Odds are, you make coffee at home. You may triumphantly sip on your at-home cup, but when you compare it to what you get from the coffee shop down the street, there’s a noticeable difference.
Perhaps you’ve tinkered with different brewing devices or tried a variety of beans, and your coffee still falls flat. The key to a great cup of coffee isn’t necessarily about the tools you use or the coffee you buy; it’s about the components of your coffee like water, temperature and grind setting.
There’s no big secret to brewing great coffee. All you need to unlock a great brew is to pay attention to the variables that affect the final cup and be willing to mess up a few times.
“I recommend changing one variable at a time unless you want your brain to short-circuit when you’re starting out,” says Chelsea Thoumsin, a coffee and sensory consultant.
Here are five things to watch out for when you’re tasting coffee.
1. Does your coffee taste sour? You might be grinding too coarsely.
Arguably, grind size is the most talked-about variable when brewing coffee and likely the one you’re most familiar with.
A coffee that’s ground too coarsely will taste sour and thin. A coffee that’s ground too finely will feel syrupy and have an unpleasant bitterness at the end.
If you’re not sure whether you’re tasting sourness or bitterness — it can be confusing! — and you’re brewing on a pourover brewer, try timing your brew. A coarsely ground coffee will brew very quickly, while a finely ground coffee will take a long time. Although it depends on the brewer, anywhere between three to four minutes is ideal.
2. Does your coffee taste strangely flavorless? You might be using water that’s too soft.
Coffee only has two ingredients: water and ground coffee beans. The quality of the water you use makes a huge difference in the overall flavor of the cup and the hardness or softness of your municipal water supply can tell you a lot about how a coffee will brew.
Water hardness is a measure of the amount of dissolved minerals in a given quantity of water. Those dissolved minerals — primarily magnesium, calcium and bicarbonate — pull out particular acids and compounds from ground coffee. Very hard water can sometimes pull undesirable flavors, while very soft water doesn’t have enough compounds to draw out the flavors in the bean.
In general, if you wouldn’t drink the water from the tap, then you shouldn’t use it to brew coffee. Use either filtered water or spring water. If you want to get precise, you can buy distilled water and buy a packet of Third Wave Water to get the ideal water for brewing.
3. Does your coffee taste bitter or sharp? You might be using water that’s too hot.
Water is doing a whole lot of work when you brew coffee. Not only is it one of two ingredients that end up in the cup, but it also acts as an energy conduit when heated. The hotter the water is, the more work it can do to extract flavor from the coffee.
However, that doesn’t mean that you want your water to be as hot as possible. “Go ahead, try it,” says Thoumsin, acknowledging that the best way to train your palate is to make a few bad cups of coffee on purpose and see how they taste. “Boil your water and brew. See how acrid it can taste. Use lukewarm water to brew and see how bland it tastes.”
The ideal brewing temperature for coffee is between 195-205F. Try using a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature of your water, or use water that’s 30 seconds to a minute off boil. If you’re brewing manually with a French press or a pourover, try pre-heating the brewer so you don’t lose heat as the water hits the brewer.
4. Does your coffee taste too strong? You might be using too much coffee.
Precise measurements are fundamental to brewing. “If the coffee tastes so strong it hurts your taste buds, either too much coffee is being added, or not enough water [is being added],” says Thoumsin. “If the coffee tastes more like water or diner coffee, there is likely not enough coffee or too much water added to the brew recipe.”
Most baristas use grams to weigh their coffee and water and work with ratios to determine the right amount of each to use. “Pro tip: a tablespoon does not equate to the same mass of coffee all the time,” Thousim continues. “Get yourself a cheap kitchen scale if you can swing it.” One gram of coffee to 16 grams of water is a common starting place; you can adjust based on your own tastes.
5. Does your coffee taste funky or oily? You might need to clean your brewer.
Something you might not know about coffee is that it releases oils when ground and brewed. Some of that oil is pleasant — it’s what gives the coffee body and heft. But oils attach to the brewer over time and repeated use. As oil builds up over time, it starts to go rancid. Coffee brewed in a dirty brewer will taste thick and unpleasantly oily on your tongue.
Take a peek inside your brewer: is there a ring of oil around the carafe? It’s time to clean.
Baristas clean their equipment regularly, if not daily, to prevent build-up from affecting the flavor of the coffee. “If you clean your equipment after each use with mild soap and water, or even with just a quick water rinse, you should be good for a while,” Thoumsin says. “If you have coffee buildup, a heavier, coffee-specific cleanser may be needed.”
Every morning cup is a new chance to experiment with variables, so don’t be afraid to try something different and taste your coffee.
Ashley Rodriguez has worked in all aspects of the coffee industry, writes about coffee, teaches people how to make it and hosts the Boss Barista coffee podcast.
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