The Four Essentials
Coffee, Water, Grind, and Time
Coffee brewing is essentially a “just add water” situation. The caveat is that you want to measure the amounts of coffee and water, use water at the right temperature, find the appropriate grind size, and control the amount of time that the coffee grounds and water are in contact. Every brew method recipe, whether filter style (drip machines, chemex, pour over) or immersion style (french press, eva solo, siphon) can be largely expressed within these variables.
Fresh Roasted Coffee
Coffee beans are best when used within 10 days of roasting. If you are going to store them, put them into an airtight sealed container, such as a canister or glass jar with lid. Then keep them out of the sunshine and away from heat. Never, ever put them in the freezer or fridge as it creates condensation, which can affect the flavor of both ground coffee and coffee beans.
Clean filtered water of the sort you’d happily drink is a must. Most manual brew methods will perform best at temperatures just off of a boil (~195-205F). You’ll discover some coffees are more sensitive to water temperature than others—unusually dark roasts are able to tolerate much lower brewing temperatures (accounting for much of their continued popularity as the bulk of cheap automatic drip brewers tend to not get water hot enough).
Coffee to Water Ratio
Coffee aficianados differ by degrees about what the most correct coffee to water ratio is, and you’ll want to explore nudging your coffee dose up or down to suit your own tastes and specific gear. A good general starting point is just over 60 grams of coffee per liter of water. (Or in simple measurements: about 2 tablespoons of coffee for every 6 ounces of water.)
For those with a more precise desire for exact numbers and a full embrace of the metric system—in which 1 gram of water equals 1 milliliter of water—you can aim for a ratio of 1:16 or 1 gram of coffee per 16 milliliters (or grams) of water. Here is an online ratio calculator that can be bookmarked for just this purpose.
The One Essential: The Grinder
Every coffee aficianado will give you the same lecture: pre-ground coffee just doesn’t cut it. The full flavor and aroma that make good coffee so intoxicating is mortally wounded when ground coffee is left to sit for long. Fancy packages, plastic pods, and inert gas flushing do very little to change this cruel fact.
Burr Grinders: Not cheap, but far and away the best investment you can make in your coffee universe outside of buying top quality fresh roasted beans. A burr grinder crushes the beans between two sharp burrs—one stationary, one rotating—and adjusting the gap between the burrs lets you dial in a specific grind size and produce relatively uniform grinds for better extraction.
Many people make the mistake of purchasing expensive drip brewers with blue LEDs and timers and numerous buttons and then balk at dropping dough on the grinder. This is exactly backwards. A good burr grinder is a unmatchable precision tool whereas any automatic drip machine is merely a fancy way to dribble hot water on your grounds. We prefer the Baratza line of burr grinders.
Timers, Scales, and Kettles
A timer is useful for almost every manual brew method and can even come in handy when figuring out the best grind size for automatic drip machines.
The Case For a Gram Scale
A gram-accurate scale can bring some great precision into your brewing and remove some of the guesswork when pouring water from kettles. For instance, when filling a french press directly from your kettle, it can be hard to correctly eyeball where to stop pouring as wet coffee grounds bloom up with escaping gasses. A scale lets you dodge having to pre-measure your water into a kettle or fuss with finding a fill line. Just place your brewing device on the scale and start pouring to the desired water weight (remember 1 gram = 1 milliliter).
It actually makes brewing easier. Though it might feel like adding a scale makes your morning routine into too much of a chemistry class, you’ll find it actually makes the process a much more brainless and autopilot affair once you’ve dialed in your “recipe.”
Whether you’re using precise gram scales or just simple scoops, the important thing is that you make sure your measurements are repeatable and adjustable. In most cases, if starting with a baseline brew recipe and ratio, just a few brews and a small amount of trial and error—little adjustments in grind, dose, swell time, and a bit of technique—will get you to a reliable sweet spot. And expect to pour a few brews down the sink at first whenever introducing a new brew method to your kitchen.