Untroubled Brewing: Ways to Improve Your Coffee

by Corby Kummer

JUST AS THERE is no best coffee bean, there is no best way to brew coffee. But some ways are better than others. The current choices evolved surprisingly recently, and are not all improvements on the past. This doesn’t mean that I have anything against making coffee in electric drip machines—in fact, I think it’s the best way to make coffee in any quantity— or that I am about to recommend some archaic, labor-intensive method, even if I describe one or two. Vastly improving your coffee can be a matter of simply being more careful about freshness, changing the grind, using the right ratio of coffee to water, and not overheating coffee once it’s brewed. But I do bear a grudge against percolators.

Liquid coffee started as a sort of wine, in which dried beans, first whole and later crushed, were steeped in cold water; around 1200, Arabs began boiling dried hulls, later roasting them too. What we think of as Turkish coffee emerged in the fifteenth century, in several Arab and Middle Eastern countries, and making it became an elaborate ceremony. Turkish coffee, which some purists insist is the very best (I’m not among them—it’s awfully strong), is still served in the Arab countries, Turkey, and Greece. In the ritual brewing, beans are roasted over a charcoal fire and then ground to a powder by hand with a mortar and pestle. The coffee is boiled several times in an ibrik, a long-handled tinned brass or copper pot that slopes inward at the top, and the froth—the sign of an expert maker—is distributed equally among the guests, as a sign of respect.

If you care to be walloped by your coffee, realistic instructions for making “Middle Eastern” coffee, a diplomatic term, are offered by Kenneth Davids in Coffee, an amusing and informative book that is the best available guide to brewing. Davids warns that accomplishing a head of froth is not given to everyone, and that the ibrik should be filled only halfway, to avoid having sludge erupt all over the stove. Turkish coffee is powerful and bitter, and many like its potency, even if they don’t go so far as to collect the sediment with the little finger and eat it, as one mid-nineteenth-century traveler reported seeing Greeks do.

Until the late eighteenth century European coffee meant boiled coffee, and boiling persisted as the chief mode of brewing in both Europe and the United States, in the face of many superior methods. Writing in the United States in the 1920s, William H. Ukers, the author of All About Coffee, an encyclopedia that is still the standard reference work, called boiled coffee a “crving evil.” American coffee went from bad to nearly as bad with the adoption of the pumping percolator, the only really harmful innovation of an extraordinarily inventive period in France, from 1800 to 1850, when devices for making drip and filter coffee—the forerunners of the pots and machines we use today—were patented at a feverish rate. (You’d think it would be easy to find good coffee in France today, but it isn’t. The Germans and Swedes, among the worlds’s heaviest coffee drinkers, were long the chief buyers of high-quality beans, and they still brew better, if lighter, coffee than the French. The best beans now go to Japan, where coffee-drinking has lately become an expensive exercise in connoisseurship.)

The percolator became as widespread an evil as boiled coffee. It does not work by true percolation, which is the passing of water through grounds set over a metal or porcelain screen — what we now call the drip method. Percolators force boiling water up through a tube and spray it over the grounds. This would be true percolation if the process stopped there. But the weak brew that results from the first pass through the grounds is sprayed over them again and again, and the progressively darker brew is repeatedly boiled, burning off aromatics and oxidizing aromatics and oils. It’s true that few things are as cheering or welcoming as the “perking of the coffee right nearby,” as Frank Loesser’s lyric has it in the jaunty 1941 song “I Hear Music,” and you shouldn’t storm out of a house where perked coffee is served. But the percolator isn’t a very good choice for making coffee—like boiled coffee, perked coffee is out of balance, with acids predominating and a sourish overtone.

Infusion, or steeping grounds in water without boiling it, had taken hold in France by the mid-eighteenth century, while England and America kept boiling away. Infusion survives today in three forms. Open-pot coffee, also called cowboy, campfire, or hobo coffee, is made by strewing ground coffee over water that has come to a boil and leaving it to steep for five minutes or so. It can be strained through cloth, or nylon mesh, or even a sock (part of campfire legend), or you can add cold water in the hope that the grounds will settle (they won’t completely). Many people, especially the kind who scorn fancy appliances, swear by open-pot coffee, and indeed it resembles the method by which “cuppers evaluate coffee. I find the straining more trouble than it’s worth, and prefer appliances to studied simplicity.

An easier way to steep coffee is the plunger pot, often called the Melior, for a famous French manufacturer of it. Water and coffee steep in a glass carafe for three to five minutes, and then you push a wire strainer down through the liquid to separate the grounds. This produces a strong brew with a fair amount of sediment, despite the fineness of the mesh (the real French model has a better-fitting screen than the much more commonly found version made by Bodum). I don’t like the plunger-pot method. Real Melior pots are very expensive—often twice the price of electric drip machines. You’re paying for the materials and the 1920s design, with its strong chromed verticals, which recalls Paris boulevard cafés. The suspended grounds have so much surface tension that the effort of getting the plunger to the bottom can lift your feet off the floor, and the problem is worse if the coffee was ground too fine; the best results come from an uneconomical, large quantity of coarseground coffee. If you push down at an angle you can easily break the carafe, which you can do even more easily when washing it. Fishing out the grounds from the bottom of the carafe is annoying. Worst, by the time the coffee has finished steeping, it’s cold, a problem remedied only partly by the quilted plunger-pot cozies that specialty coffee shops sell or by wrapping a towel around the pot. This method, however, has many partisans.

The third form in which infusion survives is coffee made with cold water. This method becomes fashionable every few years and then retreats into deserved obscurity. Ground coffee steeps in cold water for ten to twentyfour hours and is then filtered through a funnel-like device. The resulting extract, which is stirred into hot water, is mild and characterless, because cold water does not extract the lighter aromatics or acids in coffee—or the oils, or much of anything.

BEFORE YOU CAN make good cofee you need the right grind. I won’t take the attitude, which prevailed for centuries, that the only proper way to grind coffee is with a mortar and pestle. I will say that you might consider spending a good deal more than $15 on a grinder. Home grinders, both electric and handcranked, once ground with burrs; the beans flowed down a hopper, were fed through the burrs, and fell into a box. Now those have been almost entirely supplanted by cheap cylinders with a whirring blade in a small chamber.

That blade “beats coffee to death,” according to Bruce Mullins, a wholesaler of coffee-making equipment in Portland, Oregon. You have to shake the grinders to make them work efficiently, even ones that have the improvement of an oval grinding bed, which forces beans toward the center and slows them down at the sides. After thirty seconds the particles bounce off the blade, according to Mullins, and don’t get any finer. The comparative inefficiency of the grinding heats beans and damages them, allowing aromatics to vaporize. Every whiff of delicious aroma in ground coffee means that much less flavor in brewed coffee.

Successively fracturing the beans does not produce a uniform grind. Cutting them with precise, sharp burrs does, and you should look for a grinder with burrs. The stronger the machine the better, because the less it will heat the beans. I’ve been very happy with a Japanese-made machine, the Jericho, which looks like a grinder from the beginning of the century, in a handsome maroon housing. You can adjust the burr settings, and you can shake all the ground coffee out of the cylindrical canister, instead of fussing with the end of a spoon to reach into corners or curves. (The Jericho retails for around $225; you can order it from the Coffee Connection, in Boston, at 800-2845282.)

If you grind your coffee at a supermarket or specialty-food shop, disbelieve the settings on the machine. Most grind much differently—usually more coarsely—from what they say, because the burrs have not been calibrated recently. Before putting in your coffee, run the grinder a few seconds to expel the remainder of the last person’s. Then put just a few of your beans through, to check the grind size.

I THINK THAT THE best way to make coffee that is not espresso (I’ll discuss espresso in another article) is in the drip pot, which appeared in France around 1800. The coffee is almost as rich as that made by infusion, without the sediment left in a plunger pot. Its advantage over filtered coffee, its sibling, is the metal or ceramic filrer—a cloth or paper filter absorbs oils that give body to coffee. The grind for a drip pot should be fine, just coarse enough to discourage grounds from seeping through the filter, although some inevitably will.

Drip pots are available in most hardware stores, and for many people (the ones who didn’t grow up with percolators) the clunky design, with its squat stacked compartments for hot water, ground coffee, and brewed coffee, connotes childhood in the suburbs. Unfortunately, many of these reassuringly familiar drip pots are made of aluminum, which interacts with the acid in coffee. Although the size of the basket of a drip pot implies that it holds just the right amount of ground coffee, it probably doesn’t, and you should measure both the coffee and how much water the top compartment holds. An “approved coffee measure” is eleven grams, or two tablespoons, the right amount for six ounces of water; this is the size of the coffee scoops that are sold in supermarkets and provided in some cans of coffee, and most markings of cup quantity on coffee makers are for six-ounce cups. (If you’re using a filter pot and measuring cups, this works out to a half cup of coffee grounds to three cups of water.) Stick to the proportions, which I find correct for flavor and body. If you prefer weaker coffee, it will taste better if you make it full strength and then dilute it with hot water or milk.

The drip pot I use is the kind that in Italy is called the napoletana, or Neapolitan, and in France the café filtre pot. (Many American shops call it a niachinetta.) It has two cylindrical pots one atop the other, one with a spout, and between them a compartment for ground coffee, with metal screens at the top and the bottom. The holes in the screens of these pots are generally larger than those of American drip pots, so the coffee has more texture. When the water in the spoutless chamber is ready, you flip the pot and wait for the water to drip through (if you’ve latched the pot together there’s no danger that hot water will spill out). As with all drip or filter coffee—including that made in machines—the finished brew should be stirred before it is served, since the coffee that drips through first is strongest. The chamber with the spent grounds should he lifted out (as should the coffee basket in an American drip pot), lest condensed steam from the coffee steep with the grounds and drip back into the brew.

Italians so closely identify with the napoletana that they wish they could take credit for it. An essay in a book on the history of the pot published by Alessi, the Italian tableware designer that makes the handsomest one, grudgingly admits that the pot originated in France but avers that its true home is Naples. The book is full of illustrations of fanciful napoletanas with arabesques of hammered tin, and whimsical ones that look like robots, or wear masks, or are gotten up like tophatted dancers with canes. (The Alessi napoletana can be ordered from 617932-9444; my plain, sleek stainlesssteel pot is made by Stella, and is available from 800-247-9420.)

The book says that every resident of Naples knows you can’t make decent coffee in a new napoletana. It’s wrong. Seasoned coffee pots don’t add flavor. A residue of coffee oils is unpleasant in any kind of pot, and a particular danger with a metal one—the oil deposits collect and become rancid. Metal pots should be regularly scrubbed in hot water but infrequently washed with soap, to avoid the flavor note of soap in coffee.

A napoletana should not be flipped just as the water boils. The ideal temperature for brewing coffee is thought to be 197°—205°F, which extracts the desirable aromatics and leaves behind the least pleasant ones, although the evidence for this is more anecdotal than scientific. The theory is that water at the boiling point not only turns to vapor but also vaporizes many flavorful volatile compounds in coffee. (When I was nearing the end of a long list of questions about the reasons behind standard brewing rules, an information officer at the International Coffee Organization, in London, said, after a string of no-one-really-knows replies, “Maybe you should open up your own research lab.”) Since it is impractical to stand beside a kettle or a napoletana holding a thermometer, you can heat the water in the open bottom before assembling the pot. Stop when small bubbles appear on the surface of the water without breaking, or wait a minute after it comes to the boil. Then put the pot together and flip it (use potholders and be careful).

The water you use is of course of great importance, since it is about 98 percent of what you will drink. If you wouldn’t drink your tap water with pleasure, don’t use it in coffee. Find a charcoal filter or buy a neutral bottled water. (The new wave in automatic coffee machines is a filter component that purifies water before brewing coffee.) Hard water is alkaline, which can dull the important acids and make coffee taste bland. If your water is very hard, use bottled instead of treated water: softeners can impart off flavors and interfere with brewing, depending on the agents used. A classic rule for brewing either coffee or tea is to start with cold water, which is thought to be fresher because it hasn’t been sitting around in boilers for a while, picking up off tastes. Try hot water from the tap to see if it shows signs of any; probably it won’t. Another reason cited for using cold water is that it contains more oxygen, but according to the head of the research and test unit of the ICO, that doesn’t make any difference in flavor.

These caveats apply equally to filtered coffee, a comparatively recent arrival in America. In 1941 Peter Schlumbohm first marketed the Chemex, a hand-blown glass coffee maker with an hourglass shape which uses filter paper. The Chemex looks like it came straight from a laboratory, which it more or less did, and has a stark. International Style cachet. It’s handsome (a cheaper model, made of pressed rather than blown glass, is less so) but hard to clean, and because the filter paper is sold in circles that are folded into quarters and set into the cone-shaped top, part of the coffee goes through three layers of paper. In the 1960s the German company Melitta began marketing a coffee maker with a wedgeshaped filter holder and filters that open like a pocket, so the coffee goes through only one layer of paper.

The procedure is simple: pour hot water through the grounds. It’s better first to put in enough water to moisten all the grounds, and to stir them to make sure they have all been wet. This ensures that the water won’t zip through channels in the ground coffee, and that the succeeding water will pass more slowly through an already wet and thus more resistant bed of coffee. The disadvantage of filtered coffee is the loss of body to the paper; the advantage is easy cleanup of grounds. (However clean a filter holder looks after you rap out the grounds and paper, both it and the carafe should be scrubbed in hot water.)

In recent years there has been concern that chemicals, including dioxins, created in the process of bleaching filter paper could leave harmful residues in brewed coffee. Unbleached brownpaper filters have also been marketed, but these in turn raised concerns over resins and other impurities that imparted off flavors and might cause health problems of their own. One solution seems to be a new white “oxygen-bleached” filter that several companies have begun to sell (so far the chief distributor is Green Mountain Coffee, at 800-432-3402).

A way of avoiding the issue entirely is to buy a metal filter that fits into the filter holder. This converts the filtration to true percolation, and returns body to the coffee. Some manufacturers of electric drip machines now supply gold filters. These are more convenient if you have a dishwasher or a garbage disposal, as cleaning out all the grounds can be a chore. I think they should always be used in place of paper, because they produce richer coffee. Several manufacturers market gold filters, which come in different sizes and cost around $20—an investment more than worth it for the immediate improvement in taste and the long-term savings in paper filters.

THE BREAKTHROUGH in American home-brewing technology came only twenty years ago, with tire spread of the electric drip machine. Bunn-O-Matic had since the 1950s manufactured filter machines for use in restaurants, but it took Mr. Coffee to vanquish the percolator. Today electric drip machines, made by both European and American companies, are the standard home coffee maker, and they make very good coffee. The recent machines offer useful features, such as a modified cycle for small quantities, in which the water drips through more slowly, and not-so-useful features, such as a brew-interrupt capacity, which allows you to pour a cup before the whole pot is made but spoils the balance of the coffee.

The most important feature is one you can’t see: the heating element. The right water temperature and brewing-cycle time, ideally four to six minutes, will extract the desired amount of soluble substances and leave others in the grounds. Most machines don’t heat water fast or evenly enough, which results in cycles that are too long and start at too low a temperature. The only clue a consumer has to temperature or time is the wattage, and the higher it is the better the coffee. An ideal rating is over 1000 watts, but most home machines average just 450 to 850.

German-designed machines are today the market leaders, with Braun and Krups competing to have the newest features and Bosch and Melitta making similar models; the American companies currently in the lead for useful features are Black & Decker and Salton. Most of the machines are manufactured in Hong Kong or China, and the differences between them are in fact usually small.

The great problem—the tragedy, it can fairly be called—of most of the coffee drunk in America today is that it has been overheated, and is as objectionable as yesterday’s boiled coffee reheated. Coffee should be held at 176°185°F, and not on a burner, which vaporizes many desirable aromatics, oxidizes others and also oils, and leaves coffee sour or bitter. Many burners on machines, especially those that brew coffee at the proper temperature, keep coffee very hot. New machines have knobs that adjust the heat of the burners on which coffee is held. But the real problem is coffee that stays on a burner too long—say, more than ten minutes. This is why so much restaurant and coffee-shop coffee tastes so bad, even though the method used to make it is unexceptionable.

The solution is to transfer coffee to an insulated pitcher as soon as it is brewed. Coffee-equipment sellers recommend three Japanese brands of pitcher, Peacock, Zojirushi, and Tiger, and a German brand, Alfie. Some look clumsy, some sleek. The object in using any pitcher is to provide as airtight a seal as possible, and the less room in the top of the inner chamber the longer the liquid will stay hot. But even if you don’t keep the pitcher full, you should use one. More and more electric drip machines come with thermoses instead of glass carafes (which also reduces breakage). A technician at the ICO who is in charge of brewing great amounts of coffee told me that she dreams of a day when coffee machines will have no hot plates. This would indeed improve the quality of American life.

THE MOST DRAMATIC way to make filtered coffee is in a device that was invented in France and England in the mid-nineteenth century—a vacuum machine with two glass globes, one mounted on the other, both suspended over a spirit lamp or other heat source. These machines became fashionable in America around the time of the First World War, and fell out of favor after the Second. Today the English company Cona, whose name is synonymous with the method, makes the best and handsomest model, but it’s expensive—from $100 to $125, depending on size—and hard to find. Bodum makes a stovetop model for $30, and one with a spirit lamp for about $15 more; the Coffee Connection sells both brands.

You fill the upper globe with ground coffee, having latched a filter to a tube going out the bottom. You pour hot water into the lower chamber and fit the upper into it. Steam pressure forces the water into the upper chamber, where you stir the ground coffee and water; then you stop the heat. After a minute or so the vacuum created in the lower chamber sucks the liquid through the filter back into the bottom chamber, with a gurgling whoosh that will surprise and delight guests. You remove the upper chamber and ceremonially pour the coffee.

The whole rigmarole is best performed in the parlor after dinner, and it looks like an alchemical trick. Bur it’s the purest way to sample a fine coffee with complex acidity—no other brewing method better showcases high flavor notes, although regular filtration and drip produce more full-bodied coffee. Treating the large contraption with the required delicacy means that you will use it very, very seldom. But it is the compact disc of coffees—all you taste is the coffee.