How to Get Better at Coffee | The Beauty of Improvement
In America, coffee has been an incredibly popular drink since the Revolution, but its influence never truly took storm to the general public until the time of the Civil War. With army camps scattered throughout the entire U.S. sipping on instant coffee mixed with whatever water they could find, it was clear that this drink had potential. The comfort of this warm, caffeinated drink quickly became a solace for many amid a traumatic and dark time, which inherently became a major catalyst in bringing coffee not only to the wealthy but to the entire American public. Dependency on this drink carried far past the time of the Civil War, and coffee soon after overtook tea as the most popular drink in the United States.
Now it's easy to deduct that the coffee those Union soldiers were drinking in 1864 was not the highest of quality (in fact, it likely tasted like dirty tar). Yet today we see hundreds if not thousands of companies throughout the entire United States dedicated to the craft of coffee. How did we bridge this gap in quality? How did we come from a dirty powder consumed simply for the caffeine and warmth to an entire worldwide industry of exploration and craft? What needed to take place for us to get to where we are today? The answer is simple: improvement. Everyone is seeking to improve coffee. Whether it's maximizing the quality of sourcing, roasting, brewing, or serving coffee, there are so many outlets in which people are striving for excellence in the coffee world. As part of this wave of excitement for coffee, we here at Sagebrush understand the thrill of wanting to "get into" coffee. To be part of this movement, to be part of the push for excellence in the coffee world, is an exciting and enticing thing to want, but we've noticed how little is really out there about how you yourself can get better. There's so much noise about how "we are doing this," how "this brewer is revolutionary," how "you can brew coffee the right way," but more times than not, this noise isn't sufficient in truly getting you into coffee. Sure, it gives you more headspace knowledge on the world of coffee, but can you craft a better cup of coffee knowing the pros and cons of yet another coffee grinder?
Think of it like an eye doctor; to discover the proper prescription for your vision, the doctor must fine-tune everything to your eyes. If you have poor vision, you don't research online to find the coolest-looking frames or read up on the history of eyeglasses. There's no shame in enjoying aesthetics and history, but you will not improve your vision in doing so. To improve your vision, you must go to your eye doctor, and they will walk you through a process to refine your vision. Taste is the exact same way. The only way to improve one's coffee taste is to simply work towards actually improving it, not garnering YouTube video information about cool new brewing gear or the history of the coffee world. Taste is not a one-size-fits-all; each person enjoys coffee differently, so to assume that all you need is a one-time recipe and you're good to go to enjoy coffee at home simply doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, we don't have local coffee doctors to expertly help you dial in the perfect cup of coffee to your taste. So, what we hope to accomplish in this blog is not only to give you some helpful surface-level tips and tricks about coffee but to set you on a path to be able to explore coffee brewing on your own. We hope to give you the tools necessary for you to discover the wonders of coffee brewing on your own accord, with your own deduction, because at the end of the day, we don't know what you like, that's up to you to figure out.
The basics of extraction
To first understand how to maximize the taste of your coffee, we must first set a baseline understanding of what coffee brewing is actually doing to your beans. Why does coffee taste the way it does? Why is it that water and coffee are all that's needed to achieve a brewed cup of coffee? What variables are taking part in achieving that final cup of coffee?
All these questions and more can be answered through the science of extraction. Extraction, by definition, is the action of taking out something. Therefore, in the context of coffee, extraction refers to the taking out of coffee particles as they are submerged in water. This process is what is taking place in any instance of brewing coffee, no matter what it is. Whether you are making a batch of drip, brewing a Chemex, or pulling a shot of espresso, you are working with extraction. To the experienced home-brewer, this is great news; to the inexperienced home-brewer, this is a spiderweb of potential slip-ups while brewing.
The overarching idea of extraction can be hammered in with a simple three-tiered evaluation: "is my coffee sour, sweet, or bitter?" If your coffee is sour, this indicates an under-extraction in your brew. If your coffee is sweet, that indicates that you are in the right range of proper, balanced extraction. If your coffee is bitter, that indicates an over-extraction in your brew. This is a tremendous tool for someone looking to dial in their brewing practices by taste.
There are a few factors while brewing coffee that affect extraction, and each, if used well, can help you create a deliciously dynamic cup of coffee. These factors are temperature, distribution, time, and density. We won't get into the nitty-gritty of each factor in this blog, but understand that having these in mind fuel your "why" in dialing in your coffee by taste.
What you need
What you don't want is the taste of your coffee, whether good or bad, to be dependent on something out of your control. So, having equipment that can work with you as opposed to against you day in and day out will help put the "getting better ball" in your court. So, what is actually needed to get to that level of control?
With all the hubbub about coffee gear, it's easy to lose sight of what's truly needed for you to up your coffee game. Every coffee gear company will tell you that you need their product, but we all know that we don't need to spend upwards of $1000 to begin improving your brewing methods. The honest truth of it all is that you really only need four pieces in your coffee arsenal to refine your craft. These four pieces are a manual brewing method, a burr grinder, hot water, and a way to record your data.
If you want to improve your photography skills, it is recommended one starts shooting in manual mode; when someone takes up racing cars as a hobby, it is crucial they learn how to operate a manual transmission; and if someone wants to refine their ability to brew coffee, a manual brew method is the only option available to be able to do so. Having more control is a critical aspect of improving your coffee game, and although it may seem daunting to veer away from your morning cup of drip, it's a necessary step to take if you're looking at diving head first into the world of coffee. No, it is not guaranteed that brewing manually will bring a better cup of coffee immediately; a manual brew method, no matter which one it may be, will take practice to use well. If you're looking for a specific recommendation, a pour-over method, no matter what exact brewer you may get, is going to be the preferable way to go for someone looking to take more control of the elements in their brewing practices because it provides the highest number of unique factors to work with. On the Sagebrush manual brew bar, we are diehard Hario v60 users and would recommend the same method to you, but there are plenty of pour-over methods out there that can bring you a delicious, dynamic cup as well.
A bad grinder is a bad grinder because of its inconsistency and lack of longevity of use, and ultimately, it's bad because you're not in control of it if it makes a mistake. If you can't trust your grinder to give you the same "9" level grounds from one day to the next, then it might be time to find another fish in the sea. We here at Sagebrush are avid sellers of Baratza, a company dedicated to consistency and dependency in your morning coffee grind.
Since coffee temperature is so crucial in proper extraction, having a kettle that can consistently provide water at the proper temperature (between 197°f & 210°f) and having a gooseneck spout for total pour control is a must. There are plenty of kettles out there who can get this job done for you (a "gooseneck kettle" search on google should get you plenty of results), but the Fellow Stagg EKG is what we lean towards here at Sagebrush.
These foundational pieces to the coffee brewing puzzle all harken back to the importance of proper extraction. That proper distribution of water amongst those consistently ground coffee beans is a huge part of the brewing process. Getting these steps streamlined and eased up is the biggest step you should take. If your desire is to improve in your coffee game and you haven't thought about upping your gear's quality, then this is absolutely something you should consider. Having the right tools will only help you get to the fun part of coffee brewing more quickly.
Open up your palate
We all know the temptation of sticking with your favorite coffee. It's hard to have the guts to turn down your favorite coffee bean and try something new, but to get better at coffee, having that wide range of palate is very important. Everyone leans to a favorite bean, and there's absolutely no shame in that. Personally, I love the brightness and dynamic flavor profile of a dry-processed African coffee, and in all honesty, it's sometimes tough being impressed with anything but that (it's just so good). But there are so many delicious wet-process coffees out there and a plethora of farms in many different countries with extremely refined harvesting practices. Simply put, for someone to keep with the same type of coffee will never be by lack of delicious coffee available, but instead by lack of willingness to branch out. So, if you're looking for a way to become more akin to the world of coffee, take a step back and try something new!
Not only should you be expanding your palate in the coffee world, but with food as well. Opening up your tastes to embrace the beauty of all things flavor profile will only help you better dial in your tasting practices with your morning cup. All the coffee experts out there identifying tasting notes of this, flavor profiles of that, are capable of doing so simply because they are experienced in trying things. When they taste a hint of plum in their coffee, they are confident that it is plum and not peach or pear or grape because they have had these fruits enough times to be able to distinguish the difference. So don't be intimidated by the daunting task of identifying flavor notes. Trust your palate. After all, the one who will most be affected by the fiddling of your coffee will be you. So, if you like it, then you're on the right track!
Record, record, record
Let's hypothetically say that you've done it. You've crafted the perfect cup of coffee, the texture so smooth, the flavor so balanced, they taste so sweet. Everything about this cup of coffee is absolutely perfect. Chef's kiss, Beautiful. But you didn't record anything about what you did. That perfect cup of coffee is now subject to the ability of your short-term memory. I know that, at least for me, my short-term memory is not a reliable place to store information.
So, what's the solution? A pen and a paper. That's all you need. Record what you do all the way through. How many grams of coffee did you use? To what level did you set your grinder? How hot was your water? How long did you wait for your bloom? How many pours did you do? How many grams of water did you use for each pour? How many grams of water did you use in total? Even down to how you served your cup could have affected that perfect cup of coffee, so be sure to keep tabs on it all! Record, record, record; do what it takes to remember how you did what you did, and then do it again!
Another note to take is to keep your variables organized and to change only one of them per brew. If you can remember far back enough to your science fair experiments, you may remember having to articulate your dependent and independent variables and explaining how you will keep your experiment organized in a way that allows you to properly control the independent variables and properly record the dependent variables. Coffee brewing is as much if not more of an experiment than your 8th grade C+. It's impossible to keep control of what's causing progress in your taste of coffee if you are changing multiple variables at a time, so be patient. If your coffee is bitter, do not change your water temperature and your grind size and your brew time and water amount all at once. In the end, those all may need to change to get to a sufficient cup of coffee, but you will never truly figure it out changing all of those in one brew. Take it slow, change only variable at a time and keep everything else consistent.
Caffeine is quite addictive, but the most crucial thing to become addicted to for improving your coffee game is progress. You can enjoy coffee all you want, you can even be obsessed with it, but if you're not excited by a tiny fractional increase in your coffee's quality, then you're going to burn out and plateau. This really is the process in which anyone improves anyway. An athlete doesn't become an Olympian in one day, and an astronaut doesn't get to the I.S.S. with an afternoon's worth of training. Sure, we're not representing our country in front of the whole world or breaking the bounds of scientific discovery, but the point stands: an over-focus on where you want to be will inherently handicap you from ever getting there. Love the little steps.
The beauty of brewing coffee is in the craft itself. To brew the best cup of coffee you've ever had and think, "okay, here's what I did right, and here's how I think I can improve" is the perfect mindset because although it's the best cup you have had, chances are it's not best cup ever, and it will always be possible to improve it. Never be satisfied. This mindset has greatly helped the coffee industry as a whole get to where it is today. Farmers honing in their harvesting practices, processing techniques, and connections to the world of coffee business, as well as buyers dialing in their roasting profiles, cupping processes, and connections back to the farm, have all been critical in the improvement of the cup of coffee. Without their intentionality around what they make, their love of the craft, and their dedication to improvement, we may have never even realized we could enjoy coffee the way we do. We may still be where we were in 1864, sipping our instant coffee, unaware of the world this simple bean had to offer.