Coffee brewers— both professional and enthusiast— love to make things complicated. Complex multi-step brew recipes and brewing devices with some unique feature have become standard. Fancy new features on espresso or brewing machines are demanded without any evidence of their necessity (hello pressure profiling).
This might seem hypocritical from someone who writes a blog about how to make coffee better in advanced ways. But I hope even occasional readers have appreciated my desire for simplicity and pragmatism alongside a strong aversion for undue complexity or fluff.
I believe we haven’t even begun to master the basics of coffee. Naturally, it follows that we have a long way to go before we start optimising the finer details.
When you next find yourself hunting for a way to make your coffee better, perhaps start with the most important things first. Might seem simple, but the sheer number of people looking to gadgets, basket diameter, or espresso head space to fix their problems tells me otherwise.
Here’s a hierarchy of adjustable or addressable things that affect a cup of coffee, in order of most to least important. Numbers 1 to 3 have the potential to completely ruin a cup of coffee on their own. Everything after that can certainly hurt quality but would struggle to be disastrous. That is, unless they’re working in tandem with each other.
- Basic Green Coffee Quality (no faults, 82+, OK moisture and water activity)
- Roasting (well developed, evenly, minimal dry distillates)
Water (clean, and correct minerals/alkalinity for roast style/level)
Stop. It’s highly unlikely you actually need to go further. Have you actually addressed your brewing water? Does it match the roaster’s water? Don’t move on until you’ve put appreciable effort into this by exploring multiple options, preferably simultaneously.
- All grinds experiencing the same flow/time/etc. (distribution and basket quality for espresso, stirring for drip)
- Grinder and burrs (aligned and sharp)
- Brew contact time (if above is all fixed, brewing longer will probably improve things. This can hurt you with filter coffee: you might need to go coarser)
- Changing pump pressure for espresso.
- Equipment cleanliness (boil everything in a concentrated solution of espresso cleaner, then rinse)
- Water freshness (has the water been sitting in the boiler a while?)
- Advanced green coffee quality (tight screen size, avoid variety blends)
- Maybe start looking at niche things like basket diameter, multi-step preinfusion and similar, or whether you’re just expecting too much.
I understand others will have extremely different opinions about the order, and will likely have many suggestions, and that’s okay!