For coffee lovers, there are few experiences more joyful than visiting a beloved café and enjoying a piping hot cup of godly nectar. But when it costs up to $5 a cup, depending on where you live, trying to recreate that experience at home is one of the easiest sounding ways there is to save a little cash.
Except ― it nearly never tastes as good, right? Why is that, aside from the fact that it’s a treat to have something made especially for us by someone else? In an effort to save our sanity and bank accounts, HuffPost went on a mission to find out.
We chatted with six people who would know ― they have, after all, made coffee a career. They are: Jeremy Lyman, co-founder of Birch Coffee, Michael Phillips, director of coffee culture for Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Naida Lindberg, cafe manager at Verve Coffee Roasters, Todd Carmichael, CEO and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, Bailey Manson, education and service program manager at Intelligentsia Coffee and Emily Rosenberg, senior educator at Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
This crew of experts gave us the (evenly leveled) scoop on how to achieve coffee-shop levels of caffeination from the comfort of your own kitchen.
On some points, like the importance of proper tools, they were widely in agreement. All but one cited the pour over as their method of choice (Carmichael prefers a French Press), and they were pretty much on the same page about their distaste for coffee in pod form. But in many cases, their reasonings ― and their ratios ― differed.
What seems to be universal is that making great coffee at home is less a precious and daunting task than we might think, and it really comes down to a couple of key ingredients. Find out what they are and how to use them below.
A lot. Every single expert we spoke to agreed. “It’s a magical ingredient in that when it’s doing its best you have no idea of its impact, but when it’s at its worst you can taste it very obviously,” Phillips said.
That being said, it all depends on where you live and the quality of your tap water. “When I drink water out of the tap in any new city I go to, if it tastes nice to me then it’s good to brew,” Rosenberg said. “If the water smells a little off or leaves a weird feeling in your mouth, chances are that won’t taste great in your coffee.”
Most experts we spoke to maintained that a simple filtration system like a Brita is typically good enough to filter it out, and some also praised Third Wave Water, a mineral supplement that, when dropped into water, claims it can aid in coffee extraction and provide the best tasting coffee possible. But trying a taste test side by side with bottled spring water could open your eyes to your coffee’s even greater potential.
“Buy a gallon of Poland Spring and brew with that, then brew a pot with what you’ve been using,” Carmichael suggests. “You’ll either say, ‘Wow, that was way better’ or ’You know what? My water’s not that bad, but at least you can rule that out.”
Less obviously, the factor that makes a difference when it comes to water at home versus in a shop is that water’s temperature. Ideally, coffee should be brewed between 195 degrees Fahrenheit and low 200s. Most drip coffee makers on the more affordable end just can’t get up to that level, meaning you’ll get a less flavorful cup.
“Even if you’re starting with really high-quality coffee that’s fresh, ground fresh and your ratios are right, if you’re not getting to the right temperature you’re never going to extract some of the more dynamic flavors of the coffee, it’s always going to be a little more muted,” Rosenberg said. ” I think that’s why we’ve pushed, as an industry, the pour-over method because most people have a way of heating water. Even if it’s just a pot on a stove it’s going to make a huge difference.”
You’ve got to find the perfect ratio of coffee to water
It seems everyone we spoke to varied slightly when it comes to the gold standard of coffee to water ratios. Carmichael was steadfast in his assessment of “one part coffee to 17 parts water” for hot coffee and 1:9 for a cold brew. Rosenberg called the industry standard 1:16, while Lindberg said 1:15.
They’re close enough margins to experiment for yourself, sure, but not precise. It’s an interesting notion when you consider how precisely they all agree one should be when measuring coffee.
You probably need a scale
The biggest takeaway from talking to experts about at-home coffee is that it’s a craft, an art, and requires some level of precision. Rosenberg laid it out pretty simply:
“I liken a lot of the things with coffee prep to cooking or especially baking,” she said. “You can not follow a recipe and get different results every time you bake a cake. You can follow a recipe that uses volume measurements that’s not gonna be quite as accurate, or you can pull out your scale and really hit the mark on predicting what’s going to come out.”
“I think a scale can be really intimidating, so I understand there’s a fear or it feels fussy, but think about how many ingredients go into a cake,” she added. “Coffee is just two. Unless you’re a super confident baker, you wouldn’t eyeball ingredients, so just use some sort of measurement tool to make sure you’re being consistent.”
Another reason a scale is so important? Your coffee maker could be lying to you. “If you look at the carafe at the lines that say three, four cups ― those aren’t actual cup sizes, and that can be very confusing,” Lyman said. “Especially because they don’t tell you they’re not real cups. I think they’re considered five-ounce cups. I don’t know why they do it that way, they just do.”
Carmichael offered an even more colorful analogy as to why precise measurements matter. “Not that I would do this, but if you were going to go buy a bag of weed, you want it to be weighed first, right? You can’t eyeball this stuff.”
Of course, having a good, fresh product matters, too.
Freshly ground coffee makes a big difference
If you’re dissatisfied with the coffee you’re making at home, we hate to be the ones to tell you this, but it might be time to invest in a grinder.
Manson wouldn’t commit to saying it’s a downright rule, but when asked if he would use pre-ground coffee, he replied “if I’m going backpacking.” Lyman agreed that getting the grind size right is imperative and even recommends a specific type that he swears by. Rosenberg likened grinding coffee to sliced bread.
“If you leave the loaf of bread and cut a slice each piece is going to be delicious, but the piece you slice within in an hour is going to be stale,” she said. “Grinding the coffee immediately before is going to give you the best flavor but there’s also the matter of convenience ― sometimes I buy the sliced bread.”
If you use a Keurig or another capsule brewer, you don’t have any control
Speaking of convenience, Keurigs were pretty much universally panned by our experts, though not for all the reasons you might think. Some agreed that the ratios are just too small and out of your control, most agreed that the environmental impact is enough to avoid them and a couple pointed out that when you break it down, it’s actually more expensive than buying a pound of coffee.
“I think everyone has an empty, slight disappointment after a K-cup,” Carmichael said. “You know that slight depression when you eat two Big Macs, like, ‘Why did I do that?’ That’s kind of like the K-cup.”
Carmichael and Manson both pointed out, though, that there is room for improvement when it comes to the process, and both were curious as to why it’s taken this long to figure out a better, more environmentally friendly and tasty way.
“We have these cars that are destroying the earth, but then other people are like, ‘Well, let’s just make a car that doesn’t destroy the earth,’” Manson said. “But that’s not really happening with Keurig. They’re not resolving the issue by creating something people can get on board with, but it’s only a matter of time, and it will get resolved.”
Keep your equipment clean
As Phillips gently reminded us, coffee extracts oil. It’s tasty, but can turn your clean carafe filthy over time. “I would bet 90 percent of carafes you brew coffee into right now are dirty enough to the point of being able to taste it in the cup,” he said. “People don’t realize how often and thoroughly they should be cleaning equipment.” Rather than giving your carafes a quick rinse with water, scrub them thoroughly with soap and hot water to pull out those oils.
At the end of the day, it all really boils down to taste, and the experts agreed that whatever your preference makes the best cup of coffee for you. Things like acidity and taste vary by region, and Lindberg even offers up her recommendations for which coffees ― from Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica ― she thinks pair more deliciously than others. It’s all a matter of preference.
But yeah, good water, a grinder and a scale seem to be pretty important, too.