There’s no time like National Coffee Day to learn how to make good coffee at home (it can be a struggle).
coffee snob—that aspiring at-home barista whose arsenal of coffee tools (a Chemex, a French press, a hulking espresso machine) rivals your local coffee shop. But if the idea of trying to figure out a coffee syphon (they use them in Japan!) sends you running toward your automatic coffee drip machine, or worse, that tub of instant coffee, don’t worry. We’re entering a new golden age of brewing At this point we probably all know a good coffee at home that won’t intimidate the uninitiated.
“Coffee making can be a little alienating for people not familiar with the lingo,” says Christopher Malarick, the director of training and education at Joe Coffee. “But there’s a new wave of inclusivity in the industry working to make coffee-making radically approachable to those interested, and to take them as far as they want to go.”
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To help demystify the process and turn us regular old coffee drinkers into coffee aficionados, we went to the professionals—Malarick and Michael Carmody, a senior retail educator at Intelligentsia who trains the company’s Chicago-based baristas. Below, they tell us what gear an amateur at-home barista actually needs and how to properly use these accessories to make great coffee at home without becoming overwhelmed. (And no, you don’t need a syphon.)
Step 1: Get Good Beans and Use Filtered Water
Before we even begin to talk about how you’re going to brew that cup of coffee you’re hankering for, getting your beans and water in order is key. “A good start is to use filtered water so you don’t have chlorine or other chemicals bringing unwanted flavors into your coffee,” Carmody says.
Aside from using fresh, high-quality coffee beans, Malarick recommends grinding them just before brewing. “Once you fracture the coffee beans’ cellular structure it immediately begins to age,” he says. At-home grinders like the Breville Smart Grinder make easy work out of a daily grind. If you’re low on counter space or prefer to use pre-ground beans, he suggests using them within one week so they keep their intensity and aroma. Both coffee grounds and coffee beans should be stored in a cool, dark place—though not the freezer. “Regular coffee bags tend to be porous, which means before long the coffee inside will absorb the flavors of the freezer,” he says.
Breville Smart Coffee Grinder Pro, $199.95 from Williams Sonoma
Get to grinding like a pro.
Step 2: Learn How to Use a French Press
A solid French press—a cylindrical chamber that plunges a fine mesh strainer through the mixture of hot water and coffee grounds—is a great first step for those looking to move beyond their daily drip. “It gives you some control over the process and a more nuanced flavor but doesn’t require you to buy any additional equipment or actively tend to the pot,” he says. All you have to do is 1. Boil water. 2. Pour hot water over the grounds in the press. 3. Let it steep four minutes while you go about your morning routine. 4. Press the filter down and boom—you have great tasting coffee.
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French presses are typically made of either glass like the Chambord by Bodum or stainless steel like the Freiling. Both produce great coffee, but if you feel a little clumsy before your morning caffeine, stick with a less breakable stainless steel model. For the smoothest coffee from a French press, Malarick suggests starting with coarsely ground coffee—the texture of flaky sea salt—and water that is slightly cooler than boiling. “A few seconds after it boils when the surface of the water is placid, it is ready to pour,” he says.
Bodum Chambord French Press, $36.95+ from Sur La Table
A classic French press, available in 4, 8, or 12 cup models.
Step 3: Take the Next Step with Pour-Over Drippers
If you want to dip your toe into coffee nerd-dom waters, Malarick suggests trying a pour-over coffee dripper which offers a “high degree of control” over the coffee-making process and an opportunity to “feel more connected to the ritual of brewing coffee” while still being largely forgiving. Typically producing one cup of coffee at a time, pour-over drippers—where the coffee-filled filter sits directly over a cup and boiling water is gradually and methodically poured over the grounds—are also great for people who live alone or don’t want to brew a whole pot.
Pour-over drippers can either be cone shaped (like the Origami) or flat-bottomed (like the Kalita Wave). Malarick suggests starting with a flat-bottomed dripper which allows for more even water absorption, producing more consistent results. This method of coffee brewing works best with a swan neck kettle (like the Stagg EKG), which pours the water in a thin, steady stream rather than the gush of a typical tea kettle.
Fellow Stagg Pour-Over Kettle, $79 from Food52
Strong and elegant, for coffee that is the same.
Related Reading: 8 Tips for Brewing Perfect Pour-Over Coffee
Extra Credit: If You Want to Level Up, Try a Chemex
The Chemex is essentially a pour-over dripper that collects the brewed coffee in its own carafe, rather than in a separate cup. It comes in several sizes, from 3-cup to 10-cup. The elegant hourglass shape and sleek wood and leather collar design has helped vault the Chemex into popularity (designed in 1941, it’s part of the collection at NYC’s MoMA) but it also makes a perfect cup of coffee. The patented filter is extra thick, so it removes a higher percentage of oils and particles from the ground coffee while producing a clean and nuanced brew. Malarick suggests using a medium-fine grind and playing around with grind size until the water filters through in three to five minutes. “If you’re still draining after five minutes, your beans are ground too fine. If it flows through much quicker, then they are too coarse,” he says.
Chemex Classic Drip Coffee Maker, $35.50+ from Williams Sonoma
Functional and affordable, yet seriously capable of upping your coffee game.
…Or an AeroPress
AeroPress coffee is a dream for travelers and campers with a caffeine habit who care about how their coffee tastes. The tube-shaped device, which uses air-pressure to brew and extract the coffee, is light and compact enough to fit in a carry-on or backpack. And the Porlex mini hand-grinder, which allows you to grind your beans fresh without a power source, fits directly inside the press. “It is a nice little space saver for people who want good coffee on the road,” Carmody says. “It is made of very sturdy BPA-free plastic so you do not need to worry about it breaking in your luggage.”
Even if travel is off the table for a while, it’s a great choice for those without a lot of storage space.
Aeropress Coffee Maker, $29.95 from Williams Sonoma
Turning your favorite mug into its own excellent coffee machine.
…Or, Go Ahead and Buy That Shiny Espresso Maker—Just Do Your Homework First
If you’re ready to take the plunge (and possibly a small bank loan), an at-home espresso is more doable than ever. Just make sure you do your homework before purchasing a kitchen countertop machine. “A lot of machines that are marketed as espresso makers don’t really make true espresso,” Carmody says. In other words, that $80 machine you got for Christmas last year is likely to produce thin, disappointing brews.
“There are some excellent home espresso makers out there that have built-in grinders and produce great milk for latte art—like the Linea Mini by La Marzocco or some of Breville’s machines such as the Breville Barista Touch—but they are quite pricey,” Malarick says. They also require regular cleaning to remove the minerals (called “scales”) that are a natural byproduct of water evaporation.
Breville Barista Touch Espresso Machine, $999.95 at Williams Sonoma
To literally get the barista touch on your morning joe.
Still, those who make the investment in a first-rate espresso machine and learn to use it (public classes like Joe’s espresso workshop or Intelligentsia’s barista class are a great place to start) can be deliciously rewarded. As Carmody put it, “If someone is really dedicated to making a killer cappuccino at home, I say go for it.”
Header image courtesy of Guillermo Murcia/Getty Images.