Whether you're the kind of coffee drinker that slugs back the swill in the break-room coffee pot at work or savors exotic coffee on sleepy Sundays, there is always room for enhancing your java.
Consider yourself forewarned however, once you begin brewing better coffee it becomes increasingly difficult to go back to enjoying crappy coffee. Raised in a family of non-coffee drinkers I simply accepted that the coffee I intermittently experienced in diners and donut shops across America was the entirety of the coffee experience—scalding hot, bitter in taste, and certainly not as pleasant a caffeine delivery system as Mountain Dew. All of that changed when I started drinking more coffee to survive life on the graveyard shift and decided that there had to be a way to make coffee taste good without adding so much sugar into it that I may as well have kept drinking soda.
You won't always be able to use all of the following tricks to brew a great cup of coffee—not all of us have access a local coffee roaster or the a well stocked local market—but applying even a few of them to your coffee routine will boost the quality of your coffee drinking experience.
Know Your Varieties
Nearly all the coffee in the world comes from two types of coffee plants: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica has roughly half the amount of caffeine and a more mellow taste. Robusta has more caffeine and higher acidic content which creates a significantly more bitter flavor. Many people experience mild stomach aches from the combination of higher caffeine and acidic content of Robusta beans, certainly many a potential future coffee-drinker has sworn off the stuff because of such an experience with cheap Robusta beans. It often isn't all that much more to buy Arabica over Robusta and with careful label reading you can often get Arabica coffee for the same price as Robusta based blends.
Buy Whole Beans
When you smell coffee—whether you're smelling whole beans or already ground coffee—you're essentially breathing in some of the flavor. The oils and chemical compounds that give coffee its distinct flavoring are in constant flight from the bean. The more you can do to preserve the integrity of the beans and the delightful flavor inside right up until the moment of brewing, the better the coffee will be. Keeping the beans intact for as long as possible helps immensely. If possible where you live, try to buy locally roasted beans to benefit from the freshness. Barring that, buying whole bean coffee is vastly superior to buying pre-ground coffee.
Grind Your Own
You've got whole bean coffee, now what? There are two principle types of coffee grinders on the market. A basic blade grinder costs less than $15 at any kitchen store or big box grocer and looks a lot like a tall and narrow food processor. There is a flat blade at the bottom of the chamber you put your coffee in that spins and grinds up the beans. The other kind of grinder is a burr grinder and prices for a quality model start at $200 and rise rapidly. Burr models use two interlocking metal burns to create extremely uniform coffee grounds—imagine if you will two cone shaped gears that fit together like nesting dolls. Coffee aficionados will balk at my suggestion that a blade grinder is adequate, but it's better to have irregularly but freshly ground coffee than it is to have no coffee at all because you blew $500 on a premium coffee grinder! Grind the coffee as closely to the time it will be used as possible, ideally right before you use it.
The refrigerator is the mortal enemy of your coffee. Taking coffee in and out of the fridge is a sure way to suck the flavor right out of it. Coffee that will be used frequently and immediately—whole bean or ground— is ideally stored in an air tight, opaque,and glass or otherwise inert container. Coffee that will not be consumed immediately but needs to be preserved for near-future use can be safely stored in the freezer assuming it is stored in a dry and air tight container. Storing an unsealed container of grounds or beans in the cold temperatures of either the fridge or freezer is a sure way to accelerate the its journey from delicious flavor to stale bitterness.
Most people would assume if they had less than $50 to spend on coffee brewing equipment that there would be no way they could get a premium cup of coffee out of the supplies they could afford. Fortunately one of the best methods of brewing coffee is the cheapest. You can pick up a Bodum Chambord French Press, the original and classic design, for $25 or less just about everywhere. Using a French press is one of the simplest methods of brewing a fantastic cup of coffee. A French press is a glass cylinder that has a lid with a piston style rod attached to a circular screen. Grind your coffee, put a few heaping scoops in the bottom, pour nearly boiling water over the grounds, wait about four minutes, press the plunger down to push the grounds down and enjoy some delicious coffee. One of the primary benefits of making coffee in a French press over a standard drip pot is that more of the coffee oils end up in your cup instead of in the machine's filter. More oils means better taste! As a bonus, a carefully cleaned French press can also double as an excellent pot for loose leaf tea. If you already have a drip pot and want to keep on using it, use a tip we've previously highlighted as a way to get better coffee out of drip coffee makers: run a pot of water through it before putting the actual coffee through to pre-heat the unit and help get it closer to optimum brewing temperature.
Use Pure(r) Water
While it might not be practical to install a reverse osmosis filter under your sink, the more pure the water you use for your coffee the better it will taste. A gallon of locally distilled water costs less than a dollar in most places and many supermarkets have cheap refills available—my local market has a machine that will refill a gallon jug for 35 cents. Even if you—for environmental or financial reasons—don't want to spend money on filtered or bottled water for your coffee you can still tweak your water. Fill up a pitcher of water the night before and set it out on the counter. While it's not the same as being filtered through the stony depths of a mountain aquifer it will allow some chemicals in the water like chlorine to dissipate. Anything that makes your cup of joe taste less like the pool at the YMCA is welcome.
The variety of coffees and methods of preparation ensure that the above list just barely scratches the surface of tips and tricks to be shared on the subject. If you have a great tip for making a better cup of coffee, share it in the comments below and help your fellow readers make 2009 the year their coffee stops being bitter enough to kill an old cowboy.