Making Coffee, Let Me Count The Ways

Daniel Brooks

Coffee can be made in many ways, by using an automatic espresso maker, a semi-automatic standard espresso maker, a French press, a stand-alone filter holder (now also known as pour over coffee), a filter (or drip) style coffee machine, a dual chamber espresso maker, Turkish style, with capsules of various kinds and several other gadgets.

More and more people are using capsule devices to make coffee. Fill up the coffee machine with water, pop in the capsule, hit a button and the coffee pours into your cup. No muss, no fuss. Much of the coffee provided in capsules is excellent. If you buy a pack of 24 coffee capsules, each one will be identical. The first cup will be the same as the ones you get 23 times thereafter.

For many people, like me, a cup of coffee in the morning is critical.  It starts with a feeling of enthusiasm that builds into enthusiasm for coffee, then a cup of coffee and finally, enthusiasm for the day ahead. A device such as a capsule coffee maker delivers that crucial first cup, and the ones that follow, by doing the heavy lifting. Your coffee is prepared in advance for you by the manufacturer, taking away the risk of getting it wrong.

There are many ways to make coffee without using a machine. This is not what the coffee industry wants you to do. Coffee manufacturers offer happiness, for a premium. Such happiness is possible without plugging anything in. The choice is yours to make. An analogy is a smart phone. When our phones work, we are happy. When it doesn’t, we have to think and act in unaccustomed ways. Recently I flew to Amsterdam and when I arrived, the screen on my new smart phone turned blue and stopped working. It was a sunny day and the temperature was a solid 32 degrees Celsius, one of about six hot days that take place yearly in Holland. I broke out into a sweat. I had to take the train and find my Airbnb rental. The only way out was to talk to people face to face and use a map printed on paper that didn’t know my location. Eventually, I ended up having a conversation with a guy who explained where I needed to go. For three entire days, I survived in Amsterdam with no smartphone at all. I read a book, smoked Dutch cigars, ate steaks and drank beer. The sanctimonious feeling alone was well worth it.

Coffee capsules (and the espresso drinks you buy in a coffee shop) allow the coffee industry to increase the value of each cup of coffee they sell. In doing so, they increase their profits. With capsules, the objective of maximizing value per cup has been achieved. Coffee in a capsule costs two to three times more than the un-encapsulated roast & ground coffee you buy off of the shelf at retail for equal quality blends. In addition, you will have to buy the machine. The coffee industry says thank you.

Making coffee at home is easy.  It will give you the chance to become a coffee expert. Those who keep at it become coffee snobs. Perhaps insufferable, but they do know their coffee.

When coffee experts “cup” or sample coffee to analyze it, they put ground coffee into a porcelain cup and boiling hot water into it. That’s all she wrote.  At home, use about a tablespoon of ground coffee in your coffee cup and fill it up with hot boiling water. The coffee experts use precise amounts. You can use any proportions you chose, being a coffee snob. At first, the coffee grounds float. After waiting for a minute or two, this floating layer of coffee can be pushed aside by a spoon, releasing the aroma of the coffee which you can ponder using your olfactory faculties. Look upon this process as being similar to putting your nose into your wine glass every time you buy a bottle of wine in a restaurant and say yes to purchasing it, although you don’t know why. After a few more minutes, the coffee settles to the bottom of the cup. At this stage, coffee specialists use large spoons to slurp up the coffee, making loud noises. At home, enjoy your coffee quietly. This method of preparation brings out the essential aspects of coffee. You can impress your friends by naming the attributes of the cup including the coffee’s body, taste, aroma, balance, acidity, bitterness and other more specific characteristics such as citrusy, chocolaty and nutty tastes and more. If you think your coffee lacks body or has a trace of bergamot, it does. No one in the world has any right to disagree.

Many coffee drinkers in Poland make coffee in this way, one reason it is called “Polish coffee”.  It’s also common in many parts of Russia where it is named “coffee”.

Another favorite of mine is a French press coffee maker, known as a cafetière in the United Kingdom and, presumably, France. I have three of them. The method of preparation couldn’t be any easier. Use about a tablespoon of ground coffee per cup of boiling hot water. Wait about two minutes for the coffee to steep. Waiting improves the flavor. Then slowly, slowly push down the press and your coffee will be ready to go. Pushing the press down slowly makes the process more dramatic and reduces the likelihood of coffee spilling out all over the place.

I often use a coffee filter holder, made of porcelain and placed on top of a cup. Put a paper coffee filter inside the filter holder, add a tablespoon (or so) per cup into the filter. Pour a small amount of water onto the coffee grounds and let it sit for a minute. Then very slowly pour hot water into filter, letting it gradually extract the coffee flavor into your cup. This method of coffee preparation is finally catching on in coffee shops where it is called “pour over” coffee. A special device is used by the shops to pour water into the filter at just the right temperature, a welcome change to espresso. However, in many shops, I have found that “pour over” coffee is not boiling hot when served. Coffee experts have told me that this is the proper way to make and serve filter coffee. In my book, coffee should be as hot as humanly possible and by God, that’s how I make it. The experts can go take a hike.

It’s often said that coffee knowledge in Russia isn’t especially good. Not true, when it comes to Turkish coffee. I’ve never met a single Russian who doesn’t know how to make Turkish coffee in a special pot with a long handle, adding sugar and bringing the coffee to a boil three times. If you like your coffee sweet and strong, try Turkish style coffee. I prefer to make it on the barbecue grill. Turkish coffee tastes best when prepared on hot coals.
With any coffee preparation method, make sure you keep everything clean. Coffee has oil in it that can become rancid and ruin your cup of coffee if left on the wrong surfaces. If you can smell coffee grounds on your cup or coffee device, wash everything out with soap and water until the coffee smell is removed before making the next cup. Time and time again, when I visit coffee shops, I detect rancid coffee. A top-notch coffee café will work very hard to wash their espresso machines. Too often, they don’t.

I have just about every coffee making device known to man in my house. Included in this gallery of devices is an automatic coffee maker and a small espresso machine. The automatic is a Jura, considered something like a luxury car of coffee machines. It will impress your friends and you will need a costly specialist to maintain it. Roasted beans are poured into one part of the machine and water into another, a button is pushed and an espresso comes out. It was given to me as a gift when I turned 50. These days it’s semi-retired, having become a bit long in the tooth. It makes a lot of noise and has been banished to the guest room above the garage. Both the guest room and the Jura are used only by myself to make coffee loudly.

My small, semi-automatic espresso maker comes in handy when guests call for an espresso after a meal. By banging the coffee dispenser against a hard surface and turning on the steam, an authentic coffee shop experience can be created. Espresso drinkers are influenced by all the senses, including the sound of steam and banging noises, helping to give espresso an undeserved reputation as the best way to make a cup of coffee.

Coffee is a complex drink. It comes from exotic places in the tropics. Each country of origin grows coffee with its own special characteristics. High-quality Arabica grown at higher elevations has its own taste advantages. Stronger, earthier Robusta beans grown in the lowlands pack a punch and are becoming more popular worldwide, especially in Russia. Coffee should be enjoyed like wine by switching from one variety to another and trying blends that originate in different countries and growing regions. Experiment with ground coffee and whole beans, then grinding coffee at home. Add different amounts of hot water and coffee and use as many different preparation methods as you like. Switch from a dark to a light roast coffee. Add sugar and hot milk. Let us count the ways.

Coffee is not a tattoo, nor is it a zero-sum game. It gives you a second chance. You can turn back. When all is said and done, your capsule machine (should you own one) won’t stop functioning if it is stands unused it for a few days. There is always time to return to its uniform quality, convenience and great coffee.  When you do, you might appreciate it even more, now that you’ve become a snob.