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 Brewing Coffee
From "Coffee Basics"
Pages 102-119
Kevin Knox and Julie Sheldon Huffaker
1997 John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

  • Introduction: Why are you
    reading this?
  • Drip Brewing
  • Our Manual Drip Method
  • Manual Drip Brewing Details
  • Coffees suitable for drip method
  • Manual vs Automatic Drip
    On Filters
  • Coffee Press Method
  • Coffee Press Method Details
  • Coffees suitable for Press method


  • Vacuum Pot Method

  • Vacuum Pot Method Details

  • Coffees suitable for Vacuum Pot Method

  • Miscellaneous Methods

  • Flip-Drip or "Neopolitan"

  • Cold Water Concentrate

  • Middle Eastern Coffee

  • Benchmarking Coffee By The Cup

  • Adjusting Brew Strength


The goal of this document is to steer people through the obstacle course that is brewing a great cup of coffee. We understand fully what it is like when the alarm goes off at 6:00 AM and you have to hit the road at 6:35, but you want a good, hot cup of coffee in your hand when you do.

Chances are, you could be brewing coffee in a way that delivers flavors far superior to what you are getting now... in the same amount of time or less. To decide which brewing method or methods best match your needs, start by asking yourself these questions:

  1. On what occasions do I normally drink coffee? What is the relative importance of taste and convenience? (You may have more than one answer: for workday mornings vs. leisurely entertaining, for example.)
  2. How much money am I willing to spend on brewing equipment? On coffee?
  3. Can this brewing method brew great-tasting coffee?

For most coffee drinkers, the biggest hurdle to overcome as you begin getting serious about coffee is the fact that you own an electric drip coffeemaker, and the vast majority of electric drip brewers sacrifice taste for convenience. What we humbly suggest, if good taste is your goal, is an investment of attention rather than dollars. Grind coffee fresh with a burr coffee grinder and measure coffee precisely for the best cup of coffee.  It becomes second nature after a week. If you are going to the trouble of sourcing fresh, optimally roasted beans, brew to capture every precious nuance of flavor and aroma you're paying for.

We define great brewing methods as those that meet all the criteria, the "essential elements, " we have just discussed for brewing a great cup. (Remember that your familiarity with the essential elements of great coffee gives you the tools to evaluate any brewing method, too.) There are several great methods that, while a bit more "hands-on" than automatic methods, brew monumentally better coffee in considerably less time. These manual brewers are also simple, easy to use and maintain, and inexpensive.

We will focus on three brewing methods that offer the highest possible cup quality: the manual drip coffee maker, the coffee press or plunger pot, and the vacuum pot. [back to index]


Manual vs. Automatic Drip Coffee Brewers

In our extensive testing of home automatic coffee brewers, no model under $150 came close to producing coffee of the quality we brewed with our manual method. Even the best commercial units do no better. Why is this so?

Using the manual method, we bring all the water to the correct temperature before brewing. The physics of heating with residential wattage make this all but impossible for most home electric coffeemakers-especially when a large part of the available juice is dedicated to heating the burners that are supposed to keep brewed coffee hot. Most units can't get water above the mid-180F range, which is nowhere near hot enough for optimum flavor extraction.

Next, our open-top cone and oversized filter let us use the proper amount of coffee. Virtually no home electric brewer holds close to the correct amount. Even upscale models cater to mass-market preferences: a weak pot, with stale coffee (so no degassing is expected). To obtain decent results, you have to "short" the pot-use less water-or start cleaning when the messy grounds overflow.

Finally, our brewing process takes 4 minutes. A typical electric unit takes 11 or 12 minutes. When the grounds and water stay in contact for more than 8 minutes, the result is over-extraction; as you know, the coffee will be bitter. Commercial drip brewers meet the critical 195-205F temperature and 4-6 minute brew cycle requirements, but home electrics don't. This, in a nutshell, is why you can't make "professional" coffee using one of these machines.

With all the bells and whistles coffeemakers boast, why are the fundamentals so poorly attended to? We asked this question of a designer responsible for many of the best selling home electric models.

"This is a volume business," he replied, "we sell thousands and thousands of each design. The criteria are simple: They have to sell-profitably-for $49.95 or less. We build them to be thrown out within eighteen months of purchase, because that's what lots of people do; they throw these out rather than giving them a good cleaning.

"Besides, the machines work just fine according to Consumer Reports. But don't ask me. I don't drink coffee."

If you love great drip coffee (as we do), the biggest favor you can do yourself is to unplug your electric model and brew by hand. At present, there is just one alternative: the Dutch-made Technivorm, which is the only home electric that brews to professional standards. These makers start at about $150. They aren't cheap, but when you weigh their ability to brew excellent coffee over decades against replacing a less expensive brewer every few years and suffering through mediocre coffee all the while, you may conclude that the investment is worthwhile.

For those who are really willing to compromise~ we will relent slightly and mention two other models. The Rowenta thermos brewer (about $75) is capable of brewing a decent cup, providing the roast is relatively light (darker roasts and super-fresh light ones will overflow the brew basket). The brew temperature is only a few degrees short of ideal, and the glass-lined carafe does a good job of retaining heat and aroma. Brew time is over 8 minutes, so adjust by using a medium- rather than fine-cone filter grind.

The Bunn Home Brewer, which is widely available through discount retailers for just under $50, comes closer to duplicating commercial machine performance than any of the upscale department store brands. Its brew cycle is actually too short (3-1/2 minutes) and it won't hold a full dose of fresh coffee. But if you cut the water to a quart and use a rather fine drip grind, you end up with decent drip coffee. Because the Bunn brews into a glass pot on a burner, you need to drink the finished coffee right after brewing. [back to index]

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Coffee Roasts

 American (regular) roast: beans are medium-roasted, resulting in a moderate brew, not too light or too heavy in flavor.

 French roast and dark French roast: heavily-roasted beans, a deep chocolate brown which produce a strongly flavored coffee.

 Italian roast: glossy, brown-black, strongly flavored, used for espresso.

 European roast: two-thirds heavy-roast beans blended with one-third regular-roast.

 Viennese roast: one-third heavy-roast beans blended with two-thirds regular-roast.

 Instant coffee: a powder made of heat-dried freshly brewed coffee.

 Freeze-dried coffee: brewed coffee that has been frozen into a slush before the water is evaporated, normally more expensive that instants but with a superior flavor.

 Decaffeinated coffee: caffeine is removed from the beans before roasting via the use of a chemical solvent (which disappears completely when the beans are roasted) or the Swiss water process which steams the beans and then scrapes off the caffeine-laden outer layers.

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