As the world of work has changed this year, so has the world of coffee. With more people working from home, and fewer opportunities to grab a cup on the go, more of us are trying to replicate our morning takeout in our own kitchen. Of course there’s nothing wrong with just a jar of instant – but if you want to up your coffee-making game the choices are pretty much endless. For those on the quest for the ultimate, world-beating cup of coffee-heaven, here’s our expert guide.
Take it slow
Jonny England, global head of coffee at Pret a Manger, cautions that you shouldn’t feel the need to try to leap to barista-level coffee expertise from a standing start. “For example, if you’re an instant-coffee drinker, something as simple as switching to roast and ground and making a really great cafetiere in the morning is a huge leap forward in coffee quality.” If this will be your first time buying beans, England suggests you “use a storage clip to keep your pack sealed, and store in a cool, dry place away from any strong odours or sunlight”. Definitely, definitely, do not put them in the fridge. “This will actually accelerate the coffee degrading, due to the moisture and strong odours of food products in your fridge,” he says. “Coffee is like a sponge and soaks up any odours it is exposed to. You really don’t want your coffee to start tasting like blue cheese!”
What type of coffee should you buy?
It’s important to remember that your taste in coffee is completely subjective, so some element of trial and error is to be expected. Anson Goodge, the head trainer at Ozone Coffee Roasters in London, suggests visiting coffee shops in the spirit of experimentation. “You can gain a lot from having a chat with the baristas and asking what coffee they use.”
The bean ‘grade’
The biggest factor in making expert coffee is the quality and freshness of beans. “There’s specialty-grade and commodity-grade beans,” says Goodge. “Pretty much everything you see in a supermarket is commodity-grade coffee. Speciality grade means the cherries are selected and handpicked. They grow at higher climates to develop more natural sweetness. The cherry will develop more acids and that’s where you get diversity of flavour; so whether the coffee tastes kind of tea-like, or like raspberries or a bit like strawberries – it starts getting a little more interesting just because it has more time to develop those flavours.” Another reason to avoid buying your beans from a supermarket: they are likely to have been lingering on a shelf for longer, compromising freshness.
Do you really need to grind your own?
Yes, the mark of a true connoisseur has always been whether or not they grind their own beans. Lewis Spencer of Coffee Direct says: “Pre-ground coffee simply cannot retain the same potent flavours. The moment air starts interacting with coffee particles, they begin to dissipate. With ground coffee, you basically have a larger surface area, which increases the coffee-to-air interactions.”
What’s the best way to do it?
England really doesn’t want you to cut corners by grinding your coffee beans with a spice grinder or – worse – a food processor. “It is very difficult to accurately grind your coffee to the correct setting on either of these items of kitchen equipment,” he says. “They will often heat the beans to too high a temperature, which will damage its flavour. Importantly, it will also produce an uneven size distribution of particles, resulting in an uneven extraction of flavour and often a muddy cup of coffee. Not great.”
If you’re going to commit to doing coffee properly, you’ll need a coffee grinder. The professionals almost uniformly recommend a burr grinder, which crushes not chops your coffee to a precise and uniform size. Manual grinders are cheaper and much quieter – you can pick up decent stainless steel jobs for about £20. An electric burr grinder will save you a lot of effort; they start from as little as £40. Or, if you’re feeling flush, the Daily Espresso website recently chose the £329 Wilfa Uniform+ as its coffee grinder of choice. Not only does it have 41 different settings, but you can operate it remotely with your phone, ensuring that your beans are perfectly ground the instant you step through your front door.
Espresso or drip?
England says that most of Pret’s products revolve around the company’s espresso blend. However, he says, “the reality is that espresso is quite difficult to make well at home. It requires quite a bit of skill. You need to make sure you’re buying fresh coffee. You need to make sure that your water is a good quality.” At home he prefers filter coffee. Goodge backs this up; his weapon of choice at home is a £30 Aeropress. “It’s just a slightly more modern version of a cafetière,” he says. “It works in a very similar way, but you use a paper filter rather than the mesh filter. You spoon some coffee in, pour in some boiling water, leave it to stand for two or three minutes and then press it out. It’s pretty straightforward and they’re quite easy to play around with.”
A note about water
Two main elements are at play here: quality and temperature. Spencer says that the optimum water temperature for an espresso is 90C-96C. “With water below this range, characteristics such as body, acidity and aroma are greatly altered,” he says. Quality is more difficult to get right – there is huge regional variation when it comes to tap water.
England recommends filtering your water, and adjusting your setting “based on your local water supply”. That will “ensure that you strip away any unwanted hardness from the water and leave behind the essential minerals required to extract the optimal coffee flavour”.
Spencer is slightly more forgiving. “Guidelines have been written to suggest the perfect balance of dissolved minerals and pH levels in water to achieve the best results when brewing coffee,” he says. “But most people would rather not have to bother analysing their water. All things considered, to make a flavoursome cup of coffee that does justice to the beans and doesn’t taste flat or bitter, it makes sense to use water that is fresh, cold, clear and free from impurities, chlorine and other undesirable elements.”
England says that British coffee tastes tend to be characterised by a love of “the creamy texture of cappuccinos and lattes and flat whites” – so in the UK, milk is a very important addition to consider. However, there doesn’t seem to be a “best” option – it’s subjective. “Whole or semi-skimmed cow’s milk is perfectly acceptable to most people,” says Spencer. “However, we’re advocates of alternatives; oat milk tends to produce a smoother beverage and works very well with most varieties of coffee. Generally speaking, though, a milk or milk substitute without an overriding flavour of its own is best, otherwise you’re potentially mixing flavours that have no business being consumed at the same time.”
Again, this is subjective, but Goodge advocates not approaching each new coffee with a prescribed notion of how much sugar to dump in. “I think people definitely adapt to sugar,” he says. “So if you naturally have a really high sugar diet, everything’s going to taste bad to you until you get some sweetness in there.” However, “some coffees are naturally sweeter. It’s like if you order soup at a restaurant, you should always try it first and then season it, instead of just automatically putting a bunch of salt in. In our cafe, we don’t put sugar in for customers when they ask. We always just say: ‘Just give it a sip first.’”
Cup or mug
Like wine, the size and shape of a coffee cup can dramatically alter your experience of the drink; to the extent that entire scientific papers have been written about choosing the optimal receptacle for different types of coffee. Spencer says: “Larger sizes of cup tend to have wider diameters, to expose a greater surface area. This can improve the aromatic experience, while also softening the tannins in your brew.” What’s more, “the smell of your coffee can greatly affect the perceived taste, so your choice of cup is important. In much the same way that modern wine glasses feature a large ‘headspace’ – the empty portion that allows aromas to swirl and thus accentuate the drinking experience – the same applies to some coffee glasses.”