I am surprised every time I hear somebody state, “I really love the smell of coffee, but I just don’t care to drink it/don’t like the taste of it”. As much as any beverage or food, the taste of coffee is very dependent on its aromatics…perhaps as much as 80% of coffee’s taste is tied to its aroma. Think back to a time when you had a head cold, allergies, or just a stuffed nose. How did things taste? Imagine smelling cotton candy…can you taste it? Imagine the smell of a burger with onions and mushrooms…can you taste it?
Whenever we work with people in answering their questions about coffee and how to brew the best tasting coffee, we keep it pretty simple and always say we want the coffee to taste like it smells.
Some factors that are easily controlled but will help prepare delicious coffee include, in rambling form:
1–water quality. Any prepared coffee will still be 97-99% water, so it makes perfect sense that the better quality/tasting water, the bettter tasting the coffee will be. That is why most cafes will install water filtration systems in line before their brewing equipment to remove chlorine and any other potential off-putting stuff. That said, your water should still have some mineral content, though it is argued about how much mineral content is best. We use 3M high flow water filters and standard municipal water for our commercial brewer. Water for espresso is another topic altogether because of the pressurized water used to brew espresso and the water to coffee ratio.
2–water temperature. This is my first knock on home coffee brewers. Most home coffee brewers cannot maintain an adequate water temperature to brew coffee. Ideal brewing temperature is between 197 and 202 degrees F, and water should stay at that temp from the first drop in the brewing process to the last. Many coffee brewers will star out too hot, near 212 degree boiling, at the start of the brewing but end up to cool, near 150 degrees, at end of brewing.
3–coffee to water ratio. This is key to getting the best taste from your coffee, I think, and my second knock on home coffee brewers. This is the ratio of ground coffee to hot water used to prepare coffee. Note that it is always better to start by making a coffee with a taste that is too strong than to weak, because you can alway add hot water to the brewed coffee after it is prepared to even the flavor out (but it doesn’t work as well to add ground coffee after it is prepared to make it stronger). Ever had a cup of coffee that you could see the bottom of the cup, because is was so weak? Some refer to this as “church basement coffee”. Just the thought of the coffee brings a bitter taste to my tongue!
Most home coffee brewers do not have a large enough brewing basket to brew coffee to an adequate strength. Ever brewed coffee at home using the parameters on a bag of coffee (most common is 2 Tablespoons coffee per 6 ounces of water)? What happened? I would bet the coffee overflowed the basket and left a mess on your counter!
So, what is the best ratio for brewing coffee? In metric terms, I prefer a 1:16 ratio, which means for every one part coffee I use 16 parts water. Measuring in grams, I use 48 grams of coffee and weigh out 768 grams water to brew about 24 ounces of coffee (which is about 3×8 ounce cups). But what if I use a measuring cup? I would start with about 1/2 cup ground coffee and 3 cups of water. Then, adjust to taste, depending on brewing method.
Ideal brew concentration for paper filter, drip brewed coffee is 1.5-2% concentrated. We set our espresso parameters to result in a an espresso that is about 10% concentrated (90% water:10% coffee). A cold press brewed via Toddy method has a concentration of about 3% coffee. We’ve been preparing flash-chilled iced coffee with a resulting 2.5% concentration.
4–coffee grind size. Simplified to an extent, remember that the finer the coffee grind size, the less time water should be in contact with it during the brewing process. Think of espresso for a second. Finely ground coffee is used and the espresso brewing takes about 25-30 seconds. Now, think of a French press coffee where a coarse ground coffee is used and is steeped in hot water for about four minutes. That’s the range you are working with. Dependent on your brewing method, adjust the grind and time–while also adhering to a coffee:water ratio–to alter the resulting taste.