Duncan’s Perfect Cup of Coffee


1.   Water

Start with pure, fresh, cool water that tastes good. If you’re using tap water, run the cold-water tap for half a minute before drawing the water, and filter it before using (unless your tap water tastes like nectar, and people come from miles around to ask for a glass of it).


2a. Beans

Start with high-quality Arabica beans. This is one of the two types of coffee you can buy. The other type is the Robusta bean; they are cheap, easy to find, harsh, and easy to grow in large quantities at low altitudes. Robusta beans have twice the caffeine of Arabica beans. Arabica beans are more expensive, slightly harder to find, possess a huge range of different tastes and qualities, are harder to grow, and generally grow in smaller quantities at higher altitudes. Inexpensive American coffees are usually a mix of Robusta beans (cheap) and Arabica beans (nice flavor).
Note that Robusta beans are used (usually in a blend) with Arabica beans for Espresso coffee. The Robusta beans give better crema (the foam on top of the Espresso), which is part of the Espresso experience.


2.b. Sampling Sourced (Varietal) Coffees

One of the first things to do in order to become a coffee connoisseur is to sample various types of Arabica beans until you find the ones (or one) that really appeal to you. Starting points are blends (like Whole Food's Breakfast Blend, or Starbucks (milder) Pike's Peak blend, or famous blends like the classic Moka Java. Then you can move to trying single-source varietals (types) of coffee like Columbian, or Hawaiian Kona (my favorite in all the world, and the only coffee served at the White House; one of the best and best-priced Hawaiian Konas I’ve found is from The Java House in Iowa City, IA), or a number of other regional coffees that have gained a following around the world. (Other favorites of mine include Jamaican Blue Mountain (sublime and expensive), Trader Joe’s Maragogype, Trader Joe’s Moka Java, San Salvador La Concordia, Whole Foods Breakfast Blend, and Café Paradiso’s Espresso Blend.)


2.c. Organic and Fair-Trade Coffees

Fair-trade and organic coffees should be preferred in order to be a good world citizen. If the coffee is super-cheap, the people around the world who produced it probably weren’t paid enough for their labors. Organic coffee is also to be preferred because then you know that harsh and potentially dangerous chemicals did not get into your cup of coffee, and did not endanger the coffee growers and harvesters. (Note: if you prefer decaffeinated coffees, this is why you should get “Swiss Water Process” decaf coffee, or organic decaf coffee, so that you know that the caffeine wasn’t removed using chemicals.)


2.d. Buying Coffee Beans

You can spend as little as $5-6 per pound for Arabica coffee beans, or as much as $40-$50 per pound. The rarest of the commonly available coffees (and therefore the most expensive) are Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain. Both are superb mellow flavorful coffees best enjoyed in a medium roast. (For a hilarious description of one of the world’s most expensive coffees, Google “Dave Barry Decaf Poopacino”.)

For Espresso coffee you’ll generally have to buy beans intended for Espresso, including blends. These tend to be darker roasts (though not exclusively). The Lavazza brand is a fine Espresso bean blend; I’ve also done well with a dark roast Rwandon coffee from Costco. Some of the best I’ve ever found for both Espresso and regular coffee is the Café Paradiso blend from Fairfield, Iowa. CfCf in Greenwich CT also makes a superior espresso bean blend.


3. Roast

Coffee is roasted to bring out its flavors. A light roast is fairly uncommon. Medium roast is used for fine flavorful coffees like Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain. Darker roasts are used for coffees with bolder, brighter, higher notes and more acid flavors (this is not acid in the sense of chemical pH, but acid as one of the ways of describing the flavor on the tongue). Very dark roasts are used by Starbucks for their common coffee (as opposed to their milder Pike's Peak blend) and for making Espresso and Cappuccino and Turkish Coffee. Roasted coffee beans stay fresh for 1-4 weeks after roasting; green (unroasted) coffee beans stay fresh for months and months.


4. Coffee Bean Storage

Roasted coffee beans are best bought whole and then ground at the time you're making the coffee. They should be stored in a sealed bag in a cool place. (My favorite bags have a self-sealing closure flap, and are made of Mylar with a little relief valve on the side; the one-way valve lets the CO2 that’s naturally emitted by freshly roasted coffee off-gas properly. Freshly roasted beans are best left to off-gas for at least 24 hours before first brewing.)


Because I only drink 1 cup of coffee (or a double-shot Espresso) a day, if I have a variety of coffee beans in various bags, I won’t be able to consume all the beans within the 2-4 week horizon in which freshly roasted beans stored at room temperature should be used.

Some people say you can safely freeze roasted coffee beans The Complete Coffee Book says this is okay. Others say it isn’t. So, I ran a somewhat scientific double-blind experiment to test this storage method. I (and two other tasters) could taste a difference between frozen and unfrozen beans: the difference was most easily detectable after the coffee had cooled somewhat: the frozen coffee beans brewed a less delicious cup. So at this point I keep 1-2 bags of roasted coffee in a cool dark cupboard, and use it up before I open another bag of coffee.


5.a. Grind

Grind whole beans just before you brew the coffee. Grinding releases the delicate essential oils and compounds that make up the coffee's flavor. These oils deteriorate and evaporate fairly quickly after you grind them and as they are exposed to oxygen. So, if you grind coffee at the supermarket on, say, Friday, it will taste great on Friday, good on Saturday, okay on Sunday, and on Monday, not so much. Purists say, grind within 30-90 seconds of when the ground coffee comes in contact with the hot water. This is how I do it.


5.b. Fineness of the Grind

The grind is determined by how you will brew your coffee. French Press coffee makers use the coarsest grind. Drip coffee makers (like Mister Coffee) use a coarse grind, as do Single-cup permanent gold coffee filters that go on top of the coffee cup; espresso machines use a very fine talc-consistency grind, while Turkish coffee (made in an Ibrik; I have two!) uses the finest grind of all.


It’s good to grind your beans as fine as you can while still maintaining a good balance of flavor and taste.


5.c. Coffee Grinders

For everyday use, a little coffee grinder like the Bodum C-Mill does a good job for common coarse and medium grinds. (You need to get a brush to clear out the coffee grinder after each use.) For grinds like Turkish Coffee or Espresso/Cappuccino, you need a better (and more expensive) grinder. I’m very happy with the Baratza Virtuoso. Baratza has a cheaper (but still very good) model, the Baratza Maestro.

Note that when I made the step up to my own espresso machine (the Breville Infuser), the grind from my Virtuoso (even at “0”) wasn’t fine enough. So, learned how to reset the fineness adjustment of my Virtuoso. Once I did that, my grind was fine enough for proper espresso. But it wasn’t perfect, so I wound up buying a Breville Smart Grinder XL, which gives very precise control for Espresso coffee grinding. I just have to “dial in” each lot of beans to achieve the perfect pressure for the Espresso (roughly 10-11 o’clock on my Breville Infuser’s pressure dial).

If you don’t want to invest too much, you can simply grind smaller batches of beans at the store where you buy your beans. But beware; don’t grind too many at a time or you’ll lose that “fresh-ground” taste if you don’t use it all within a few days! (As a coffee purist, I think you’ll lose some of the “fresh-ground” taste within 90 seconds of when you grind your coffee.)


5.d. Amount of Coffee

For each 12-oz cup of coffee, I use 2 full coffee measures of whole coffee beans, which translates to about 4 level tablespoons, or 7 oz., or 20 grams, of coffee. If you want weaker coffee, use less beans. If you want stronger coffee, use more beans. The Complete Coffee Book says to use 2 level tablespoons of ground coffee (1 coffee measure) per 6 ounces of water.


[Be aware that a finer grind of coffee yields a stronger and more flavorful cup of coffee. But grind fineness must be adjusted based on your choice of coffee brewing method.]


6.a. Coffee Brewing

There are a bewildering array of choices for brewing coffee. I’ll speak to the ones I’ve tried. The overall concept; Boiling water is put in contact with the ground coffee, the water thereby absorbs the complex flavors of the coffee. Finer grinds allow quicker absorption; coarser grinds make for slower absorption. The Coffee Brewing technique you choose must take account of the fineness of the grind as noted in 5.b. You need to avoid underextraction, which produces weak coffee, and overextraction, which produces bitter coffee. (For those who say that all coffee is bitter; maki mashta—I have nothing.)


6.b. French Press

These consist of a glass beaker and a plunger plate on a movable rod. First pre-heat the beaker with some boiling water. Empty. Then put the ground coffee into the beaker, then pour in boiling water. Then insert the presser-plate into the beaker, and gradually push down the plunger using the rod. This makes delicious coffee, which will have very fine sediment in it. Just be careful with the glass beaker, or you’ll break it like I did mine.


6.c. Drip Coffeemaker (like Mister Coffee)

They’re simple, quick, convenient, and ubiquitous. If you use a Drip coffeemaker, you should be aware of an improvement you can make. You can buy a SwissGold Permanent Coffee Filter; it’s a gold-plated stainless steel filter that you use instead of a paper coffee filter. It fits into the filter basket of your coffee maker. Currently, the only kind easily available is the funnel type (shaped a little like a “V”, plus the single-cup filters (that you put on top of a coffee cup and pour in hot water). If you have a 4-6 cup flat-basket coffeemaker, you’re out of luck; this size of SwissGold filter is no longer commercially available in the U.S. If you have an 8-12 cup flat-basket coffeemaker, you must find a company (like www.alpensierra.com) with the SwissGold KF-10 Permanent Coffee Filter. (Get them while they last!) The advantage of the gold filter: it absorbs none of the delicate fragrant taste of the coffee. Plus, no more buying coffee filters or running out of them. Other permanent coffee filters (that are not gold-plated) are not as good; plastic or stainless steel can absorb some of the coffee tastes, or impart some of their own flavor. The gold is totally non-reactive with the coffee.


6.d. Cup-top Coffee Filter

This is a two-piece unit; you put the gold-plated filter basket on top of your (pre-heated) coffee cup, put the ground coffee into it, splash hot water onto the ground coffee, then put in the insert on top of the coffee filter piece. Then fill up the insert with boiling water. The water gradually moves from the insert into the ground coffee, and on into the coffee cup. This was my coffee-making technique of choice. Also, my favorite Coffee Shop, the Java House in Iowa City, uses this technique for preparing their brewed coffee for customers.


6.e. Espresso

Espresso is one of the most concentrated and (potentially) delicious ways you can prepare coffee. It’s also one of the most challenging. If you go to a specialty coffee shop staffed by a Barista who cares about their art, you can get espresso that is heavenly. Mixed with steamed, frothed milk (as I like it, in a Cappuccino or Latte), it’s one of the signature experiences in the coffee universe.

But espresso is temperamental; it depends on the perfect balance of good fresh coffee (ideally, roasted within the past 1-2 weeks tops), perfect grinding (fine enough, but not too fine), consistent tamping (compressing the coffee into the coffee portafilter), and the correct pressure of correctly heated water passed through the coffee “puck” for about 15-20 seconds. Do any of the above steps wrong, or not quite right, and the espresso can be too weak, or too strong, or too bitter, or any other combination of less-than-ideal qualities.

To create good espresso, you must have a good-quality espresso machine, and, just as important, a very good grinder that delivers a consistently fine grind. You won’t want to spend less than $400 retail for a good burr grinder.

You won’t want to spend less than about $450 (retail list price) for such an espresso machine; it must have a professional quality boiler (or equally well-controlled technology). You’ll see brands like Breville, Gaggia, Rancillio and Baratza. You’ll hear about PID (a good feature of higher-end espresso machines, wherein the machine preheats the puck with lower-pressure hot water before forcing through the full-pressure water).

Once you get such a machine, you must master the steps of making perfect espresso. It can take time and experimentation, but the satisfaction of making consistently delicious espresso is high. Check out how-to videos on YouTube (such as those from Seattle Coffee Gear) specifically for your machine.

A pedestrian on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan stopped Jascha Heifetz and inquired, "Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?" "Yes," said Heifetz. "Practice!”

I recently bought a used Breville Infuser (BES840XL). Now, I have a cappuccino every day instead of my old cup of coffee. I’m working on the perfect espresso, and also perfecting my milk-steaming technique and aspiring to create latte art, wherein you use foamed milk to make patterns on the top of the crema (surface foam) of your espresso. At this point, for me, it’s hit or miss (sometimes it looks like a tree, sometimes it looks like a round blob of foam).

Two shots of Espresso are roughly equivalent to a medium cup of regular coffee. (When you only have Espresso, you can make a Café Americano with two shots of Espresso and then fill up the coffee cup with boiling water.)


6.f. Stovetop Espresso Maker (Moka Pot)

This is an elegant, simple, reliable, cheap way to make great coffee that is similar to espresso (that is, very concentrated). I have one of these. It’s a three-piece unit; the bottom you fill the water. The middle piece that nestles onto the bottom part includes the filter basket, where you put your talc-ground espresso coffee (one of the best Espresso coffees available in the U.S. is from Café Paradiso in Fairfield, IA.) Then you screw on the top piece, and put it on a stove burner and apply medium (not high!) heat. After 5-10 minutes, the water boils, is forced through the filter basket and the ground coffee, up a tube in the center of the top piece, and down into the main compartment of the top piece. I recommend stainless steel Moka Pots rather than the cheaper aluminum ones.


6.g. Cappuccino

This is a coffee drink that’s one-half Espresso and one-half steamed (frothed) milk. You can froth the milk with the milk-frother on your Espresso machine, or your can use an inexpensive (and less convenient) alternative that Kate Ross at the Mainstay Inn in Fairfield taught me; get a small heavy saucepan, put in on a stove burner over *medium* heat, and use a wire wisk to stir it continuously as it slowly heats up. Once it gets to the frothing (boiling over) phase, continue wisking it vigorously. Be ready to take it off the heat quickly just as soon as it’s about to boil over.

Frothed milk is light and foamy and delicious. In fact, forget the Espresso; just have the milk! It’s wonderful before bedtime with some ground cardamom.

I’ve found that 2% organic milk makes wonderful steamed milk. Of course, you’ll never do better than Francis Thicke’s Radiance Dairy organic milk from Fairfield, Iowa. I’ve also heard that coconut milk makes good frothed steamed milk, but not almond milk or soy milk.

You can sprinkle ground cinnamon on your cappuccino, or ground unsweetened cocoa, or ground cardamom.


6.h. Turkish Coffee

This is made using an Ibrik. (Get one made of stainless steel or copper; avoid aluminum.) An Ibrik is a little pot with a long handle. The pot is broader at the base and narrower at the top. Put in 2 tsp Turkish-ground coffee (finer even than the Espresso grind), and 1 tsp of sugar into the Ibrik and ¼ cup water per serving. Put it on medium-high heat on a stove burner. Stand over the burner and watch it carefully. Once the water heats up, it will start boiling over. Immediately take it off the heat, and wait for the boiling-over to subside. Put it back on the heat. Wait for it to almost boil over again, then withdraw it from the heat and let it subside. Then put it back on the heat one last time. This time after it almost boils over, withdraw it from the heat, and you’re ready to pour it into your (pre-heated) Espresso cups. (Since you didn’t filter out the coffee, as you approach the bottom of the cup, drink slowly and carefully so as not to drink the coffee grounds.) The foam (crema) produced by this style of coffeemaking is highly prized. 


7. The Coffee Cup/Mug

While I’ll use any coffee cup or mug, I have a favorite. It’s a ceramic cobalt-blue 12-ounce WordPerfect-branded mug.


8. Pre-Heat Your Coffee Mug

Before you pour in coffee, pre-heat your coffee mug by pouring some boiling water into it. Empty back into the kettle.


9. Cream and Sugar?

Some people, like me, like cream (or half-and-half) and sugar in their coffee. Others like their coffee black, or with cream only, or with sweetener only. There are many sweeteners—honey, agave nectar, tubinado sugar, organic sugar, etc. Choose what you like, and enjoy. I have recently been impressed by Xylitol (just as sweet as sugar), Erythritol (60% as sweet as sugar), and Coconut Sugar (caramel taster, supposed to have a much lower glycemic index). On my Espresso I sprinkle unsweetened cocoa powder, ground cinnamon, ground cardamom, ground nutmeg, and some coconut sugar.


10. More Information on Coffee Making

You can check out the Web site www.sweetmarias.com. It's aimed at those who want to home-roast their coffee beans, but it has a wealth of information on coffee and coffee roasting and coffee making and coffee varietals.


I also like the clear and detailed information and gorgeous photos in The Complete Coffee Book by Sara Perry (Photos by Edward Gowans).