People who get into coffee tend to follow similar paths. They switch over from automatic drip to manual brewing to better control the process. They start buying whole beans and preaching the virtues of freshly roasted coffee.
Manual drip and press-pot (often called a French press) coffeemakers are popular among this set for a number of reasons: They're inexpensive, easy to clean, easy to use and relatively quick and consistent. But the best thing about both is they allow for easy manipulation of the variables that affect the taste of the coffee.
The principal factors are the water temperature, the "dose" of coffee (ratio of coffee to water), the size of the grind and the time that the water is in contact with the beans.
It's easy to learn the basics of these two methods. Press pots work by mixing hot water with ground coffee, letting it circulate and brew, then pressing a fine sieve down the beaker, filtering out coffee sediment.
Manual drip brewers — Melitta and Chemex are two brands — are one type of manual drip coffeemaker, so details about this method are generally applicable to other manual drip methods. With a manual drip, coffee is placed in a paper filter that sits in the top half of an hourglass-shaped glass vessel. Water is gradually poured over the grounds. The thickness and type of the paper helps control the way the water circulates through the coffee and drips into the holding vessel below.
Dark-roasted, artisanal coffee beans are widely available these days, but a lot can go wrong betwixt bean and cup. First, whole-bean coffee remains fresh longer than ground, but since coffee is perishable, even whole beans should be refrigerated or kept in an airtight container in a dark place. Grind your own beans just prior to brewing.
Grinding itself is a key to a good cup of coffee. Beans should be ground appropriately for your method of brewing: A coarse grind should be used when there is more time for contact with the water, a fine grind when there is less. For most grinders, grind 6 to 8 seconds for a French press, 10 seconds for a flat-filter drip pot (a little less if you have a metal filter), 20 seconds for a gold V-shaped filter or for a Neapolitan drip machine, 25 seconds for regular cone filters or steam espresso machines. If you buy coffee already ground, be advised that coffee labeled "drip" or "auto-drip" is more finely ground, while those labeled "perk," "electric perk" or "regular" are more coarsely ground.
Only brew as much coffee as you can drink immediately. Reheating destroys all of the delicate, complex flavors of quality coffee. If you don't like the taste of your coffee once it's less than scalding, consider whether you could buy better beans. Quality coffees taste better as they cool.
Generally speaking, for a strong, flavorful cup of coffee allow 2 tablespoons ground coffee per 6 ounces water. When using a French press, push the plunger down after about 3 minutes; longer steeping will result in over-extracted coffee. With drip pots, most coffee snobs claim to detect an off, paper taste when paper filters are used; gold or nylon permanent filters are thought to be worth the expense, but make sure they are cleaned properly or they, too, may add an off flavor.
Filtered water is ideal for making coffee. Though you can use tap water, even good-tasting tap water is adding flavors to your coffee that may not enhance it. When making coffee, always use cold, fresh water (water that hasn't already been boiled) and always boil it in a kettle or other vessel used only for that purpose.
The ideal temperature is between 190 and 200 degrees. Water boils at 212 degrees, but it cools rapidly when exposed to air. Controlling temperature is probably one of the most difficult aspects of these types of brewing methods.
Remember when using the Chemex that it's essential to keep the grounds wet so they stay in the proper temperature range. You also don't want to overfill the upper portion of the brewer.
For a press pot, maintaining temperature is a little easier. It's a good idea to preheat the beaker by pouring in hot tap water or boiling water, then pouring it out just before you add the ground coffee. You also want to keep the top of the press pot on while you brew, to prevent heat from escaping.
Cleaning: If anything you use to make coffee (including your coffee mug) is coated with a fine brown film, then you're not cleaning thoroughly enough to remove coffee oils. These oils become rancid, negatively affecting the coffee taste. Wash glass in warm soapy water after every use. Wash metal parts in the dishwasher (if dishwasher-safe) or scrub thoroughly with dish soap and hot water. Hard-to-clean components such as stainless steel thermoses are best cleaned using a little powdered detergent and boiling water or a paste of baking soda and water.
Storage: Store whole beans in an airtight, opaque container in a cool location. Beans can theoretically be stored in the freezer, but they must be thoroughly protected from freezer burn, other smells and the moisture-removing effect of the cold. If you're not willing to seal daily doses in individual, airtight containers, it's not worth it.
Times food critic Laura Reiley and Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this report.