What even IS Coffee? Basics of Brewing
Welcome back to Intro to Coffee! If you’ve managed to hang with us so far, you’ve learned about how and where coffee is grown, how it’s processed from fruit to shippable green coffee, and what happens when the coffee is roasted. Hopefully with all that knowledge, you have felt empowered to make choices about buying coffee that sounds the most delicious to you.
For the final installment in this series, we’re going to discuss what to do with that bag of delicious coffee once you get it to your house. We will address principles of extraction so that no matter how you brew your coffee at home, you’ll be able to explore, troubleshoot, and pinpoint your favorite brew parameters for any given coffee.
We want to empower you to make the dopest coffee with any tools you have!
Brewing coffee doesn’t have to be mysterious, scary, or frustrating. Once you understand the basics of what’s happening when you brew a cup of coffee, you’ll be equipped to make good coffee with any setup.
(Once we brewed coffee using a paper cup that had holes punched in the bottom, with a paper towel for a filter. Was it the best cup ever? Nah, but it was totally drinkable!)
At its simplest, brewing coffee is a matter of getting delicious flavor compounds out of the ground coffee while leaving less delicious flavor compounds behind. We call this removal of flavor compounds “extraction.”
Every flavor in your cup of coffee is a result of compounds being extracted from the coffee, and we tend to talk about extraction in terms of over, under, or just right. (Goldilocks would love this game.)
The following tips will work no matter how you’re brewing your coffee– French Press, pourovers of any shape or kind, cowboy coffee directly in the cup, or the fanciest balance brewer. Today we’re going to talk about only the easiest variables to manipulate that affect your extraction: grind size, ratio of coffee to water, and time.
Some characteristics of underextraction are if your cup of coffee is thin, disappointing, or sour. (There’s a fine line with acidity where we cross from unpleasant and sour to fruity and balanced.) Underextracted coffee also can be too strong, but usually will be forgettable in that strength.
Some ways to extract MORE, if your coffee is underextracted and disappointing–
- Adjust your grind size to be finer. This increases the available surface area of the ground coffee, increasing accessibility of the flavor compounds.
- Use less coffee with the same amount of hot water. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re using more water to less coffee, you’ll necessarily extract more flavors from the coffee that you have.
- Increase the time of your brew. You can achieve this by pouring more slowly if you’re making pourover coffee, or by increasing the steep time of a full immersion brew.
On the other side, characteristics of overextraction tend to be astringency (like a tannic wine, or oversteeped tea,) overbearing bitterness, or ashy flavors (sometimes reminiscent of old cigarettes.) Overextracted coffee can taste diluted if there’s too much water used, and will leave a long, unpleasant aftertaste.
Some ways to extract LESS, if your coffee is tasting overextracted and unpleasant–
- Adjust your grind to be coarser. This decreases available surface area, making it harder for the water to access the flavor compounds.
- Use more coffee to the amount of hot water. Again, sounds backwards. But adjusting your ratio so that there’s less water to coffee will mean that fewer flavor compounds will be extracted.
- Decrease the time of your brew. You can pour faster for a drip method, or stir/press a full immersion method sooner.
And when your coffee is in the “just right” zone, it should be pleasant and fun to drink, with each sip leaving you wanting the next.
One of the best things you can do for yourself to learn about how to make coffee taste good is to only change one variable at a time. It’s always very tempting to mess around with a lot of variables and change the coffee a lot, all at once, but coffee is a finicky creature and small changes in your brewing behaviors can significantly change the flavors.
With these skills in your pocket, you can make delicious coffee anytime, anywhere! (Wondering where to start? Check out our brew guides!)