With all the professional emporiums out there that purport to serve the "best" coffee, it may seem daunting to aspire to connoisseurship at home. But in fact, coffee expert and author Timothy J. Castle ("The Great Coffee Book," Ten Speed Press) believes home-brewed coffee can be even better than in a restaurant because you have complete control. But to do that, it's essential to look at coffee's key components--brewing method, beans and water, and then choose the best of each.
Castle loves espresso, but suggests that it isn't necessary to serve it at home. "There's too much focus on espresso, but espresso is all about the toys," Castle says, referring to bell and whistle-laden machines that can easily cost $1,000. "If you want to experience coffee the way a wine aficionado experiences wine, it's all about brewed."
The best way to make coffee, Castle claims, is also the simplest: drip-brewed. But Castle cautions that most home machines don't do it right. "They take too long to brew, and they usually don't give the right water temperature." He suggests using a simple cone with paper filters. He boils the water on the stove and allows it to cool for a few seconds before pouring it over freshly ground coffee. He then stirs as the water runs through to make sure all the grounds are evenly exposed to the water. He also recommends running hot water through the paper filter before adding coffee to dilute any paper taste.
Make only as much as you're going to drink immediately, or pour the rest into a thermos, Castle cautions, because the heating elements in popular coffee makers will turn the coffee sour in a matter of minutes.
Nothing is more important than the beans to coffee connoisseurs, who swear by designated "estate" beans that are grown on small farms or produced by co-ops. They tend to cost more, but it's really only pennies per cup, and the difference in flavor can be enormous. My personal favorite is La Minita Tarrazu from Costa Rica. But if your local roaster doesn't stock it, look for the similar La Cascada Tarrazu at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Also well worth the extra expense are La Torcaza Estate (Panama), Malacara (El Salvador) and La Cacica (Colombia).
Roast is mostly a matter of personal preference, but the darker you go, the less you'll taste the subtleties of the beans. (That's the reason many coffee lovers refer to the import from Seattle as "Charbucks.") For freshness, grind at home if possible, making sure you're getting the proper fineness. When storing coffee for a period of less than two weeks, keep in an airtight container in a cool place, but not the refrigerator. For a longer span of time, store coffee in the freezer.
If you're only making a single pot of coffee for your guests, decaffeinated is the "one size fits all" option. For the best taste, look for beans decaffeinated with the chemical-free Swiss Water Process, which are marked with the SW logo. The Coffee Bean uses only Swiss Water, while Peet's Coffee & Tea and Starbucks use the process on selected beans.
The water you use should be anything but straight out of the faucet. Castle uses bottled water, or tap passed through a Britta filter. "The water has to taste good when you drink it alone," Castle insists. "If the water you're using doesn't taste good on its own, it won't make good coffee."
In this age of online ordering, it's no longer necessary to go out and shop for coffee. Everyone has seen the ads for Gevalia, the Swedish company that offers a free brewing machine or carafe along with the beans. Better still is Illy Caffe, the Italian company that supplies many of L.A.'s top restaurants and hotels. The Illy a Casa home-delivery program (www.illyusa.com) has options for both espresso and brewed coffees, and each includes a coffee maker and cups, as well as regular shipments of the coffee itself. If you feel the need to serve espresso, their program comes with the stylish FrancisFrancis! X5 machine. Afraid you don't have the right stuff to be a barista? This is an idiot-proof choice: Illy provides its E.S.E. espresso "pods" that have been pre-measured, pre-ground and wrapped in paper. The X5 has enough power to pump out shot after shot, so it can meet your party needs. Best of all, each espresso is truly no muss, no fuss, and perfect every time.<