How to make the perfect cup of coffee from someone who used to train the experts

I may be an almost vegetarian, but I still want a decent cup of coffee. And, the good news is, I know exactly how to make one.

See, in a much earlier life, I used to train baristas. So I've got a few tips to help you out.

Buying the beans
A good cup depends on good beans. As a conscientious almost vegetarian, I get fair trade beans. These are beans that are bought at a fair rate which, in turn, helps build strong, healthy, self-sustaining communities.

As for which beans you should get, my best suggestion is to hit the best coffee shop you can find and taste, taste, taste to see what you like. There are zillions of beans out there, complicated all the more by blends, but if you need a kick start, here are four types you should have no trouble finding:
  • Colombia: Full-bodied with some acidity
  • Costa Rica: Full-bodied, with a touch of smokiness
  • Sumatra: Very rich, woody
  • Kenyan: Medium bodied with a bright, acidic flavor
Make sure you get the freshest beans you can. How can you tell if they are fresh? Smell them. If the oil smells rancid, then pass. And ask when they were roasted. The closer to the date you are buying them, the better.

And store them in a dark, air-tight bag, not in the freezer.

Grinding the beans
Assuming you get good beans, then a decent cup is made in the grind. See, there are all sorts of coffee makers you can use, some better than others, but many of them will give you a reasonable enough cup.

But you need to have a decent grinder. Which means, you need a burr grinder.

See, a burr grinder grinds your beans to a uniform size. This is critically important if you want to avoid a watery or bitter cup. And you do, you do.

Getting the best burr for your buck
Now, you can spend a small fortune (hundreds) on a burr grinder, but you don’t need to. In fact, one of the burr grinders I like is the Cuisinart Supreme Grind and it is less than $50 (not a lot less, mind you, but better a nickle in my pocket than theirs!).

The grinder does the burr thing beautifully, namely, grinding those beans to a uniform size which, in turn, makes for a good-tasting cup. But it also grinds your beans to the texture you want, from ultra-fine to extra-coarse, which means you can grind your beans for any type of coffee maker, from a manual plunger to an automatic drip, that you want. It also allows you to grind for 4- to 18-cups.

We’ve never tried the 18-cup setting (we just never have dinner parties that big), but the 4-cup setting (that’s 1 cup for me, three cups for the husband) works splendidly.

It is pretty idiot-proof to work. Of course, you just can’t go wrong with a Cuisinart (I’ve had one of the food processors for years now and it continues to work perfectly). In fact, my only concern is that this thing is a bit tricky to wash (the piece that the ground beans go into removes, making it a breeze to clean, but the piece that stores the beans does not).

Brewing that coffee
There are tons of coffee makers out there, and I am hesitant to recommend one, in particular, because everyone has their own needs.

See, I only make a few cups for myself and the husband and I don’t need any bells or whistles. In fact, my coffee maker is manual; no electricity required! But other people make multiple cups, need fancy timers, or require other options.

So I’ll do what I did for the types of beans, give you an overview of the key options, and let you take it from there.

You drip you
These are automatic coffee makers that pour hot water over your beans, then drips the coffee into a waiting pot. Where life gets tricky here is the sheer number of options available, such as automatic timers or built-in grinders. One disadvantage is this type of machine tends not to handle small amounts well. So if you only want, say, two cups, this is not your best option. But one advantage is that it can keep your pot of coffee warm. Of course, you want to enjoy your coffee when it is at its peak, say, within a half hour or so of brewing, so this option is of limited value.

French kiss
This is the type of coffee maker I have. It is merely a tall carafe with a plunger. To use it, you place your ground beans in the pot, fill it with freshly boiled water, let steep for five minutes or so, then plunge to force the beans to the bottom of the pot, leaving brewed coffee on top. It makes a better, more flavorful cup of coffee than a drip, but it can only make three or four cups at a time and it has no fancy timers and the such.

We used our usual French press, the one I brought into this marriage (he, on the other hand, brought something like three different espresso makers, as if one were not enough!) with the Cuisinart grinder and it make a serious improvement in the taste of our coffee.

The percolator and the vacuum
Get any type of French press or drip you want, but never, ever get a percolator. It boils the coffee and makes the vilest sludge you have ever tasted. On the other hand, if a vacuum coffee maker comes your way, give it a try. Looking like something out of a laboratory, it is supposed to make a great cup. I’ve never had the pleasure of trying one. If you do, let me know what you think.