Better Ways to Brew Coffee

in Brewing Coffee

Many years ago, my brother introduced me to the French Press.  He explained that for many, this was the best way to brew coffee.  At the time, I didn’t have a sophisticated enough taste for coffee for it to make much difference.  I also remember staring at the press pot and thinking about how primitive it looked compared to some of the tricked-out drip brewers that were on the market. 

It would be many years before I would use a French Press again.  I had made plenty of upgrades in my other coffee gear and certainly, the coffee itself that I was buying.  I had finished some reading on making great coffee, and the press pot came up again and again.  I decided to buy one, and alternated between using it and the drip brewer.  As time has gone on, I’ve used the drip brewer predominantly to make a large amount of coffee to be poured into my Thermos, but for smaller amounts, some of the fancier brewing methods.

Read: Buy a Thermos…Make Good Coffee

Last year, two different guests to the website asked me which I thought was the better brewing method between the press pot and the pourover method (the latter also known as the Chemex or Melitta).  Similarly, many people still refer to the press pot as the Bodum, named after the company that made the design popular.  Pourover was new to me, so I actually had to research it.  When I did, it just seemed like a LOT of work compared to the very turnkey way of making coffee by press pot.  With nothing else to go on, I ruled in favor of the press pot.

Read: Melitta vs. French Press…fight!
Read: Pour-over Brewing Method – the Chemex (greatly expanded description of pourover)

I now have a drip brewer, a press pot, and a pourover coffee maker in my coffee bar.  I will say that both the press pot and pourover make a noticeably better coffee than the drip brewer, but then again, both are intended to be improvements on the design of the drip brewer, itself an improvement on the percolator. 

Here is some loose logic for how and when I decide to use each:

Drip Brewer: For making a lot of coffee at once.  Generally to load into my Thermos for a day of being on the road, or if I am making coffee for a lot of guests.

Press Pot: Takes the longest to cool down, so for when I have time to sit back by myself, and enjoy it (ie. Sunday afternoon, no hurries).

Pourover: For some novelty in preparing it – it is definitely the most interesting to watch being prepared.  I do enjoy talking through the process as I prepare it.  Also, the paper filter removes any sediment from the coffee, which I like to provide for coffee drinking guests in my home who may not know to swish their cup before the last swallow, or care to.

So, the drip brewer remains my method for brewing a volume of coffee.  Between the press pot and pourover, I cannot pick a “winner”.  I like them both.  The pourover leaves no sediment in the cup but the coffee cools off quicker.  The press pot leaves sediment in the cup, but it doesn’t bother me as I’m expecting the sediment.  I love having them all in the coffee bar at my disposal.

Indian Coffee

in Brewing Coffee, Coffees of the World

It’s always fun for me when a bunch of coincidental things happen at once.  Earlier last week, I was e-mailing back and forth with Shreerag Plakazhi of India.  I had misunderstood that he was asking me if I’d ever tried coffees from India.  There is coffee production out of India, most of it from small growers, and responsible for about 5% of the world’s coffee production.  Shreerag was actually referring to a unique coffee brewing method called Indian filter coffee or South Indian coffee.

True Indian filter coffee is made with a unique two-cup metal contraption, and I don’t have one.  It’s also made with a combination of dark-roasted coffee and chicory.  A week later, I received an email from a visitor to the site named Makeda Queen, asking me if I had any advice on adding chicory to coffee.  Last but not least, this week, a new book entitled “The Romance of Indian Coffee” was released, and I knew the stars must be aligned for me to experiment with something new.

  • Ask Marc: Got a question about coffee?  Any question?

Here’s the best that I figured I could make my own Indian filter coffee at home:

– It’s made with roughly a 80% / 20% mix of dark-roasted coffee and chicory.
– I don’t have any dark-roasted coffee at home, but I did just receive my home roasting equipment.  If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been having lots of fun home roasting again.  I took the last of my unroasted Nicaragua Maragogype beans that I bought from Toronto’s Green Beanery and roasted them as dark as I could without burning them, or setting off the fire alarms.
– On my last trip to the grocery store, I bought some chicory from the baking aisle.  I’m not the culinary type, so I confess I don’t quite know what exactly chicory is.
– I’ve decided the method I will use to brew in absence of the true equipment is by Chemex pourover.

The magic all happens tomorrow.  I don’t know what to expect, but the only way to truly appreciate the wide world of coffee is to try as much of it as you can.  You don’t need to roast your own beans and buy chicory from the grocery store, but if you love coffee, experiment with it.  Try one you’ve never tried before.  And when you visit your local roaster, take the time (and theirs) to learn what they have to offer that you would enjoy and haven’t tried.

Coffees of Ecuador

in Buying Coffee, Coffees of the World

I have friends that just returned from Ecuador.  Like any good friends, they brought me back coffee fresh from the source.  I was excited to get it home and try it, as I’ve never tried coffee from Ecuador.  Coffee is very much like wine, in that it takes a sample of the world’s offering to fully appreciate every flavor and variety.

Coffees of Ecuador

Ecuador is one of the top 20 producers of coffee in the world.  Although the country itself is small, its varied ecology makes it possible to cultivate all of the varieties of coffee within its borders, including premium Arabica beans and less-expensive Robusta beans.

Coffee cultivation and export is a significant portion of the country’s economy.  While they presently export to the US as well as all over the world, it is not very prevalent in the US.  As a result, very little is written about its unique qualities, and to the best of my knowledge, this would be my first cup of coffee from Ecuador.

El Tostador

The packaging of my friends’ coffee is entirely in Spanish and I am definitely not smarter than a fifth grader yet in Spanish.  But, I know key words so I gave “reading” about the coffee my best shot.  Naturally, I could see that it was produced by El Tostador, Cafe Tostado y Molido, where my friends bought it in Ecuador.

The first thing I noticed is that the words Arabica or Robusta were not printed anywhere on the package.  My rule of thumb when I see this is that it is probably cheaper Robusta beans.  After all, you would promote that you are selling Arabica beans, so if nothing is said, I assume it’s Robusta.  However, I was able to identify from the packaging, the region where the coffee was grown…the province of Loja.  The variety of coffee grown in Loja is Arabica – great news. 

The frest-roasted coffee was ground to order for my friends who brought back a pound for themselves, and brought back a pound for me.  It was ground fine, so I’ve been preparing it by pourover moreso than by press pot, since you would generally use a coarse ground coffee in the press pot to avoid overextraction (sludge).

Read: Pour-Over Brewing Method
Read: Fresh Press Brewing Method

In the end, I couldn’t help but take some of the Spanish from the packaging to a translation website, which told me:
“From the quality coffee plantations of the highlands of the province of Loja, a tradition of flavor and natural fragrance is born.”


Ecuador has a couple challenges in order to have its coffee included in the list of Specialty Coffee origins.  First, it hasn’t actively promoted itself as a source of fine coffee to the US market, and promotes itself in the European market mainly on price.  The climate of Ecuador is similar in characteristics to other countries who produce well-recognized coffee.  This leads to the second challenge, that the country’s harvesting and processing standards are not as tightly regulated by the state since other exports, such as bananas, have increased in importance.

I was happy for the opportunity to try a new coffee I hadn’t tried before.  The only way to truly appreciate the world of coffee is to try coffees from around the world.


Will Coffee Save You on Thanksgiving?

in Uncategorized

I was watching one of those myth debunking shows, and they were talking about the tryptophan in turkey.  This is the chemical that many blame for how tired we all feel after Thanksgiving dinner.  Coincidentally, at the same time as this show was on, I was on a website warning of the dangers of combining alcohol and coffee.  It made me wonder just how much power that coffee has to save us from the lethargy of Thanksgiving Day!

Here is what truly makes you tired on Thanksgiving Day, and whether coffee has it in its power to save you…

Vacation Day Fatigue: Let’s not kid ourselves.  We all knew we had a vacation day today, so nobody got a reasonable regular Wednesday night sleep last night.  I’m not the only one who fell asleep on the couch in the wee hours watching AMC’s The Walking Dead (am I? anybody?).  Coffee can help.  The caffeine in coffee is a psychoactive with stimulant effects.  It reduces physical fatigue, restores alertness when drowsy, and increases wakefulness.

Alcohol: Many of us will drink more than average today – certainly more than an average Thursday afternoon and evening (and night).  Coffee will not help.  The dangers of mixing alcohol and caffeine refer mainly to the direct combination of the two – energy drinks with alcohol, for instance.  The real question is whether caffeine counterbalances the sedative effects of alcohol, and it does not.  Rather, the two create separate effects.  Remember that before you think a coffee will sober you enough to drive home.

Overeating: The average American will consume 4,500 calories today.  It takes the body alot of energy to process that much.  Coffee will only help a bit.  There are studies on caffeine’s digestive qualities, and it will improve focus.  For many however, it increases heartburn, which will be associated with the big eating of Thanksgiving Day.

Tryptophan: This chemical will cause fatigue, but there are only trace amounts of it in turkey.  It is a myth that the quantity of this chemical in the turkey we eat is the cause of fatigue on Thanksgiving Day.

The Aftermath: Alot of work goes into preparing Thanksgiving dinner, and alot of work goes into cleaning up and returning to normalcy.  Coffee can help.  For all of the stimulant effects mentioned under fatigue, a cup or two of coffee after Thanksgiving dinner will most certainly give you that little more drive and focus that you need to be productive and prepare for a most unproductive evening and night.

Happy Thanksgiving!  Enjoy great coffee today.

Where Does McDonald’s Coffee Come From?

in Buying Coffee

Question: “How does McDonalds make such good coffee? All they would tell me is that its from special high altitude beans grown in Brazil. An employee even gave me a bag of it and I made it at home but it did not taste as good. I’m going to try something other than paper filters. Whats their secret?” – Ed F.

Answer: Thank you for the email.  It’s an interesting question, something similar was asked last year about the coffee chain Tim Horton’s and where their coffee comes from.

Read: Where Does Tim Horton’s Coffee Come From?

We can only go by what information the company chooses to share with us, and I’m actually surprised you were given some of their whole bean coffee to take home.

McDonald’s shares some information on their website.  Their Premium Roast Coffee is advertised as “a blend of Arabica beans grown in Brazil and the mountains of Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica,” brewed no more than 30 minutes before you buy it.  By comparison, Tim Horton’s limits it to 20 minutes.

As a sidenote, McDonald’s even tries to introduce their own Juan Valdez in “Pedro Gaviña”, who apparently has been roasting coffee for McDonald’s for the last 25 years.  If that’s true, then their brewing or stocking practices have improved incredibly because their coffee today does not taste like it did even 20 years ago.  You can read his story here.

I hope that helps, it’s as much information as is released publically.  I say if you enjoy it, keep enjoying it.  It’s priced right compared to a Starbucks coffee which I consider to be slightly more flavorful, but much more expensive.  Their coffee maker may be coming closer to optimal brewing temperature than your home machine.  And, I do recommend a mesh reusable filter as it allows more coffee solids into the cup although it seems to me I see McDonald’s employees dumping ground coffee into paper filters in their restaurants.

Reverse Osmosis and Coffee

in Brewing Coffee

Question: “How will using reverse osmosis water in my coffee maker affect the flavor? Is it a bad choice?” – Tina

Answer: I’m hearing more and more about water filtration and purification systems in the home, and reverse osmosis continues to come up.  I’m by no stretch a chemist, but I’ve made a valiant attempt to understand how RO works and will do my best to explain it, leading to how that would affect the taste of your coffee.

RO works by creating two “chambers” separated by a membrane.  The membrane acts as a filter that removes unwanted chemicals and particles from the water in the first chamber, which (along with some waste water) is flushed into sewage, while the second chamber contains a purified water that pours from your tap for cooking and drinking.

So, the short answer to your question is that not only will it not affect the flavor of your coffee adversely, but it will likely make it taste even better.  Water is one of the most underrated ingredients in making good coffee at home.  Fresh roasted whole bean coffee and unfiltered water still make only a mediocre coffee.  When I use my drip brewer, I only pour filtered water from the Brita in my fridge, or I use one of two methods that involve boiling water – the French Press or the pourover method.  So, I did further research comparing RO to boiling water as purification methods.

While RO is certainly more convenient than having to boil water each time you want to use it, it ALSO appears to be a better system for purifying water.  The membrane in RO will stop many unwanted particles from ending up in the water that you drink.  While boiling water will kill bacteria, it will only move unwanted particles around in the water which will end up in your cup.

So enjoy your new RO system!  I think you will find that it has a very favorable effect on your coffee.  Thank you for the question.

I’m not a cafe guy

in Buying Coffee

One thing I really like about this website and blog is connecting with other coffee drinkers. Since I moved to Portland, OR a few months back, I’ve enjoyed some back and forth with a fellow coffee loving Portlander on Twitter.  He suggested I check out a certain cafe in Portland and today, I did just that.  I was in there just long enough to enjoy an excellent freshly-pressed coffee, eat the ginger cookie that the barista talked me into, and realize that I am just not a cafe guy.

If you look back onto coffee’s role in our civilization of North America, you’ll see that the cafe played a significant role.  Prior to the coffeehouse, the place for people to congregate to discuss the issues of the day and calls to action was the tavern.  The great thing about the tavern was that a little alcohol loosened the tongue and got some stimulating conversation going.  The downside was that after so much alcohol, the quality of conversation deteriorated.  The tavern was also a place of petty violence, so the intellectuals looked for somewhere different to meet.

They found it in the coffeehouse.  Coffee also started stimulated conversation but without the downside of intoxicating anybody.  Academics, writers, active citizens…they all found a forum in the coffeehouse where they could find common ground.  It’s a little-known fact (Normy) that Lloyd’s of London started as Lloyd’s Coffee House, developing into a banking and insurance company based on the clientele that was meeting for coffee.

But what I found today reminded me why I so enjoy sipping coffee at home, rather than sitting in a cafe.  There was no conversation.  Each other customer sat quietly with a laptop in front of them and buds in their ears.  I saw two ladies sitting at the back that I thought might be there as friends – and they may have been, but both were planted in front of their laptop without a word between them.  The barista that greeted me was friendly, which always prompts me to probably talk louder than I need to.  I was immediately self-conscious that besides the trance-like music that was playing, my conversation with the barista was the only other sound.  I didn’t bring my laptop with me, it’s pretty boring people-watching when everybody works silently, and there was nobody really walking outside except for the same two transients back and forth.  So I pulled out my Blackberry and passed the time until I finished my coffee and cookie.

I’d like to see the coffeehouse of old.  I’d like to see like-minded people meet in a cafe to energize themselves on caffeine, discuss the matters of the day, and agree on the calls to action.  The place I went today was little more than a hip library that allows food and beverages.  If the coffeehouse of old is no more, then it was a nice experiment but I’ll stick to brewing and drinking the same quality coffee in the comfort of my own home.

Starbucks to expand into Latin America?

in Buying Coffee

On a recent book signing tour stop in Madrid, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company has earmarked US $2 billion to invest in an “aggressive and opportunistic way”.  The company had been investing in the Asian market rather than Latin America, and that they would now shift attention.

This headline really caught my eye.  Like or hate Schultz, he was largely responsible for drawing attention to better-quality coffee.  I myself am drinking better coffee now than I was before the rise of Starbucks. 

I don’t want to infer that local roasters are not capitalists – after all, they are entrepreneurs and living off of their business.  But, Schultz has that definite air of being a capitalist.  This, in stark contrast to Planet Bean’s Bill Barrett who certainly strives to succeed, but has no broad expansion plans besides being his community’s leading expert in what he does, for the benefit of the community.

Read: Profile on Planet Bean

The reason I found this news so interesting is because all but a handful of the best coffees we drink come from some of the poorest places in the world.  The coffee farmer at the source lives poorer than anybody else in the chain, including the consumer at the very end of it.  These farmers can’t afford not to sell all of their best coffee to an exporter, so they drink the worst of their own product.

While Starbucks’ expansion into Latin America is focused on the large economy of Brazil, I wonder what impact it will have on the general quality of coffee enjoyed in that part of the world.  It’s of little development if the coffee is too expensive for most people to enjoy.  Starbucks’ rise in the developed countries of the world has done little to address concerns of poverty in growing countries, unless sales of Fair Trade coffee have been motivated by the support of local roasters that has developed in response to Starbucks’ growth.  Perhaps the only good that can come of this is a better appreciation of their own product in these growing countries as more of their product stays home instead of being exported to richer markets.

I’d love to hear what an economist has to say about this.

I’m Confused, How Much Coffee Should I Use?

in Brewing Coffee

Question: “Hi Marc, I love coffee and have been striving to make the perfect cup for years. I’ve always been mixed up with the coffee/water ratio, however. You say 1-2 tbsp per mug. Not only is 1-2 tbsp subjective but what about the mug size? Let’s say I want to make 8 cups of coffee. By 8 cups, I mean 8 coffee cups, not and not 8 250ml cups. Many sources have said 2 level tsbp ground coffee per 1 coffee cup (I think that is about 170 ml), other sources have said 1 heaping per 2 coffee cups…. I have a Krups coffee grinder that I just indicate how many cups I want and it takes care of grinding the correct amount. The manual on the grinder says 2 tbsp per 1 coffee cup, however, when I actually measure it out on a tbsp it’s closer to 1 tbsp per coffee cup. What are your thoughts? Also, I’ve heard to brew at full strength and add hot water to weaken (if desired) as opposed to reducing the amount of coffee grounds. One more thing… are the ratios the same if using a coffee press??? Thanks so much for the help! Love the website by the way.” – Brad

Answer: Awesome Brad, thanks for the comments.  I still remember how confused I found referring to cups of coffee, whether that’s a coffee mug or a 250mL “metric cup” of coffee.  Your question made me realize how unconsciously I make my coffee but unconscious or not, how consistently I make it.  This advice should work:

  • Drip Brewer: Just about every drip brewer today measures volume in the carafe by number of metric cups.  So a 10-cup brewer makes you ten metric cups of coffee.  I consider this roughly five mugs of coffee, but don’t let me confuse the issue…use this guideline.  For each two metric cups of water you pour into the carafe, use a heaping tablespoon or coffee scoop of whole beans, or a level scoop of ground coffee.  Adjust to taste from there, but that should be a good starting point.
  • French Press: This one is a little trickier because as you mention, we have to consider the size of the mug now.  With the drip-brewer carafe, you can measure your coffee to the cup measurements on the carafe.  With a French Press, there usually aren’t volume indicators on it.  What I do to get around this problem is estimate one heaping tablespoon or scoop of whole beans per “standard coffee mug” worth of water I pour into it.  I know, just barely scientific but I use the same mug of coffee for drip-brewed coffee as I do for pressed coffee so for each one of those I boil in water, I use one heaping scoop of coffee.

I either solved your problem or confused you even more!  The problem I have with most standard advice is that it’s not that practical for me to measure the coffee I brew by “standard coffee cup sizes” or volumes of water because my gauge is either the volume indicators on the carafe or else the number of mugs I intend to drink.  I hope you find this advice practical.

Why are filter baskets hard to clean?

in Brewing Coffee, Coffee Maintenance

Question: “Why do manufacturers put ribs inside the filter baskets? This makes them very hard to clean.” – Ron Varley

Answer: Excellent question, Ron.  Who doesn’t hate trying to clean between the ribs of a drip brewer filter basket. As we go over in the site’s section on Coffee Maintenance, you want to make sure you’ve cleaned all residue from everything that coffee touches.  Coffee is oily and attaches itself to whatever it is left on.  It is also perishable, so that even the residue will go stale in time and affect the flavor of coffee you make later on.

So why the ribs on the inside of the filter baskets?  To figure it out, I found myself looking at all kinds of design patents for filter baskets and then the answer jumped off the page.  It’s not the ribs that are important, but the space between them.  As hot water passes through the coffee and filter, it needs to flow to the center of the basket to drip out into the pot.

If you used a paper filter and those ribs were not built into the basket, then it would take the coffee longer to “canal” its way to the center of the basket and drip through.  Instead, the space between ribs is the area where brewed coffee travels from the filter through to the drip-hole, and into the pot. I’m not an engineer and sometimes lousy at explaining these types of things, so I hope that makes sense.

My advice on cleaning it is to rinse it as soon as possible right after the coffee is brewed.  That way, none of the residue will set.  Otherwise, a dish-cleaning sponge will get into ribs to clean them out better than a cloth. A dish brush is best of all. I confess that since I use a mesh filter instead of paper filters that I don’t clean the filter basket as often as I should.  So it is probably collecting residue from the previous pots I’ve brewed and leaving me with less than optimal coffee flavor.  Something to remember, so thanks again for the question.

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