Whipping up great coffee

Espresso pours into small pitchers at Java Express.

Elusive as the Holy Grail, the perfect cup of morning coffee
isn’t exactly Folger’s and water. It’s a heady bouquet of bold
flavor served piping hot that melts away the remnants of a night’s
sleep while satiating the palate.
Elusive as the Holy Grail, the perfect cup of morning coffee isn’t exactly Folger’s and water. It’s a heady bouquet of bold flavor served piping hot that melts away the remnants of a night’s sleep while satiating the palate.

But what is it that makes a great cup of coffee? Equipment, beans, grind, water, technique and service all play a role in determining the quality of that cup o’ joe.

The list may seem long and daunting, but remember that coffee is a matter of taste, and, to an expert, the complexity of its flavors is as fine as any wine.

Equipment

To begin with, there is the issue of equipment. Whether using a French press, a drip coffee maker, an espresso machine or other coffee maker, cleanliness is an important first step.

Coffee’s flavor comes from the beans’ oil, which collects in the pot and can become stale when left out in the open. Reuse the same pot without washing it, and the coffee will take on a gradually more bitter taste, according to Sally’s Place columnist Rosemary Furfaro.

Beans

Coffee quality is probably most dependent on beans, experts say.

Timothy Castle, president of the Santa Monica coffee importer Castle & Company and author of “The Perfect Cup: A Coffee-Lover’s Guide to Buying, Brewing and Tasting,” advises skipping the bulk bins and communal grinders of the local supermarket as one can never tell how long the coffee has been sitting in the bin or just what concoction has gone through the probably seldom-cleaned grinder at the grocery store.

Green coffee beans have an almost unlimited shelf life, but attempting to roast them at home is a mistake, according to humorist and coffee lover Chris Wenham.

“The roasted coffee you buy is the last outpost of expertise before a barren wasteland of idiots wielding cheap-a** equipment sloshed with hard detergents and banged around with simian clumsiness in bacteria-infested kitchens that no coffee bean should ever be punished by inhabiting,” wrote Wenham in an online rant titled “A Perfect Cup of Coffee.” “If you really like the taste of your coffee, know that it all comes from the skill of the roaster, and all you had to do is follow some simple instructions.”

Beans should be bought whole and ground at home if possible, since ground coffee begins to lose its potency within a half-hour of the chopping process, said Ron Humphrey, owner of the Jumpin’ Juice & Java franchise in Morgan Hill. In fact, they’re slowly drying out from the time they’re roasted, and a supermarket may not move the beans for long periods of time.

“My beans are roasted to order and shipped from Idaho, where the company started,” said Humphrey. “I usually try to use them within two weeks.”

Grind

Even grinding is key to even flavor, as flavors may become over extracted in a drip coffee maker when some of the coffee is ground too finely.

The most common culprit in this is the trusty family coffee grinder, which generally consists of a blender-type blade. Some beans get ground to powder while others end up as coarse chunks. To achieve a medium grind free from the bitter taste associated with conventional grinds, pick up a mill-style coffee grinder, which will spit out the pieces of a consistent size.

“You should preferably get your coffee ground in a commercial grinder,” said Roger McDonald, co-owner of Java Express in Hollister with business partner Brent Sabbatini. He was referring to the high-quality grinders most coffee retailers possess. The pair’s mini-chain includes two drive-thrus in town and a walk-up stand at San Benito High School. “An important part of making a really good cup of coffee is a uniform particle size.”

Water

Impurities in the local water supply can impair an otherwise enjoyable cup, so Humphrey uses filtered water.

Those without filtration systems are welcome to use bottled water at home for the same effect, but do not use soft water or water purified via reverse osmosis for coffee if possible.

The natural minerals have been removed from both of these sources and their absence effects the coffee’s body, said McDonald.

Storage

Read carefully: Coffee should never be stored in the freezer, according to Wenham.

The cold, dry regions of frost and microwaveable dinners will soon dry out the flavor-rich oils of beans, rendering them more bitter.

Instead, he recommends keeping coffee in an airtight container on the countertop and buying no more than one week’s supply at a time.

Coffee should also not be allowed to sit in its grounds, which will over extract their flavor and turn bitter in a matter of minutes.

The window for peak freshness of coffee is startlingly short – three to five minutes, according to Furfaro. After that, it should be stored in a thermos or other sealed container to retain heat.

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