Barista Secrets: 3 Tips For A Better At-Home Cup

A barista talks to a customer at Blue Bottle's W.C. Morse location in Oakland. Photo: Shelby Pope
A barista talks to a customer at Blue Bottle's W.C. Morse location in Oakland. Photo: Shelby Pope

As much as the Bay Area loves its seemly infinite number of third wave coffee shops, it’s cheaper and more convenient to make coffee at home. And with the rise in coffee maker alternatives—the Aeropress, Chemex and pour over methods which have all gained popularity over the last few years—there are now more options than ever before to make a quality cup at home.

Yet even if you’ve dutifully followed all the advice on how to improve your home coffee making—you’ve shelled out for a burr grinder, bought a cone dripper, and have carefully selected coffee beans from your preferred third wave roaster—sometimes there’s still something missing. Why, if you’re using the same coffee as Blue Bottle/Philz/Four Barrel, will your morning cup made at home not taste as good as it does as when it’s made in their respective stores?

“Magic elves,” Michael Philips, Blue Bottle’s director of training (and 2010 winner of the World Barista Championship) said, deadpan. “That’s the secret to everything we do.”

“How do you get it to taste as good as the stores? You can’t,” said Philz Coffee CEO Jacob Jaber, son of the eponymous Phil. “You can try to follow the same process and procedure but there’s so many little details that we do, from the coffee making methodology, to the equipment we use, to the amount of beans we use, to the type of grind we use, to the quality of the water we use, to the way we pour, to the way we stir, to the ingredients that are added. Those are all factors, and important ones, and unless you get all of those right, it’s going to be hard to replicate it.”

But while making coffee will always lacks the obvious advantages of making coffee at a shop, like the expensive equipment and access to the freshest beans, with a few easy tweaks, it’s possible to get closer to that café taste–no magic elves required.

A cheap Brita filter can upgrade your water quality--and coffee making Photo: Shelby Pope
A cheap Brita filter can upgrade your water quality--and coffee making. Photo: Shelby Pope

Water

When someone opens a coffee shop, not only do they have control over which $15,000 espresso machine to buy and what type of Edison bulb will best artfully light their café, they’re able to completely control what kind of water they’re using. And since coffee is 98% water, home coffee makers are immediately at a disadvantage when it comes to getting that café taste. At home, you’re not going to have access to the state of the art reverse osmosis system Blue Bottle uses, but even just a $20 Brita filter can make a huge difference, says Erin Meister, who trains baristas for Counter Culture Coffee.

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“The secret hack of making great coffee at home is not necessarily spending a ton of money and only using Fiji water to brew your coffee-- because who wants to be that person--but considering the water quality, knowing that you should always start with cold fresh water, [and] making sure that your water doesn’t impart any taste or odor,” she said. “Anybody who’s making coffee at home, anything that’s Brita level filtration should be just fine.”

The right kind of dairy plays an important role in making espresso drinks Photo: Shelby Pope
The right kind of dairy plays an important role in making espresso drinks. Photo: Shelby Pope

Dairy

Fans of Philz Coffee are convinced the company has a secret. On a 2012 Quora thread, a debate sprang up: does the Bay Area chain, which encourages customers to take milk in their coffee, use olive oil to make their cream taste richer? Or is the secret extremely high fat manufacturer’s cream? It’s an urban legend about that Jaber is happy to debunk—“We do not put olive oil in our milks or cream”—but the obsession with Philz’s cream highlights the important role dairy plays in coffee.

If you’re simply adding coffee to your morning cup, it doesn’t matter what kind you use. Like soy, skim or even manufacturer’s cream? Keep using that. But if you’re steaming milk at home for espresso drinks, things get more complicated, as different types of milk can heat into froth that ranges from smooth and silky to dry and Styrofoam-like.

At Four Barrel, barista trainer Umeko Motoyoshi recommends that her wholesale accounts use Straus Barista Milk, which she prefers not only for its “pleasantly floral, very sweet” taste but its distinctive foaming properties. A few years ago, at the request of several coffee companies, Straus developed a lightly homogenized version of their milk—it’s easier to get reliable microfoam with lightly homogenized milk.

While the resulting Barista Milk is only available for wholesale accounts, Motoyoshi says you can get good foam from virtually any milk (except raw milk, which separates when heated). Higher fat milk has a smoother mouth feel and highlights the taste of coffee better, but don’t overdo it: half and half may be delicious, but it’s harder to steam.

A digital scale is an easy way to ensure consistency in your coffee Photo: Shelby Pope
A digital scale is an easy way to ensure consistency in your coffee. Photo: Shelby Pope

Testing and Consistency

Yes, you know how to make a cup of coffee. But do you measure out your coffee and water—in grams, for more accuracy—the way Blue Bottle employees do?

“You can have the best coffee and the best espresso equipment around but if your technique is not accurate and consistent, all that will mean very little,” said Philips, who emphasized “making sure that you’re using the same amount of coffee, the same amount of water, so that you can control and recreate your formula. In a lot of our coffee bars you’ll see that we have little digital scales tucked away and those digital scales are a really easy trick for the home user to be able to take that consistency that we have in our shops into their personal lives.”

Every coffee shop has its own formula borne from a serious of exhaustive tests on everything from grind size to ratios—and once they’ve nailed down a formula, they don’t deviate. Start measuring your coffee and water, and it’ll be easy to isolate the characteristics you prefer to discover the formula for your personal perfect cup.

And if you’ve been making coffee the same way for years, try brewing a new way. Four Barrel’s Motoyoshi recommends a 1:15 coffee to water ratio, and Blue Bottle has instructions on their website for brewing in anything from a drip machine to a moka pot to pour-over system.

Ultimately, the best way to improve your coffee making is to experiment with your coffee, discover what you like, and to keep trying new methods, said Philips.

“That’s the thing that’s great about coffee. Your personal opinion can very easily define the product that you get,” he said. “If you’re a home aficionado and you feel like you've got some basic tools, your next step is to start looking at different ways you can work with those same coffees to bring out different aspects of them and create different styles of beverages,” said Phillips.

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Even though spending extra time and money on your daily cup of coffee may seem frivolous, it’s worth the effort, says Meister. “Coffee means so much to people that there’s no reason not to go whole hog and make it an occasion in your day. One of the best things you can do [for] yourself is to take a moment out of your day, to make it as pleasant a sensory experience as possible.”

Getting the coffee shop experience at home is easier than you think Photo: Shelby Pope
Getting the coffee shop experience at home is easier than you think. Photo: Shelby Pope

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