I really love coffee.
Despite my best efforts to quit on multiple occasions (and at least one or two caffeine detoxes per year), I just can’t stay away for good. I love the way it tastes. I love the way it smells. And I love the feeling after the first sip hits your lips in the dark, early hours of the morning.
I love it so much that, during Covid, I started (then sold) my own e-commerce coffee shop just because I knew I’d at least have fun doing it.
But enough about my affinity for coffee. Let’s talk about everyone else.
According to a study last year, 68% of Americans make coffee at home every day, yet most have no idea how to make a great-tasting cup of coffee. No, I’m not talking about adding cream and sugar until it tastes like a dessert. I’m talking delicious, natural, all-black coffee that your friends and family will think is a fresh cup from a local shop.
When I did a deep dive into coffee research for my business, I was pretty shocked that just a few key “ingredients” made all the difference. Making the best possible coffee at home is actually fairly simple once you know what it takes.
You don’t need any super expensive coffee makers (though some are definitely better than others). A regular, old drip coffee maker will do. I figure that’s what most of you, like myself, have at home anyway.
Note that you can’t really use these tips for Keurig machines (at least not with pre-packaged pods), but they do still apply to most other brewing techniques such as using a French press, percolator, etc.
The secret to great-tasting, homemade coffee boils down to 7 key factors. Doing just one of these should make a big difference, and each additional one will further boost the quality of your coffee. If you do all 7, it’s going to taste damn delicious.
The rest of this article expands on each factor in detail then touches on a tried and true way to make any shitty cup of coffee taste acceptable.
Let’s start at the top.
The first choice you have when buying coffee to brew at home is “should I buy whole bean or ground?” If you want the best tasting coffee possible, then buying whole bean coffee is the way to go, and it’s not even close.
Freshness is the key factor here. Coffee loses freshness super fast after it’s ground. First, because it tends to spend more time in the open air during the manufacturing process, and second because there’s more surface area of coffee being exposed.
Always choose whole bean if given the option. It’s better than ground by a mile.
In an ideal scenario, you’d buy whole bean coffee then grind immediately before brewing.
Yes, this means you’ll need a coffee grinder, but trust me it’s worth it. Coffee grinders are one of the few important tools needed for making an awesome cup of coffee.
I’ve got a mid-range burr grinder like this one here. It’s under $50 and does the job. If you’re a huge coffee nerd, get a more expensive one. From what I’ve seen, a higher-quality grinder usually means better tasting coffee.
Without question, the most important aspect of a great cup of coffee is the quality of the beans that you use. If you do nothing else, buying fresh, high-quality beans will give you the most bang for your buck.
Mass-marketed commercial brands, such as Folgers and Eight O’Clock, are high volume coffee brands that thrive on cheap, mass-produced coffee, and they’re usually roasted months before they hit the shelves. Avoid these at whatever cost. This includes Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks brand coffees, too.
The best coffee I’ve found comes from local, smaller-batch roasters. Near me, there are a few local coffee shops who sell their own coffee that I buy and make at home. I’m usually never disappointed with my purchase. Sometimes, places like these will even roast coffee for you on-demand for fresher beans.
If you don’t have a local roaster or you’re too lazy, find a high-quality roaster who will ship to you. My favorite is Happy Mug Coffee. I found these guys on Reddit a few months ago and the quality you get for the value is actually insane. 10/10 recommend. The Artist’s Blend, when they have it, is absolute fire.
Not all coffee is the same. We just touched on quality above, but origin also matters.
Coffee grown in different climates and regions produce wildly different flavors. Single Origin coffees are made from one type of bean from a specific region. But there are also blends comprised of two or more types of beans that, if done properly, create some amazing tastes.
We could go down a deep rabbit hole exploring the different regions and elevations that coffee is grown in, but this infographic hits the main points:
My go-to is Ethiopian coffee, which falls in the African region. I prefer its higher acidity and fruity aftertones. (The Artist’s Blend mentioned above comes from there.)
Oh and also, if you’re familiar with the terms Arabica and Robusta, those are the two main types of coffee beans. Of the two, Arabica is more widely-produced and has a broader range of flavors (see above). It yields the better tasting coffee by far.
Robusta is another beast in and of itself. It’s the “cheaper” of the two and known for its high caffeine content and intense flavor. If high caffeine is your thing, by all means go Robusta (it might just taste like shit).
For reference, Death Wish Coffee mostly brews robusta beans.
For those who don’t know, coffee has only two ingredients - coffee beans...and water. The quality of your beans will make the most difference when it comes to a good-tasting cup of coffee, but high-quality water is a close second, and it’s a factor that often goes overlooked.
There are two ways to improve water quality when brewing coffee.
First, stop using unfiltered tap water. Trust me when I say that nothing ruins a cup of coffee more than nasty tap water loaded with chlorine or other impurities. The best way to brew your coffee is with some form of filtered or fresh spring water. Don’t use distilled water though – it lacks the minerals of regular water which weirdly makes for an awful cup of coffee.
Second, clean your coffee machine. I can’t stress this enough. For years, I used a Cuisinart drip-coffee machine (one of the ones with a reusable filter and built-in reservoir), and I rarely cleaned the reservoir, just dumped out and washed the filter. After a while, the coffee really started to taste like ass. Once I cleaned it, problem solved.
If you don’t clean your coffee machine, start doing it. You’ll notice your coffee will taste fresher. Plus, it’s pretty gross and a legit health risk.
Coffee isn’t an exact science, but there is some science to it.
Your coffee-to-water ratio is important for brewing delicious coffee because it’s what dictates the strength of the flavor. A ratio that’s too high in coffee produces a cup that might taste overwhelmingly bold. On the other hand, a ratio with too little coffee leads to a diluted cup that might taste too watered-down for you.
The general guideline accepted by the National Coffee Association is referred to as the “Golden Ratio”, which is one to two tablespoons of ground coffee for every six ounces of water. This is applicable for drip coffee as well as other brewing methods (e.g. pour-over, french press, etc.).
Now, you might notice six ounces of water is somewhat of an arbitrary number without much significance (at least here in the US). One cup of water is roughly 8 ounces, so the “Golden Ratio” is actually one to two tablespoons of coffee for every 0.75 cups of water, which is honestly...kind of a pain to work with.
I like to keep things simple, so I usually just do one to two tablespoons of ground coffee for every 1 cup of water. This uses slightly more water than the “Golden Ratio”, so I recommend leaning more towards the higher end of the coffee spectrum (e.g. somewhere in the 1.5 to 2 cups of coffee per 1 cup of water range).
I’ve found that 1.5 tbsp of coffee for every 1 cup water is my sweet spot. Basically, if I’m making 6 cups of coffee, I’ll use 9 tbsp of ground coffee and 6 cups water.
The exact amount of coffee you use is ultimately up to you. I recommend experimenting until you find the ratio that works for you, keeping in mind that more coffee yields stronger flavors, and less coffee yields lighter flavors.
This process becomes infinitely simpler if you have a burr grinder that you can dial-in to spit out the exact amount of ground coffee you want every time.
And lastly, as I mentioned before, coffee beans lose freshness the longer they’re exposed to the environment (similar to other organic compounds).
As such, storing your beans properly will minimize the rate at which they lose freshness and maximize how long they taste optimal for.
If anyone tries to tell you to refrigerate your beans, laugh and just don’t. There’s essentially no reason to ever refrigerate your beans. Coffee beans are actually porous, which means they openly accept moisture and other weird food odors (i.e. it could make your coffee taste worse).
Though some experts advise against freezing coffee, it’s not the worst way to keep whole bean coffee fresh for longer periods of time if needed.
In general, expect a bag of coffee to be its freshest for 2 to 3 weeks after roasting, and about 7 to 10 days after opening the bag.
If you ignore most (or all) of the above advice, or if you happen to be at a friend’s place who has no idea what they’re doing, you can still make shitty coffee taste great by – you guessed it – adding cream and sugar.
Many coffee enthusiasts balk at the idea of adding flavoring, but for sure there’s no better way to fix a horrible tasting cup of coffee. Use fresh cream and sugar when possible. If trying to be health-conscious, cinnamon is a pretty good way to add some flavor without adding extra calories.
My favorite way to “splurge” on a cup of coffee (good or bad) is to add low-fat whipped cream, which actually pairs quite wonderfully with both coffee and espresso. Try it and who knows you might love it.
Now you know all the secrets to making coffee shop quality coffee (or better) at home, in your PJs.
Follow them when buying, brewing, and storing your coffee, and you’ll absolutely notice a difference in taste and freshness. Your friends and family will too.
Remember that doing just one will bump up the quality a good bit, but doing all 7 might just change your life.