How to Brew the Perfect Cup of Coffee

Coffee is complicated: French press, pour over or automatic? Distilled, tap or spring water? Don't worry, we've got you covered.

There's a lot of choices involved when brewing coffee, starting with perhaps the most basic ingredient: Water.

"The conventional wisdom is, if the water is good enough to drink on its own, it's good to use for coffee," David Castillo, manager of the training program at Joe and a finalist in the 2018 United States Barista Championship, tells Newsweek. "The only water you shouldn't use is distilled, because water should have a certain mineral content which helps the coffee extract. Distilled water, which pretty much has everything removed, won't extract properly and won't taste very good."

There's also the question of how hot the water needs to be if you're brewing it by hand.

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"If you use water that's too cool, it will extract the soluble material at a different rate, and the acidic flavors won't come out quite as prominently as the bitter," Castillo explains. If the water's too hot, though, the coffee "will usually taste burnt and pretty bitter." Between 202 and 208 degrees Fahrenheit, or just under a boil, is the sweet spot.

Castillo recommends a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water. And his shop measures its grounds in grams, not tablespoons. "It lets us be a lot more precise," he beams.

How you're brewing can impact the quality of the coffee, too. Both electric coffee makers and manual techniques (like vacuum pots and French presses) "have the potential to brew a really excellent cup of coffee or a really terrible one," Castillo admits. As long as you understand how your coffee maker works and clean it regularly, you should be able to achieve results similar to the more time-consuming manual methods.

Of course then you'll have another choice to make: What kind of filter to use.

"Paper filters will generally remove and retain more of the oils that are in coffee, so the upside is it gives you a much cleaner cup, especially with a coffee that's really complex," says Castillo. A permanent filter, on the other hand, allows more oils to seep through. "So it's a little less complex, but it does give you a much fuller body."

Coffee is served at a coffee shop in Medellin on October 28, 2017. October is the peak of the high season coffee harvest in the region of Ciudad Bolivar, one of Colombia's most productive coffee towns, employing over 25000 coffee pickers from all over the country between October and December. Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Like most coffee aficionados, Castillo advises buying whole beans and grinding them yourself, ideally with Burr grinder. Many modern automatic coffee makers have built-in grinders with blades, but Castillo compares them to "putting your beans in a blender," resulting in uneven grounds that won't extract smoothly.

"We don't want huge chunks next to really finely ground particles," he says. "We want every bit of coffee to be as close in size as possible. Burr grinders are the only way we can really control that."

Then there's the bean itself: Where your coffee should come from or how dark it's roasted is is mostly a matter of taste, but Castillo recommends finding coffee with as much information as possible on the bag. "The bare minimum is the country of origin, but nowadays so many companies will tell you the farm it's from, the producer, the region of the country, [even] things like elevation, how the coffee is processed and when it was roasted." Many manufacturers will also include general tasting notes to guide first-time buyers.

In terms of storage, refrigeration doesn't make much difference—putting your beans in an airtight container to keep out moisture is what's key. Lower temperatures (especially in a freezer if the coffee's not vacuum-sealed), can actually let in a lot of moisture.

The ideal time to use your beans is about a week after they've been roasted—at that point, Castillo explains, "all the carbon dioxide naturally has been released from the coffee, and the water can just more easily extract all the stuff that we want to take out."

After that, the only question left is: Cream or sugar?

How to Brew the Perfect Cup of Coffee | Culture