My history with coffee has been a typical one.
In middle school, I scrounged what little lunch money I had to get a frothy white chocolate mocha before school at Seattle’s Best. Espresso beverages were seen as an “adult” thing, Starbucks was beginning to catch on outside of Seattle as a legitimate way to spend $5 on a beverage that didn’t include alcohol, and my happy little heart was thirsty for the overstimulated pumping of a caffeine high. Of course, since the doctors were convinced I had “borderline ADD” (which I may indeed still have) and since Ritalin was being crammed down kid’s throats like pop tarts in the early-to-mid 90’s, I was no stranger to the rush stimulants provided. But there was something unappealing about losing my appetite, sex-drive and need for sleep in order to be able to focus on school work for a few hours (although I can see why amphetamines were the drug of choice for the professional cycling peloton up until the late 80’s/early 90’s – with no urge to eat, you can become a very, very skinny little climber boy).
Anyway, I digress. The habit of over-sweetened, over-creamed espresso beverages was inflicted upon me by my brother and dad. I mirrored what they did – hence, starting around freshman or sophmore year of high school, I started joining my dad around the Mr. Coffee machine in the morning for a premium cup of the finest beans on the market – Folgers (100% caffe arabica, even! Ha.) To say the stuff was rancid was an understatement – no wonder I diluted the hell out of it with cream until it was khaki-colored, and poured enough sugar in my mug to turn a healthy man diabetic.
Around that same time, I also started frequenting a little coffee shop before and after school near my school called Mojo’s. In time, I graduated to the downtown coffee circuit – endless loops between Portland Coffee House on Broadway, Anna Banana’s on NW 23rd and Northrupp (favored by us high schoolers back then because we could smoke hookah in the basement without consequence) and eventually Stumptown Coffee on SW 3rd and Pine. It was these places that introduced me to what real coffee tastes like – not burnt, not overly acidic and never needing cream to dilute that lovingly sweet taste down.
(Another brief digression – it was around the time that I was doing said coffee circuits that I discovered these quirky little things called fixed gear bicycles, which, placed alongside my shitty Schwinn 10-speed, both looked cooler and weighed far less. I gave in and bought the shittiest road conversion bike I could find, complete with a low bottom bracket height and 175mm cranks, for $250 off Craigslist mere months later. Now you know how I got started in the endless downward spiral of draining paycheck after paycheck into the mindless consumerist addiction of bike component purchase.)
Now, going back to Folger’s at home after being spoiled with Stumptown Roasting, Cafe D’Arte et al. on the road was no fun. It’s true what a coffee snob says – once you taste the good stuff, you can never go back. (Nowadays, I can’t choke the garbage water they peddle here on campus in Eugene down without at least a handful of cookies and crossiants to get that horrible acidic taste out of my mouth.) I was officially in the blossoming stages of coffee connoisseurship – a few years of visits to Stumptown to try a new cup of single origin coffee every day until I figured out the fine subtleties of a cup of Ethiopian coffee vs. a cup of Brazilian would further my journey later on. As such, I couldn’t see how people could waste all their money at Starbucks for an overpriced, underqualified product (until I realized the power of modern marketing and the desire of a nice ambiance, of course).
I also came to see the value of brewing with a french press over the ordinary drip-style coffee maker. It allows for a longer steeping time for the grounds to add their flavorful aromas into the water, produces a more full-bodied cup (read: thicker mouth feel), and won’t break your bank because the technology behind it is nearly 200 years old and consists chiefly of an ultra-secret tool called a “strainer with rod affixed to it”.
There are those who complain that a french press is messier – to them I reply, “nonsense”. Do you spend so little time in the kitchen that the act of rinsing out a glass of sediment and dumping it down the drain (or, in the absence of a garbage disposal, into your neighbor’s flower beds) considered to be a chore? Here’s a pro-tip – fill the thing a quarter-full with water, swirl it around like a wine glass and then dump the whole mess of coffee grounds down your drain in one fluid stroke – takes about 10 seconds, tops. Then rinse your strainer piece under the drain and you’re good to go – but never, ever put that thin, delicate glass french press into your dishwasher.
The same critics will henceforth reply that french presses also take longer – as if good coffee can be rushed. I’ll concede – a coffee maker that is synced to your alarm clock and automatically brews a cup before you wake up is a bitchin’ thing to have, and a nice example of how ingenious modern technology can be. But french pressing is like kindergarten in the grand scheme of things you can do in the kitchen – and if you can’t pass kindergarten, your only hope is marrying a competent spouse to take care of your sorry, dependent ass. All you have to do is stand by your press for a few minutes, stir it coffee halfway through, and then press and pour at the crucial moment.
So, without further ado – the actual point of my post: how to make a bangin’ cup of coffee. I am writing this while actually making a real, live cup of coffee, so I’d say my mind is in the right place.
1. If you skipped down a few paragraphs, you may have missed an absolutely vital point – you have to use good coffee beans to make good coffee (wait… shit, really?). For the most part, good coffee does not come from a grocery store (although that’s changing these days).
If you live in Portland, your choices are clear-cut – you have Stumptown Roasting as the behemoth – well-established, well-merited, and the largest of independent coffee businesses worth a damn in the area. You also have Courier Coffee, which, true to the name is delivered to coffee shops and individuals alike via a cargo bike. And then there’s Ristretto Roasters – to some, the best coffee roaster in town.
If you live in another metropolitan, chances are you have a coffee roaster doing as good of or better roasts than Stumptown. SF, NY, Seattle and Chicago come to mind as three cities with a healthy amount of these places.
2. In addition, you also need good water – stunning observation, I know. If your water tastes like shit, your coffee probably will. So go buy a water filter, dummy!
3. You want to keep the ratio of water to coffee proper – there’s no “strong cups” and “weak cups”, just “proper ones”. A good rule of thumb – one tablespoon of ground coffee to every 4 ounces of water. Works like a charm for me, but this is also dependent on the grind level you use.
4. If you’re a true snob, you own a grinder that cost more than my microwave. In this case, grind your beans to a rough, chunky finish. If you’re like me- a starving student – then you’re rolling with what was on sale at the department store. In that case, grind finer rather than rougher. In any case, waiting until just before you brew to grind your coffee makes a fresher cup, and freshness is what we’re aiming for.
4. You want the water hot, but not boiling. Tried and true method – let that shit boil on the tea kettle until it’s chirping like a bird, then remove from heat and let it sit for around a minute with the steam moving freely above the kettle. The classic sign of a shitty coffee shop – they use past-boiling water to make the coffee (which has been roasted past-burnt), then they store it at way too hot of a temperature and get sued by customers who accidentally pour the crap on their dicks. No joke.
5. So, you have your coffee grounds measured out, your water at the right temperature and you know how much water you’re going to use – now pour into your french press in a circular motion to saturate all the grounds. Get a timer and set it to 4 minutes – do not try to brew without a timer.
6. Halfway through steep time, stir the coffee to let the beans really saturate into the water.
7. After 4 minutes, you’re done. Congratulations – hopefully you didn’t fuck it up and doom yourself to a thin, watery cup.
All right, my brew is ready and I’m off for my second cup of coffee. Hope you enjoyed my 1,500 word thesis and remember – friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.