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Method in the Madness


Last month, if you read my lecture on the political economy of coffee, you learned the prerequisites of buying good coffee beans. So, following both flavor and conscience, you buy your beans from small specialty roasters, preferably local, who know and care about their sources and can tell you what plantation or coop the beans came from. And maybe you even buy shade-grown coffees, benefiting distant ecologies, coffee growers and songbirds.

But now that you've got them, what do you do with those great beans? After all, you don't want to take perfectly good beans and make a perfectly bad cup of coffee. And it is extraordinarily easy to make a bad cup of coffee. I'm convinced that the ease of doing that, the ubiquity of bad coffee in homes and restaurants, persuades people that they don't like coffee unless it's swamped with milk and sweetened with an equal weight of sugar. But it's almost as easy to make good coffee as bad, if you start with great beans and decent equipment.

Whatever the brewing method, the underlying principle is simple: extract the good flavors from the beans and leave behind the bad. Doing that requires the right fusion of grind, quantities, water temperature and brewing time. Handily enough, the ideal water temperature is fairly invariant across brewing methods--195-200 degrees Fahrenheit, a good space away from boiling.

Amounts are uniform too: 7 grams of coffee per 5 oz. cup, which is what the average coffee scoop is roughly calibrated for. Equivalently, that's an ounce of beans for four cups of brew. Grind and brewing time vary across the various brewing methods.

So, what are these brewing methods? There are essentially five: filter drip, stovetop moka, vacuum pot, French press and espresso. Espresso is a huge complicated world unto itself, best saved for another time and budget. So, I'll talk about the remaining four, in order of increasing difficulty of use. (Of course, I'm slighting some statistically marginal brewing technologies such as cowboy coffee, percolator and ibrik. And I'm leaving out instant coffee, a caffeine-delivery system that is to coffee what military intelligence is to intelligence.)

Filter drip has dominated the market ever since a sleepy nation turned its eyes to Joe DiMaggio and Mr. Coffee some 30 years ago. Water is heated, usually insufficiently and then dispersed, usually unevenly, over some coffee, usually scant, unevenly ground or stale. It is then filtered into a carafe and burnt on a hot plate.

Nonetheless, good coffee is possible with these machines. First, buy one that actually gets the water hot enough. Most don't, and there is often sample-to-sample variation. At the other end of the process, you want to avoid hot plates, which means going for a machine with an insulated thermal carafe. (An alternative is to immediately pour the brew into a separate thermos.) Are there good machines out there? A quick browse turns out some candidates at various price levels. The most affordable is the Philips HD7612 thermal that Target carries. At higher price levels the Capresso MT500 and the Technivorm line have good reputations. Check reviews, particularly at Ignore reviews that don't care about water temperature or brew time, which should max out at no more than eight minutes.

OK, so now you have good beans and a good machine. Still, plenty of opportunity for bad coffee remains. Some people, finding their coffee sour or bitter, reduce the amount of grounds they use below the ideal of 7 grams per cup. This results in overextraction and an even fouler-tasting brew.

And, of course, you have to grind the beans: Grinding offers many opportunities to ruin coffee. The presence of timers on many models leads to the grinding-the-night-before blunder. Ground coffee stales astronomically more rapidly than beans. Another user error to watch out for is uneven grinding, almost an inevitability when using a whirly-blade grinder. Uneven grinding results in channeling, as the water finds the path of least resistance through the coarser particles--underextraction. Another blunder is an overly fine grind, so that the water spends too much time on the grounds--over-extraction. The solution here is a decent "burr" grinder; for drip machines you don't need an espresso-quality grinder, so we're only talking $40-$100 for something that will last quite a while.

While Starbucks' beans have nothing to recommend them, their periodic equipment sales often turn up grinders at good prices. The Solis Maestro grinder is also a very good sub-espresso grinder. Your whirly blade chopper can be safely relegated to its proper realm--spice grinder.

Slightly more trouble to use, but producing a distinctively heavier-bodied brew, is the stovetop "moka" machine. Sometimes called stovetop espresso machines (although they have nothing to do with espresso), they have three parts. The top part, where the brew ends up, has a vertical tube with a constricted opening at the top, out of which the coffee flows. This top part is screwed or clamped onto the bottom vessel where the water goes to be boiled; in between the two sits a filter basket. The best ones are now stainless steel, rather than aluminum, and I prefer styles that have a flared bottom, which allows the water to be heated rapidly without re-roasting the grounds. Bialetti makes a nice line, but the most beautiful models are by Alessi. With a little care, these will last forever; I've been using mine since 1980.

Usage is straightforward: Grind more finely than for a drip machine; don't overfill (either water or coffee); don't let the flame overlap the bottom of the pot; turn the flame down and then off as the brew fills the pot. Of course, you drink this brew right away. And with the possible exception of the filter basket, these should stay out of the dishwasher.

Next up is the French press. You've seen them: a cylindrical glass carafe in a metal brace and a lid with plunger. Screwed onto the end of the plunger is a series of disks: a securing plate, a wire mesh and plate circumscribed by a springy coil that squeezes against the sides of the carafe. Early models, like mine from the '70s, had an additional nylon-mesh filter. These are available again as an after-market add-on.

Press pots, like the moka pots, give a full-flavored, heavy-bodied brew but with a different character--less syrupy, more grainy. With press pots you put coarsely ground coffee into the carafe and pour 195-200 degree water (i.e., not boiling) over it, stir with a chopstick and cover with the plunger in the up position. Wait from two to four minutes, and plunge slowly. Fast plungers will do that only once. Press pot coffee is for immediate drinking; coffee left in the carafe will not only grow cold, but extraction will continue well into the unpalatable.

Vacuum pots are the least popular, but the most fun, and produce a distinctive and delicious brew. To my palate, vacuum pot brews have very bright, clean tastes, emphasizing the high notes. The same beans brewed in a filter drip and a vacuum pot show a different flavor profile.

They are the least popular method, I think, because they are the crankiest. They look like Rube Goldberg devices and can sometimes be as tricky. They have a long history (go to eBay if you want to bid on some "antique" models) but all versions share a basic design. Like the moka pots, there's a top and bottom vessel, both usually glass. The top carafe has a long tube projecting down, almost to the bottom of the bottom carafe, and a gasket seals the two together. Some filter contraption sits at the bottom of the top carafe.

Here's the fun part. You put coffee into the top and water into the bottom. Heat the bottom (very often with a small alcohol lamp). When the water boils it is forced up the tube into the top portion, mixing with grounds rather like in a French press. Allow 2 to 4 minutes to go by and remove the heat source. The partial vacuum in the bottom sucks the brew down through the filter and Bob's your uncle. Easier to do than describe.

Bodum makes a nice one that's readily available, but Hario makes an even better model, the Hario Noveau.

Now, I hear you saying, "Hey that's a lot of trouble in the morning when I need my shot just to get my clothes on right-side out." Well, Bodum heard you saying that, too. They've recently put out an automated electric vacuum pot (not that there weren't ones in the '30s) called the Bodum e-Santos. The smaller version received a very good review on; it might even be a good replacement for a filter drip.

So pick a method. Or two. Or five. Filter drip in the morning, when your coordination is unreliable; vacuum pot in the early afternoon; moka with the Sunday paper; French press after dinner. The daily grind never tasted so good. EndBlock

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