The Common Man’s Guide to the Perfect Cup

In addition to writing this blog, I sometimes work as a barista for a coffee shop that brews Stumptown coffee. Stumptown is a beloved coffee roaster out of Portland, Oregon, and for coffee fanatics their brew is a revelation in a cup. Recently it got a shout-out in the new season of Orange is the New Black. 

It also inspired this excellent Nickel Creek bluegrass jam.

I’ve been a barista off and on for 4 years in speciality coffee shops, and I get a lot of pleasure from making delicious drinks and introducing newcomers to the wonderful world of better coffee.

The most common question I get is regarding the differences between an Americano, Latte, Cappuccino, Macchiatto, etc. It’s mostly variations in the quantity of foam, milk, espresso, and/or water. Here’s a handy chart sold by CrateStyle:


The second most common question is some form of:

“How can I brew coffee this good at home?”

Going to a coffee shop every morning, especially high end coffee shops like Stumptown, Sightglass, or Blue Bottle (where cup usually runs around 4 dollars) can cost thousands of dollars a year. But after drinking nice coffee for a while your standards inevitably raise. The easiest and best way to save on coffee is make it yourself.

The coffee bean is a fickle mistress, subject to variables along the supply chain– from the farm where it was grown to the moment the grounds come in contact with water in your kitchen. Any one of these variables can dramatically change your final product. So there’s no way to guarantee a perfect cup of coffee.

There are forums like coffeegeek, not to mention the myriad of how-to articles that go way too deep into things like bean origins. There’s also an unhealthy amount of elitism among coffee fanatics and baristas, who love to argue about pouring and foaming technique. They’re the reason Instagram has so much latte art.

The layman, though,–who simply wants a better coffee today–either gets turned off by deliberately over-complicated terminology and details, or becomes too wrapped up in expert-level advice and ignores the basics.

Don’t stress. Brewing tasty coffee is actually pretty simple. It’s like any food preparation: You don’t have to be an expert chef to make delicious food, but it helps a lot to know a little about what you’re doing.

Follow a few simple rules, the next coffee you make can taste much better, and over time, you will walk confidently down the road towards that fabled perfect cup. You might have to spend a bit of money, but you definitely don’t need thousand dollar machines or any of that nonsense.

I usually ask the customer a few questions about their own brewing process, and almost always, they’re making one of four mistakes. Your coffee will not taste good until you stop doing these things.

The 4 most common mistakes that make your coffee taste bad:

1. You’re using beans are old, cheap, or stored improperly.

Always, always, always use whole beans. Once coffee beans are ground they starts losing its flavor rapidly. If you use month old grounds from the back of your freezer, there are no “tips and tricks” or fancy barista moves that will save your sad sack of beans. Following the food metaphor, it’s like trying to cook with stale ingredients.

Even in their whole bean form, coffee beans are at their most flavorful for a pretty short period of time (somewhere around a week or two after they’re roasted). This is a little inconvenient for the consumer, but you can circumvent this by buying smaller quantities (like a half pound instead of a full pound) fresh from local coffee shops that roast their own beans. Don’t buy beans from supermarkets, and always check the date it was roasted.

As which beans to buy, that’s a matter of personal preference. I recommend trying as many different blends as you can. Also…

Buy from independent roasters. 

First of all, you’re supporting a small business. Second of all, most independent specialty coffee roasters are labors of love. I can guarantee your local independent roaster invests more care and attention than whoever’s roasting the huge batches of beans at the corporate coffee factory.

Third, independent coffee roasters often know where their beans are coming from, and it’s common for them to have personal contact with the coffee farmer. Independent coffee usually results in more ethical business practices for everyone involved.

If you have a cup of truly amazing coffee somewhere, ask the barista the name of the roast and the origin of the beans. The region where the coffee grew has a significant effect on the final taste.

Finally, do away with the freezer thing. That whole trend started in order to keep grounds from decaying completely– like cryogenics.  We’re not trying to hold onto the past here. Good coffee happens in the present. Beans should be stored in a cool (not cold), dark, dry place. Seal them tight.

2. Measure Twice, Pour Once

This one took me a while to learn, because I felt that I had a good enough sense to eyeball the “dose” at home. It was a pride thing. I eventually learned more grounds doesn’t equal a stronger, more flavorful cup–that can make it sour or bitter. So I was wasting a lot of beans while lowering the quality of my drink.

Measuring gives you a nice jumping off point. You can adjust to taste over time. Different machines and different roasts vary in the amount of beans needed.

The best tool for this job is a kitchen scale. I highly recommend it, but if you don’t have one or don’t feel inclined to invest in one, measuring spoons and cups work okay too.

3. The Right Machine for the Job

There are so many different ways of getting coffee from a bean! See below. Click here for the expanded version in PopChart’s store.


The Compendious Coffee Chart from PopChartlab

The ideal ratio of grounds to water varies with the machine you use, as does the temperature of the water and fineness of the grind. Here’s an in-depth chart from BlackBearCoffee.

If you’re just starting out, you should get a single cup drip . Besides the French Press, this is the simplest method of extracting coffee from grounds. I like French Presses, but I think it’s somewhat limited to that thick, strong style of coffee. A drip filter is simple, but simplicity is not a bad thing. This device is used by expert baristas and plebeians alike.

Pour over stands like the one above add lovely aesthetic appeal and prevent spilling over.

Clean Up

Many people–especially if they have an automatic drip machine– have not cleaned their machine in years. Everything that your grounds touch will accumulate the taste of stale coffee over time, so everything needs to be washed with soap and water (not just rinsed) including the grinder. This very easy task is often neglected, and so people continue to drink coffee tainted by the stale scent of a thousand long gone mornings.

Final Tips:

1. Use filtered water

2. Pour slowly and evenly

3. Drink often

Let me know how it goes!


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