It's late, and I need coffee. I go to my kitchen, where five different contraptions lurk: a French press, an Italian cafetera, a cold brew carafe, an espresso maker, and your run-of-the-mill drip machine.
Why the excess? Well, you would find yourself in a very difficult spot if you loved coffee and only had one way to enjoy it, in the same way that going on the exact same date with the person you love just wouldn’t make sense after a while. The point is to experience more, to know more, and to enjoy more of whatever (or whoever) you love – in this case, coffee.
My training for my first job as a barista started in an office conference room in San Diego. The training leader asked us to taste two kinds of coffee: Folgers versus one of the company’s African blends.
I tried the Folgers first: a sour, liquid cardboard flavor with a watery body. Then, I tried the African blend, and I can say with certainty this was the moment I fell in love with coffee. I could taste lemon along with a strong, fulfilling flavor of a perfectly roasted bean. Both were brewed in a French press. In my opinion, this is the sentry by which all good coffee passes – the heat of the water and the coarse grind of the beans release the strongest expression of the coffee.
The methodology here is simple, and it starts with the right grind. Whether you're grinding your beans fresh or having it done at the store, make sure you're getting a coarse consistency – it should be fine enough to extract plenty of flavor, but not so fine that the grounds will pass through the sieve in your press.
My wife and I bought our first cafetara (aka moka pot, aka macchinetta, aka an Italian espresso maker) at a small appliance shop in Barcelona’s Horta neighborhood. I was intimidated by the little thing because I’d never owned one and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
The guy in the appliance store explained it: fill the bottom part up to the valve, but not past it. Take the aluminum filter that holds the grounds and set it into the bottom part. Heap four tablespoons of grounds into the filter (a mid-range grind works well, as does an espresso grind). Screw on the top as tight as you can.
Set the coffeemaker on your stovetop and heat it. At this point, knowing when the coffee is done is a matter of sounds. At first, you will hear nothing. Then, a rushing sound followed by a steady whoosh. Then you can flip the lid back and watch the coffee slowly trickle down the sides of the spout housed in the top of the brewer. As it starts to fill up, you’ll hear that roaring and the coffee will start to spray out of the spout. Remove the coffeemaker from the heat and you’re set. Once your coffee starts trickling out, you have about 90 seconds before it’s time to pull it off the stove.
This type of coffeemaker can create a great cup of espresso as well, but doing so requires a lot more finesse. You have to keep the heat on low and allow the coffee to rise to the top compartment as slowly as possible.
My boss in Barcelona was Cuban, and he had perfected this method. He exposed only half of the cafetera’s base to the heat, pulling it off when he thought it was getting too hot and constantly tinkering with its position. The result: rich, creamy espresso.
I use my Italian coffee maker when I want a quick, small cup of extra-strength coffee. It’s my go-to during late nights.
As a man who drinks his coffee from Italian coffee makers and French presses, I couldn’t quite understand cold brew. I thought it was a stronghold of Millennial divergence that was all trend and no substance. When my wife and I left for Europe in 2013, it was practically unheard of (at least, to me).
Those bitter stereotypes evaporated the first time I tried cold brew. It was smooth, crisp and far less burdensome on the palate than cooled-down hot coffee. And you could drink it cold, a blessed option during hot Florida summers.
Cold brew mechanics are relatively simple. Ours has a carafe and a filter – we just drop grounds into the filter and let the carafe sit for about 12 hours. That's it. If you want to know the finer points, here are all the details on how to do it right.
About a year ago I found a Lavazza espresso maker at a local thrift store while I was shopping for a used lawnmower to keep our yard at bay. The first time I fired the thing up, water leaked from its reservoir and covered my countertop. Not a good start. I tightened up a couple of screws, put the machine back together and it worked perfectly.
The advantage to this machine, in my mind, is time. The whole process takes less than two minutes if you start it with a cold machine, and it’s even shorter if the water is already heated. Cleanup is simple and the result is delicious. Note, though, that water passes through the grounds quickly and needs to soak up as much character from the coffee as it can, so make sure you use a fine grind.
I worked as a reporter for two years. Our newsroom was home to a pair of Bunn industrial coffee makers that churned out watered-down swill on an hourly basis. Between the thick stains burned into the sides of the carafe to the acrid smell of charred brew forever singed into the heating tray, the newsroom coffee experience was a malady not even the best powdered creamer could heal. Fortunately, home drip machines are a little more adept at churning out good coffee.
That being said, I have to admit to you that drip coffee is only something I do when relatives or friends are in town. I’ve found that most people who drink coffee are utilitarian – they drink it to wake up, or to continually perpetuate their love for a morning routine. Break that routine with a burly cup of French-pressed French roast and you’re likely to never see a drip machine near your kitchen again.
I was not always this way – up until our move overseas, we drank coffee from the pot. It was strong, but it wasn't exactly good. And if I were asked for a drip machine recommendation these days, I would say this: Skip the coffee pot and go straight for a Chemex pour-over. The concept is the same – water is poured from above, trickles among the grinds and passes through the filter into your cup – but the end result is way, way better because you're allowed a greater degree of control.
As with anything worth our time and resources, coffee has its vocal separatists – those who swear by one method of brewing coffee. Avoid these voices. Those who truly love coffee embrace the variety of ways through which it is made. Each method is a way to get to know your beans in a new light.
As for the rules for how to drink your coffee? To answer that, I defer to the old Turkish proverb: “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.”