There are few things we enjoy more than watching the wisp of steam sway from our morning coffee, a white whisper that wakes us with a buzz felt behind the eyes. In winter it's a warmer for your hands, just as good as gloves. Which is why, given all that our coffee gives us, we hate to make a bad cup of joe. We're still learning, and are certainly no World Barista Champions, but after a time reading and a series of trials and errors we've gotten a lot better than the boilerplate mud-water we used to brew. Here are the tools and tricks we're using now.
Grind It Yourself
The biggest change we found in the quality of our coffee came from improved freshness. Over time coffee loses oil and breathes, which is why you'll see a pin hole in bags to allow the carbon dioxide to escape. Grinding it speeds up the aging process by increasing surface area so getting whole beans and grinding them yourself makes a difference. At first we had a little spice grinder. Trust us when we say the extraction from that varied mess of powder to chunks is not what you want. You want the even grind of a burr grinder. They can be had for cheap on Amazon or at stores like Home Goods. We like this Cuisinart ($41.95) for it's balance of price and grind quality.
If you've dropped a lot of cash on an expensive Espresso machine you'll likely have to look to more expensive models like the Mazzer Mini ($629) to get that perfect fine grind. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) standard is six ounces (177ml) of water to 10 grams of ground coffee (about two tablespoons), which of course you can adjust to your preference, but we use this as our baseline. We also subscribe to a fair trade growing and roasting program so we get a new bag every month, which isn't as strict as the once a week Arno Holschuh at Blue Bottle suggests (we're trying!), but we also aren't drinking enough coffee to kill a bag in a week. Neither are we roasting it ourselves yet, but we have heard about a way to do it with a soup can and a drill.
Get a Good Machine (or not)
Coffee machines have span an incredible range of prices from the $10 Black and Decker Drip on Amazon to thousands of dollars worth of beautiful, copper and gold, hand-restored espresso makers. The "or not" portion of this comes from the various, non-technological methods of making coffee. Aeropress, Chemex and French Press coffee makers all have their devotees. We're making the rounds through these at the moment, but we still love the coffee from our drip maker, a Technivorm Moccamaster ($299).
For the busy coffee devotee there has been a rise in the single-serving maker from companies like Nespresso, Keurig and Breville. We've found these to be very hit or miss. For one, there's a lot of unnecessary waste. Second, they do sell a way of using your own grounds, but why not just buy a nice electric kettle and a good filter holder for far less? Don't get us wrong, they look awesome on your counter (especially the Nespressos), taste better than diner coffee, and are certainly convenient, but we still prefer other makers in the taste, choice and sustainability departments.
Accessorize to Enjoy
A good grinder and maker get you most of the way to excellent coffee. We also recommend a digital kitchen scale that you can tare (set to zero with an object on it) so you can get precise with grinds as volume measurements like most people use (cups, tablespoons) can vary with compression. We like the OXO good grip scale ($45) for its ease of use. It sounds obsessive, but considering coffee is only about two percent grounds a tiny bit can make or break your cup.
Speaking of percentages, the other 98 percent is water so we also recommend a filter, either through your fridge or a free-standing one from the likes of Brita ($14.71) or PUR ($19.73). We're not the only ones looking for good water. We rarely make a single cup at a time and the little plates in cheap coffee makers destroy the coffee's chemistry (that's mostly where the diner taste comes from), so a well-insulated carafe or thermo-jug, like this one ($49.95) from Bodum, are worth the investment. If you're going deep down the rabbit hole of coffee making or want to try one of the machine-less methods a good thermometer is key. Get one and make sure your water is cools to 200° Fahrenheit or you'll kill some of the lighter, fruitier flavors. This one from Maverick ($29.95) features a wire probe and is compact and accurate.
We could extol the virtues of great coffee all day, but we're still working on our on home brew. If you're inclined to learn more the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) is a great resource. We've also found 2007 World Barista Champ Jim Seven's blog, Coffee Geek and Chow's videos on youtube to be really helpful.
(Images: Flickr users Tom Mascardo 1, nalundgaard, Mat Honan, carterse and jakeliefer under creative commons.)