I love everything about coffee – that is, everything except the sky-high prices. Sick of making bad coffee at home and tired of paying lots of money for someone else to make it for me, I jumped at the chance to learn from people who make coffee for a living. Surely the coffee they make at home doesn’t taste like sludge!
Now, having learned my lessons at Brewing School, I feel almost as talented as a barista.
If only they could teach me how to give myself enough time in the morning to prepare it.
Lesson1. You can try this at home.
Customers at Starbucks in Edgewater, N.J., frequently complain to store manager Milton Velez that they can’t make a good cup of coffee. They’re just missing a key step, he says: “You can’t make great coffee until you know what great coffee is.”
A true coffee master whose eyes light up while discussing his favorite drink, Velez sports the coveted black Starbucks apron. That’s the reward for passing a rigorous coffee exam administered by district manager Mieke Fonteyn. The two were so determined to teach me all about great coffee that they let me wear one, too.
We used a coffee press to prepare samples because it does not use a paper filter. Apparently, the fibers in paper absorb flavorful oils and thus interfere with the combining of the grind and the water.
But you don’t have to use a press at home. Some newer coffeemakers have a gold cone filter that eliminates the need for paper. Aside from allowing your coffee to be more flavorful, they are environmentally friendly and last two years.
Lesson 2. The four fundamentals: proportion, grind, water and freshness.
Two tablespoons of coffee should be used for every six ounces of water.
“People are usually shocked by the amount of grind that this turns out to be,” Velez said, “but not using enough grind will impact the final result.”
When using a press, the grind should be coarse. This forces the water to extract as much flavor as possible. A finer grind, normally used for espresso, allows the water to pass through the press too easily and will result in a weak taste. A drip coffeemaker, however, will accommodate any size grind.
Since water is 98 percent of your cup of coffee, the better the quality of water, the better the taste. Velez recommends bottled water. Second best is filtered tap water. Heat the water to just below boiling; the ideal temperature for brewing is 199 degrees to 201 degrees Fahrenheit.
Freshness is critical. Opened ground coffee should be kept in an airtight container far away from sunlight and should be discarded after seven days.
“Would you keep a loaf of bread for seven days? People should think of coffee in the same way,” Fonteyn said.
Whole beans in a sealed package stay good indefinitely, but the second the bag is opened, moisture in the air causes the coffee to begin to “brew.”
Once all these factors are taken into consideration, allow the coffee to brew for four minutes if using a press. Otherwise, the coffeemaker’s normal brewing cycle will suffice.
Lesson 3. Chew on your brew.
Tasting involves four steps: smell, slurp, identify and describe. No milk or sugar allowed!
While I cupped my nose with one hand and held the small cup with the other, Velez instructed me to take in the aroma. (It smelled like coffee!) Once my olfactory nodes were satisfied, Velez instructed me to slurp.
Slurp? Was he serious? “Slurping allows the taste of the coffee to permeate your mouth and linger, allowing you to consider the aftertaste and the overall experience,” Velez explained, noticing my trepidation.
Though somewhat awkward and definitely not ladylike, slurping did allow me to “identify” the nuttiness, fruitiness and overall strength of the three blends of coffee sampled (and trust me, I’m no foodie or drinkie).
It’s best to begin your slurping and tasting with a milder brew, like a coffee from Latin America, and work your way toward the stronger flavors in Asian coffees so as not to overwhelm your senses.
The last step required me to describe each sample so that I’d remember how it’s supposed to taste when I make it myself.
Throughout the process, Velez encouraged me to sample bits of chocolate cupcake before the coffee aftertaste left my mouth. I was much more amenable to this than slurping.
Flavors like chocolate serve to enhance the taste of coffee, allowing the taster to better understand the experience. It’s also a great excuse to eat chocolate.
No matter what accompanying treat you choose, be sure it’s complimentary: Orange slices are to be avoided.
Lesson 4. Tips and tricks of the trade.
Velez explained that bad coffee is most often the result of one of the above steps gone awry.
If you do use a filter, make sure it is a real filter and not a paper towel, which absorbs almost all the flavor of the grind.
Another common problem is the cleanliness of the coffeemaker. Try using a cup of water and a cup of vinegar to loosen the calcium deposits that may be clogging the drip.
Make sure to run water through once again to rid future brews of any lingering vinegar. This process should be done every three months.
1. True. That’s when the crema begins to evaporate and the overall quality of the drink plummets.
2. False. A coffee bean is a coffee bean. The mildest blend has just as much caffeine as the strongest.
3. Trick question. Store coffee in the freezer if it is unground and unopened. Sealed ground coffee should be kept in an airtight container away from sun and heat on a cabinet shelf.