I’m here to beg you to make your own coffee when you can. You’ll save money and drink better.
Not to single out any one company, but Starbucks is utter garbage: the McDonald’s of the coffee world. Most chains aren’t much better, and neither are “good” restaurants, where a cup of weak, badly made coffee costs the same as five or even 10 cups of good homemade coffee.
Back in 1983, when I worked as a PR flack at Yale New Haven Hospital (I didn’t last long) with the late and sorely missed Gene Cooney, our office had a Mr. Coffee. Mr. Coffee was introduced in 1972 and was a major advance in coffee making. Chemex and Melitta already existed, but they weren’t in common use; in fairness, they’re too complicated for offices. At that point, much of America still depended on percolators, which make a special kind of coffee that one can come to love, but which can’t be considered “good.” Away from home, we mostly relied on vending machines that dispensed what are accurately called “coffee-like drinks.”
No matter the system, if you follow conventional manufacturers’ instructions, you mostly get weak coffee. If you use Maxwell House in a can or the like, you mostly get weak, lousy coffee. That was the situation at our office in 1983. But Gene and I figured out that if you used double the amount of coffee everyone in the office was accustomed to, you produced rocket fuel — high-potency bad coffee — which is much better than low-potency bad coffee, in the same way that bad whiskey is better than bad beer: It more efficiently achieves the same goal. In this case, the goal is not flavor but caffeine delivery, although cream and sugar can make anything taste good. (I can still hear Gene, on deadline: “Mark, I think you’d better fire us up some rocket fuel.”)
Gene and I figured out that if you used double the amount of coffee everyone in the office was accustomed to, you produced rocket fuel.
Things have not changed that much: Starbucks has marketed their way into convincing you that you have to stand in line and overpay for “good” coffee (or for a calorie bomb, another issue), but my contention is that unless you find an obsessive, super-boutiquey coffee place — and of course you can, if you look — you’re almost never going to have good coffee unless you make it yourself. You can get your caffeine fix, which is great, but you’re just as well off buying caffeine pills (which cost 4 cents each for about the amount in a Dunkin’ “medium”) and drinking water.
There are 25 10-ounce cups of coffee in a pound of beans; really, really good, organic, fair-trade coffee can be had for under $20 a pound, which translates to less than a dollar a cup. (This may be recency bias — I tried it just last week, though I “tried” it about 10 times — but the best coffee I ever tasted in the United States is from Mr. Espresso in Oakland.)
Obviously, you start with good coffee beans. (Although robusta has more caffeine, if you care about flavor you want arabica beans; no place that even pretends to have good coffee would sell you anything else. Even Walmart proclaims they’re selling arabica.) Your ethics will determine where you buy those and how much you spend, but here we’re talking about flavor. I do not have the most discerning palate in the world, but in this little piece, I’m going to try to tell you about the differences I believe matter.
First, fresh-roasted coffee tastes better — brighter, deeper — than not-fresh-roasted coffee. If I can taste the difference you probably can, too. I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker, but it’s a consideration.
Technique and amount are more important. How your coffee is ground matters — and the experts are probably right when they say that burr grinders are way better than blade grinders. (To me, the grind is less significant than fresh versus not-fresh roasting.) I use a burr grinder because I have one, but I wouldn’t rush out and buy one if I didn’t. I know there’s such a thing as too-fine coffee, and in making espresso, that can be a problem, but in drip coffee, not so much. Perhaps if you have a $400 grinder, you might make too-fine coffee, but if you have a $400 grinder, you probably know more than I do, so stop here. I’m just trying to convince people who don’t make their own coffee to make it at home, not running a class in “the best.”
I use 20 grams of coffee per 10-ounce cup; this is pretty standard for good, strong coffee. (The cups most of us use hold 12 ounces, but you’re not going to fill it to the brim. If you’re making two 12-ounce cups, you can use 35 grams; four such cups is around 65 grams. And so on.) If you’re on a budget you can use 17 grams, even 15 will be tolerable: Less will produce really weak coffee. Unless you want more caffeine at the expense of flavor, 20 is the magic number. That’s roughly four heaping teaspoons, but a scale costs $10 and you’ll use it for many things once you have it.
To brew one cup at a time, put a paper filter in a little cone and wet it with hot water. Preheat your cup, too. Weigh the coffee. Heat water to not-quite-boiling, around 200 degrees Fahrenheit or 93 degrees Celsius. This takes less time than boiling, which is nice and is also theoretically less likely to make bitter coffee, though again, I don’t think this matters much. Wet the grounds evenly, let that sit for a half-minute or so, then evenly wet them again. Repeat until done. Enjoy.
I still use a Melitta for two cups. (That’s 20 to 24 ounces; since a classic “cup” is 6 ounces, the Melitta marking of “4” really translates to “2.”) When I want more than that, I use an automatic machine, and these have gotten very good — like 1,000 times better than Mr. Coffee. I can’t claim to have tested them, but both the Zojirushi and the Oxo work really well: They have timers and thermoses that keep the coffee quite hot and great-tasting for a couple of hours.
This explanation likely doesn’t answer all of your questions or solve all of your problems. Because no matter how good your coffee is at home, and no matter how much you’re willing to spend at Philz or whatever’s taken the place of Blue Bottle, there are times you’re stuck with an office, or with a Keurig, or both.
I’m just trying to convince people who don’t make their own coffee to make it at home, not running a class in ‘the best.’
There are two solutions I’ve come up with over the years. One is to set up a personal coffee station with an electric kettle with coffee you’ve ground at home or bought ground. This is messy, even if you use a French press, which is probably the best option for desktops. (I’m not a big fan of French presses because of the accident factor and anyone who’s had one knows what I mean. Also, if you put enough coffee in there to make really strong coffee, you need the strength of an ox to press it through.) And if you’re doing this, you might be cleaning up at the bathroom sink, or making a mini-mess in the office kitchen. You will be labeled a snob, which I know from experience, especially if you use an Aero.
The other is hacking! The Keurigs and related systems so popular in offices now are bad from most angles: We don’t know what coffee is in them; they skimp on the coffee so that the result is always weak; and from an environmental perspective, they make you weep. (This last can be worked around with a refillable Keurig cartridge, which also allows you to fill the thing with good coffee. You still have to follow this hack I’m about to tell you about, though.)
You can force a cartridge coffee machine to make coffee that will be way better than the brown water they’re trying to get you to accept. Here’s how: Most machines have an option for a half-cup: They might call it “4 oz,” or they might call it “iced coffee” (you want stronger coffee for iced coffee, is the implication). And the hack is — basically — do it twice. Fill a cup halfway with one cartridge, throw the cartridge out, and fill the rest with another. This makes coffee that is precisely twice as strong as usual — still not strong enough, but at least approaching rocket fuel. (As for the environmental problem…yes, it’s even worse. Perhaps the better option is the caffeine pill.)
The same technique can be employed in hotels, where they have those silly little trays with a paper filter filled with coffee: Put half the water needed in the machine and run it; take the filter out, replace it, and do it again. I’m quite sure there are other hacks — you’ll let me know.
These suggestions are not rocket science. But they’ll save you a trip to Starbucks, some money, and keep you from drinking terrible coffee.
Mark Bittman is the author of more than 20 acclaimed books, including the “How to Cook Everything” series. He wrote for The New York Times for more than two decades, and became the country’s first food-focused op-ed columnist for a major news publication. He has hosted two television series and been featured in two others, including the Emmy-winning “Years of Living Dangerously.” Bittman is currently the special adviser on food policy at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and the editor-in-chief of Heated.