If you’re like most of us, you probably assume that the hardcore coffee aficionados – the ones who write detailed Yelp reviews of exactly how the espresso is pulled at their favourite coffee shop, or even work at those coffee shops – have machines worth thousands of dollars in their kitchens so they can get the most out of those rare single-origin beans they bought fresh from the micro-roastery (or roasted at home).
The funny thing is, you’re probably wrong.
Turns out, the serious coffee pros recognize that a good espresso comes from a very good machine, the kind that’s too big and expensive to fit in your average person’s home. Plus, coffee shop espresso machines work best when heated up and used frequently – something that doesn’t tend to happen at home.
Instead, trendy coffee drinkers are going back to basics – even more basic than you might expect. “Really, all we’re doing is mixing water and coffee together,” says Grady Buhler of Vancouver-based coffee chain JJ Bean. “As human beings we want to touch it and mess with it, but it does its thing best when you just leave it be.”
Buhler’s prep method of choice? The basic French press or Bodum – or, even more basic, the open-pot method, which is similar, but without the plunger. “it’s a good way to make coffee because all of the water is in contact with all of the coffee for all of the brew time,” he says. “And it’s very simple – you dump the coffee in a pot and pour water on it.” Here are his steps to coffee perfection.
1. Buy great beans
“I want coffee that was roasted as recently as possible,” Buhler says. He’ll only buy beans that were roasted within the past week – look for a roast date on the package, which is different from an expiry or best-before date. Ideally, you’ll be buying beans more frequently, too – he suggests picking up no more than a week’s supply at a time for ultimate freshness.
As for the type of beans, it’s really a matter of taste. Buhler will visit local roasters (to suss out the competition, natch) and ask them for what they have that’s awesome; if there’s nothing they’re particularly enthused about, his current preference is for coffees from Kenya or Guatemala.
2. Grind them right
Buhler prefers what’s called a burr grinder over a blade grinder. The latter “hacks the coffee like a lawnmower,” with uneven and inaccurate results, while the former can be set to a particular grind size and cuts the coffee uniformly.
For French press or open pot brewing, grind beans to what Buhler calls a “medium coarse” grind – not extremely coarse, but slightly more so than you’d opt for when making drip coffee. “If the grind looks chunky or you can see that it’s like a portion of a bean, that’s too coarse,” he says. “It should be gritty, not powdery.” While burr grinders often have a “French press” setting, he suggests going a setting or two finer than that.
3. Just add water
Buhler recommends about 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 ounces (180 mL) of water. The key, he adds, is for the water not to be too hot – it shouldn’t be boiling, but at about 200 degrees F, or 93 C. If you don’t have a fancy kettle that heats water to specific temperatures, boil then let it sit for two to four minutes, or use a thermometer to verify temperature. “It makes a huge difference to the flavour,” he says. “Boiling water will burn the coffee and it will taste really bitter.”
Put your ground coffee in the bottom of a French press or pot – metal, ceramic, china or glass is fine – and pour the water overtop, then leave it alone (no lid, no plunger, no stirring) and let it steep for about four minutes. (The ideal time depends on the grind – the coarser, the longer, and the finer, the shorter.)
The theory that you should stir the mixture once you’ve poured in the water is a myth, Buhler says. “When you pour without stirring, it forms a thick crust on the top, and that is when it’s extracting. If you stir it right away, the coffee sits on the bottom of the pot and slows extraction.”
4. Coffee’s ready
Once that four minutes is up, it’s time to plunge and pour with a French press. Or, if you’re brewing open pot, take two spoons and scrape away and discard the crust of coffee grinds, then let the coffee settle for about five more minutes before pouring and serving.
If you’re camping or only have one clean dish in your house, you can use the open pot method in a mug – follow the same steps as above (you brought your hand-cranked coffee grinder camping, right?) and drink once the grounds have settled to the bottom.
Another French press tip: the idea that the coffee keeps brewing after you press the plunger is a myth, Buhler says. “Unless you agitate it, it won’t continue to extract.” So feel free to make a whole pot for yourself and keep coming back cup after cup.