9 Ways to Up Your Coffee Game
Depending on where you’re standing, coffee might not seem like a particularly fresh topic. It’s something most of us have always had in our homes, in varying degrees of quality, and the act of drinking it is, for many, so commonplace that it can be hard to break old habits and welcome in new ones. But coffee is also one of the most wide-open spaces in terms of culinary innovation right now, with new roasting and brewing methods emerging constantly and giving way to ever-shifting philosophies around the dharma of a truly great cup.
One through-line is the emphasis on bean sourcing—a fascinating topic, given that there are no commercially viable farms in North America. You may not be able to buy locally grown coffee beans in the U.S., but there’s actually never been a better time to visit a local roaster, where there can be as many opportunities to learn about coffee as there will be to drink it.
We caught up with two new entrants in the bean business—Elm Coffee in Seattle and the forthcoming Supercrown in Brooklyn—to talk tips and hacks to get the most out of buying, using and storing locally roasted beans.
1. Rethink the way you value coffee.
“Coffee is a wonderful beverage that can be a really complex and interesting sensory experience but often isn’t,” says Brendan Mullally, who put in seven years at Joe the Art of Coffee in New York before founding Elm in Seattle in late 2014. “You should treat coffee with the same amount of respect as you would wine.” Be mindful when you drink it; consider its character, its terroir and try to articulate what you like or dislike about its flavor. “It should taste clean and not muddled; sweet with some acidity. It should taste bright and offer something discernibly special,” Mullally says.
2. When visiting a new roaster or café, keep an eye on the details.
An early influencer among New York City’s coffee cognoscenti, Darleen Scherer founded Gorilla Coffee in 2002. She recently sold her interest in that business to focus on launching Supercrown—her own roaster, opening in Bushwick, Brooklyn in October. Which is to say, she knows a thing or two about separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the business of coffee. “You want to see what’s on the menu and how the place represents it with signage, but you also want to get a sense of how transparent they are—how much the staff knows about [what they’re selling], and how deeply they are able to explain it,” says Scherer. “Are they saying ‘here’s our Panama!’ or are they calling out a farm and a specific lot, and a date that the beans were picked and roasted? There’s a level of knowledge that’s hard to fake.”
3. Still, trust your taste and don’t get swayed by theatrics.
“There’s a lot to be said for the way appearances can affect the way people taste your product,” says Mullally, who points out that brewing methods like pour-over require skill and attentiveness, and can yield a terrible cup of coffee if done carelessly. “People expect pour-overs at a shop like ours but we don't do it. We use auto brewers, but we put a lot of thought into it: We brew a little bit at a time, we dump every 30 minutes, and we change the grind four times a day.”
4. Keep it seasonal and focus on freshness.
“Coffee has two growing seasons,” explains Mullally. “In the early summer months through fall, look to buy Ethiopian and Central American coffees. In the winter, buy coffees from Colombia, Rwanda and Brazil.” Scherer adds that you should never buy a bag of beans without a listed roast date: “Buy as close to that date as possible,” she says.
5. Explore the splendor of the light(er) roast.
Both Mullally and Scherer favor a lighter roast—something that doesn’t display much of that distinct carbon flavor that dark roasts are known for. “On the other hand, you don't want it underdeveloped,” says Mullally. “The window is small, but if it tastes overly grassy or vegetal, your coffee probably hasn’t been roasted enough.”
6. But if you do prefer a dark roast, be careful not to “overcook” your coffee.
“If you think about both roasting and brewing as ways of ‘cooking’ the coffee, then you can understand that you’d want to cook a dark roast less during the brewing process,” explains Mullally. A dark roast benefits from a slightly shorter brew time to hit the sweet spot of flavor. “You can also grind the beans coarser, or try using less water. You’re basically trying to get the coffee to express itself the best,” he says.
7. And no matter what, consider how you’ll use the coffee when choosing a roast.
“Every bean requires its own unique roast, and the challenge is figuring out where a particular coffee sings. But there’s also the question of how you’re going to ultimately brew it,” says Scherer. “I might roast one coffee one way for espresso because that brewing method amplifies flavor—if there are strawberry and lemon notes in a coffee, those flavors might express too brightly in an espresso. But for a pour-over, that roast might be just right.” Need help sorting your options? Speak up. “Those are exactly the kinds of conversations I want to have [with my customers],” she says.
8. Experiment with storage methods.
This is where Mullally and Scherer diverge: Scherer advocates buying whole beans and storing them in an airtight bag in the cupboard; Mullally believes it’s fine to store beans in the freezer if you’re not planning on using them within about three weeks—as long as there aren’t any off smells in there. Otherwise, an opaque container in a cool, dark place should do fine. And although he loves whole beans, Mullally is also not entirely hard-line about buying grinds. “Tribalism and coffee nerd-dom doesn’t do the industry any favors,” he says. “We have nicer grinders here than most people have at home. [If you’re going to] use them quickly at home, it’s perfectly acceptable to buy a small amount of ground beans—no more than 12 ounces at a time.” Play around with a few approaches and see what works for you.
9. And speaking of grinders…
Like most coffee obsessives, Mullally and Scherer both favor burr grinders, such as the Baratza Virtuoso. As for brewing gear, Scherer is a big fan of the Aeropress. Mullally does like pour-over for home use—the Hario V60 is a classic—but he also supports high-quality auto-brewers. “Look for something that can get up to the right temperature—about 200 degrees,” he says. Breville and Technivorm both make capable models.
F&W's new series reveals the best ways to maximize your food year through travel, wine, cooking, tech, style, events and experiences. Use #BESTFOODYEAR on Twitter and Instagram to tell us about the ones you want to try. We'll continue to share more tips with the hashtag throughout the year and want to hear about how you celebrate food every day, too.