How to brew the perfect cup of coffee

Make a cup of coffee that feels as good as it tastes

We all want to brew the perfect cup of coffee, but many of us aren’t even getting a “good” cup of coffee, or even average, or maybe not even subpar. 

Rodrigo Chavez, Texas A&M AgriLife Center for Coffee Research and Education coffee training and program director has some useful tips on how to brew a truly good cup of coffee and what purchasing good coffee really means for you and the farmers who grow the beans. 

Pick the best coffee beans: specialty coffee

The best quality beans you can get are labeled as “specialty coffee and 100% Arabica beans.” There are four characteristics of coffee: taste, smell, acidity and body.

When you’re purchasing beans it’s best to go for a specialty single-origin coffee where the label includes information such as the altitude the beans are grown, the process for which the beans are prepared, such as natural, honey or washed, the country and region the beans were grown, and of course the variety of coffee bean. The beans should not be dark and oily – they should be brown and look almost dry to the touch.

(Photo courtesy of AgriLife Communications, Josh Frazier.)

Specialty coffee has been graded and sorted out before it is roasted, with few to no defects such as fungus, insect damage or malformation. 

“Once roasted  — medium roast provides better aroma and flavor– coffee should be cupped, or tasted, and, according to its characteristics it’s evaluated and given a cupping score,” Chavez said. 

If it makes 80 points or more, it becomes specialty coffee. Anything under 80 points is considered commercial coffee. Premium coffee does not have a quality scoring system, it’s more of a perception than an assurance of quality.

“If you drink more specialty coffee, you can actually help farmers by increasing the demand for good quality coffees, that the farmer will need to provide and, in return, obtain a better price for their crop. This will also force the coffee industry chain to change towards the better.”  

How to grind your beans

The first characteristic you lose when grinding beans is the smell. If you aren’t grinding your own beans, Chavez recommends starting. “It’s the best way to ensure you’re getting the most out of your beans.” 

He also recommends adjusting the size of the grind to fit the method of brew:

  •   Large or coarse, like sea salt, grounds for French press

  •   Medium coarse grounds, like sand, for machine brewing and pour-overs

  •   Fine or extra-fine, like table salt or flour, grounds for espresso and Turkish coffee

Best methods of brewing coffee

“To get the truly best coffee, pour-over is the way to go,” Chavez says. 

Most households have a heating plate underneath their coffee machine, which is one of the worst things to do for coffee. Once the coffee is done, do not continue to apply heat to it. With extra heat, the coffee will burn and become very acidic within minutes. So brewing then pouring it into a thermos once the coffee is done is best to keep coffee warm, rather than leaving it on a hot plate to continue heating.

Pour-over methods remove this possibility, making sure you get the best cup possible. Chavez says it’s worth the wait. 

Good water is key 

“Since water makes up 98.7% of a cup of coffee, good water is essential,” Chavez said. “So, if you use tap water that has chlorine, it takes away a lot of your coffee flavor and is similar to adding a flavor agent.” 

To obtain the best results, use filtered water or bottled water and avoid using reverse osmosis. 

Water for pour-over methods should be about 200 degrees for the best brew.

It’s a recipe

There is a coffee-to-water ratio to follow, just like any other cooking recipe, he explained. It all starts with the roast. The coffee is at peak flavor after a medium roast. 

Usually, it takes 15 to 17 units of water to one unit of coffee to reach peak extraction and release all the good flavors. Add more water and it becomes too watery, and if there is not enough, it becomes too strong. If the grind is too fine, all the coffee spills from the machine, and flavor becomes too strong and acidic. If it is too coarse, not enough flavors are extracted and coffee becomes watery again. 

Help a farmer, help a family 

Coffee producing countries are some of the poorest countries around the world. They tend to have the highest degrees of poverty, but also nutrition is low and crime rates are high. 

Coffee cherries and one broken in hand to show seeds

When ripe, the coffee tree fruit looks like cherries, and the seeds inside them are what we know as beans. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Chavez.)

The coffee belt is also known as the poverty belt of the world, Chavez explained.

Due to overproduction of commercial coffee, producers are facing record low prices. A common practice among small coffee farmers is to harvest their own coffee first and then look for employment on larger coffee plantations to supplement their income. But due to low coffee prices, many larger farms are not harvesting all their coffee, limiting supplemental income to small farmers and may even increase the need to go out of their countries for other work opportunities.

Coffee Leaf Rust

Coffee leaf rust manifests on the underside of the leaf, making it difficult to manage and overcome. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Chavez.)

The Norman Borlaug Institute and the Center for Coffee Research and Education has a project in Central America working with farmers to improve their business plans and is dealing with one of the biggest problems that coffee has: coffee leaf rust. “It is a fungus that has evolved and is immune to almost all fungicides,” Chavez said. 

Project goals include the introduction of new varieties of coffee, called hybrids, opening new markets and employment opportunities, strengthening research capacities, training and smart agricultural practices among others.

“In order to become a variety, the plant needs to be grafted throughout seven or eight different cycles before it actually becomes a hybrid. And this new hybrid is rust-resistant. So, coffee not only can tolerate more rust, but it can also produce more coffee.” 

Coffee Cherries

Coffee cherries ripen at different times throughout the harvest. Farmers must return periodically to gather what has ripened since the previous picking. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Chavez.)

This hybrid is a premature plant and starts producing a year earlier than other coffee varieties, so farmers are getting a return on investment a year in advance of most coffee plants. 

When harvesting coffee trees, the product is transported to the mill in coffee bags that normally weigh 80-100 pounds. But with this hybrid, farmers report the same bags now weigh 120 pounds or more. Since coffee is paid by weight, this converts to additional income.

Man smelling different coffees

Part of the program includes training farmers to become baristas and coffee tasting experts, Capucas, Honduras. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Chavez.)

 “We are also teaching them how to do a microbusiness, how to roast the coffee and sell the coffee and do all the things to the coffee to add value to their plantations,” he said. “Many farmers have introduced lemongrass to their plantations and are now planting lemongrass that grows between the coffee trees. It is harvested and sold to make tea.”

By making an educated purchase, buyers might just be keeping a family together and another small business afloat. 

Help a farmer, help yourself, buy good coffee.   

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