Monday, June 19, 2023

Good coffee on the cheap (sort of)

 Coffee can be an expensive habit, no doubt.

But, it doesn't have to be.  

Here are some easy ways to improve your coffee game without breaking the bank. I ranked these from most important to least, so start at the top of your list, and work your way down, stopping at any time you want. But, if you do nothing else, I'd at least follow the first two suggestions (grinding just before brewing, and buying fresher beans).

Buy whole beans and grind just before brewing.  Purchasing pre-ground coffee guarantees a stale cup within a day or two.  So, get a grinder and buy whole beans.  Grinders start under $20. 

  • Hand crank burr grinder. Burr grinders produce a consistent grind (though you'll need to experiment until you get a good grind size, so expect to get a few bad cups at first). Cheapest are hand-cranked, something like this: $19.
  • Blade grinders are not as good because they don't produce consistent particle sizes. BUT, a blade grinder is still a huge step up from buying pre-ground coffee. Coarseness/fineness is determined by the time spent grinding (a longer grind time results in finer grounds, a shorter one results in a coarser grind). Grind for 15 seconds and see how the coffee tastes, then grind for longer/shorter times until you get a cup you like.
  • Any electric burr grinder of your choice. They start around $40 and go on up in price. BUT DO NOT USE THE HOPPER. They do a poor job of storing the coffee, exposing the beans to light and air, causing the beans to go stale. Do what is called "single dosing" and pour just what you need for that batch of coffee into the grinder.
Buy freshly-roasted beans. If they come in a can, they aren't fresh.  Beans are best about 3 days after roasting, to let the CO2 outgas.  They will start at about $10 per 16-ounce bag. I usually spend about $15-$20 for 12 ounces. That still works out to be wildly less expensive than buying brewed coffee at a coffee shop.  Buy your beans from coffee shops and local roasters, or by mail order. Some grocery stores carry fresh beans, but you'll need to check roast dates.  Look for beans that have been roasted within the last week, but if the bags are well-sealed, then buying them up to 1-2 months after roasting may be fine (it's a matter of preference, but I don't buy beans that are more than a week post-roast).

Improve your coffee storage.  Keep your coffee fresh, by storing it away from light,  heat, humidity, and oxygen.  Believe it or not, this is one of the cheapest and easiest things to improve. If you use beans quickly, then keep them at room temperature. Otherwise, wrap them well and freeze or refrigerate (most coffee snobs think the fridge is bad for beans, but I've found that if they are well-wrapped, it's fine). In either case bring them fully to room temp before using so that moisture doesn't condense on the beans and make them go stale.
  • Store it in the bag: the bag the beans are sold in usually have a little one-way valve on them. Just store it in the bag, and get an alligator cup measuring spoon. Squeeze excess air from the bag, and clip it closed with one of these. $5.
  • If you go through a 12 ounce bag of coffee relatively quickly (say, in a week or so) get a medium Airscape. Get one of the metal or ceramic ones, not glass (glass exposes the beans to light, which isn't good for them). $32
  • If it takes you more than say 10 days to finish 12 ounces, then get a small metal or ceramic Airscape (same link as above, but select small). $27.  Put about half the beans in the Airscape, and leave the rest in the bag. Squeeze all the air out of the bag, clip it closed with a cheap alligator clip, and pop the bag in the freezer.  When you need more beans, remember to let them thaw fully before opening the bag. $27.
  • If you buy a bunch of coffee at a time as I do (to save on postage), vacuum pack the beans and keep them in the fridge (and as with frozen beans, let them warm up before opening the container and transferring to the airscape).  Use brown glass canning jars to limit light exposure, and a handpump (or if you have it, an electric vacuum sealer like a Food Saver).
    • Amber Canning jars.  Pints (widemouth only!) are a good size because they contain about 1/2 a bag of beans.  Once sealed, I keep these in the fridge and when I'm ready to open a jar, I let it come up to room temp overnight and transfer to the Airscape. Get wide-mouth jars (not regular). $35
    • Hand pump.  You'll use this to pump the air out of the canning jar. I take the vacuum to 20 psi on the dial. You will also need the FoodSaver jar sealer. $17.
    • FoodSaver jar sealer. Use the wide mouth version (I usually can't get the narrow-mouth to work). Plug one end of the tubing into the lid sealer, and if using the handpump, you'll remove the connector from the other end of the tubing, and use one of the adapters from the hand pump kit to attach the tubing to the pump. Remove the ring from the jar, slide the sealer down over the lid, pump to 20, then push the little pressure release on the pump, then remove the jar sealer. The lid should be vacuumed down. $20.
Explore manual methods of coffee brewing. Brewing using an auto-drip coffeemaker is a perfectly fine, reliable way to get a decent cup. BUT, you'll up your game if you go to a manual method. Heat your own water and brew it yourself.  It's not hard, and not much more work.  This is split into two sections: controlling water temp and brewing.

Controlling water temperature: Cheapest (if you have a microwave) is a glass measuring cup, or a garden-variety stove-top kettle, but it's more fun to use an electric kettle.

Cheapest options:
  • If you have a microwave, get a microwave-safe glass measuring cup and a cheap metal thermometer. Nothing fancy is needed. Measure your water, heat to boiling, then take it out and stick the thermometer into the water. When it drops to 200-205, then use it to brew your coffee.  
  • Electric kettle (any inexpensive one will do fine). They run $25-$40. You'll still need a thermometer though.
Brewing the coffee. I've tried lots of methods over the years, but the cheapest and easiest brewer I've found that will give you a great cup is the Clever Dripper, which brews similarly to the French press. FPs  are cheaper, but they are harder to clean and you wind up with sludge in your cup, so I prefer the Clever. I'd use the glass option ($61) for daily use, the plastic one ($36) when camping or traveling. Super easy to use: 
  1. Pop in a filter, fill it with hot tap water to pre-heat it while you are heating the brew water.
  2. When the brew water is ready, drain the preheat water and discard. 
  3. Fill it with 400 ml (14 ounces) of 200F brew water and add 25g (2 tbsp more or less) of medium ground coffee
  4. Give it a stir until the floating grounds are fully wet, then put the lid on. 
  5. Stir after 2 minutes (to get any remaining floating grounds to sink).
  6. Drain at 4 minutes by setting it onto your mug. The edge of your mug will release the valve, and the coffee drains from the brewer.
Here's a video.  Here's a more advanced video from my favorite coffee guy. You'll note that he grinds the coffee more finely and steeps for half the time. (Those are things you can play with, the amount of coffee, amount of water, steep time, and grind size).  

To make 2 cups at once, do everything the same as above, but double the grounds used, and drain into a vessel that can hold about 28 ounces, then dilute the concentrate by adding another 400 ml/14 ounces of hot water.   Pour into two mugs.

And finally, there are some more expensive toys that reduce hassle:
  • Coffee scale (any cheap kitchen scale will do, but coffee scales are designed for a wetter environment and they are more expensive).  But they are great because you don't have to measure anything by volume. You brew on the scale itself and do everything by weight.
  • Variable temperature electric kettle - Bonavita makes one but I like the Fellow Stagg Electric kettle ($195). It takes the water to the desired temp and holds it there so no guesswork.  Some cheaper electric tea kettles have pre-sets. Look for one that has a 200F or 205F setting, but they do cost a bit more (start at around $50 instead of $30).

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