Once coffee is roasted, it begins losing its flavor, so buy it as soon as possible after it comes from the roaster, which is a challenge unless you're in Seattle where every other corner has a roaster. The perfect roast is a matter of personal preference. Starbucks and Peet's are known for their dark "full city" roast, which produces a rich, toasty flavor, but one that overwhelms the more subtle flavors of fine beans. Start with a coffee labeled light "cinnamon" roast (named for the color of the beans, not their flavor), and try progressively darker roasts — medium, high, city, full city, Italian and French — until you find your favorite.
Start with cold, fresh water, preferably filtered. The goal here is to avoid introducing any off flavors that could find their way into the coffee.
Almost nothing keeps coffee fresher than the whole bean. Once coffee is ground it rapidly starts to go stale, so for maximum freshness buy whole beans and grind them yourself just before you brew a pot. Coffee aficionados maintain that coffee should be ground into perfectly uniform particles using a costly burr grinder (the type used in grocery stores and coffeehouses), but the simple whirly blade grinder does an adequate job, and doesn't cost much more than a pound of coffee. Just make sure you shake the grinder while grinding the coffee, otherwise chunks will float on the surface while those near the bottom turn to powder.
If you use a French press pot, you need a coarse grind, which may take about 10 seconds of grinding. If you use a single-cup Melita cone or some other coffeemaker that involves filter paper, you can use a finer grind (about 15 seconds). If you have your own espressomaker, you'll want to grind your beans into a fine powder so the machine can extract — or express — the essence of the bean. This may take up to 30 seconds of grinding. Then again, if you can afford a real espresso machine, you can probably afford a burr grinder.
Use at least one level coffee scoop (2 tablespoons) of ground coffee for every 6 ounces of water. You can use a little more than 2 tablespoons, but don't use less or you'll end up with a thin, watery brew that allows the bottom of a full cup to remain visible. If this formula produces coffee that is too strong for you, add water only after you have brewed it perfectly.
The most important thing to remember here is, don't ever boil your coffee. That means no percolators, which pass the boiled coffee through the grounds again and again, extracting as much bitterness as possible from the ground beans. Don't even keep a pot of coffee on your coffeemaker's heating element for more than a few minutes because continuous heating will transform even excellent coffee into a sour, vile concoction.
To keep it hot, pour your freshly brewed coffee into a thermos. If you must reheat a cup, use a microwave, or better yet, enjoy the subtle flavors of coffee when it's warm or even cold. Keep your pot scrupulously clean, since coffee contains oils that turn rancid, imparting bitterness to your coffee.
Coffee's two greatest enemies are air and moisture, so keep both away from your beans. You can store your beans in the bag they come in, folding it down tightly after each use to minimize the amount of air inside. Keep the bag in the freezer if you don't plan to use it for a week or so, since freezing prolongs freshness.
If you keep frequently used coffee in the freezer, however, you allow moisture to condense on the beans every time you open the bag. Your best bet is to buy only as much coffee as you will use in a week or so, and store the beans at room temperature.
When it hits the freshly ground coffee, water should be just below boiling — about 195 to 205 degrees. (Alton Brown, host of the Food Network's Good Eats, suggests removing the kettle from the heat and counting to 10. By then the water should be the perfect temperature.) If you're pouring the water yourself using a Chemex or Melita pot with a paper or gold filter, pour just enough at first to moisten the grounds. (If your coffee is really fresh, you'll see it "bloom," or swell when the water hits it as carbon dioxide is released.) When the grounds are soaked, add the rest of the water. If using a French press, pour in all the water and then stir the coffee to make sure all the grounds get equally wet. Then wait about 4 minutes before pushing the plunger down and pouring your coffee.
Once you learn to make an excellent cup of coffee, drink it black. Good coffee doesn't need sugar, milk or other flavorings to cover bitterness or sourness. If you want to add vanilla, butterscotch or other exotic flavors, do so after the coffee is made rather than buying flavored beans. Since flavoring masks the defects of inferior coffee, chances are the beans used for flavored coffee will be second-rate.
Tom Valeo is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.
The smell of brewing coffee ranks up there with baking bread and sauteing garlic as one of life's great aromas, but the taste of that coffee often bears no resemblance to the fragrant beans that produce it. • What goes wrong? How can something that smells so heavenly turn into something that tastes so evil? • The United States consumes more coffee than any other nation on Earth — about 300-million cups a day, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. (The in-home consumption of coffee has dropped by nearly 14 percent over the last decade, but in-home consumption of espresso, cappuccino and flavored coffee has jumped by nearly 25 percent.) • Despite the robust demand, anyone who figures out how to make coffee that tastes as good as freshly roasted beans smell can create even more enthusiastic drinkers, as Starbucks has demonstrated. • When I took my first sip of Starbucks coffee many years ago, I literally stopped dead in my tracks, for here was a coffee whose taste at least reminded me of the aroma of the beans it came from. I set out to learn the secret. I read books, scoured the Internet, and interviewed coffee brewing masters. (One of them brewed a cup of coffee for me that tasted even better than Starbucks.) • What I learned: Brewing terrific coffee involves preserving the qualities that make roasted coffee smell so wonderful. • The problem is that degrading those wonderful qualities through careless brewing is as easy as spoiling a sunny day by going to work. • So here is a blueprint to guide you through each step. Stick to the plan and you'll brew a better cup of coffee.
Use only Arabica beans, grown with great difficulty on mountains, preferably in the shade of taller trees that protect the delicate coffee trees from the sun. Avoid the less expensive robusta beans, which produce an off-flavored coffee containing twice as much caffeine.
Because robusta beans are inexpensive, coffee canners often mix them with more expensive beans to stretch profits. "When coffee is ground up, it's hard to tell how much robusta is in it," said coffee technology guru Michael Sivetz, owner of Sivetz Coffee Inc. in Corvallis, Ore. "If you buy canned coffee that's labeled Colombian, chances are it may not have robusta in it."
But canned coffee is stale coffee, according to Corby Kummer, author of The Joy of Coffee, because it must be allowed to "de-gas" first, allowing the most delectable flavors to escape. If ground coffee is not degassed, the escaping gas may cause the can to burst, Kummer writes. As a result, canned coffee "is bound to be well on the road to staleness by the time the buyer opens the can." Even if it's labeled "vacuum-packed," he says, there's still enough oxygen inside to stale the coffee.
Good coffee is fresh coffee, and that means starting with whole Arabica beans. Also, whole beans allow you to experiment with beans from Africa, Sumatra, South and Central America, and other coffee-growing regions. Many of the blends offered by Starbucks, Peet's and other coffee roasters mix coffees from different regions to accentuate the best of each.