The crucial principle when trying to perfect a process like making coffee is to carefully track what you do each time, so you can reproduce it exactly and keep elements from fluctuating unnecessarily while you deliberately change one variable at a time. If you just eyeball how much ground coffee goes into each brew, your road to perfection is going to be a lot steeper.
To that end, invest in equipment that lets you measure as many factors as possible. For brewing coffee, that includes:
A digital scale. Weigh out your ground coffee exactly. You can weigh your water too—if you get used to it, that can be more convenient than a measuring cup. A milliliter of cold water weighs exactly a gram. Some scales, like the Acaia, are designed specifically for coffee brewing. (EDITOR’S NOTE: If you want a general purpose digital scale, the test kitchen recommends OXO.)
A digital thermometer. A couple of degrees of difference in the water that you use for brewing can make dramatic changes to the final brew. Lower temperatures tend to accentuate sour tastes in coffee, and higher temperatures accentuate bitter tastes. The sweet spot is typically around 194-204°F. Some electric kettles, by Pino or Bonavita, will hold water at a temperature of your choice. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The test kitchen recommends this one, from Zojirushi.)
A digital timer. Manual brewing methods benefit from as much precision as you can give at every stage of the process. (EDITOR’S NOTE: America’s Test Kitchen’s winning kitchen timer is an OXO.)
As you start to become even more of an obsessive, I mean connoisseur, you’ll want kits to test the pH and hardness of the water you’re using. And, going even further, there is the coffee refractometer.
This handheld device, a mainstay at serious cafes but not too often seen at home, shines light through a droplet of brewed coffee and measures the angle of refraction as it passes through. Using this info, you can calculate the exact strength of a brew, measured in the Total Dissolved Solids present in the liquid. Being able to precisely measure the strength of each cup is the ultimate tool for fine-tuning, and then getting right every time, your coffee. The coffee refractometer made by VST is designed to be used with that company’s software, which can analyze, calculate, and scale up or down coffee formulas for any purpose.
If your brewing is all you want it to be, and you want to plunge back into the unknown and drink a lot of bad coffee while you patiently strive for a new level of excellence, you might enjoy roasting.
The FreshRoast SR700 is good for us diligent measurers because of its ability to hook to a laptop. At another price tier, so are the Hottop models. But even a $50 stovetop pot with a hand-cranked agitator—designed for popcorn but ideal for coffee, especially since it can hold much more than the FreshRoast—can become a scientific cook’s tool, with a little added technology.
Having a thermocouple thermometer that connects to a computer is a handy device for many kitchen tasks—it lets you watch and log temperatures on your computer. There’s a wide variety on the market: some have a single probe, some accommodate an octopus of probes to monitor the temperatures of many things at once. Some connect via USB, some are wireless.
A page on the Artisan software site lists a number that are explicitly compatible, although that’s not an exhaustive list.
Insert a thermocouple probe so its tip rests among the beans in the roaster, be that the Whirley-Pop or the FreshRoast. A second probe monitoring the air temperature is optional but helpful.
Install Artisan and set it to work with your thermocouple, and you can watch and record every moment of every roast you do, notating when first crack happened, what the beans weighed going in and coming out, and of course watching the rate of rise.
Most important, taste everything, a day or two after roasting, and correlate the variables that changed in each batch with how it tastes. You can use the official cupping protocol of the Specialty Coffee Association of America or an approach better suited to your home and habits, but the road to amazing coffee is the same: measure, record, notate, taste, practice, repeat.
Photography by Kevin White.