How To Make Better Coffee Without Breaking the Bank
OK, so I was asked by a colleague about how to ‘level up’ in the coffee game. He drink instant and wants to dip his toe into something a bit better. I’ve had a blog post along these lines rattling around my head for a while, so here it is.
Firstly, let’s set out some expectations here:
This is NOT a blog post on how to make the most amazing coffee in the world. For anyone reading this that can make a better coffee, then that is great. This post is about how to dip your toe into making significantly better coffee than instant, but without having to invest vast sums of money in equipment and time in technique. Yet on the same hand, I’m not advocating some press-and-forget system. The idea is you might learn something about coffee and get to appreciate it even more.
But a disclaimer here, I am not going to be held responsible if this does set you on a slippery slope of coffee love, and 2 years down the line you are divorced and homeless… living in a cardboard box with nothing but a £12,000 La Marzocco Strada to keep you warm. Muttering about dissolved solids to any passing stranger.
So, the summary here is that I’m recommending you spend about £60 in equipment and get a grinder and Aeropress and buy some decent beans from a local roaster and you will be set. This is, as always, a personal viewpoint. It is just my idea on how to get started, none of this is gospel and I’ve tried to keep this simple, so may have glossed over details (or I just don’t know them!). We are going to be making a long filter-like coffee, not an espresso… that is a whole different story and does require investing more in equipment to get results.
There are three main elements to making decent coffee:
- Decent ingredients
- Decent equipment
- Some knowledge and technique
Now, as I said above, ‘decent’ and ‘some’ are subjective. Anyone who has spent any time on an internet forum for anything, be it coffee, cars, stereos, computers… will know that you will always get the same pattern:
Person 1: “I use X to make coffee / oil in car / stereo interconnects”
Person 2: “No way! I wouldn’t use X to make coffee for my dog / oil my bike chain / wire my doorbell! Use [costs 10x as much] Y instead!”
Inevitably it is bravado and one-upmanship, but also life is subjective so everyone will have a different view. Not only that, but they might be chasing the final few percent of performance from whatever they are doing. I’m just trying to get you from 30% to 80% here, not bump you from 98% to 99%.
There are two main ingredients in coffee:
- coffee beans
Wait?! What?! Water?! Well, yeah… considering most of coffee is water, then it does matter. But to be honest for right now, I’m not going to worry about it in this post. There is an entire book dedicated to water for coffee if you are interested. But lets just say, much as hard or soft water affect how much detergent you need to make suds or how clear or murky your tea is, it also affects how the oils and flavours from coffee are extracted from the beans as part of the brewing process. So whether you use a water filter (Britta-type thing) or use bottled mineral water may change the taste of your coffee.
Coffee beans. OK, so here is where we start making a difference with coffee. The majority of the coffee you buy in the supermarket will have been roasted many months ago. Coffee goes stale. Very quickly. And if coffee is ground then it goes stale quicker. There is a much greater surface area and so it goes off quicker. Even leaving ground coffee for a few hours and it will go stale.
So what you want to do is buy coffee beans that have been roasted recently (normally within the past few weeks) and then grind the beans just before you use them. If you grab a bag of ground coffee from the supermarket and open it and smell it. Now go to a local independent coffee place and ask to smell the beans there… you will see an amazing difference. The smell from fresh beans really is a world apart. And seriously, do this. Don’t feel weird about it. Any decent independent coffee place will be more than happy to let you smell a handful of the beans.
So where to get the beans from? Try and find a support a local coffee roaster, or coffee place if you can. I’m pretty spoilt in Bristol as there are a number of local roasters here (Extract Coffee, Roasted Rituals, Clifton Coffee, Two Day Coffee… I’m sure I’ve missed some). But you can also buy online from a number of places, e.g.
Generally you’ll pay about £8 for 250g of coffee. And depending on how much you order you might pay a few quid in postage. But don’t buy so much that it goes off. If you look at the date on coffee from these people you will see it was likely roasted within the last week or two. These will be coffee beans that have been sourced from specific growers with care. The majority of your supermarket coffee is bought and sold on the commodity markets where quality is a secondary concern.
Those places will have all sort of different beans there, from different suppliers around the world. Don’t worry about which to get, just pick one. You can try a different one each time and see if you have a favourite. But for now, any you pick will be a world of difference from your instant coffee. Some even do coffee bean subscriptions and they will automatically send you a different one to try each month.
So, how long is a piece of string? How much should I spend on a car? You can spend very little, or a fortune on coffee making equipment. As I said above, I’m just trying to get you going and better than instant. So we are going to go for something that can make a long filter-like coffee. There are two main options for this, a pour-over (like the Hario V60) or the Aeropress. I’ve only got experience of the Aeropress so that is what I’m going to recommend here.
The Aeropress was made by the people that made the Aerobie flying disc… remember them? Whilst is bills itself as an ‘espresso’ maker, it very much isn’t. It is best for making a mug of coffee. It costs about £25 and comes as a kit with some filter papers and some other bits (stirrer, funnel, etc). In short you put a thin paper filter in the bottom, you set it on top of your mug and put some ground coffee in it. You then pour hot water in the top and give the coffee a stir and wait a bit then plunge down the plunger and the coffee is pushed out the bottom into the mug. I’ll go through the technique in detail further down.
You also need a way to grind your coffee beans. There are two main types of grinder, a blade grinder and a burr grinder. The blade types really are pretty useless. Don’t buy one. They use a spinning blade to chop the beans, the problem is the beans end up ground to various levels of coarseness and it is hard to repeat the same.
The other type, Burr grinder, is like a pepper mill and a the beans pass through a set of metal burrs that grind the beans to a set size. The grinder can be adjusted to how fine it grinds. If we were talking espresso here, then I would say the grinder is as (maybe more) important than the espresso machine. I would be recommending you spend several hundred pounds on one. But for Aeropress coffee, you don’t need to grind as finely or accurately, so a cheaper one is perfectly fine.
The grinder I have and can recommend is the De'Longhi KG79 Professional Burr Grinder. Which is about £40-50 (currently £33 on sale!). It has a timer on it, so you can hit a button and it will grind the amount you need. The only slight criticism is that it can be a bit messy when you tip the grinds out from the grind container into the Aeropress. There are no doubt other good ones out there, this is just one that I happen to have bought and fits the criteria of being cheap and doing the job in hand.
Again, as with most things in life there are those better at something than you, and those worse than you at something. There is always something to learn, and there is always something to teach. My point of this post is hopefully that you learn something… but I’m not professing to be, or to make you a Coffee Jedi.
So what I present below, is how I make a decent cup of coffee using the ingredients and tools above. I’ve also recorded a short video at the bottom showing it all together. If you want to get inventive there is actually a World Aeropress Championship which publishes their recipes online.
Stick the kettle on. Coffee should not be made with boiling water, but slightly colder. So put the kettle on now, and it should be a good temperature by the time we need the water
Grind the coffee. On the KG79 grinder, there is a timer to choose the amount, I have this set to the far left (shortest). And you can adjust the grind with the knob on the side, I have this about ¾ of the way to the finest setting. Only adjust this knob whilst the grinder is running, as it has beans jammed in it when not running and will seize. The goal is to grind about 20g of coffee. When you first get the grinder you can weigh the empty coffee grinds container, run the grinder then weight it again and work out the weight of coffee and adjust the timer accordingly. Unlike espresso you don’t need to be as exact with the amount.
Put a filter in the bottom of the Aeropress and put it on top of your mug. Pour some of the just boiled water in the top, to rinse through (gets rid of paper taste of filter) and warms up the mug.
Chuck out the water in the mug
Put the Aeropress back on top of the mug and pour in the ground coffee. You might need to tap the coffee grinds container a bit to get them all out. This is where you might make a mess.
Pour in water to the top of the Aeropress, give it a stir with a spoon for a few seconds to mix the grinds all up
Put the plunger in the top, just push it in a bit… by leaving the plunger in the vacuum keeps the water from all running through immediately
Leave it to stand for 2-3 minutes.
Push the plunger slowly down to get the coffee into the mug. Set the aeropress aside to cool, it will drop a bit of coffee out.
Top it up with a bit of boiling water if needed.
Enjoy your coffee
Later, when the Aeropress has cooled down, unscrew the cap at the bottom and push the grinds and filter out into your food recycling bin and rinse it off ready for next use.
And for subscribers... below is a video on using an Aeropress:
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