How to make coffee that will impress the hell out of your guests, part 2 of 3: Choose your weapon


by Jay Gabler | 4/9/09 • Part two of a three-part series. To read part one, click here.

Okay, now that you have your fresh coffee beans (which, if you bought them last time I blogged about coffee, are already quite stale—sorry), you’re ready to choose your weapon: your brewing mechanism. Unfortunately, the mechanism most likely to be readily available to you is also just about the worst choice if you want to do as the title of this blog entry suggests you ought to do.

What’s wrong with an automatic-drip coffeemaker? Pretty much everything. The biggest problem with a standard Mr. Coffee (or even a standard Cuisinart) is that it takes a long time to brew a pot of coffee—around ten minutes for a full pot. For ideal results, water should be in coffee grounds for no more than about four minutes; for some grinds, much less. By the time the smell of the brewing coffee has awakened your significant other, you’ve already got a substandard product to serve her. Another big problem is the size of the baskets, which—if you don’t want them to overflow—hold about a third as much coffee as I’d use for a 12-cup pot. You can get away with filling one of those baskets pretty full if you’re using the usual stale grounds, but if you actually have fresh grounds that are going to foam deliciously when the water hits them, you hardly have enough room for two cups’ worth in there.

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So if you have freshly ground coffee and use just any brewing method besides a standard automatic drip pot or percolator (which are even worse—they recommend brewing a full pot for an hour), you’re already two legs way up on 90% of the rest of the American coffee-drinking world. But what are your other choices?

The one that you’re next-most likely to have sitting around is a French press. These are favored by people who like strong coffee, and who like to look like they like strong coffee. In fact, you can make an excellent cup of coffee with a French press—but take heed of the above warning about automatic-drip pots. You need to get that water in and out of there in under four minutes, or you’re going to be extracting a lot of nasty flavors along with the deliciousness that leaps right out of the grounds. (Among that deliciousness, although it’s tasteless, is caffeine. Caffeine is extremely water-soluble, so caffeination happens almost immediately. In fact, that’s one way decaffeination is accomplished: by exposing coffee to water for a very brief time, so most of the caffeine leaves—it’s often re-used in soft drinks—but most of the flavor doesn’t. Thus, contrary to popular belief, letting coffee grounds soak for several minutes doesn’t make the coffee any “stronger” in the sense of being more highly caffeinated.) I don’t understand why otherwise sound-minded establishments like Dunn Bros. sell those mugs with presses built in, allowing the grounds to hang out down there for the full length of time it takes to drink the coffee. Gross!

What about espresso machines? Probably a bad idea—if you want something like a latte, try making extra-strong coffee in a press and using that instead. The kind of espresso you can get at a coffee shop with professional equipment is miles beyond anything you can accomplish at home for less than a four-figure investment. If good coffee is to bad coffee as Bell’s Two Hearted is to Michelob Ultra, good espresso is to bad espresso as Dom Perignon is to a mixture of 7-Up and bathtub gin. You may be pleased with your little $100 countertop jobber, but you owe it to yourself and your guests to try a couple shots of real, pure espresso—I’ll recommend Starbucks, if only because they’re consistent—and compare it to what you have at home. I know, right? Unless you have a few hundred dollars for a professional grinder that can actually produce a fine espresso grind and several hundred more for a near-professional espresso machine…don’t even try.

But good coffee isn’t just about money and fancy equipment! In fact, one of the best coffeemakers can be had for only a couple of bucks: a simple plastic cone, into which you can place a paper filter filled with freshly-roasted, freshly-ground coffee. All you do is boil the water, wait a minute, and pour. It’s that simple. Your guests may do a double-take at the simplicity of the system, but wait until they see and smell that fresh, frothing coffee in full view. To invoke another vice-related metaphor, making manual-drop coffee versus automatic-drip coffee is like having a lap dance as opposed to seeing a burlesque show. Believe me, your audience will be quite turned on.

Beyond this, there are any number of more exotic options. Certainly, there are rewards to be had in the land of the cold press and the pinched-waist silver stovetop “espresso maker” (it’s not really an espresso maker, but whatever)—but if you’re really adventurous, I recommend acquiring a vacuum pot. I jealously guard my electric vacuum pot, which Bodum has since phased out, but you can still buy a stovetop vacuum pot. Besides making knock-your-socks-off coffee, vacuum pots are real conversation pieces. They have two chambers, and the water goes first up and then down as heat is applied, then removed, changing the pressure in the lower chamber. It’s a fun, easy, and delicious way to make a full pot of good, strong joe.

Next up: the grand finale, bringing it all together.

Photo: Even a sock knows good espresso when he tastes it. Photo by Jay Gabler, sockcraft by Emma Strand, espresso by Dunn Bros.