You can make better coffee. Below you’ll find seven of the most common obstacles to producing cafe-quality coffee at home. Of course, there are countless ways to improve your coffee, but what you’ll find below will certainly put you on the right path. It’s worth adding that nothing suggested below includes spending lots of money on high-end equipment. You can actually improve your brews and save money at the same time. It’s a win/win scenario.
1. Low expectations
If you went to a cafe and handed over your hard-earned money for a coffee that was of the same standard as your home brews, would you be satisfied or disappointed? Why do we lower our expectations when we’re making coffee at home? The biggest block to cafe-quality coffee at home is not believing (or caring) that you’re capable. I’m here to tell you that you can make coffee at home that’s good enough to serve in a cafe. With very affordable gear, decent coffee, patience and a desire to learn, you can make a monumental leap in the quality of your brews. Raise your expectations – I know you can do better!
2. Bad Coffee
Got some supermarket coffee in the pantry? I’ll wager the coffee is old. It may have been old when you bought it. If it doesn’t have a roast date (not to be confused with a best before date) and/or is pre-ground, I encourage you to bin, bury or burn it.
Do not buy coffee from your supermarket unless they stock whole bean coffee that has a roast date of less than two weeks, printed on the bag. Without a roast date to show otherwise the coffee at the supermarket could have been sitting there for weeks or months. While coffee doesn’t “expire”, it does get dull and generic within weeks from roasting, sooner if it’s opened or stored improperly.
There are certainly some supermarkets that stock good quality coffee from local roasters, sadly none of the supermarkets near me do that. Fortunately there’s an abundance of great coffee roasters in Melbourne.
You wouldn’t buy or store soft drink/soda with the lid off would you? When you grind a coffee bean, you’re effectively opening the bottle and letting all the wonderful aromatics escape. Eventually, what you’re left with is dull and flat. Whole bean coffee will retain much more of it’s uniqueness, for much longer. Buy whole beans!
Cheap, low-quality beans
Some folks simply don’t have the budget to spend a few extra dollars on good quality coffee beans. If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to have lower expectations of the quality of your brews. Garbage in, garbage out. We’re not able to work miracles.
Even though I spend a little extra on good quality beans, when the alternative for a good brew is to go out to a cafe, I’m still saving money. Good quality coffee beans, brewed at home are still cheaper than the coffee brewed by a barista at your local cafe. At two coffees a day I would spend over $200 a month at my local cafe. Brewing at home I spend less than half of that on a variety of great, fresh-roasted beans and good quality milk.
Coffee subscriptions are a great option if you don’t have a local roaster you can get good beans from. You can get a variety of amazing coffees, from different roasters, delivered regularly to your door. Subscriptions are more expensive than buying local, due to the added shipping costs.
My mum loves instant coffee. I don’t love instant coffee, but I do love my mum, so I’m going to go easy on the instant coffee drinkers. I concede that Instant coffee is: easy to find, easy to brew, consistent, cheap, and it’s easy to clean up. There are millions of folks whose relationships with coffee ends there and that’s fine.
For me, instant coffee is one dimensional and lacks the character, richness, complexity and variety of freshly roasted and brewed coffees. Instant coffee also has less caffeine than fresh roasted coffee which may or may not be a detraction, though it is for me. Instant coffee is made using low-quality beans, so from the outset, there are limitations to what’s possible.
You’re probably reading this post because you want more out of your coffee, and I’ll assume you don’t actually drink instant coffee. If you do, then I encourage you to make the switch to fresh.
3. Blade (or no) coffee grinder
A blade grinder produces a very inconsistent grind by chopping/cutting the coffee beans. The fineness of the coffee is controlled by time. Unfortunately, finer grinds will settle at the bottom and coarser chunks rise to the top during grinding. Inconsistent grind particle size is a problem as the finer particles will extract much more quickly than coarser particles. The finer particles will start to produce unpleasant bitter components while the larger particles are still producing pleasant components. The resulting coffee will include bitter components from over extracted coffee (from fines) and dull, under-extracted coffee from the coarser particles. This isn’t a pleasant mix and will vary greatly from cup to cup.
A burr grinder crushes the beans as they move from the top hopper, through the burrs, and into the catcher. The grind size is determined by the distance between the outer, and inner burrs. This distance is fixed, and so burr grinders offer much greater consistency in grind particle size. This produces much more evenly extracted, consistent and better tasting coffee.
Spend $50 on a decent burr hand grinder. The improvement in coffee quality over blade grinders is significant. A decent hand grinder will last you for years and is potentially the most expensive piece of equipment you’ll need. If a minute or two of hand-cranking that little grinder before your morning cuppa is too much effort, there’s no hope; abandon this article and make yourself a nice cup of tea. I probably should have warned you earlier that there might be a little effort involved.
4. Pod machines
I have pretty strong opinions about pod machines. I’ll concede that they’re convenient, but that’s where the benefits end. They’re wasteful, environmentally unfriendly, expensive and regardless of the space-age technologies used in packaging, the coffee in the pod is nowhere near as fresh or as delicious as a new bag of beans.
Pod coffee is expensive! Nespresso pods contain roughly 5.5 grams of ground coffee and retail at approximately AU$0.70 each. The coffee in those pods is costing you AU$31.50 per 250 grams. By comparison, good quality whole bean coffee could range between AU$12 and AU$20 per 250 gram bag. Average pod coffee is by far and away more expensive than even the highest quality coffee I would buy. On average I pay just AU$15 per 250 gram bag of high quality, fresh-roasted coffee beans from a local roaster.
Pod machine brewing ratios are also way off the mark. It’s worth noting that once you have extracted all the good components out of ground coffee, running more water through it just pulls out more of the undesirable, bitter characteristics and no more good stuff. Running too much water through grounds results in espresso that’s watery, bland and bitter. An ideal extraction ratio for espresso is more like 1:2 or 1:3 (ground coffee to water). A pod machine espresso shot has a ratio of 1:7, or one part ground coffee to seven parts water! Yuck!
Don’t let a slim budget stand between you and better coffee. If you don’t have a coffee maker or are ready to move on from a crappy one, buy an Aeropress or French Press (Plunger). They’re cheap, durable, portable, simple to use and can produce delicious coffee. With a decent hand grinder and an Aeropress or Plunger, you’ve got the perfect budget coffee kit for home, travel, or the office. Under a hundred bucks gets you all the gear you need plus a bag of coffee to get started.
5. Dirty equipment
Would you like bacteria or mould with that? Take a look inside your automatic coffee machine and I’ll wager you’ll never drink from that thing again. All machines need regular cleaning as coffee oils can turn rancid and leave your gear smelling, and the coffee tasting, like pure evil.
Cleaning can be easier with some brewers and machines than others. Auto and pod machines can be a little difficult to clean as it’s hard to get into them. Ease of cleaning and maintenance are things you should really consider when choosing your coffee brewer. Clean machines make better coffee.
6. Not weighing coffee
With even the simplest of recipes, we need to measure the ingredients. We could guess our measurements and get decent results, but they would be different every time. Sometimes the end result might be good, sometimes bad. We should strive for consistency and repeatability. One of the easiest ways to aid in consistency is to use a kitchen scale to measure the weight of beans you’re putting into your coffee. Ideally, you would also measure the coffee that ends up in your cup too. Take the guesswork out, so you can fine tune your method and produce great coffee, consistently.
7. Poor storage
Oxygen, moisture and to a lesser degree light, are the enemies of coffee. Once you open that bag, the staling process accelerates. In 4 weeks it’s game over for those beans as the unique flavour and aroma of the beans gives way to generic roasty characteristics.
Beans in open display bins, buckets and tubs look cool, but if that coffee wasn’t roasted in the last 48 hours, skip it. Find a sealed bag with the roast date clearly indicated.
Store your beans in an airtight container in your cupboard. If your beans come in a resealable bag, that will do just fine.
Check out our blog post on freezing coffee beans: Yes, you can store coffee beans in the freezer