Don't Be Afraid of Strong Coffee!

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Photo by SMercury98/Flickr CC

When people ask how to make better coffee at home, my first question is "How much coffee is in your coffee?" One of the common problems we professionals encounter away from our own brewing is weak coffee. And there is nothing that can be done to salvage weak coffee.

The semantics of "strong" are fascinating. Most people say they don't want it "too strong," but no one really wants it weak. When we introduced Peet's coffee to travelers at San Francisco International Airport, we feared that those unfamiliar with our very hefty brewed coffee would be put off by its strength. So we offered two versions, regular and mild. Very, very few people wanted anything but "strong coffee." We were delighted, of course, but I regret that we have not yet eliminated weak coffee from the world, even though we no longer offer it at our airport outlets. [Curator's note: Thank heaven they don't! The first thing I do, zombie-like, on arriving at SFO is head for the nearest Peet's booth -- and I know where they all are.]

On first sip, people who haven't tasted Peet's before say, "This is strong." By the third or fourth sip, they say, "This is good."

Semantics aside, on countless occasions I've served our coffee to people for the first time. On first sip, they say, "This is strong." By the third or fourth sip, they say, "This is good." The main surprise, I think, is that most coffee is weak and that's what people are expecting. But as soon as they actually taste the full flavor of fresh, freshly ground, full strength coffee, they have a coffee epiphany.

Many national brands recommend one tablespoon per cup. Abraham Lincoln delivered the final verdict on this one many years ago: "Waiter, if this is tea, please bring me some coffee; if this is coffee, please bring me tea." If you can see through the coffee to the bottom of the cup, you're in trouble.

We recommend at least a full coffee measure (two tablespoons) per six fluid ounces of water for all brewing methods except espresso. For my morning press pot, I use two heaping American coffee scoops (about 4.5 tablespoons) of beans (20-22 grams) for 12 fluid ounces of hot water. I always grind my coffee just before brewing -- so that aromatics go into my cup, and not the air.

Beware the various coffee measures that are packed with brewers. Those little black ones that come with European brewers only hold about seven grams. This is because European cups are small, about four fluid ounces, and usually the brewers are marked for these small cups. A "12-cup brewer" usually holds about a quart and a half: 12 European cups, requiring 12 scoops of coffee.

A standard American coffee measure is two tablespoons, ten grams. Peet's has a nice one for $6. I find others online for about the same price. The important thing is to be certain of the volume in the scoop. One tablespoon = 15 ml. You want to start with two tablespoons, 30 ml, ten grams per six fluid ounces of water. When cups were smaller, like your grandmother's china tea cup, only one scoop per cup was needed. These days, 12 ounces is a small cup, so best to measure your favorite cup and adjust the coffee for your special cup, using one American scoop for every six fluid ounces of water.

My highest recommendation is to use the gram measure on a kitchen scale. Weighing is much more accurate that volume measure. (It's interesting that European cookbooks all use weight in their recipes, while Americans use volume. Where did we go wrong?) U.S. measure works okay for volume of liquid, but is a bit clunky for small portions of dry things. Ten grams is easier for me to use than 0.3 ounces (why don't we all go metric?).

Don't be afraid of strong coffee. You can always add hot water to dilute it. Brew your coffee to your own taste, of course -- unless I'm coming over. If you brew it weak, you won't really be enjoying the great flavors, and there is nothing you can do to make stronger when I come to your house for a tasty cup.

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Jerry Baldwin is co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. More

Gerald Baldwin purchased Peet's Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, California, in 1984, and worked diligently to sustain the vision of the founder, Alfred Peet. He remains involved as a member of the board of directors. Jerry was a co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. He remained involved until 1987 when he sold the company of eight stores. He accepts no credit (or blame) for the ensuing twenty-odd years. He also serves as a member of the board of TechnoServe a non-profit NGO working to alleviate poverty in Africa and Latin America. He has also been Chairman and Trustee of Coffee Quality Institute and President and Director of Association Scientific Internationale du Café (ASIC). Baldwin is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, where he served as a director of the SCAA, and the the founding chairman of its Technical Standards Committee. Jerry was honored as Coffeeman of the Year for North America by Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, and he is an honorary member of the Kilimanjaro Specialty Coffee Growers Association, known as Kilicafe. Baldwin was a founding director of Red Hook Ale Brewery and a founding contributor of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He writes in Sonoma County, California, a few miles from M.F.K. Fisher's home in Glen Ellen, looking over his small vineyard. Jerry and his wife, Jane, produce small crops of olive oil and Zinfandel in the Valley of the Moon.

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