This is not a post on how to make “the best” coffee but, rather, how to make pretty decent, very easy, very cheap, zero-waste coffee. Clearly, those folks who see coffee as an art form would take umbrage at my loose approach to the whole endeavor. So if you want to learn how to brew a cup of coffee as precious as a bowl of rubies and as serious as the emperor’s clothes, then you should probably re-do your Google search to include “perfect” or “spectacular” or “incredible” or “amazing”. I personally don’t feel that any marginal improvement in quality provided by a gooseneck kettle or gram scale could possibly be worth the headache of taking it all so seriously.
So here it is.
How to Make Pretty Decent, Very Easy, Very Cheap, Zero Waste Coffee.
Step 1: Boil water.
You can do this any old way. I do it in an old fashioned tea kettle. Fill it up, heat it up.
Step 2: Place a filter in a coffee-receiving vessel.
Filter: I use cotton filters made from unbleached cotton muslin (available at any fabric store for about $2/yd), cut into rough scraps about 16″ square. I fold the scrap in half to make a 2-ply filter (which slows the filtration a bit and gives the coffee a more robust flavor). I rinse, dry and re-use each cotton filter over and over and over, until something nasty happens to it (i.e., falls into the dog’s mouth) or it just seems like it’s time to replace it. In other words, a $2 yard of muslin can keep me in filters for more than a year. Paper, metal and ceramic filters also work, but my personal preference is cotton.
Vessel: I use a classic Chemex at home. The Chemex is attractive and holds the filter/grounds in place, which is convenient. When camping and traveling I’ve also made perfectly good coffee using a Thermos or mason jar as the vessel (just fasten the cotton filter in place with a rubber band).
Step 3: Dump some ground coffee in the filter.
Coffee: I usually drink Trader Joe’s Fair Trade/Organic Sumatra ($7.99). It tastes very good, especially for the price. Want to try something different? My advice is to go to the store, buy a coffee that is freshly roasted, a couple of steps above Folgers, and sounds tasty to you. Robust with dark caramel notes? Totally my style. Bright floral overtones? Not my favorite, but probably someone’s.
Grind: I grind my own beans and that does help the flavor. But if you don’t have or don’t want to bother with your own coffee grinder, just buy already-ground coffee or grind it at the store. Don’t worry about the exact grind size. Talking about grind size is one of the ways coffee snobs try to intimidate you.
Amount per Pot: The exact amount is not particularly important as long as you have enough (remember, people made coffee while crossing the great plains in covered wagons – gram scales are not essential). Start with about half a cup of ground coffee for a small pot (about four cups of water), or 2 tablespoons per cup of coffee. If it’s too strong, reduce the amount of coffee you use the next day. If too weak, add some more. After a few days you’ll have figured out the best amount of coffee to use for your size of vessel & flavor preferences.
Step 4: Take boiling water off the heat & pour slowly over the ground coffee.
After it drains, pour some more. Repeat a few times until you have the desired amount of coffee.
That’s it. You’re done.
Drink your coffee. Think about whether you want to change up the water/coffee ratio in future batches or try a different kind of roast the next time you visit the grocery store. No big deal.
After you’ve mastered the basic skill of coffee making, you can start considering fancier options. Buying your own grinder. Learning how to use a French press or espresso machine. Buying expensive beans from the artisanal roaster who personally hauls them from Colombia in the basket of his fixie bicycle. You could even learn how to roast your own beans. Sure. Of course. There are all sorts of ways to spend more money and more time* to make your very simple, very good coffee even better. But to make simple, excellent coffee? Just pour hot water over ground beans.
I should confess that I also own a home roaster, an espresso machine and a French press — I like good coffee and have tried many methods of preparing it. However, I have found that the simple approach cited above (which I use nearly every day) provides the best quality for the amount of effort expended, and therefore my fancier machinery almost never comes out of the cabinet.
Please also note that although the marketing arm of the coffee world has designed all sorts of gadgetry for coffee connoisseurs with heavy wallets, spending money on gear doesn’t necessarily result in better coffee. In particular, I am not a fan of the Keurig systems, as you can read about here.