ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. There's something utilitarian about a cup of coffee. You wake up and are running at about 50%. You make the hot brown water, pour it down your mouth, and you're a little closer to 90, which is fine, if a little joyless, especially for something you do every day. But it can be better. With just a few simple steps, coffee can go from something you use to something you drink and enjoy and really take a second to let yourself luxuriate, if only for a second. I'm Andrew Limbong, arts reporter for NPR. On this episode of LIFE KIT, the basics to making a better cup of coffee at home.
For a while, all I needed was a Mr. Coffee machine and a can of Chock Full o' Nuts, and I was content. So why even bother leveling up?
SANDRA WALIMAKI: I think people should know that coffee is an amazing thing.
LIMBONG: That's Sandra Walimaki. She's worked in coffee for over 18 years. She'll have us know...
WALIMAKI: Coffee has so many, like, flavor compounds, countless ways to brew it. And it's such a, like, beautiful thing once you experience it.
LIMBONG: Sandra talks about coffee the same way lots of people talk about craft beer - brewing methods, tasting notes, flavor profiles. For her, coffee is personal.
WALIMAKI: My grandmother was a coffee farmer. And that's kind of just where everything is started. Coffee was always that memory - sitting in the morning at a table, sharing a story, reading a paper, talking to my mom or my dad at that time, too.
LIMBONG: Sandra is currently a coffee educator with Counter Culture Coffee who we should mention is our partner for NPR Coffee Club. She teaches professional development classes for baristas, as well as home brewing classes for coffee enthusiasts. The first thing she recommends - start with good ingredients. That's our first takeaway, which sounds obvious, but there's one ingredient that's often overlooked.
WALIMAKI: How your water tastes is definitely going to affect how your coffee will taste. So choosing good water is very important for brewing good coffee at home. You just need very good, tasty water.
LIMBONG: This doesn't mean going out and buying $10 artisanal water. It could be just as easy as using the filter in your fridge or sink.
WALIMAKI: You don't want any, like, chlorine in it and some other, like, nondesirable minerals because that just, like, is going to make your coffee taste like pool water.
LIMBONG: The other main ingredient is the coffee itself.
WALIMAKI: We're not buying just good coffee. But try to buy fresh coffee.
LIMBONG: What does that even mean?
WALIMAKI: (Laughter). Do you like buying, like, old, stale bread? Like, if you go to a bakery are you going to be like, give me that stale bread that you baked...
WALIMAKI: ...Two weeks ago. Or are you going to be, like, let me get the freshest one because it smells so delicious, right? I hope you're going for the fresh one. So...
WALIMAKI: ...The same happens kind of with coffee. You know, some coffee, like, becomes stale. You know, like, with time, a lot of those unique flavors that we're trying to get from this cup of coffee - they will fade away.
LIMBONG: Coffee that's not fresh might taste a little woody or like cardboard. So check to see if your coffee has a best-by date printed anywhere on the package. If you're buying whole beans, see if there's a date that indicates when the beans were roasted. Sandra says you can keep coffee in those paper pouch bags they come in anywhere from two weeks to a month, as long as it's in a relatively cool, dry space. Speaking of whole beans, you should be buying them because our second takeaway is buy a grinder. Sandra says it's the single best thing you can buy to upgrade your coffee game.
WALIMAKI: The best gift I gave to myself back in the day was a grinder, a burr grinder. I think that is the best and the biggest investment somebody can make.
LIMBONG: They come in two styles. A burr grinder, like the kind Sandra has, are bigger and more expensive. They run the beans through two gear-like circles sort of like a paper mill. Blade grinders are cheaper, smaller, a little simpler to use. It's essentially a food processor for coffee beans. Either kind you get, the closer you can shrink the time between coffee grinding and coffee brewing will make all the difference.
WALIMAKI: Just get a really good, like, burr grinder. I think that will make your coffee, like, experience just completely different at home. So start with that.
LIMBONG: By doing it yourself and at home, you can zero in on your preferred grind size. A burr grinder will do the job a little more accurately and consistently than a blade.
WALIMAKI: So finer will definitely make your coffee taste a little bit, like, more on that bitter side, maybe a little harsh, maybe not so pleasant at the finish.
LIMBONG: Sandra's ideal coarseness is about the size of the chunky sugar you see on top of scones or a super-coarse sea salt. But with some practice, hopefully, you'll figure out your preferred grind size and be able to describe it how you see fit.
Before we get any deeper, I'm going to level with you. We can stop here. I know behind the counter at your local coffee shop, they've got all the gidgets and gadgets and thermometers and steamers. And they always seem like they're banging stuff around. But these two takeaways are simple and honestly affordable enough to help you better enjoy your morning cup of coffee.
But say you've gotten all you can out of your trusty auto-drip machine and you're ready for bigger and better things. Life goes on, and so must you. Our third takeaway is to pick a brewing method that will fit your personal taste and lifestyle. Once you're graduating from the auto drip, you have a fork in the road. And you can go left to go to the pour-over side and go right to go to the French-press side. And so, like, who do you recommend goes left, and who do you recommend goes right?
WALIMAKI: People that like heavier mouth feel, like, coffees with a little bit more body, maybe, go towards, like, a French press, a method that does not require, like, a filter, like a paper filter.
LIMBONG: If you want a lighter, brighter cup in color and taste, try a brewing method that uses a paper filter.
WALIMAKI: You want your coffee to be translated maybe with more clarity in terms of, like, flavor or, like, even mouth feel - then go maybe for a pour-over method that requires that paper filter, mainly because those paper filters will trap some of the coffee oils.
LIMBONG: Paper filters will also keep out more sediment.
WALIMAKI: So it makes your cup of coffee slightly more, like, clear, more crisp, more brighter flavors.
LIMBONG: Something else to consider - pour-over methods are more hands-on. Most require you to pour hot water over the grounds more than once, so they need constant attention, which might actually be a good thing. But more on that in a bit. A French press is less precious. You just pour water over the grounds, set a timer and let them steep. So if you prefer to multitask in the mornings, this might be a better option. Now that you've picked your tool, got your water, ground your coffee, tip four is to develop your recipe.
WALIMAKI: You know, you need a good recipe. Like, that's your baseline.
LIMBONG: The perfect brew ratio - your coffee to water proportions - is a personal, intimate thing. Sandra likes one part coffee to 16 parts water.
WALIMAKI: That also will do magic to, like, the flavors of your coffee.
LIMBONG: But if that math is hard in your head, try starting out with 60 grams of coffee to 1 liter of water as your baseline. From there, it's up to you.
WALIMAKI: I think one of the tools that I always - I said also to the consumer is, like, take notes. You know, take notes of the first coffee that you brew a home and see how it tastes. You know, and then make changes.
LIMBONG: Change one variable at a time while keeping everything else constant.
WALIMAKI: Make smaller adjustment and also make them just one at a time. So if you're going to change your grinder, change your grinder. But don't change the recipe.
LIMBONG: Keep a log. Take notes. Record how each change affects the taste of your coffee. Think of the pursuit for your perfect cup of coffee as kind of an adult science fair project, which means you're going to want to learn to describe what you're tasting. That's our fifth takeaway and, to be honest, one I was the most skeptical of. I just don't see myself as the kind of person who will ever take a sip of coffee and tell you about the notes of marzipan that hit the back of my tongue.
So I'll read, like, the back of that bag. And then it'd be like, oh, hints of blueberry. And then I'll drink it. I'm like, I don't know if I can find it.
WALIMAKI: I think the more you taste coffee, the better you're going to get at tasting. I think that goes with anything. The more you taste something or consume or eat something, the better you're going to get at identifying what's good and what's bad. And also, a do you like, or what do you prefer?
LIMBONG: One thing you can try is using a flavor wheel. It's a handy tool that'll help you pick out exactly what you're tasting. It starts with more general flavors in the center - fruit, nut, floral - and then it gets more specific towards the edges.
WALIMAKI: It kind of narrows everything into fruit. And then you kind of just go. And that was, like, OK, what kind of fruit are we getting from this? Is it a citrus? Is it, like, stone fruit? What is it?
LIMBONG: Counter Culture developed one we'll link to on our episode page. And they help. But don't stress out about cultivating your palate. This all should be in service of helping you find out what you like.
WALIMAKI: I am nobody to change your feelings about certain things or anything, but I think it's very important to find out what we really like.
LIMBONG: But there's more to coffee than just what's in your cup, right? Whether you drink your morning cup at home while catching up on the news or out of a tumbler on your way to work, it's a part of your everyday life. And a midday coffee break is just as much about getting away from whatever as it is about ingesting caffeine.
SARAH NGUYEN: For me, I feel like having a coffee ritual in the morning is really, like, treating yourself, right? I - instead of rushing to my desk - right? - or, like, rushing to the day or my emails, I just carve out all this time where I'm grinding the coffee and I'm brewing the coffee.
LIMBONG: I talked to Sarah Nguyen, the founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, about her coffee routine. Especially during this time...
NGUYEN: Where there is just so much uncertainty, I think committing to any ritual like making coffee is really centering.
LIMBONG: She recommends intentionally carving out some space in your home for all your tools. Sarah calls it a coffee corner. And that's tip six, which is especially important when, say, a pandemic either shuts down your usual spots or makes them carry-out only.
NGUYEN: Before this, I used to step into a coffee shop almost every morning as part of my ritual to start my day. And I think that feeling of, like, stepping into something is really about stepping into a moment of self-care that's rooted in ritual. So I think designing that space is really important - to kind of, like, design a coffee corner for you to step into every morning.
LIMBONG: Your coffee corner doesn't need to be anything fancy.
NGUYEN: And that could be a shelf. That could be, you know, a part of the countertop. That could be in the cabinet. It could be a little - maybe a rolling cart, right? So designing that - and, you know, you don't have to buy any new tools to have a coffee corner. You can actually work with what you have.
LIMBONG: You can designate a few of your mugs and spoons as your favorites. Then, Sarah says, spoil them a little. Give them their own space.
I have, like, a spoon that I use. And I - you know, it lives at the other spoons. Every morning, I have to, like, move the rejects.
NGUYEN: Dig it out.
LIMBONG: Yeah, move, like, like all the garbage spoons out the way. Then it's, like, where's my boy? I need my boy.
NGUYEN: Right. Right.
LIMBONG: And coffee shop vibes aren't complete until you've set your soundtrack.
NGUYEN: I forgot to mention I do say, hey, Google, play Ray Charles instrumentals.
NGUYEN: So I do have a morning soundtrack to kind of get me into a vibe.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "BLACK COFFEE")
LIMBONG: So to recap, tip one - start with good ingredients, not just good, fresh coffee but good water, too. Tip two is to get a coffee grinder. It's a bonkers bang-for-your-buck value on upping your coffee game. Tip three, if you're ready to graduate from the auto drip, pick a brewing method that will suit your taste buds and match your lifestyle. A pour over is more time-consuming than a French press, but a French press will taste a little punchier. Tip four, start developing your recipe. Change one variable at a time and take notes. Tip five, learn how to describe what you're tasting just enough to help you navigate the coffee world. And tip six, if you want to create a ritual around coffee, create a coffee corner.
For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one about how to journal and another on how to enjoy poetry. You can find those episodes and more at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
And as always, a completely random tip, this time from Andrea Topping (ph).
ANDREA TOPPING: To save time cleaning your dehumidifier, put a splash of distilled white vinegar in the bottom of the empty basin before putting that empty basin back. You'll save so much time cleaning your dehumidifier on these hot, humid summer days.
LIMBONG: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9832 or email us a voice memo at email@example.com. This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. And Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Andrew Limbong. Thanks for listening.
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