Home Coffee Brewing 101

I remember the first time I walked into a Peet's Coffee store in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. It felt so exotic, and wow, you could buy bags of beans to take home! I was between my freshman and sophomore years in college, and a new coffee drinker, starting my day off with a tantalizing cup of Maxwell House brewed automatic drip-style, served with one teaspoon of Carnation Coffee-Mate and one Sweet-n-Low. I remember packing a bag of beans in my suitcase to share this way-cool California coffee with my mother.

Back East, we didn't know much about coffee, except the oft-burned brews that were poured at the local diner or bakery, and Peet's would remain a fond memory years before I ever set foot in a Seattle Starbucks store in the early 1990s. (A few interesting worlds-colliding tidbits in West coast coffee history: When Starbucks opened its first store in 1971 in Seattle, it served Peet's-roasted coffee. Starbucks co-founder Jerry Baldwin would ultimately buy Peet's in 1984 and sell his piece of Starbucks in 1987.)

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that the notion of a good cup of coffee has completely transformed in this country from an exotic rarity to a 24/7 phenomenon that translates into mega bucks, as in $12 billion. No matter what you think of Starbucks, there's a good chance there's a green-lettered sign within a mile of your front door or office (6,000-plus locations in 30-some countries). We have become a nation of coffee drinkers with higher brewed standards, but the funny thing is, when it comes to making coffee at home, we haven't made much progress.

Compared to Starbucks, Peet's has far fewer stores -- 136 in six states -- but instead has focused its efforts on this home-brewed demographic by penetrating the grocery store circuit. Here in Washington, Peet's is now available at Giant and Safeway stores, where you can find at least four different varieties, says Peet's coffee educator Erica Hess, including Major Dickinson's blend, House blend, Italian Roast, French Roast and single-origin Sumatra. (Prices for 12-ounce bags will vary, $9.95-11.95.)

Last month, I met with Hess, who's traveling the country spreading the word about these new developments and how to make a good cup of coffee at home. We spoke over several pots of French press (natch) and pastries at Café du Parc at the Willard Hotel.

First things's first: Good beans are key (and Hess of course has a preference), but they aren't enough -- you must know what to do with them in order to yield a good cup of joe.

For every six to eight ounces of water, you need two tablespoons of coffee, says Hess. If that seems too strong, go easy and use the eight-ounce ratio to start.

How you store your beans is also key, says Hess. The ideal scenario is to keep them in an airtight container on a counter. Never, ever freeze the beans, despite what your neighbor tells you. Plan B, she says, is store the beans in the fridge, but not in the original bag, which invites condensation and absorption of whatever's in your fridge. Use that trusty airtight container once again.

Water should be cold and ideally filtered, says Hess. Use water that you like drinking because if you don't, no coffee bean is going to make it taste better.

For those who use an automatic drip, water boiling is not an issue, but if you use a French press, which is Hess's preferred method, you want your water to be just under a full boil -- 195-205 degrees. She also recommends allowing the water to rest for about 20 seconds, to minimize "burning" of grounds.

And lastly, says Hess, brew what you're going to drink. "You don't want coffee to be sitting around. It cooks, and then it burns. Transfer your coffee to a thermos or insulated carafe -- which is good for about an hour. Or try a French press!"

Happy sipping, y'all. And please share your caffeinated thoughts in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 19, 2007; 9:36 AM ET Kitchen Basics , Liquid Diet
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Although I once had aspirations to be a coffee snob, I've ended up with a more democratic approach. I'll drink the office swill, but I like to buy and drink fresh-roasted beans on the weekend, with good cream.

Anyway, I'd like to put one thing out there:

The 2 tablespoons per 6oz is not a hard and fast rule. For some brews, and some peoples' taste, it can be closer to 1 T per 6 oz. For the medium brews I enjoy, I aim for 5T to 8 "coffee" cups of water.

Posted by: Gman | December 19, 2007 10:10 AM

Has anyone found a great way of making espresso? I'm dying to make my own!

Posted by: DreA | December 19, 2007 10:12 AM

One thing that wasn't mentioned is the coarseness of the grind. Make sure it's correct for the method you are using. French presses require a VERY coarse grind, otherwise you end up with muddy coffee and it will clog the press so that it doesn't strain the grounds properly.

For espresso, try the Bialetti stove-top espresso maker. The instructions are a little confusing and it takes a few trial runs to get everything right, but the coffee is great and the price is right! http://www.bialettishop.com/MokaExpressMain.htm

Posted by: jw | December 19, 2007 10:32 AM

I was sooooo happy to see Peets Coffee in Safeway and Giant. Back in the early/mid '90s, I used to mailorder Peets with a bunch of friends (fellow grad students). But I just want to find a local good roastery (closer to Bowie or Annapolis).

In N.C., we also would get CounterCulture coffee and Ninth Street coffee roasted in Durham. There were also a few places that roasted coffees in Chapel Hill.

Posted by: SlackerMom | December 19, 2007 11:06 AM

Second the stove top espresso suggestion -- much better espresso than the inexpensive electric machines. Just make sure you put the rubber gasket in or your ceiling will wear coffee grounds...

Posted by: kml | December 19, 2007 11:15 AM

I've spent at least five years trying to figure out how to make coffee that tastes as good as what some of the coffee shops sell (not Starbucks, can't figure out why people like their coffee). Been through several different coffee brewers, different types of beans, use filtered water, clean the brewer with vinegar, and still never can duplicate what these stores sell. I do find that 1 tb. per 8oz works better for me than 2, like everyone recommends.

Anyone care to share what brewing system they use and what kind of coffee?

Posted by: jjtwo | December 19, 2007 11:25 AM

M.E. Swing in downtown (17th St) roasts their own coffee. Good stuff and staffed by great people.

Posted by: PW | December 19, 2007 11:38 AM

I've completely converted to cold brewing with the Toddy bucket. I'm the only coffee drinker in the house so having a machine is too much. This way I can also take the concentrate to work and avoid the swill pot. I like it quite strong and since visiting Spain usually add a lot of milk.

There's a WaPo article today about kitchen gadgets that describes the Toddy.

Posted by: MaryB | December 19, 2007 11:43 AM

SlackerMoM - you can order CouterCulture Coffee by mail from their website. I got some recently and I think it's the best coffee I've ever had. A good local option is Mayorga, which roasts its own beans.

Posted by: MBinDC | December 19, 2007 12:08 PM

What about a percolator? Isn't there something to how fine the grounds are? Thanks.

Posted by: Elyse | December 19, 2007 12:11 PM

So glad you mentioned the percolator...that's the only way my Nana ever made coffee and that's the best coffee there is!!!

Posted by: melkell2 | December 19, 2007 1:06 PM

Ah, Peets. An essential stop when I'm in the Bay Area (I live on Maui). Excellent coffee and pretty good tea.

I spent much of the '70s and '80s in the Himalaya. What to do for coffee? My solution: Pack a small electric coffee mill and a Melita with plenty of filters, and buy a generous supply of beans at the Coffee Board shop on Delhi's Tolstoy Marg before heading north.

At that time I stayed at the upretentious Bhagsu in MacLeod Ganj, with really nice staff. Spectacular view. At 6,500 feet, to the south rolling verdant hills descending all the way to the plains. To the north, the 14,000 Dhaula Dhar mountain range swathed in snow and ice. Every morning I would go to the kitchen, retrieve my stash of coffee beans, grind enough to make a really strong pot of coffee, then brew it in the Melita with freshly boiled water, topping off the cup with excellent heated milk. The next pleasure was taking the coffee outside to sit at a table set on the lawn, which had a view of the Dalai Lama's compound and Gompa a hundred feet below and a quarter-mile away, glimpsed through the verdure. At first I invited the Bhagsu's manager to join me, but after doing so for a few mornings, he begged off, saying it was just too strong for him (the high-class coffee drink in India is Nescafe!).

In Shimla, a very cosmopolitan mountain town, I'd head to the South Indian-style coffee shop for my fix, with a dosa on the side.

The pleasures of travel...

Posted by: David Lewiston | December 19, 2007 1:45 PM

For an espresso-like beverage, I love my AeroPress - it's like a cross between a drip coffee maker (disposable filters) and a french press (pressure). Nice thick shot, but no crema, so not a true espresso, but still quite tasty.

Posted by: Ted Laderas | December 19, 2007 2:49 PM

thank you all for such great brewed tidbits -- keep'em coming!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | December 19, 2007 3:40 PM

We been using Bodum vacuum makers for years now. At first, we used their automatic machine, but it has several gaskets that go bad rendering the machine useless. However, Bodum is very good about replacing the machines while in warranty. The other problem with the automatic is you can't control how long the water stays up with the grounds. So we now use the stovetop version. Love the coffee. And guests get a kick out of watching it brew.

Once we determined how much coffee we like to use, we started weighing it instead of using measuring spoons. This is convenient since we grind the beans ourselves.

Posted by: Fran | December 19, 2007 3:41 PM

I solved the burning coffee problem but buying a caraf-style coffee maker. I love it!

Posted by: Anonymous | December 20, 2007 12:04 PM

Love Peet's -- I'm drinking a cup right now, in fact! Hard-core coffee-drinkers should also try Blue Bottle Coffee made out here in the East Bay ... fresh-roasted beans, utterly delicious.

Posted by: nicole/cucinanicolina | December 20, 2007 2:12 PM

Peets is my favorite coffehouse, in addition to good coffe, they also pot brew tea in their stores. To the espresso question I cant drink regular coffe any more due the natural acid, but espresso is very different. I use Gaggia Classic machine with either Peets espresso blend, Lavazza, or baltimore brewing company espresso blend.

Posted by: Chet | December 24, 2007 9:06 AM

I am catching up on blog posts, and this one in particular made me smile. My MIL, who likes a small cup 'o decaf after lunch and dinner, will make a large pot at breakfast and drink the "dregs" throughout the day. Blech, I say! Whenever she's with us, I insist on making her a fresh cup/pot when she's ready for it. Why drink hours-old coffee that's been reheated in the microwave? Life's too short!

Posted by: Chef Rebecca | December 24, 2007 1:18 PM

Long before there was a Peet's in DC, the area had 2 fabulous coffee purveyors of its own. The aforementioned Swing's, which - thank heaven - is still going strong, & the late, much lamented Georgetown Coffee, Tea, & Spice Shop. On Wisconsin Avenue, not far from GU, it was the gateway in the early 1970s to the subtle joys of Ethiopian Harrar, Brazilian Bourbon Santos, mountain grown Kenyan, strong French & Italian roasts, & one of the last batches of Angolan coffee sold in the US for about 30 years. Engaging staff helped customers navigate shelves full of electric & manual grinders & Chemex & Melitta pots; stovetop espresso pots; Polish glass mugs & pitchers; & every tea & coffee utensil then known to man. These complemented a full range of whole bean coffee & loose tea, which the shop gladly shipped anywhere in the world. A whiff of heaven each time you walked in.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 3, 2008 3:54 PM

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