As the commercial goes, the best part of waking up… is a certain brand of industrial brew often made into a watery thing resembling coffee from a flimsy machine. But really the best part of every morning should be the act of making an actually-great cup of coffee, one at a time, in a Hario V60 or Chemex or French press. The ritual of brewing coffee is itself a satisfying endeavor.
There’s truly nothing wrong with using a machine to brew coffee, and some machines are even better than the methods described here: I liken it to how some people want self-driving cars while others like manual transmissions. As many people isolate at home during the novel coronavirus pandemic, there’s no better time to master the art of manually brewing coffee. Here now, five ways to make coffee almost as good as you would find in a cafe, right in the comfort of your own kitchen.
What you need to start brewing coffee at home:
The best possible locally roasted coffee beans you can buy
There are two main markers that affect a coffee’s taste: the beans and the roast. Buy whole coffee beans from roasters who source from specific coffee-growing regions and show this off on their packaging, because highlighting farms and regions is a sign they’re investing in good-quality beans. Choose either a single-origin or a good blend to start. Single-origins show off the distinct characteristics of a farm or growing region, while blends tend to balance out flavors.
Freshly roasted beans will have the most flavor and will last you the longest. When talking to a roaster, ask about a coffee’s roast profile and find something that aligns to your taste. Coffee drinkers come in all forms, and one could argue that there are two main camps when it comes to roast styles. The first favor medium-to-darker roasts with bolder but ultimately more comforting flavors (basically coffee that tastes like a really good version of what your parents drank). The other type tends to focus on lighter roasting, higher acid (or fruit-forward characteristics), and even floral notes. The flavors of coffee are virtually endless, and exploring them is why you’re getting into brewing coffee at home in the first place.
Generally speaking, for good-quality coffee, don’t expect to pay anything less than $14 to $15, and often close to $20 for a 12-ounce bag (340 grams) of beans.
A way to boil water
You don’t need a fancy kettle with a special spout. A tea kettle or something for your stove is just fine, while electric brewers tend to bring water up to boiling faster (and sometimes to a specific temperature). I reviewed a bunch of pouring kettles here in the past, and can recommend Bonavita’s electric kettle.
A way to grind the coffee
Skip the cheap blade grinders in the appliance section of a drugstore or supermarket; they grind unevenly. Instead, aim to get a decent burr mill grinder, as these will be much more consistent. I use a Breville smart coffee grinder because it can be programmed to a specific length of grind time. But I’ve also owned Baratza grinders such as the Encore and the Preciso. The Encore was a fantastic grinder and performed well for years, while the more expensive Preciso broke on me a few times (I sent it in to get it serviced, too). You could also use hand grinders, and I’ve reviewed them extensively. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend owning one if you plan to brew coffee every day at home — they’re best for camping or traveling.
A kitchen scale
To properly “dial in” or brew coffee to a certain specification, you’ll want to use a kitchen scale to weigh out both the ground coffee and the water. A fancy one with a timer and weight to the gram is probably overkill for most people. Just make sure whatever scale you use is sturdy and water resistant enough to endure a few errant splashes of liquid. I like the Hario drip scale because it comes with a timer, but for a budget option, I recommend the Etekcity digital scale.
A timing device
A wristwatch or a kitchen timer is really helpful brewing coffee. You’ll see why below.
A good mug
Enjoying coffee is about the complete experience — sight, smell, and even sound and touch — so the drinking vessel makes a big difference. Get a nice vintage diner-style mug, or something to maybe swirl around the last few sips. Either way, pick a mug that makes you happy, because you’ve just made yourself a damn fine cup of coffee.
The brewing methods:
Here’s how to make great coffee at home, depending on your skill level and interest. These five brewing methods, from the old-school French press to the more technically challenging, but ultimately fulfilling Kalita Wave brewer, can appeal to every at-home-brewing personality. All of them are something even a novice home barista could learn within a few weeks, and the best part is that almost any result is going to be better than that burnt-tasting Starbucks drip. Remember: Always use fresh, filtered water, because the quality of the water will have a major impact on the flavor of the coffee. I like to brew coffee as hot as possible, bringing water up to a boil and then brewing as soon as possible.
A note about ratios: Each recipe here has specific weights that you can follow, but if you’d like to make more or less, a good ratio to keep is 15 to 1 hot water to ground coffee. If you like your coffee lighter, increase the ratio to 17 or 18 to 1, and if you want it stronger, reduce to 14 to 1.
For the minimalist who likes to keep it simple: Clever Coffee Dripper
The background: When people ask me how they should start making “good” coffee at home, I always direct them to this. The Clever brewer is essentially a French press with a paper filter: full immersion coffee (which refers to the process that takes all the coffee grounds and fully incorporates them into water all at once) without the sludge or grit. The brewer itself can be hard to find, but Amazon or Espresso Parts has it for a bit over $20. It’s very durable and should last years of use at home, and it’s pretty good for traveling, despite its odd shape.
How it works: Grounds go into a filter on the top of the device. Then, when the Clever is placed over a cup or serving kettle, a valve releases the liquid.
How to brew on a Clever: Fold the edges of a No. 4 Melitta filter (which can be found at any grocery store) and place into the brewer. Rinse the filter carefully with hot water and drain through the valve over a sink or a mug (to warm the mug): Rinsing the filter reduces any residual paper flavors. Weigh out 25 grams of medium-fine coffee, reset (aka “tare”) the scale, then carefully pour in 375 grams of nearly boiling hot water (around 200 degrees Fahrenheit). Cover with the plastic lid and wait for two minutes. Using a spoon, gently break the “crust” of coffee on top and give the coffee a little swirl in the brewer so it distributes evenly. Then place the entire Clever over a mug (you’ll want a pretty big mug since the coffee you get will be about 11 ounces), which will automatically release the brewed coffee. Or you can dispense the coffee into a nice glass kettle or other container (like a fancy thick-walled cocktail mixing glass). Cleaning is easy: throw away the filter and grounds, then rinse and wash the brewer before air drying.
For the enthusiast who wants to take their coffee brewing to the next level: Hario V60
The background: When “third wave,” aka hipster, coffee surfaced in the late aughts across the country’s major cities, the Hario V60 was the preferred single-cup pour over for cafes: Any barista worth their salt gets trained to brew on a V60, which was invented in Japan in 1921. Hario makes multiple types of V60s, including glass, plastic, ceramic, and even metal. Plastic is the cheapest and is the best for heat retention, but doesn’t look great. Ceramic and glass look cool, but can chip or break easily. Metal is virtually impossible to break, but the little handles can and will detach over time. Either way, the Hario V60 is the perfect entryway to brewing pour-over coffee. You’ll want a kettle that can pour nice gentle ribbons of water to best control the flow of water.
What I like about the V60 is how it is simple to use, yet challenging to come up with a great cup. If you have some really special coffee and want to get the best out of it, I find the Hario is a way to draw out the most nuances. The sheer clarity of the filter and speed of the relative brewing amplifies the subtle fruit, floral, or spice flavors of a high-quality coffee, and it’s thrilling to taste those notes.
How it works: Grounds go into a filter on the top of the device, which has a big dime-sized hole at the bottom through which the brewed coffee flows out. It requires a specific conical paper filter and ridges inside to keep the paper from sticking to the brewer.
How to brew on a Hario V60: There are multiple schools of thought about brewing on a Hario V60, so I’ll combine some elements from Scott Rao’s excellent instructional video here, and James Hoffmann’s delightful clip here.
Start by folding over the special V60 filter (which you can get on Amazon or at your local coffee shop) and placing into the cone. Wash through with a bit of hot water into a glass kettle or large mug and discard the water. Add 28 grams of medium-fine coffee, then tare the scale. Carefully add about 60 grams of hot water and swirl around the sludge to distribute the water. This allows the coffee to “bloom” and “degas,” releasing any carbon dioxide in the bean from the roasting process. This makes more room for the water to extract the soluble matter from the coffee and draw out the most flavor.
Let the coffee bloom for 45 seconds, then continue brewing. Pour the hot water in a steady stream, almost painfully slow, in a small circular motion, avoiding the walls of the brewer if possible. Stop once after a minute to swirl the cone and redistribute the grinds. Continue pouring until reaching 420 grams of water, stop pouring, then swirl the brewer again to redistribute the grinds. Hoffman’s method employs a small spoon to swirl the grinds so they don’t create a channel for the water to flow unevenly. Either method is pretty good from my experience. Aim for a total brewing time of about three minutes.
The stylish coffee lover who wants a handsome all-in-one brewing device: Chemex
The background: The Chemex is essentially a one-piece brewer and coffee server with some quirks. The design, which was introduced in 1941 by chemist Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, makes it the most beautiful device out there, with thick glass in a conical shape hemmed in by a wooden collar and leather laces. Early versions used hand-blown glass and a more perfectly symmetrical shape, though newer ones have a rounder bulb and even glass handles for easier cleaning.
It looks great on the counter, kitchen table, or anywhere really, and the way the laboratory-like glass refracts and plays with the light when the coffee is in there makes the drink look alluring. Take it from renowned coffee expert and co-founder of London’s Square Mile Coffee James Hoffmann, who seems particularly smitten by the way coffee looks when brewed into a Chemex. And the standard 6-cup size makes more than enough coffee for two people, which makes the Chemex a great weekend brewing method for the family.
How it works: Grounds go into a filter on the top of the flask-shaped device, then you pour water over the top as the coffee drips into the compartment below. Hoffmann asserts that the Chemex isn’t a perfect brewer, as the filters can sometimes lock in air and prevent a smooth flow of water, which is why the pouring spout has a divet to allow air to escape. The paper filters are thick, allowing for even extraction, but Chemex alone sells the filters you need (and they’re not necessarily cheap).
How to brew with a Chemex: The method is pretty similar to the Hario V60. Rinse the paper filter (putting the thick three-ply toward the spout), discard water, and place 42 grams of medium-fine coffee in the filter. You don’t need a coarser grind than a V60, but you can adjust your grinder if you think it helps the coffee brew faster. Tare the scale. Add 100 grams of water to bloom the coffee for 45 to 60 seconds. Then carefully pour water until the scale hits 650 grams. Swirl the brewer and let the coffee drip through, which will take four to five minutes. Discard filter and enjoy.
For the old-school coffee drinker who has a little extra time to burn: French press
The background: The French press was my first foray into brewing coffee at home, and I ended up with grit and sludge in every cup. Brewing with a French press takes more time, and it’s a pain to clean up, but the lack of a paper filter allows some of the oils, texture, and mouthfeel of a coffee to come through. Sometimes I brew a French press because I want to taste a single-origin coffee in a different way after making a bunch of filtered cups. A French press can still make an amazing cup of coffee, and the ritual of making a cup with this still carries that analog satisfaction of years past, feeling positively vintage in the best way. And thankfully, I’ve since picked up some modern techniques to minimize the particulates.
How it works: The device takes ground coffee beans and immerses them fully into hot water, much like the Clever Coffee Brewer, but in a cylindrical vessel. The difference here is that the only thing separating the grinds from the water is a mesh filter and gravity. While brewing, much of the coffee will actually sit at the top of the water and will need to be broken up with a spoon or other utensil. Allowing the grinds to gently fall to the bottom (letting gravity do its work) means that more of the sediment separates and stays out of the cup.
How to brew a French press: Weigh out 30 grams of coffee and pour 500 grams of water into the brewer. Let it sit for five minutes, then use a spoon to break the crust floating on top. Use the spoon to scoop up any floating grinds or foam, then place the top part, which includes the mesh filter, right on top of the coffee (but don’t plunge it down!). Let the coffee sit for another three to four minutes, allowing the grinds to fall to the bottom. Carefully pour coffee into a mug and leave just that last bit of sludge in the brewer. Use a paper towel to scrape out the grinds and wash carefully.
For the perfectionist: Kalita Wave
The background: This circular style of brewer is perhaps the final destination for many home coffee brewers. All the equipment is difficult to find in a retail setting, though easily available online. The brewing method is essentially a pour over, but with a specific circular filter with smooth ridges to encourage a steady flow of water. The flat bottom with just three small holes ensures an even extraction, preventing the coffee from channeling to one side as it would in a conical shape (looking at you, Hario V60 and Chemex). If the Hario V60 was the first pour-over brewer of choice in the late aughts, the Kalita Wave gained prominence and popularity in cafes in the past five to eight years. It’s my preferred coffee-making method every morning, unless I run out of those pesky (and expensive) Wave filters.
How it works: Gently place the somewhat delicate filter into the brewer and place ground coffee inside. In design, the Kalita Wave probably most resembles a standard automatic coffee machine (like a Krups or Mr. Coffee), but the shape of the paper filter allows for water to flow evenly through the coffee. And since you can control the temperature and flow of that water manually, the resulting brew is fine-tuned instead of erratic, as it often is with a countertop machine.
How to brew a Kalita Wave: Similar to a V60, carefully place a Wave filter onto a glass kettle or even just a large mug, and rinse with hot water. Dump out the hot water, then place the brewer and kettle onto the scale and tare. Add 24 grams of medium-fine coffee and bloom with 60 grams of water for 30 to 45 seconds. Then pour water in a circular motion, making sure to get the coffee stuck on the edges of the filter every few pours. Stop pouring when the water gets close to the top and wait for the water to flow. Continue doing this until scale hits 380 grams total.