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How to Brew Coffee

The NCA Guide to Brewing Essentials 

Coffee is personal - the right way to make it is how you like it best. 

That being said, mastering a few fundamentals will help you perfect your technique. From here, we encourage you to experiment with different roasts, origins, or preparation methods.

Here are our tips to brew a classic cup of coffee.

The Equipment

Make sure that your tools — from bean grinders and filters to coffee makers— are thoroughly cleaned after each use.

Rinse with clear, hot water (or wipe down thoroughly), and dry with an absorbent towel. It’s important to check that no grounds have been left to collect and that there’s no build-up of coffee oil (caffeol), which can make future cups of coffee taste bitter and rancid.

If you’re using a single-serve coffee maker, check our guide for keeping your machine in top shape.

The Beans

Great coffee starts with great beans. The quality and flavor of your coffee is not only determined by your favorite brewing process, but also by the type of coffee you select. There can be a world of difference between roasts, so check out our roasting types guide.

Some of the flavor factors include:

While there are a lot of choices, remember that there’s no right or wrong — for instance, you can choose a dark, flavorful espresso roast coffee and still have it ground to be brewed in a drip system. Have fun trying and enjoying different combinations.

Freshness

Purchase coffee as soon as possible after it’s roasted. Fresh-roasted coffee is essential to a quality cup, so buy your coffee in small amounts (ideally every one to two weeks). Check out our helpful tips on how to store coffee to keep it as fresh and flavorful as possible.

And please, never reuse your coffee grounds to make coffee. Once brewed, the desirable coffee flavors have been extracted and only the bitter ones are left. Instead, check out these six ways to recycle your old grounds.

The Grind

If you buy whole bean coffee, always grind your beans as close to the brew time as possible for maximum freshness. A burr or mill grinder is best because the coffee is ground to a consistent size.  

A blade grinder is less preferable because some coffee will be ground more finely than the rest. If you normally grind your coffee at home with a blade grinder, try having it ground at the store with a burr grinder - you’ll be surprised at the difference! (Whichever option you use, always follow manufacturers' recommendations when using your grinder, and be mindful of any necessary safety considerations.)

The size of the grind is hugely important to the taste of your coffee. If your coffee tastes bitter, it may be over-extracted, or ground too fine.  On the other hand, if your coffee tastes flat, it may be under-extracted, meaning your grind is too coarse. 

(Check out this simple infographic to help you determine the the best texture for your preferred brewing method.)

If you're having the coffee ground to order, tell the professionals where you purchase your coffee exactly how you will be brewing it. Will you be using a French Press?  A flat or cone drip filter? A gold mesh filter? They will grind it specifically for your preparation method.

The Water

The water you use is very important to the quality of your coffee. Use filtered or bottled water if your tap water is not good or has a strong odor or taste, such as chlorine. 

If you’re using tap water, let it run a few seconds before filling your coffee pot, and be sure to use cold water. Avoid distilled or softened water.

Coffee-to-Water Ratio

A general guideline is called the "Golden Ratio" - one to two tablespoons of ground coffee for every six ounces of water. This can be adjusted to suit individual taste preferences.  

Check the cup lines or indicators on your specific brewer to see how they actually measure. And remember that some water is lost to evaporation in certain brewing methods. 

Water Temperature 

Safety first! Of course, any time you are working with heat and hot beverages, take all necessary precautions for everyone from those preparing coffee, to those being served, and drinking coffee. 

Your brewer should maintain a water temperature between 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal extraction. Colder water will result in flat, under-extracted coffee, while water that is too hot will also cause a loss of quality in the taste of the coffee. (However, cold brew does not need any heat.)

If you are brewing the coffee manually, let the water come to a full boil, but do not over boil. Turn off the heat source and allow the water to rest a minute before pouring it over the grounds.

Coffee usually cools rapidly after being served, depending upon the container from which it is being served.  And, many coffee drinkers may add cream or milk which also has a cooling effect. Ultimately, the temperature at which any individual coffee drinker will prefer their coffee is a personal preference, like so many other things that make coffee special. These are some of the reasons why it is best to serve coffee right after brewing, when it is fresh and hot – typically at a temperature of 180-185F. 

Of course, with respect to drinking coffee, vs. serving, you should always allow your coffee – or any hot beverage – to reach a comfortable temperature before drinking. One study has shown that coffee drinkers typically drink their coffee at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

And again, those preparing and serving coffee need to be mindful of safety, which could include factors such as the location where coffee is being served, and the coffee drinkers themselves, which can only be assessed by those preparing and serving coffee.

Brewing Time

The amount of time that the water is in contact with the coffee grounds is another important flavor factor. 

In a drip system, the contact time should be approximately 5 minutes. If you are making your coffee using a French Press, the contact time should be 2-4 minutes. Espresso has an especially brief brew time — the coffee is in contact with the water for only 20-30 seconds. Cold brew, on the other hand, should steep overnight (about 12 hours).

If you’re not happy with the taste of the final product, you're likely either:

  • Over-extracting - the brew time is too long
  • Under-extracting - the brew time is too short

Experiment with the contact time until you get the right balance for your taste.

Enjoy your coffee!

Prepared coffee begins to lose its optimal taste moments after brewing, so only make as much coffee as you’ll drink. Otherwise, coffee can be poured into a warmed, insulated thermos to be consumed within an hour.

(Don't worry - old coffee probably isn't dangerous, just not very appealing. Always use your best judgement before ingesting anything, no matter what you read on the Internet.)

Try to enjoy your coffee as thoughtfully as it was prepared - take in the aroma, and notice the flavors in each sip. Many people have been instrumental in bringing it to your cup.