been a staple of military culture.  It could be the long hours or un-ending stress, but anywhere you hear a drill instructor’s piercing scream or an order for an air strike to rain down hell, you can be assured that a decent cup of coffee is nearby. I was inducted into this military/coffee tradition almost as soon as I landed in basic training.

And then there’s Seattle, the coffee mecca. Birthplace of Starbucks, Seattle’s Best (technically started a few miles away in Coupeville, but close enough) and home of Tully’s. Seattle is pretty much unrivaled when it comes to their love of quality coffee.  I once started to count the number of drive-thru espresso shops within a 10-mile radius of my house and quit counting after reaching over 20.  The people of the Northwest love their coffee, but what’s even better is they’re thrilled to show you how to make good coffee yourself.

Now, I don’t profess to be an expert barista, but I give you the following guide to making great coffee, as one man helping another.  It’s not perfect. Anyone who loves coffee knows there’s always more to learn. But through much trial and error, this process has produced consistently great coffee and brought me the enjoyment of creating something with my hands each morning.  Here we go:

The Prerequisites

1) Buy Decent Beans – It really doesn’t matter how you brew your coffee if the coffee itself sucks.  Let’s be clear right off the bat. If the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup…well…let me encourage you to expand your horizons. There’s better coffee out there.  Now, I realize that taste is a very personal thing, so if you absolutely love the huge bins of dry, cheap coffee that keep you supplied for a year, please don’t let me steer you away, but…ok, please let me steer you away.

Asking one to name the best coffee beans is very similar to asking one to name the best wines.  It is a highly subjective endeavor at best.  However, there is one key component that separates the wheat and the chaff in terms of beans — freshness.  Buying freshly roasted beans, as opposed to those packaged and stored for months at a time, is a sure way to make your coffee experience more favorable.  Find a coffee shop nearby that either roasts their own beans or has them delivered daily or weekly from a roaster nearby and begin sampling.

Try lots of different roasts and ask lots of questions.  Most coffee shop employees are eager to let you in on their favorite beans and brewing methods.  Soon you’ll find beans that suit your tastes whether its dark, light, complex or simple.  Just make sure to buy FRESH!

2) Grind the Beans Yourself – After you’ve bought some high-quality, freshly-roasted beans, the next step is to keep them fresh.  One of the best ways to do this is to buy whole beans, store them in an airtight container, and grind them just before brewing.  By doing so, you’ll help keep the flavors of the beans locked in until you’re ready to taste them.  As Myron Joshua of ineedcoffee.com explains,

“Every time you buy fresh coffee beans and ask the checkout person at the coffee shop to grind your beans you are opening up the “flavor cells” and causing your beans to begin losing their flavor rapidly. The purpose of grinding the beans is to create a larger surface area that will release the flavor and oils to the surrounding hot water. If coffee is prematurely exposed to air, it “breathes,” leaving less and less flavor for the brew, when the water finally hits the bean.”

Finding a decent grinder is fairly easy, most major retail stores and coffee shops sell them.  If you are more of an online shopper, here are a few to consider: here, here and here.

french_press

3) The French Press – Also known as a press pot, this simple coffee making device is said to have originated in France during the 1850′s.  The press is normally a glass cylinder with a “plunger” like device that fits tightly into the circumference of the cylinder.  The plunger features a handle with some sort of wire or nylon mesh that pushes the coffee grounds to the bottom, trapping them there after a few minutes of brewing.  If you’re serious about coffee, ditch your fancy automatic coffee maker and try the french press.

Why you ask, would you want to take a step backwards in history and technology when your current coffee maker can brew 53 cups of coffee in 3 minutes?  Quite simply, coffee brewed in a French press tastes better for 2 reasons:

  • the coffee grounds are fully steeped and saturated at the beginning of brewing.
  • this method retains the natural oils of the coffee that are normally absorbed by the paper filter.

But, don’t take my word for it. Listen to the words of fellow Art of Manliness readers who were discussing brewing methods in the forum:

“I love to drink a strong cup of coffee. I find that the French press works best for me.” – Ryan Scott

“I’ve been around the block with a bunch of brewing methods and always have come back to French press. I like to say that for four minutes all the coffee touches all the water so you get all the flavor.” – Keith Rains

“When I’m not too lazy, I love using a French press… which is especially awesome when you’re out camping and can make that steaming brew from freshly ground beans and a pot of water boiled from off an open fire. Divine!” – Brian Heasty

The French press not only helps make a great pot of coffee, there is something very meditative in the whole brewing process.  The “set it and forget it” ease of most drip coffee makers definitely has its advantages: speed, less work for the user, the ability to brew larger amounts of coffee. But while you gain efficiency, you lose a connection to the coffee.

How to Brew Coffee with a French Press

1. Grind your beans, leaving them a bit more large and coarse than you may be used to seeing.  You will want approximately 1 tablespoon of grounds per cup.  Dump them into the bottom of the French press.

2. Use a kettle to boil your water.  You want to let it sit for a couple of minutes after boiling before adding it to the press.  Don’t fret too much about temperature, but most coffee geeks recommend 180-20o degrees Fahrenheit.

3. Pour the hot water into the French press, slowly covering all of the coffee grounds as you fill it up.  Immediately stir the grounds to give the mixture a nice uniformity.

4. Add the filter on top and let the coffee steep for 4 minutes.  After the time has passed, press the plunger down and you’re ready.  A perfect cup of coffee awaits you like a loyal friend.

For more details on using a french press, I recommend the following:

**Bonus Brewing Method (For those coffee enthusiasts who have read this far) – The coffee siphon is an old method of coffee brewing that is now making a resurgence among diehard coffee fans.  The method virtually eliminates the usual acidity found in most coffee brews and leaves an almost sweet taste that’s full of flavor.  Google it, ask your local coffee expert about it, but definitely try it out.

{ 136 comments… read them below or add one }

101 JonPorta January 18, 2010 at 2:54 am

Well, being a coffee person and having grown and lived (still do) in a country where coffee is one of the 3 largest export products (Guatemala) and after all coffee is not only one of my passions but its also one of the things we have as a company. I do feel the need to give my ‘two cents’ about coffee.

One of the greatest myths that exist, is that Starbucks = good coffee, I think that as a coffee growing country we owe them the favor of putting coffee back in the spotlight and taking it back to the lifestyle that it is, instead of a mere drink. Coffee is indeed an art; from the minute you plant it, all the way to the moment you serve it! Much like wine. But I have to say that Starbucks doenst have a good coffee as a simple ‘plain cup of coffee’. they may have good coffee-based drinks, which are made with espresso, but that is a WHOLE different story.

Just like Schaefer said in the beginning of the article. Coffee is a lot like Wine. it all depends on the individual taste and likings! there are some ‘general rules’ that will help accentuate tastes and quality, but at the end of the day, it is all subject to each of us.

now, talking about methods; I own several methods of coffee-making devices. French press, aeropress, a regular black&decker coffee maker, the ‘drip method’ or the ‘sock method’, the stove top or mokka. and I have tried the same coffee in all methods. they all have given me a different flavor with different kinds of coffee; where some methods did great with one kind, others did amazing with the other kind. its all very subject to different factors.

French Press/press pot: helps bring out a lot of the characteristics of the coffee. why? its simple. just because the water has a lot more contact/extraction with the ground surface. but the flavor will also be determined by how dark is your roast, and how strong you like your coffee. I have found this method to work best with medium and european roasts.

Aeropress: is a bit of an ‘innovative’ method. it uses a paper filter, and the extraction is a bit like an espresso. it also serves smaller quantities, meaning, you still have to add water if you are looking to drink a simple cup of coffee. the good thing about this and the previous method, is that they dont require to be powered. you just need hot water. The taste is a bit smoother on this press, but I cant help notice a better flavor-quality with darker roasts.

The Mokka or Stove top: is the best substitute for an espresso maker. altho, you have to be VERY careful with it because of the way its used. I agree with someone earlier who said that the coffee acquires a different flavor because of the metal. But I do have to admit, it happens mostly with the aluminum pots, not so much with the stainless steele ones. another common mistake that is made with these pots, is that its left on the burner untill all the coffee has been extracted. the best way to do it is: Once the pot has reached its necessary temperature/preasure, and starts passing the water thru, thats the key for you to remove it from the burner and leave it for a minute until it finishes the process. like I said before, unless you pay a couple of thousand dollars for a nice, good-preasured espresso machine, any other ‘home style’ espresso machine, will turn out to be a complete fiasco. So I do consider the Mokka to be the best ‘Home method’ for an espresso-like coffee.

so, once you decide what a good roast, and a good coffee is for yourself, venture in methods which are great at home and really unexpensive. I think I have spent in total, no more than $250 to buy ALL my different coffee making methods. and I do enjoy experimenting and tasting new ones!

and lastly, there are all kinds of measure for making coffee. the french press uses 14grms of ground coffee per every 6 oz. of water. but in average the calculations that better work is to work based on 10grms (about a round filled table spoon) of ground coffee per every 6 oz. of water. you will find that all coffee experts and coffee makers will fluctuate between 8-12 grms. as well as 4 – 8 oz. of water. but again, these are just guidelines and parameters to better help you, and guide you into finding YOUR OWN coffee/water relation, as well as method/roast level.

please excuse me if I had some grammar mistakes or typo’s. English is not my first language. I do hope this was useful for you!!

102 e cigarette February 8, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Yummy looks delicious!

103 western australia flower April 12, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Coffee might be quicker on the go, contain more caffeine and less subtle, but tea is the gentleman’s choice.I love espresso, but for variety you cant beat the french press and for tasting the subtleties in a blend.

104 JGoh April 30, 2010 at 4:14 pm

There’s one important thing to note about coffee beans: do not buy anything called a ‘French Roast’. This is sufficiently important that I’ll give it its own line:

DO NOT BUY FRENCH ROAST.

‘French Roast’ is code for ‘shit, we burnt it’. Just the same as you would look at someone crosseyed for calling burnt toast ‘french toasted’, ‘french roast’ is a sub-standard grade of coffee.

There’s sugars in coffee beans, and when you roast them, they turn brown. This is the same as sugar in anything else. The best french roasts can give you is a caramel flavour, which is basically just burnt sugar.

Great coffees are roasted specifically to bring out the qualities of the bean. Some are roasted a bit darker than others. Great coffees have flavours of blackcurrant, or cucumber, or citrus, or blueberries (yes, blueberries! Harrar from Ethiopia, if done right), or any number of other things.

A dark roast is fine, don’t get me wrong; just be wary of roasts that are TOO dark. If you can, talk to the roaster about what qualities the coffee should have when you brew it. Good roasters will have tested the coffee, understood what it takes to make the beans express their best qualities, and worked to bring them out.

105 Sven May 31, 2010 at 3:16 pm

As a poor student I agree completely with using a French press, its easy and cheap which leaves me to spend more money on my coffee. But i have to disagree with anybody using it outdoors then its just unhandy and anyone who has been in the armed force would be familiar with the trusty and fairly indestructible coffee pot. I revere to those old aluminum boilers.

http://harryrud.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/the-coffee-pot.jpg

Well im going to have a cup.

106 Max Furniture June 19, 2010 at 5:23 am

French press makes a superior cup of coffee.

107 Homesure Services July 6, 2010 at 3:21 am

I always run a french press under hot water before adding the boiling water.. they’re fragile and I’ve had them crack from quick temperature changes. Also, it’s just more satisfying knowing that the coffee never touches anything cold before you drink it.. Like a professional barista will pre-heat any ceramic cups before serving you espresso.

108 Eco friendly products July 16, 2010 at 5:48 am

I am not entirely sure about the military coffee culture though. I have not served in the military myself, but a good friend of mine who retired from the 82nd airborne still drinks instant coffee swill that he “got used to in the army.

109 Max Furniture July 23, 2010 at 3:21 am

I agree with someone earlier who said that the coffee acquires a different flavor because of the metal. But I do have to admit, it happens mostly with the aluminum pots, not so much with the stainless steele ones.

110 Scalfin July 24, 2010 at 12:14 am

You sissies and your coffee machines. In Israel, they just pour the grounds into the cup and add water. Granted, they also add enough sugar that no amount of brushing will save their teeth, but they’re still drinking Turkish ground soup. On that note, Turkish coffee grinders are probably the cheapest and best on the market because it’s hard to make an electric with that type of quality and Turkish coffee drinkers want cheap grinders without any of the adornments found on most manual grinders.

111 M May August 3, 2010 at 9:58 am

If you are going to get a decent cup of coffee, you got to grind your own beans and brew your own. Everyone has different tastes, but I prefer a good Kona blend. As far as Starbucks coffee, trying to get a good cup of coffee there is like trying to get virginity from a hooker.

112 M.T. Amerson August 3, 2010 at 11:16 am

French press for a good strong cup, Aeropress for a strong clean cup, and moka pot if I feel like drinking mud (sometimes that’s what I want!). I have yet to get my hands on a Turkish pot, but I’d like to try it some day when I have the extra cash laying around to purchase one. I have also been lusting after a Zassenhaus hand grinder…

113 Brett August 3, 2010 at 11:53 am

As for the bonus brewing method, I found a maker called a Chemex
http://www.chemexcoffeemaker.com/

It acts as the siphon does, filtering out the non-coffee in your coffee and leaving you with the best of the best. I once had a french press and it was a good cup and great for on the go, but nothing like the chemex.

And for the man who keeps making fun of the french press or refuses to use it because it has the word “french” in its title, please grow up. The french invented it. Whatever name you call it, it is what it is. Nothing you say will change that.

114 marvz August 3, 2010 at 9:40 pm

try philippine coffee beans, especially benguet and kalinga coffee
you’ll be in heaven

115 Claude October 13, 2012 at 6:07 pm

McDonald’s coffee (if not Newman’s Own) > Starbuck’s coffee

Also, make sure to SLOWLY depress the plunger when using the French press. Nice writeup!

116 Nancy October 30, 2012 at 8:09 am

love this entry, and your website – and I’m a girl :)

117 Nicholas Mazzuca January 2, 2013 at 9:21 am

Being a son of someone, “in the biz’”, I would suggest looking at Zoka. Their Tuscan Blend is my favourite type of coffee, and I drink it every day before school.
That said, I definitely prefer the Chemex method to the French Press.

118 Nicholas Mazzuca January 2, 2013 at 9:24 am

Also, almost forgot, but remember to ALWAYS use a burr grinder, which shaves the beans for flavor, vs the regular, which basically pulverizes your bean.

119 Ben January 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm

It’s all about the pour over methods. Get yourself a chemex carafe. That’s way better than those damn french presses.

120 Mike Hignite February 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

Perfect description of my trial and error coffee making.
I do have a couple of hints. I like to let it steep longer than 4 minutes. Experiment for yourself.
I add a crushed eggshell and a pinch of salt to my grounds. Something about it cuts over-acidic coffee flavor and makes a superiorly smooth cup of joe.

121 PJ March 14, 2013 at 5:43 am

If anyone thinks drinking coffee from a moka pot is like mud, then you’re doing it wrong.

If you thing the aluminium pot makes the coffee taste funny, yer doin’ it wrong!

Use cold filtered water, don’t press the grinds down (like tamping for espresso), just scoop it into the holder, and take it off the heat when it gets about half full. Also, grind is slightly coarser than espresso.

This is the way I drink 2 cups of coffee a day, every day. It’s better than any shop-made coffee.

122 Leandro May 11, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I love the way the coffee tastes with the moka pot. This is the way it is traditionally made in the Dominican Republic… home of Cafe Santo Domingo… quite expensive around the world. However, I will definetely try the other methods and see what I have been missing so far.

123 sam June 8, 2013 at 5:11 pm

French Presses produce good coffee but during the process two compounds (probably flavonoids as far as I remember) are released into the brew. Coffee filters prevent those from getting into the brew and remain in the filter paper. Some researches have found out that these compounds can raise cholesterol level in blood. That’s why I dropped the idea of brewing by french press method. It doesn’t matter if one drinks french pressed coffee once a while but everyday might cause a problem in the long term.

—Coming from a guy who has majored in pharmaceutical chemistry.

124 Chuck June 20, 2013 at 5:35 pm

I realize that when it comes to coffee brewing techniques everyone is an expert, and your method is not nearly as good as mine. That said, I believe that I brew one of the best cups of coffee you are likely to taste, and I do it with a Melitta Drip carafe, with a #6 filter, and Eight OClock French Roast.

To make 8 cups of coffee I grind perhaps a cup of beans and place into the filter, pushing the beans toward the sides so that there is a depression in the pile of beans. A #6 filter will hold 4 cups of coffee, so I slowing pour boiled water into the filter such that the carafe contains 4 cups at about the same time that the filter is full. The result is 8 cups of coffee heaven.

That’s my technique and I’m sticking with it :-)

125 Ryan Grimm June 21, 2013 at 7:49 am

I use a french press most of the time, and it’s all I use when camping.
For the grind I use an ancient cast-iron hand-cranked beast I screw to the wall of my chuck wagon (yes, it’s a chuck wagon, albeit updated with a propane stove, oven and fridge).
It gives an excellent even grind, and being part of the morning ritual is what gets guests to the camp to participate…they hear the grinder and show up.
Makes for excellent beginnings to conversations.

A medium roast is preferred. Immediately after I have drawn my first cup, I put the remainder in a pre-heated glass thermos (Dewar’s flask) that had been warmed with extra boiling water. This lets me enjoy a cuppa a bit later if desired…although my friends make it difficult to get to that coffee!

I agree, Starbucks sucks, it’s badly over-roasted, just as bad as overly hopped beers. I will try the popcorn roaster, I see them often enough at used goods store for cheap, and didn’t want to go with the electric popcorn air popper, I hear they burn out fairly quickly.

126 AmandaC June 24, 2013 at 4:40 am

We have AeroPress, French press, drip, manual drip, moka pot, and a rarely used espresso machine. The way I see it, different coffee beans need different method of brewing to bring out the best characteristics out of the beans. I love to use French press, there’s something meditative about it when you wait for your coffee to be ready. But my husband loves his moka pot.

127 Rob in San Diego June 26, 2013 at 1:54 am

Only time I ever drank coffee was in the Navy. The Navy used to roast and grind their own coffee in Norfolk, then ship it in large cans all over the world. It had a great taste that I’ve never found with any civilian coffee since I got out. Maybe it was the fresh open sea air that helped the flavor.

128 Caroline G July 2, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Can you please post this article on your facebook page? I’d love to share it. Thanks!!

129 Vall August 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I like ‘illy’ brand coffee after trying variety of brands and stores. A steamer type espresso machine or french press gives a wonderful coffee. VanHoutte is next best.

130 Russell September 11, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Love the article and the website. Brewing good coffee is something I started to learn in college, and I’ve been into it every since. You probably guessed that there would be a lot of nitpicks and things like that posting about something like coffee, which has more snobs than red wine does these days. My one nit would be with your grinder recommendations – the big fault was that they all had blades – what you want is a burr grinder. If you want one on the cheap, pick up a hand grinder. orphanespresso.com can hook you up with all sorts of great grinders. I have a vintage restored one I bought on their site from the early 50′s, and it’s awesome. Again, stellar article.

131 Garrett November 2, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Excellent article! I’ve gotten into specialty coffee in the last year and have even started a site and blog with tutorials and opinions of coffee brewing.

The french press is definitely one of my favorite brew methods hands down!

132 Devin November 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

I realize this is coming a few years after this article was written, but I just had to add a comment on an article that is a good primer for those looking to begin really enjoying coffee.

From the time I was young, rising with the sun as so many children are wont to do, I would sit with my abuelita at the kitchen bar of her small Boca Raton townhouse, enjoying cafe con leche with her as she read the morning paper. I always loved watching her set up her macchinetta, watching on tiptoes with the lid pulled open as the nearly black, fragrant coffee issued from the column and into the top chamber, and the deep, creamy brown swirls dancing in the milk as she added the coffee to my little cup. As I grew older and learned more about coffee, I found out that she was doing everything wrong, from the coffee she bought, to the way she stored and brewed it. Even still, when I visit, a grown man, I sit on the stool that was once the same height as myself, and wait quietly as my abuelita brews up some more coffee in her stained, battle-scarred macchinetta.

A “proper” Cuban coffee differs slightly from the Wikipedia article. This is the way we make them at home:

Setup and Brew:
Disassemble your Moka pot (macchinetta) and add coffee to the funnel filter until slightly overfull. Tamp -very- lightly and use a straight edge (I use the handle of a spoon) to scrape the coffee level. Then run your finger around the rim of the funnel filter to remove any coffee dust and ensure a proper seal. Fill the bottom chamber to the valve with good water (NOT distilled! Distilled water makes Moka brews bitter, and minerals avoid possible off notes). Place on stove at moderately low flame, or lowest heat on most electric stoves. Check top chamber regularly. You want to remove your Moka from the stove -just- before the bottom chamber runs out of water. If you hear gurgling or boiling, you’re too late. Experiment a little. This extraction is the equivalent of espresso. Watering it down makes it an Americano.

Cuban Coffee:
Follow previous instructions until the last couple steps. As soon as the coffee begins to flow into the top chamber, remove it from heat and add vigorously 2 tsp sugar (white or raw) per serving of coffee. Mokas are sold by serving (ie 1, 3, 6, 9, 12). Replace onto heat and brew to finish. The mixing step must be accomplished quickly to avoid the coffee brewing too long. You can either mix the sugar in the top chamber or a separate container. A separate container is more handy, simply dump the first tiny bit of coffee in and mix while the rest brews, but not vital. Pour into demitasse (pocillo) cups and enjoy!

Cafe con Leche:
Brew Cuban coffee and to milk warmed in some fashion. Some instructions online say to omit sugar, but a true Cuban style cafe con leche is simply Cuban coffee + warmed milk. Great with breakfast!

Moka pots are east to find inexpensively second hand and are nice, hardy pieces of equipment with all replaceable seals, filters, and valves. Bialetti is the gold standard, but almost any will do. It takes more time than slamming a filter in a basket, jamming it full of coffee, and have an autodrip contraption handle things, but like a good walnut cavendish in my vintage Cellini pipe, the extra time is well worth it.

133 Single Cup Coffee Maker December 29, 2013 at 9:19 am

Love the article and the website. Brewing good coffee is something I started to learn in college, and I’ve been into it every since. You probably guessed that there would be a lot of nitpicks and things like that posting about something like coffee, which has more snobs than red wine does these days. My one nit would be with your grinder recommendations – the big fault was that they all had blades – what you want is a burr grinder. If you want one on the cheap, pick up a hand grinder. orphanespresso.com can hook you up with all sorts of great grinders. I have a vintage restored one I bought on their site from the early 50′s, and it’s awesome. Again, stellar article.

134 Chandler Unity January 17, 2014 at 8:00 am

After you’ve bought some high-quality, freshly-roasted beans, the next step is to keep them fresh. One of the best ways to do this is to buy whole beans, store them in an airtight container, and grind them just before brewing. By doing so, you’ll help keep the flavors of the beans locked in until you’re ready to taste them.

135 Frank March 31, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Everything starts from the bean. If you go for a quality bean with a well rounded taste, all you need to do is follow the steps described in the article and success is guaranteed.

136 Nikola April 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Great article, thanks a lot for putting together such comprehensive brewing resource. I especially like the part discussing French press – from my experience, selecting top-notch beans and having a solid burr grinder is a must if you value your taste buds :)

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