Home Brew, Part I

There are several ways to produce a good cup of coffee. It is a matter of personal taste and convenience. I generally start the day with a cappucino or latte. At midday, I'll have a straight shot of espresso, or add hot water to the shot to make an americano. At night, I may brew up a cup of decaf in a plunger pot. Every cup is thus a different yet tasty coffee experience.

Let's look as some of the more popular methods of brewing a cup.

Instant Coffee
Yes, it is possible to get a 'drinkable' cup of coffee out of a jar of crystals. The secret? Let the cup 'brew' for a few minutes before drinking it. But if you're drinking instant coffee now because of its simplicity or convenience, you might be surprised at how simple and convenient some of the following methods are, not to mention how much better the resulting coffee tastes.

Drip Filter
This popular method requires nothing more than a pot (or cup), a filter holder, and a paper or gold mesh filter. Some 'experts' will try to intimidate you with precise water pouring patterns, special ways of folding the paper filter, etc. Not to worry. We're looking for maximum flavor for a minimum of effort. The only critical factors are water (proper amount and temperature) and grind (good quality beans, medium to coarse grind). All else is secondary for now.

Simply place the filter in the holder and the holder on the cup or pot. add 6 oz. of medium-coarse grind coffee per cup (about 2 tablespoons) and pour 7 oz. of very hot (but not boiling!) water per cup over the ground coffee. Wait for the water to pass through the grinds, then remove the filter holder. Presto! Good coffee at home with a minimum of effort.

Some people stir the grounds in the hot water to break up any "lumps" of dry grounds. Others presoak the grounds for 30 seconds or so with a small amount of hot water. Still others prewarm both cup and pot with hot water. These techniques can be useful, but they won't help if the water or grind are substandard.

Automatic Drip Coffee Makers
These are simply drip filter type machines that automate the water heating and pouring process. Some offer pot warming functions or timers that automatically brew a pot at a certain time. They are convenient and generally inexpensive, but the quality of the brewed coffee depends greatly on how effective the water temperature is controlled, and how accurately the coffee and water are measured.

The siphon consists of a glass bulb on the bottom fitted with an open-top glass funnel. The coffee is placed on a filter mat in the bottom of the funnel, and water is placed in the bulb. Heat-usually an open flame-is applied to the bulb, heating the water and air inside the bulb. The increased air pressure forces the water up into the funnel, where it is stirred into the grounds. The heat source is removed, and the resulting drop in air pressure inside the bulb lets gravity pull the brewed coffee back down through the filter mat and into the bulb.

That's a technical description, but it can't adequately describe the almost magical moment when the water suddenly climbs up the funnel tube, then slides back down moments later. It is worth trying if only to amaze the children (and grown-ups) in your house.

Coffee Press (French Press, Plunger Pot)
Even simpler than the drip filter, the coffee press consists of a tall glass pot with a mesh plunger mounted in a removable lid. Coarsely ground coffee is measured into the pot, and very hot water is added. The lid is then placed on the pot with the plunger up. After 3-4 minutes, the plunger is pressed down, forcing the grounds through the water to the bottom of the pot. The coffee is then poured directly from the pot into a cup.

This is the classic six-sided 'espresso' pot from Italy. Water is placed in the lower chamber, coffee in the middle chamber. The upper chamber is screwed on, and the whole thing is placed on the stove. When the water boils, steam/air pressure forces the water up through the coffee grinds and into the upper chamber. When brewing is completed, the whole pot is taken from stovetop to tabletop, where it becomes an elegant decanter.

Next time we'll take a look at two increasingly popular methods of brewing superior coffee at home: the double-strength steam machine and the genuine home espresso machine.