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A Coffee-Geek Primer

A champion barista takes on the dizzying world of coffee connoisseurship and tells how to brew a simple, perfect cup at home.

In the specialty-coffee world, the level of obsession over how to brew the perfect cup has reached maddening levels of complexity. The choices seem infinite: There are single-origin beans and multi-estate blends; light, fruity roasts that are growing in popularity and darker, more bitter options; and a multitude of brewing devices. Before you give up in frustration and go back to freeze-dried, here’s a cheat sheet courtesy of Michael Phillips, the 2010 World Barista Champion and cofounder of Los Angeles’s Handsome Coffee Roasters. Phillips explains the significance of a bean’s place of origin and shows how a coffee’s flavor changes with the darkness of the roast. He also helps decode the differences among various home coffee-making devices and techniques, so you can figure out the best brewing method for you.

Baratza Coffee Grinder
Photo © 2012 Tim Heneghan Photography.

Best Grinder

Many people use spice grinders for coffee, but they produce an uneven result. It’s better to invest in a burr grinder, which crushes the beans between two surfaces and makes it possible to select a precise grind size, from coarse to fine. Phillips likes the Baratza Virtuoso for an entry-level model. $229 at seattlecoffeegear.com.

Buying Beans

Like wine grapes, a coffee bean’s taste depends in part on where it’s grown. Here are the general flavors of beans from four of the world’s top coffee-growing regions—though high-end coffee shops often prefer atypical beans.

Raw Coffee Beans
Photo © Shutterstock.

Central American beans are light and clean, with tangy citrus flavors.

South American beans, especially those from Colombia, produce the most traditional coffees, with fuller body and mellower, fruity flavor.

African coffees are prized for their red wine–like complexity and boldness.

Pacific Island/Indonesian beans are often rich, funky and not too tart.

Understanding Roast Levels

“There’s no one right roast level for beans,” says Phillips. Like many coffee aficionados, he prefers lighter roasts that reveal more of the beans’ bright, fruity flavors. Here, a look at how the amount of roasting affects flavor.

Unroasted Coffee
Photo © Johnny Miller.

1. Unroasted

Coffee beans, which are actually the seeds of a cherry-like fruit, start out a pale gray-green color.

Under-Roasted Coffee
Photo © Johnny Miller.

2. Under-Roasted

Coffees that haven’t been roasted long enough—called “face melters” by pros—taste grassy and are painfully acidic.

Light Roast Coffee
Photo © Johnny Miller.

3. Light Roast

Popular at many top coffee shops, these beans are bright, fruity and taste great black, but their acidity can clash with milk and sugar.

Dark Roast Coffee
Photo © Johnny Miller.

4. Dark Roast

Dark, bold roasts are great with milk and sugar, but can taste bitter and harsh when served black.

Over-Roasted Coffee
Photo © Johnny Miller.

5. Over-Roasted

Too-dark beans are oily on their surface (never a good sign), lack all fruitiness and smell unpleasantly of burnt rubber or even petroleum.

How to Brew the Perfect Cup

Depending on whether you prefer a lighter or a richer cup, Phillips says there are two important variables. First is the filter material: Paper filters strain out fine particles for a very clean, delicate cup; metal filters allow some particles through, resulting in a heavier, richer drink. Second is the extraction method. Constant-drip methods, like a classic pour-over, make a lighter, brighter cup; steeping before filtering, as in a French press, results in a rounder, fuller taste.

Brewing Tip

“Always use 206° water,” says Phillips. “If you don’t have a thermometer, just wait one minute after it boils.”

Paper Filter + Drip Method
Illustration © Chris Philpot.

Lightest Body: Paper Filter + Drip Method

Chemex ($39; chemexcoffeemaker.com).

Paper Filter + Steep Method
Illustration © Chris Philpot.

Light Body: Paper Filter + Steep Method

The Clever Dripper ($22; sweetmarias.com).

Metal Filter + Drip Method
Illustration © Chris Philpot.

Fuller Body: Metal Filter + Drip Method

Chemex with the Kone Coffee Filter ($60; ablebrewing.com).

Metal Filter + Steep Method
Illustration © Chris Philpot.

Fullest Body: Metal Filter + Steep Method

Bodum French press ($30; bodum.com).

Published February 2013
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