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It's Pretty Easy To Level Up Your Coffee Game — Here's How

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There's something utilitarian about a cup of coffee. You wake up, you make it, pour it down your throat, and feel a little closer to taking on the day.

Which is fine, but maybe a little joyless? Especially for something you do every day. But, with just a few simple steps, coffee can go from something you use to something you enjoy.

We're guided by Sandra Walimaki, a coffee professional who has been in the industry for over 18 years. Her grandmother was a coffee farmer, so for her coffee is personal. "To me, coffee was always that memory [of] sitting in the morning at a table, sharing a story, reading a paper, talking to my mom or my dad."

Walimaki is a regional educator for Counter Culture Coffee, who we should note is our brand partner for the NPR Coffee Club. She teaches professional development classes for baristas, as well as home brewing classes for coffee enthusiasts.

Here are six tips to help you brew a better cup from the comfort of your kitchen:

1. Start with good ingredients.

At its simplest, a cup of coffee consists of two things: coffee and water.


The taste of your water will affect the taste of your coffee, "so choosing good water is very important for brewing good coffee at home," Walimaki says.

This doesn't mean going out and buying ten dollar artisanal water. It can be as easy as using the filter in your fridge or on your sink. Your tap water may contain some minerals that will affect the taste of your coffee. If it contains high levels of chlorine, for example, "your coffee [could] taste like pool water," cautions Walimaki.

When it comes to the other main ingredient, it goes beyond just buying "good" coffee. Try opting for fresh coffee. Like other perishable goods, coffee becomes stale with time, and the unique flavors will start to fade away.

Coffee that's not fresh might taste a little woody, or like cardboard. Check to see if your coffee has a "best by" date printed anywhere on the package. If you're buying whole beans, see if there's a date that indicates when the beans were roasted.

Walimaki says you can keep coffee in those paper pouch bags they come in anywhere from two weeks to a month, as long as they're kept in a relatively cool dry space. Be wary of storing your beans in the fridge though — they could wind up absorbing other aromas.

2. Get a coffee grinder.

Walimaki says a good coffee grinder is the single best thing you can buy to upgrade your coffee game. "The best gift I gave to myself back in the day was a grinder," says Walimaki.

Grinders come in two styles:

  • Burr grinders run coffee beans through two gear-like circles, akin to a pepper mill. They allow for a more uniform grind size compared to blade grinders, although they tend to be bigger and more expensive. There are mechanized burr grinders and manual ones.
  • Blade grinders grind coffee beans using a propeller-like blade. They are cheaper, smaller, and generally simpler to use than burr grinders. If you go with a blade grinder, try pulsing the grinder for a more consistent grind.

Whatever kind you get, try to minimize the time between grinding and brewing — it will make all the difference.

By grinding beans yourself and at home, you can zero in on your preferred grind size. Walimaki's ideal coarseness is that of the chunky sugar you see on top of scones. A finer grind will result in a lighter, more bitter cup of coffee.

3. If you're ready, graduate from the auto-drip.

Now, you've reached a fork in the road of your coffee journey — a French press on one side, and a pour-over on the other. If you like coffee with more body or a heavier mouthfeel, opt for a method that doesn't require a paper filter, like a French press, says Walimaki.

If you want a lighter, brighter cup — in color and in taste — try a brewing method that uses a paper filter. Paper filters will trap oily substances and keep out more sediment. Walimaki tells us the resulting cup of coffee is more clear, crisp and tends to have "brighter flavors."

Something else to consider: pour-over methods are more hands-on. Most require you to pour hot water over the grounds more than once, so they need constant attention.

A French press is less precious — you just pour water over the grounds, set a timer for four minutes and let them steep. So if you prefer to multitask in the mornings, this might be the better option.

4. Develop Your Recipe

The proportions of coffee to water (a.k.a. the brew ratio) is a personal, intimate thing. Walimaki likes a 1:16 ratio, so one part coffee to 16 parts water. The right ratios, she says, "will do magic to like the flavors of your coffee."

If that math is hard in your head, try starting out with 60 grams of coffee to one liter of water as a baseline.

From there, it's up to you. Walimaki suggests taking notes the first time you brew coffee at home and then changing one variable at a time.

Record how each change affects the taste of your coffee. Think of the pursuit of your perfect cup of coffee as a kind of adult science fair project!

5. Learn to describe what you taste.

We're not telling you to go out and become a coffee connoisseur! The point here is to learn enough to be able to figure out what you like.

Don't expect to become some kind of expert taster overnight. Walimaki notes, "The more you taste something ... the better you're going to get at identifying what's good and what's bad. And also what do you like, or what do you prefer?"

If you're having trouble naming what you taste, try using a flavor wheel — a handy tool that can help you pick out exactly what you're tasting. It starts with more general flavors in the center — fruit, nut, floral — and gets more specific towards the edges.

6. Create a "coffee corner."

There can be more to coffee than just what's in your cup. Whether you drink your morning cup at home while catching up on the news, or out of a tumbler on your morning walk — it's a part of everyday life for a lot of people.

We talked to Sahra Nguyen, founder and CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply. "For me, I feel like having a coffee ritual every morning is really like treating yourself right." Instead of rushing to her desk or checking her emails first thing, she carves out time for a coffee routine. Especially when things feel uncertain.

"I think committing to a ritual, like making coffee, is really centering," Nguyen says.

In service of creating a ritual, Nguyen recommends dedicating some space in your home for all of your tools — she calls it a "coffee corner."

"Right before this, I used to step into a coffee shop almost every morning as part of my ritual to start my day. And I think that feeling, like stepping into something, is really about stepping into a moment of self-care that's rooted in ritual. So I think designing that space is really important."

Your coffee corner doesn't need to be anything fancy. It could be half of a shelf in your pantry, a corner of your countertop or a little rolling cart. You don't need to buy anything new. "You can actually work with what you have," says Nguyen. Try designating a few favorite mugs and spoons, and show them off by giving them their own space!

Of course, coffee shop vibes aren't complete until you've set your music. Nguyen likes to kick things off with Ray Charles instrumentals, but it's your coffee corner, so play what feels right for you.

Have a good coffee tip? We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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