Five Easy Tips to Brewing Better Coffee - Everyone Starts Somewhere
Baristas make it look so easy: with the flick of a wrist, the pull of a shot, and the swirl of a cup, your favorite baristas can make delicious coffee drinks day in and day out. Perhaps you want to mimic the skillful work you see baristas do every day and make your own delectable brew at home—but no matter how hard you try, you can't get your coffee to taste as good as the pros.
To compare what you make at home with what the pros make with commercial equipment, a rotating selection of beans, and years of practice and skill would be like comparing apples to oranges—but that doesn't mean you can't get closer. Many of the most impactful tips and tricks are also the easiest to implement: here are five ways to up your morning game and make your coffee taste fantastic at home.
One: Buy Fresh Beans
Coffee is a lot like a spice: spices are best enjoyed fresh; if you have a spice grinder, they're even better, and while they're technically shelf-stable, they're best enjoyed fresh.
Buying fresh beans is the first place to start upping your coffee game. Sometimes, when you go to the grocery store, you'll see expiration dates (best by XYZ date), but an expiration date doesn't tell you when the coffee was actually roasted, which is a much better measure of how fresh the beans are. So try to buy whole-bean bags with a roast date, and look for bags that have been roasted within the last few days or weeks.
We'll always encourage our readers to invest in a home grinder (see tip #2), but if you don't have a grinder, you can buy beans from your local cafe and ask them to grind your coffee. Pre-ground coffee from the grocery store was likely ground months ago, and coffee stales faster when you grind it (oxygen is what causes coffee to go stale, so the more surface area your coffee is exposed to, the quicker it'll stale).
Generally, the best places to buy coffee are from local coffee shops and your favorite roasters. Not only is it their job to keep on top of roasting dates to ensure you get the freshest coffee, but they can offer tips and advice on brewing. Coffee doesn't have a firm "freshness" date, but we loosely recommend using coffee within a month of its roast date.
Two: Buy A Grinder
You might roll your eyes when you see this tip—why are you being encouraged to spend money on a pricey piece of equipment? But a coffee grinder is the most crucial tool baristas use when working, and if you brew coffee regularly at home, the investment will pay off quickly.
You can find a variety of coffee grinders that vary in price, but there are two main categories of machine: blade grinders and burr grinders. Blade grinders are generally cheaper but will chop your coffee into uneven pieces, unlike a burr grinder designed to break down coffee beans into even pieces.
Perhaps our favorite machine for home coffee drinkers is the Baratza Encore—we recommend this machine for its ease of use, affordable price point, and Barazta's excellent customer service and refurbishment deals. You can buy a Barazta today, and the company will help with most repairs and replacement pieces, so a grinder from them is an investment that'll last years.
Three: Check Your Water
Coffee is about 98% water, so the quality of your water matters a lot! Another feature of coffee shops that helps them make coffee better is that most have complicated water filtration systems designed to deliver the ideal water conditions for brewing coffee—most people's homes don't automatically have great water for brewing running out their taps.
Every city and town pulls water from a different source, so check your area's municipal services page and learn more about the water from your tap. If you live somewhere you wouldn't drink water straight from the tap, don't use unfiltered tap water to brew your coffee: invest in a filtration service to remove harsh particles from your water source.
Generally, the rule of thumb is if you can drink from the tap, that's likely a good source of water for your coffee brewing, but if you notice scale building up quickly (a chalky, powdery substance you might see on faucets and showerheads), then your water might be too hard. If your water is too soft (if it's tough for soap to form bubbles, that's usually a sign your water is soft), you might need to look into a reverse osmosis system. Ask your local baristas—they think a lot about water quality and likely know what kind of water your local area has.
Four: Clean, Clean, Clean
You didn't think you'd go through a whole Urnex article without discussing the importance of cleaning, did you?
Cleaning your equipment ensures the longevity of your machinery and greatly impacts how your coffee tastes. Have you ever seen a ring around the edge inside your coffee mug? Coffee naturally has oils that can stain your equipment over time, which go rancid, causing coffee to taste muddy and funky (and not in a good way). Regularly cleaning your mugs, carafes, and coffee brewing equipment with a coffee cleaning solution will prevent oil buildup and allow the flavor of your coffee to shine.
Likewise, your coffee grinders need to be regularly cleaned with a cleaner and manually by taking them apart (another reason we recommend Barazta machines: they're easy to take apart and clean with a soft brush). Regularly cleaning your grinders will keep the blades or burrs sharp (extending their lifespan) and prevent oils and debris from building up and causing off flavors.
But it doesn't stop there: remember water? Over time, items that use water (like coffee machines) will build up scale, also known as calcium carbonate, and the scale needs to be removed with a cleaner in a process called descaling. If you don't descale regularly (we recommend about once a month, but it depends on how often you use your equipment), you'll start to see that white, chalky build-up, particularly around areas where water passes through—we see a lot of scale build up inside kettles and on the showerheads of brewers. If that stuff is left on your equipment for a really long time, it can harden and look like rock candy.
You might read articles about descaling that recommend using vinegar or citric acid, but these aren't designed for coffee machines—vinegar is especially harsh and often leaves behind an odor that's difficult to get out of porous surfaces and tubes. A cleaner designed explicitly for descaling coffee equipment ensures that your machine is well-cleaned without imparting a weird and lingering odor—who wants the flavor of vinegar in their coffee?
Five: Feel Free to Experiment
Baristas don't simply hop behind an espresso machine and make excellent coffee: they pull a few shots, brew many batches of coffee, and continuously adjust different parameters as they go.
Try doing the same at home. If a batch of coffee tastes off, try a new recipe: grind your coffee finer or coarser, adjust the ratio of coffee to water—anything! We recommend changing one variable at a time so you can see how the change affects your brew, but your coffee is always yours to tweak and adjust however you want. Feel free to experiment and try new things every time you brew.
What matters at the end of the day is how you enjoy your coffee. Even if a website recommends using a specific bean or grinding your coffee at a set grind setting, what matters most is finding what you like. Trust your taste buds, and let them take you where they want to go. Happy brewing!