Difficult as it might be to believe, there was a time before Starbucks. Coffee was something you drank from drip coffeemakers, and the coffee that went into those machines was pre-roasted, pre-ground, freeze-dried. To get “real” coffee, you needed to go to small African, European and South American-inspired coffeehouses, or to Africa, Europe or South America. If you knew anyone who ground their own beans, you put them at the center of a neighborhood whisper campaign: “They grind beans for coffee.”
Some tools you'll need
• A thermometer. The temperature of your water is key; you want to hit a sweet spot between 196 and 205 degrees. Water at the boiling point can make the coffee bitter; go too cool and you risk a flavorless cup.
• A grinder. There are two types: blade and burr. Blade grinders basically chop the beans into pieces, and they often produce uneven grinds; for some varieties of coffee that rely on an even grind, like espresso, that’s a nonstarter. Burr grinders are more expensive, and for good reason; they pulverize the beans into consistently sized grounds.
• A digital scale. It’s best to measure beans by weight instead of by volume, because not all beans are the same size, and those slight differences can affect the taste. “One of the best things that you can do for your coffee is to buy a scale,” Watts says. Be sure to get one with a “tare” function; that way, you can subtract the weight of the container the beans are in when you weigh them.
But those days are, thankfully, gone forever. Freeze-dried, pre-ground coffee remains in markets, but it sits next to coffee beans roasted by Starbucks, Peet’s and Dunkin’. Las Vegas itself has a number of local roasters, including Vesta, Mothership, Desert Wind, Yaw Farm, Sambalatte and more. Plus, the tools you need to make these locally roasted beans into amazing coffee are available most everywhere coffee is sold. (And beans should always be freshly ground, to preserve as much of their aroma as possible. It all ends up in the cup.)
It’s frankly impossible to list all the tools and techniques you’ll need to make your ideal java. That’ll take research, a bit of math and lots of trial and error. But if you’d like to experience a world beyond drip coffee and Keurig, read on.
Here are some quick-and-dirty definitions of a few coffeemaking methods.
• French press: “For people who are just getting into coffee, I always recommend getting a French press,” says Michelle Watts, who created the coffee program at the Writer’s Block and recently launched a boutique roasting operation, Zephyr (Instagram @zephyrcoffeeroasters). It’s easy on its face: Mix the grounds and hot water in the carafe, let it brew for a bit and push the plunger down. See “Advice from a Barista” for Watts’ tips on a good French press brew.
• Pour-over: If you’ve been to Makers & Finders or other local cafés, you’ve probably seen baristas delicately pouring hot water through cone-shaped filters into cups or small carafes. “A really well-made filter coffee, like a pour-over—that’s definitely my favorite way to enjoy it,” Watts says. She uses a Japanese-made Hario V60 pour-over set (as does this writer), which she appreciates for its “light-bodied” brew: “The Japanese love their coffee super tea-like,” she says.
• Cold brew: There are inexpensive specialty carafes for making this concentrated brew, but really, all you need is a Mason jar and some cheesecloth. Mix coffee and water in the jar at a 1:4 ratio, let it sit 12 to 18 hours, strain out the grounds using the cheesecloth or French press, then toss it in the fridge. When you drink it, add a 1:1 mix of water or milk.
• Cowboy coffee: A dirt-simple way to make a muddy cup: Boil your grounds and water together in the same pot, preferably over a campfire, pardner. Then let it sit undisturbed long enough for the grounds to settle to the bottom. Pour slowly to minimize sludge.
There are many more methods beyond these, including Aeropress, siphon/vacuum, Turkish, percolator, macchinetta (made with those funky silver “moka” pots you sometimes see in thrift stores) and machine espresso. All of them require special gear—or, in the case of machine espresso, learning and lots of practice.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH DRIP OR KEURIG?
If you’re satisfied with the coffee you’re getting from “convenience machines” like Keurig, that’s fine; you do you, boo. “Good coffee is subjective,” food writer Lani Kingston writes in her helpfully titled 2015 book How to Make Coffee. But those machines don’t know your palate, and at present, they can’t match “the aroma, mouthfeel and flavor” that comes from “old-fashioned brewing methods,” Kingston explains.
And as for drip machines, anyone who has poured a cup from the office coffeemaker probably agrees with Kingston’s assessment that it’s “not known for making superior coffee.”
ADVICE FROM A BARISTA
Again, Michelle Watts recommends a French press for newbies. “It’s easy to clean; it’s easy to use to make both hot coffee and cold brew,” she says. “And you don’t really need much with it, except for ground coffee and the ability to make hot water.”
Watts likes her coffee strong, so she uses one part coffee to 14 parts water. (That ratio works for cold brew, too, she says; just use cold water and let the press sit for a day.) For a lighter cup, she recommends a 1:16 ratio. “Just use the measuring cup you’ve got in your house,” she says. And make sure your water is at a soft boil: “You don’t want it to be actively bubbling.”
Watts further suggests that you “bloom” your coffee first: Pour one part of that hot water into the grounds first, and mix it up until it looks a bit like cake batter. “You want it to get it frothy, whip it up, pour the rest of [the water] and then stir it again,” she says. “That process will take about a minute, maybe less, 45 seconds or so. And then you just leave it to steep, to sit before pressing for maybe five to six minutes, depending on your personal preference. For me, the whole process from beginning to end takes about six and a half minutes. But I’m a nerd. I have it all scientific-like.”
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.