How to Brew Coffee: All You Need to Know in 2020

You'll have noticed that at the heart of Coffeeness is coffee. Pure and simple. Which is why I keep putting together new guides to teach you how to finesse pour-over coffee, work a French press, operate a coffee machine or even the thoroughly German Karlsbad drip-brewing pot.

You’ll have noticed that at the heart of Coffeeness is coffee. Pure and simple. Which is why I keep putting together new guides to teach you how to finesse pour-over coffee, work a French press, operate a coffee machine or even the thoroughly German Karlsbad drip-brewing pot.

Each of these brewing methods has its own quirks. But this is neither yet another set of detailed instructions on making pour-over coffee nor rant about various filter coffee machines’ failings. Nope, my plan is to home in on the key questions about brewing.

At the same time, I’ll put a bit of a professional spin on some colloquial terms and make the fine art of brewing coffee feel as easy as a Sunday morning.

That means getting into grind consistency, quantities and dosages. Getting up close and personal with coffee beans and filter paper. Don’t worry. I’ll keep it short and sweet and tackle typical problems. Ready? Let’s do this!

A Guide to Brewing with a Filter

Quick confession. There’s a sneaky subtext to that heading – that filters are the best way to brew coffee. While you can, of course, also use a French Press or Karlsbad drip-brewing pot, these are cruder implements. The downside to a French Press is that it entails full immersion, while the Karlsbader pot’s porcelain strainer is the very opposite of fine.

Aside from the more painstaking pour-over infusion process and a drip-coffee machine’s electrical cord, these devices do the exact same job – provide support for a paper or fabric filter packed with grounds. Hot water poured over the top seeps through the coffee, filter and holder. And hey presto – black coffee in your cup.

Arne with a copper pour-over dripper

Compared to super-automatic espresso makers or portafilter machines, this really is a bare basics process. Which means the potential for fumbles is high. The things that make coffee foul or fabulous are all in your hands:

  • Only use fresh, choice coffee beans (preferrably lighter roasts)
  • Each time before brewing, grind them on the spot to the correct consistency (i.e. medium coarse)
  • Prepare the dripper to ensure perfect extraction (i.e. rinse before use)
  • Be careful to get the water temperature right  (205 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Pour sloooowly (blooming phase)

Even if you do nothing else, these five things will make a world of difference to your coffee. Promise. The sad truth that is not many people are not very scrupulous about these “famous five.” And just in case there’s any doubt: Yes, they apply to a drip-coffee machines, too!

Mission caffeine fix: Arne brews drip coffee

Admittedly, there are very few models that let you harness or take control of the blooming process. The Beem Basic Selection Pour Over  (available in Europe only) is one. Moving away from gung-ho brewing, the new generation of machines is also more careful about water temperatures. For a case in point, look at the Gastroback Design Brew Advanced (not available in the U.S.).

Gastroback Design Brew Advanced Coffee Maker Overview

The real make-or-break aspects are, however, quality beans in the right quantities, ground to the perfect consistency, and a carefully prepared filter. It’s no different for a French press, Karlsbad drip brewer, Chemex or even the filterless “Turkish” variant.

How Much Ground Coffee do I Need per Cup?

When testing coffee machines, I like to follow a bit of folk wisdom when measuring out grounds: “A spoon for each cup, plus one for the machine”.

Moccamaster drip-coffee maker and freshly ground coffee

It seems all those bygone grannies were right – as long as you use a coffee dosing spoon. These are specially designed scoops that Melitta, for instance, sometimes toss in with a bag of mass-produced beans. And there’s invariably one buried in every coffee tin.

Dosing spoons should (hopefully) measure out a quarter of an ounce of coffee. This is the gold standard for brewing the perfect a cup (about 4 fluid ounces) of medium strength coffee.

As a day-to-day rule of thumb, this works just fine. Even if I personally heap my scoop each time before emptying it into the machine. The spoon “for the machine” not only gives the brew a bit of extra strength but also corrects for cheaper models’ rather free-and-easy approach to brewing specifics. What’s more, it compensates for the scoop method’s fuzziness – especially with larger coffee volumes.

The fresh coffee beans sniff test

Of course, professionals always use a precision scale to measure a fifth to a quarter of an ounce for about every 3.5 fluid ounces of water. Because they’re more accurate, metric measurements are often prefered – i.e. 6 to 7 grams for every 100 milliliters of water. And since no two coffee roasts are the same, you have to figure out the perfect dosage of grounds to water for each one.

And remember, you should generally be more generous with lighter roasts than darker ones.

What is the Ideal Steep Time?

Strictly speaking, coffee only “steeps” with full-immersion methods. That’s because if you’re a fan of filters, the water is really trickling through the beans. So what we’re talking about here is extraction time. And the variations are smaller than you might think.

Total extraction time never exceeds four minutes – even if what’s going on during that time does differ.

Arne takes the plunge(r) with a French Press

With a French Press, you let the coffee stand for (up to) four minutes before depressing the plunger. At most, you give it a quick stir again before the final push.

In contrast, creating a pour-over infusion is four minutes of activity:

After initially moistening the coffee bed, you have to wait 30 seconds (blooming). Then you fill up the filter once, wait until the water has drained completely before repeating the process until you’ve used up all the water.

If you’re new to the game, use a stopwatch at first to time your four minutes and get a feeling for the perfect brewing time.

Which Coffee is Best for Manual Brewing?

Fresh beans. Obvs. And a quality roast should also go without saying. Coffee beans for manual brewing are lighter than their espresso cousins – even though today’s espresso beans are also more lightly roasted.

I know that for many of you the mere mention of “acidity” makes you shuddder involuntarily. But the lively vivacity that comes through in manual brewing puts a whole new spin on coffee.

Bags of coffee and beans from them

Itching to try out this brewing style? You can’t go wrong with African varieties. To my mind (and palate), Ethiopia supplies some of the most stellar beans for manual brewing. Kenya also has a lot to offer and you can also live it up just as much with the Rwandans. Brazilian beans – which are just everywhere are the moment – have a more traditional, sweet flavor.

Why does the Coffee Percolate through the Filter too Slowly?

Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, your grind consistency is off. The grounds form too solid a barrier so that the water struggles to pass through it. What you get is over-extracted, bitter coffee.

Get yourself a proper coffee grinder. One that’ll give you a good medium grind needn’t cost the earth. Even entry-level models such as the Rommelsbach EKM 200 do the job nicely.

Product overview in the coffee grinder review

If you use a coffee machine and order your coffee pre-ground from your preferred roasting company, your problem is almost certainly that  your coffee machine needs to be descaled.

What if I don't Have a Coffee Filters?

Contemplating using a sock? Toilet paper? Paper towel? There’s no shortage of instructables showing you how to make coffee sans filter. And it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Tightly woven fabrics are after all used for permanent filters. Paper towels also work – as long as they’re the seriously strong variety.

So yes, you can brew pour-over coffee with all these emergency solutions. The big BUT in my opinion is the questionable taste. That’s because fabrics often retain traces of detergent and the paper towels are quick to fall apart. You’re better off scratching out any tea filters you might have in the house.

Beem Selection pour-over dripper with stand for the filter holder

A filterless brewing method that is currently very much in vogue is the ibrik or cezve. This is a traditional, long-handled Turkish coffee pot used to brew ultra-fine grounds. In this case, a darker roast is the better option.

Last on the list of options is brewing in the cup. This works best with a slightly coarser grind at a lower dosage than when using a filter. Don’t forget to stir immediately after brewing.

Comparing different grind consistencies from the Solis coffee grinder

I tried direct brewing with a finely ground espresso. Complete flop. I prefer fruity roasts and this java was simply sour.

How do I Make Coffee Ye Olde Way?

You won’t believe how often I get asked this. So here’s my best shot at answering it. In the “old days,” coffee was obviously never brewed with a machine. But hot water and ground coffee were always part of the equation.

Arne with cups of coffee and Sidamo beans

The earliest brewing methods involved long maceration periods where the coffee grains remained in contact with water for a long time. It’s basically the same principle as a French press. In fact, all direct brewing methods like the ibrik also use this method.

“Old days” is relative here. After all, Melitta Bentz invented the coffee filter as early as 1908. That makes pour-over coffee one of the ur-brewing methods.

Do you have any other questions about brewing and preparing coffee? Ask away in the comments.

I look forward to your comment

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