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Brewing at home lets coffee lovers control many variables that affect flavor

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.

The grind

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.

Other factors

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.

Coffeemakers | Which one is right for you?

French press, or plunger pot

Grounds and nearly boiling water are poured into glass cylinder; it steeps, then a fine-mesh plunger is deployed. $13 to $80

Automatic drip (flat bottom)

Grounds are placed in flat filter, hot water drips through grounds into pot on a warming plate. $22 to $150

Automatic drip (V-shape)

Same mechanism as the flat-bottom machine, but experts say there is longer water/grounds contact with a V-shaped filter. Also, a thermos carafe is preferable to a warming plate, which can "cook" the coffee. $70 to $200


Somewhat old school, it works by circulating boiling water through the grounds repeatedly. $29 to $80

Espresso maker

These range from low-tech stove models, also called moka pots, to commercial-grade, pump-driven machines that can cost as much as a car. The basic idea: Pressurized hot water is sent through compressed, finely ground coffee. $40 to $8,000 or more

Manual drip coffee maker

Usually less than $30. Grounds are placed in metal or plastic cone (plastic has a paper filter) and hot water is poured through. The coffee collects in a carafe or mug.

User's guide to coffee labels

Labels on bags of coffee often can be confusing. Here's a guide to some of the terms you'll find, with information from coffee experts and from .

Bird-friendly certified

Coffee that has been verified by a representative of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and comes from a farm that meets "organic standards, canopy height, foliage cover and number of bird species, among other criteria," according to the Web site . Farmers volunteer for the inspection and pay nothing to the Smithsonian for the certification, but 25 cents per pound goes to support the center's research and conservation programs, according to the Smithsonian center.

Coffee blend

Coffee that has been blended from more than one farm, ideally to complement and enhance the flavor of each.

Direct trade

A broad term for coffee purchased directly from the farmer by the roastery, without middlemen. This allows farmers to earn more for their coffee and for terms to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. So you need to check details with your roasters or at least go to their Web sites.

Estate coffee

Coffee farmed on a single plantation, which can have better consistency and higher quality control compared with coffees collected from many small farms.

Fair Trade coffee

A certification from Transfair USA that guarantees a certain price for the farmer, certain working and economic conditions for the laborers and sustainable agricultural practices, including a restricted use of agrochemicals and no GMOs (genetically modified organisms), according to Transfair. Coffee quality is not a factor. Many in the coffee supply chain must pay a fee to the Transfair USA organization to be allowed to use the "Fair Trade" label.

Organic coffee

Coffee verified by a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative to be produced on a farm that has not used synthetic pesticides or other prohibited substances for at least three years and has a sustainable crop rotation plan to prevent erosion, the depletion of soil nutrients and control for pests, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

According to its Web site, , this means coffee grown on farms where "forests are protected, rivers, soils and wildlife conserved; workers are treated with respect, paid decent wages, properly equipped and given access to education and medical care. The Rainforest Alliance seal ensures that experienced inspectors have verified that the farms meet demanding social and environmental standards, and are on a path toward true sustainability."

Shade grown

Coffee grown in shade or partial shade, which some believe results in better flavor because it requires longer ripening. Shaded coffee trees also offer a habitat for songbirds and reduce the need for fertilizers.

Single origin

Unblended coffee from a single country, growing region or plantation. Sometimes called straight coffee.


Coffee made from a single type of coffee, such as arabica or Bourbon. Sometimes just from a single country or region as in Brazil Bourbon Santos coffee.

Chicago Tribune

Internet resources, product reviews

• Refurbished or discounted coffeemakers and grinders:

Brewing at home lets coffee lovers control many variables that affect flavor 06/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2009 9:49am]
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