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.
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.
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.
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.
Coffee beans, which are actually the seeds of a cherry-like fruit, start out a pale gray-green color.
Coffees that haven’t been roasted long enough—called “face melters” by pros—taste grassy and are painfully acidic.
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.
4. Dark Roast
Dark, bold roasts are great with milk and sugar, but can taste bitter and harsh when served black.
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.
“Always use 206° water,” says Phillips. “If you don’t have a thermometer, just wait one minute after it boils.”
Lightest Body: Paper Filter + Drip Method
Chemex ($39; chemexcoffeemaker.com).
Light Body: Paper Filter + Steep Method
The Clever Dripper ($22; sweetmarias.com).
Fuller Body: Metal Filter + Drip Method
Chemex with the Kone Coffee Filter ($60; ablebrewing.com).
Fullest Body: Metal Filter + Steep Method
Bodum French press ($30; bodum.com).