11 Ways to Brew Better Coffee at Home


At its heart, brewing better coffee is a straightforward task. You want to pour the proper amount of water at the proper temperature through the properly portioned and ground coffee to extract the best flavors out of it. Improving your morning cup may be easier than you think. 

1. Find the right, fresh coffee. 

If you’re going to take your home coffee experience to the next level, you’re not going to do it with just any coffee. The most surefire way to brew great coffee at home is to start with great coffee beans. Do some research to find the best roasters in your area and buy from a reputable company that sources their product ethically and transparently. 

Also make sure the coffee you're buying is freshly roasted. Unlike wine and some beers, coffee doesn’t improve with age. In fact, it reacts to aging more like food: It doesn’t necessarily spoil or go bad, but its chemical structures and flavor profile certainly deteriorate over time. 

2. Keep the air out. 

Deterioration speeds up when coffee is exposed to oxygen, roasted beans’ sworn enemy. Oxidation contributes significantly to flavor degradation, and it doesn’t take much to render the coffee stale. Ambient air contains 19 to 21 percent oxygen, and it only takes 70 cubic centimeters of ambient air to make a pound of coffee stale (a one pound bag contains around 1000 cubic centimeters of space). Airtight packages with degasser valves work for the most part, but if there is even four percent oxygen inside the package, it’s only a matter of time until you’ve got stale coffee. So, if the packaging doesn't have a “roasted on” date on it, don't bother buying it—you’ll have no way of knowing how long it’s been sitting on the shelf. 

3. Embrace whole beans. 

It's also important to buy whole bean coffee instead of pre-ground. While grinding may add a few moments to your morning routine, it’s worth it. All of the coffee's natural flavors are locked in the bean's essential oils, and once the coffee is ground, the oils evaporate pretty quickly. You want those precious oils in your mug, not evaporated into your cupboard’s atmosphere.

4. Ditch the K-Cups. 

In recent years, single serve automatic brewing systems—the Keurig K-Cup, most notably—have risen in popularity. If you really want to up your coffee game, you’ll want to retire your Keurig. There are a number of issues with K-Cups: Not only are they wildly expensive and terrible for the environment (even their inventor regrets the very idea of them), they simply don’t make great coffee. All the basic principles of good, high-quality coffee are completely ignored by these single-serving machines.

What’s the issue? Water temperature is one. The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends that coffee be brewed between 198 and 202°F to achieve proper saturation and extraction, and the industry standard is 200°, but the Keurig brews at a measly 192°F. There is also no control over the coffee-to-water ratio—whether you want a small, medium, or large cup, the same amount of coffee is used. This approach means a small cup will taste incredibly strong and over-extracted while a large will be weak and watery. 


Scoops, measuring spoons, and eyeballing it are usually good enough to brew a passable cup of coffee, but for a reliable and repeatable cup, knowing a coffee's precise weight is best. A scale removes all of the guesswork and need to decode special instructions (for example, “a heaping scoop” might actually be 14.3 grams). Coffee can vary in density depending on the bean size, origin, variety, and roast profile, so using a scale is the best means to normalize a brew recipe. A scale is also the best tool to enable brew ratio experimentation; whether you want to brew the industry standard of one part coffee to 18 parts water, or really wake your taste buds up with a 1:13 ratio, measuring doses with a scale will make your experimentation infinitely easier.


Now that you’re grinding your own beans at home, you’ll need the right grinder. A really great conical burr grinder is easily the biggest investment when setting up your professional-level home brewing station, but it's also the best investment you'll make. There are a number of reasons that burr grinders outweigh their blade counterparts, but the most important differences spring from a burr grinder’s consistency and adjustability. A blade grinder simply cannot match a burr grinder's ability to adjust its grind from espresso (very fine) to French press (very coarse), enabling you to match your grind to your brew method to deliver consistently ground coffee. A consistent grind can’t be underestimated, as it’s the only way to produce consistent extraction. If money is tight, you can always buy a manual burr grinder—they're a fraction of the cost, they’re transportable, and using one is a great arm workout! 


The most important ingredient in a high-quality cup of coffee is also maybe the most overlooked component. Hot water is a super solvent that extracts flavors and oils out of coffee grounds. While these flavors and oils are crucial, they only account for 1.25 percent of what's in your morning cup. In other words, a properly extracted cup of coffee is 98.75 percent water, so if the water you're brewing with isn't any good, your coffee won't be either. If your tap water has any odors or tastes of chlorine, lime, or rust, your coffee will, too. Instead, use only purified water (or as close to purified as you can get, even if you’re just using bottled water or a Brita filter). If you’re wondering how pure your home’s tap water is, considering picking up a TDS meter, a moderately priced gadget that gauges water’s purity. But don’t use distilled water. Without any minerals your coffee will taste on the blander side.

8. Invest in a pourover setup. 

If you really want to unlock the flavor in your beans, invest in a pourover setup. Whether you go with a Hario V60, Chemex, Kalita Wave, a Clever Dripper, or even a French press, brewing with a pourover device gives you absolute control over nearly every aspect of the brewing process. It also gives you the ability to experiment with water temperature, grind particle size, and water-to-coffee ratios. Brewing your morning cup by hand also ensures a more even extraction of oils than an automatic brewer can. After buying better coffee, taking total control of your brewing process is the best option for taking your skills to a whole new level. 

If you’re not ready to take the pourover plunge and go fully manual, the rest of these tips are just as applicable to automatic machines: Get fresh, quality beans and brew with hot, pure water. If you want to dip your toe into the pourover realm, you can use your automatic brewer as an improvised pourover apparatus. Simply lift the lid, put the filter in place, pour the grounds into the filter, then pour the water over the grounds. It’s not ideal, but it works! 

9. GET HOT. 

As previously mentioned, the Specialty Coffee Association of America found that the ideal water temperature for brewing coffee is 198 to 202°F. Colder water will result in flat, underextracted coffee while hotter water will burn the grounds and harm your cup’s flavor. A basic kitchen thermometer will improve your cup quality by leaps and bounds. 


This one is pretty specific for pourover users, but it comes with the territory of being a home barista. Gooseneck kettles are absolutely not essential to brewing great coffee at home, but their narrow spouts make precise pouring much easier and give you more control over how much water you pour and where you pour it.           


Have you been storing your coffee in the refrigerator or freezer? Get it out! Coffee should always be stored in an opaque, airtight glass or ceramic container. While it should also be stored in a dark and cool location, storing it inside the fridge or freezer and the constant freeze/thaw cycle when you remove your coffee and put it back causes moisture buildup inside the package, which will then cause it to deteriorate. Storing beans in a ceramic jar with an airtight lid on your kitchen counter or in a cabinet will do just fine.  

All images courtesy of iStock

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
job secrets
11 Behind-the-Counter Secrets of Baristas
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Being a barista is no easy task, and it’s not just the early hours and the don’t-talk-to-me-unless-I’ve-had-my-coffee customers. While people often think working at a cafe is a part-time, temporary gig, it takes extensive training to learn your way around an espresso machine, and most baristas are in it for the love of coffee, not just to pay the bills. Mental Floss spoke to a few baristas working at the New York Coffee Festival to learn what exactly goes on behind the counter, and why you should never, ever dump your extra coffee in the trash.


One of the biggest misconceptions about the profession, says New York City-based barista Kayla Bird, is “that it's not a real job.” But especially in specialty cafes, many baristas are in it for the long haul. Coffee is their career.

“It's a chosen field,” as barista Virgil San Miguel puts it. “It's not like you work in a coffee shop because it's a glamorous job,” he explains. “It's more like a passion.”


“Being a really good barista takes a lot of studying,” explains Jake Griffin, a wholesale representative for Irving Farm Coffee Roasters who has worked in the coffee industry for almost a decade. “It can take a few years. You have to start to understand origins, production methods, where your coffee came from.” You have to go through an intensive education before you start pulling espresso shots for customers, so it's possible that the person taking your order and fetching your pastry isn't even allowed to make you a drink yet. “They have to be what we call 'bar certified' before they're even allowed on the machine,” he says. “Usually people start off in our cafes in various support roles, then start to go to classes and go through the training program.”


Sure, baristas take full advantage of all that free coffee. And if they work in their company’s training programs, their whole job is to drink coffee. But it has its downsides. “I taste—at minimum—ten shots of espresso a day,” John Hrabe, who trains baristas at Birch Coffee in New York City, says. On his busier days, it might be as many as 20. You get used to all the caffeine, he claims—at least until you take a few days off. “Then when you go on vacation and you're not working ... everyone's like, 'Why's John so tired?’”

Other baristas who have worked in the field for a long time say the same. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I used to have five or six coffees a day,” Michael Sadler, who helped develop the barista education program at Toby’s Coffee, says. “Now I do two,” he says, both because of the caffeine-induced anxiety and the withdrawal headaches he would get on his days off.


Like any job, there are things that go on in coffee shops that the boss would definitely not approve of. According to one barista who has worked at both a corporate coffee chain and specialty cafes in Delaware and New York, coffee shops can get pretty rowdy behind-the-scenes. “If you see a barista with a lidded cup behind the bar, there's probably a 50/50 chance: It's either coffee or beer,” he says. “You never know.” And it’s not just the booze, either. “I’ve been a part of secret menus that have cannabis-infused coconut milk,” he explains. “I had a pretty good cappuccino.”


You don’t want to hold up the line telling a barista your life story at 7 a.m., but even if you’re in a hurry, don’t forget to say hi before you jump into demanding that large coffee. “Walking up to somebody and saying 'Almond latte,' when they just said 'How are you today?' is probably the biggest thing you can do to get on a barista's bad side,” Toby's Coffee's Sadler says. “It's like, exchange pleasantries, then get to business.”


Not everyone is super perky in the morning, but if you can’t be civil, you’re better off making your own coffee at home. At some places, if you get snippy with the employees, you’re going to get worse than furtive eye rolls between baristas (though you’ll get that, too).

“Be nice to your baristas, or you get decaf,” warns one barista. While it varies from cafe to cafe, multiple baristas told Mental Floss that it happens. Rude customers might get three letters written on their cup: “They call it DTB—‘decaf that bitch.’”

There’s a less potent way a barista can get back at you, too. If the hole in your coffee lid lines up with the seam of your paper cup, you’re going to get dripped on. And sometimes, it’s not an accident. “When a barista puts the mouth on the seam, they want it to leak on you,” a New York City-based barista explains.

Others are a little more forgiving of rude patrons. “I like making them the best drink that they've ever had, just to kill them with kindness,” one coffee shop employee says. “I don't want them to be like, ‘She’s a bad barista.’” Just to be safe, though, it's better to be nice.


“The longer you work in coffee, the more when someone walks in the door you read their personality type and say, I know exactly what you're going to drink,” Jared Hamilton, a self-described “espresso wizard” at the Brooklyn-based chain Cafe Grumpy, says. When I ask him to predict my drink, he proves his skills. “What you're going to drink is like, an alternative milk, flat white or cappuccino. So maybe soy, probably almond. Nonstandard. You don't want a lot of milk, just enough.” He’s not too far off—my go-to is, in fact, a non-standard, some-milk-but-not-too-much drink, a decaf cappuccino, though I drink regular milk in it. He points to another festival visitor who is dressed in business attire. "That guy right there, he drinks espresso all day," he guesses.

Depending on the coffee shop, the barista might know what customers want more than they do. Dominique Richards, who started her first barista job in Brooklyn three months ago, says she has to order for her customers around a third of the time. “Usually if someone's looking at the menu for more than 30 seconds, I jump in and say, ‘Hey, what would you like?’” She then asks them a few questions, like whether they want hot or cold coffee, and goes from there, often recommending lattes for people who are just getting into specialty coffee. “It's kind of a learning experience for the majority” of her customers, she says.


“People treat cafes like they're [their own] kitchen,” according to Cafe Grumpy’s Hamilton. “My favorite thing people do is when they walk in and they rearrange the condiment bar. Then they order, then they go use the condiments.” Apparently, some people are really particular about the location of their sugar packets. And if you throw off their routine, watch out. One of his colleagues describes a customer who threw a fit because the shop didn’t have a cinnamon shaker, demanding a refund for both her coffee and her pastry. (They eventually found some cinnamon for her.)


Even if you ask for room for milk in your drip coffee, the cup is still sometimes just a bit too full. It’s tempting to just pour a little into the trash can, but whoever has to take out that garbage is going to pay for it. “Please don't pour it in the garbage,” Bluestone Lane barista Marina Velazquez pleads. “Because at the end of the night, it ends up on our feet.” If the shop doesn’t have a dedicated container for you to pour out your excess coffee, take it back to the counter and ask them to dump a bit in the sink. Your baristas will thank you.


When you’re waiting in line, it may look like baristas are doing the same thing over and over for dozens of drinks. But in fact, every order presents its own challenges.

“There's probably not an appreciation for how much a coffee can vary,” explains Katie Duris, a former barista of 10 years who now works as a wholesale manager at Joe Coffee. High-quality coffee is “really dynamic as an ingredient,” she says. Baristas “have to make micro adjustments all day long. You have to change the grind based on the humidity in the room or a draft or how much coffee is in your hopper—if it's an espresso machine—so they're tweaking all day long … good baristas are making adjustments all the time.”


Making espresso drinks all day long can wear you out, and not just because you’re on your feet all day. There are also repetitive stress injuries to consider. “There's physical wear and tear on your joints when you're a barista,” Birch's Hrabe says. He’s worked in coffee for 11 years, and says that tamping espresso shots (compressing the grounds before brewing) day after day has given him tennis elbow. “It's totally common for baristas,” he says.

In short, baristas are probably doing more work behind the bar than you give them credit for, whether it’s dealing with customers or actually making coffee. “Being a barista is fun, but it's hard work,” Bluestone Lane's Velazquez says. “Everybody should be a barista at least once. I think it teaches humility.”

Can You Get to the Bottom of This Coffee Brainteaser?

Is your brain awake and energized? If not, you may want to grab a cup of coffee to figure out this head-scratching puzzle.

According to IFL Science, the brainteaser was shared by Twitter user @_herbeautyxo and has been stumping web users ever since. The image shows coffee being poured into a network of pipes and boxes. It seems there are four places the liquid could end up and each is represented by a numbered cup. Based on the shape and arrangement of the pathways, you have to guess which vessel will catch the coffee first.

Plenty of users had guesses, but few of them answered correctly. But once you know what to look for, the puzzle becomes deceptively simple (scroll down if you want to find out the answer). 

Three of the four pipes are blocked off, so the only possible spot for the coffee to exit from is the remaining pipe above cup five.

Your brain doesn’t always interpret what you see in front of you accurately, even when it’s given a caffeine boost. If you need more evidence, check out these award-winning optical illusions and brain puzzles.

[h/t IFL Science]


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