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Solve Your Coffee Problems

Image: thebigduluth | deviantart.com

You don't need to go to Starbucks or your local java joint to get good coffee. With time, patience, and the right "stuff" -- good gear and good beans -- you can get a cup that's every bit as good as your favorite cafe, while saving quite a bit of money per cup. You may find that your coffee doesn't come out the way you'd like, but with a bit of understanding and experimentation, you'll be brewing like a pro in no time.

My Coffee is Sour Some acidity in the taste of your coffee is a good thing. One of the pleasures of a cup of well-brewed coffee from great beans is the layered complexity of the aroma, and the nuances of taste that generally go with it. Many coffees will yield notes of acidity that can be reminiscent of anything from fruit to flowers. That's the upside. The down side is when your coffee just tastes sour. That's usually a result of underextraction, which has a couple of possible causes. One of these is brew time; if you're not brewing long enough, you're not getting all of the flavor out of the grounds. If the water temperature's too low, that's also going to lead to lower extraction; you don't want the water to be boiling (if it is, give it time to cool), but if it's too cold, you won't get good extraction either. Make sure your water's no hotter than about 190 degrees Fahrenheit (if you're boiling in a kettle, take the kettle off the burner when it's just shy of boiling). Sourness can also be caused by beans that are too fresh. After roasting, coffee needs time to degas and release its excess carbon dioxide (this typically takes anywhere from a few hours to a day or two). It's typically most noticeable in espresso, and is practically unheard of in beans you've bought at the supermarket. In other words, if your Gevalia is sour, it's not because it's too fresh; adjust your extraction time.

My Coffee is Bitter Bitterness stems from overextraction. If you're using the wrong grind (say, a drip or general purpose grind in a French press), the added surface area leads to more extraction. Brewing for too long leads to the same problem. In either case, pay attention to grind size (using a coarser grind) or your brew time. Experimenting with both variables (and making note of your results) will get you to results you can be happy with. Speaking of the French press, we also suggest not leaving the coffee to sit once you've poured your first cup(s), since the coffee is continuing to brew even though the plunger's down. If you have a thermal carafe, pour your leftovers in there.

My Coffee Is Kinda Weak This can be another side-effect of underextraction. However, the most common culprit is beans that aren't fresh. Regardless of whether you're using whole-bean coffee or pre-ground coffee, remember that freshness matters. Use your coffee as close to its roast date (not its expiration date) as possible. And whatever you do, for the love of all that is good and holy, do not freeze your coffee. Freezing coffee is the surest way we know to rob it of its flavor. Finally, if you're grinding your own beans, find the right coffee grinder. Blade grinders lead to variations in grind size, which leads to poor extraction.

My Coffee Tastes Funny

If you've ever heard someone talk about how much they love a bagel from New York, they may very well say, "It's the water!"* The quality and taste of your water makes a big difference in how your coffee will taste. If you drink bottled water because your tap water doesn't taste right, use the same water for your coffee. If bottled water isn't in the budget, buy a water filter. And if your water isn't the culprit, the next step is checking out your "works." Make sure your coffee gadgets of choice are clean. That means making sure there's no hard water buildup in your kettle, that your brewer -- whether it's a drip machine or Chemex or French Press -- is clean and doesn't have coffee residue, and making sure that you clean your grinder thoroughly after each use so that each fresh grind doesn't have old grounds in it (which is why using a supermarket's coffee grinder is a bad idea).

I Did All Those Things, And My Coffee's Still Awful. Now What? If you've done everything else right -- you've paid attention to your water temperature, the grind, basic cleanliness, the ratio of grounds to water, and your brew time -- that leaves one thing: the quality of your coffee. There's an old axiom that applies to a lot of things in life: Garbage in, garbage out. You can't expect a great cup of coffee from middling or cheap beans. *And if it's not boiled first it's not a bagel, dammit. It's a roll with a hole in it.

A few tips on making better coffee: