Seven Steps to Brewing Better Coffee
by Don Holly
The aim of brewing coffee is to extract from the roasted and ground beans a combination of
the finest flavor compounds the coffee can potentially offer while avoiding the extraction
of less desirable components. About 30 percent of ground coffee is "soluble," meaning it
can be dissolved in water. Every coffee is different, and what compounds are extracted
will be affected by the roast development, brew water used, and all of the conditions of
the brewing process - most notably the water temperature, the particle size distribution
of the coffee (the grind), and the uniformity of extraction. It must be also noted that
every coffee drinker has his or her own preference for coffee flavor, based upon
physiology, past experiences, and socialization. From a professional's perspective, the
process to be followed for brewing coffee is one that combines diligence and
consciousness, with a goal of attaining the flavor profile preferred by the intended
Step 1: Gather the necessary equipment. You will obviously need a high-quality brewer and
grinder. In addition, a good thermometer (one that reads temperatures within one to two
degrees Fahrenheit in accuracy, refreshing every second), a good scale (accuracy to within
one gram and a suitable range), a large measuring pitcher, a stop watch, paper, pencil,
and a small ruler. It is also recommended that you have a total dissolved solids (TDS)
meter, a pH Analyzer, and several small sealable sample cups that are impervious to
Step 2: Analyze the brewer's performance. With your thermometer, stopwatch, and pitcher,
do several brew cycles without any coffee and measure the temperature, time and volume of
the water flow from the brew head. Also notice the pattern of the water coming out of the
spray head and compare that to the geometry of the brew basket. Does it look like it will
uniformly soak the brew basket's contents? The temperature of the water should average
between 195 degrees and 205 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the brew cycle, never falling
below 190 degrees and never exceeding 209 degrees. Adjust the temperature of the water as
needed. The time of the flow should be between 3.5 and 4.5 minutes.
Step 3: Analyze your brew water. Is it clean tasting and smelling? Great coffee brewed
with bad water will, unfortunately, make a bad cup of coffee. Preferably, the water should
be neutral pH (7.0) with a TDS of 100 to 200 parts per million (PPM) with no volatile
odors like chlorine or ammonia. If you are uneducated about water filtration systems, call
an expert (someone local who is familiar with the standards and challenges of coffee
Step 4: Break out the coffee. Using a ratio of 3.75 ounces of coffee for every half-gallon
of water for the brew cycle, weigh out the whole bean coffee into a paper filter and then
grind it at a noted setting. Shake the coffee slightly until it is evenly distributed in
the basket with a flat top. Measure the depth of the coffee bed. If it is greater than two
inches thick, you will need to reduce the amount of coffee in the basket and adjust the
quantity of brew water to keep your proportion at the 3.75 ounces of coffee/64 ounces of
Step 5: Evaluate the brew. Stir the brewed beverage so that is homogeneous (most brewers
will create a beverage that is more concentrated at the bottom of the pot than at the
top). Taste the coffee. Does it have a broad range of flavors that are all pleasurable?
How intense is the aroma? What is its mouthfeel? Try to have your palate as conscious as
you can, making note of everything the beverage is communicating to your senses. Use your
sight also, looking through the beverage at its color and opaqueness.
If the coffee has a metallic, astringent, or bitter flavor, chances are the coffee was
over-extracted. If the coffee tastes flat and characterless or is lacking in aroma or
mouthfeel, chances are the coffee was under-extracted.
Step 6: Evaluate the spent grounds. Is the top of the coffee bed uniform in appearance?
Are there "drill holes" from the spray head? If there is a lot of variation in the color,
consistency, or shape of the grounds in the brew basket, chances are there is a
`turbulence' problem, and the coffee in the basket was not uniformly extracted.
Step 7: Make an appropriate adjustment. If all the issues mentioned above (water
temperature and quality, bed depth, and uniform extraction) are within standards and your
coffee still does not taste like you want it to, the last thing to adjust is the coffee
grind. If your first batch was under-extracted, you need to use a finer grind. If your
coffee suffered from over-extraction, the grind should be adjusted so the grounds are
coarser. Make a small adjustment and brew another batch. Taste and compare the difference
with the first batch. Hopefully, you will enjoy immediate return on your effort by
noticing a significant improvement. If you do not, be patient, and try again.
Continue to make small adjustments to the grind, coffee quantity and possibly the water
temperature, changing only one factor at a time and tasting the differences in the
beverage quality with each change. Eventually, you will achieve the ideal parameters for
the coffee you are using. Sometimes you may stumble across this standard early and
subsequent changes may not be favorable in flavor or aroma. Back up to the earlier
standard and test again to learn whether that quality is the best so far and then change
other factors to see if they have any impact on improving quality.
Your senses are the best judge of quality. The tools like the thermometer, TDS meter, and
pH analyzer are very helpful, but do not let the objective measurements overwhelm what
your taste buds and nose are telling you. If you recognize the brewing of coffee as a
craft, as it should be, and you dedicate yourself to developing personal skill and
consciousness, keeping your tools tuned, and committing your passion, your coffee will go
from being ordinary to magical.