Since professing my love for the Chemex on Release Notes a while back, I’ve been getting lots of questions about my coffee methodology. (Who knew a business tech podcast would have so many coffee drinkers in its audience?) So I figured I’d write up some thoughts here, so I have an easy place to reference for future inquiries.
First things first: This is not the path to the best coffee on earth. It’s the path to the best coffee for me. Once you get into any sort of food snobbery, be it wine, beer, whisky, coffee, or whatever, you realize that beyond a certain point, your preferences actually become very important. You can read the ramblings of experts for years, and they will never all agree on the one, canonical way to do anything. That’s because there are valid differences of opinion about these matters, especially at the expert level. And at any rate, you should never eat or drink anything a certain way only because someone else told you to. Food is for enjoying. Do what makes you happy.
There’s a great scene in For Your Eyes Only when Kristatos recommends a white Robolo wine to James Bond. Bond doesn’t say “No, that’s crap. Give me the Theotaki Aspero instead.” Instead, he says “Well, if you’ll forgive me, I find that a little too scented for my palate.” He’s not saying Kristatos is wrong. He’s saying he knows enough about his own taste to know that the recommendation is likely not going to suit him. Bond may be wrong about shaking his martini, but he knows how to pick a wine.
The point is, if you find this article informative, or if it inspires you to try something new with your coffee methodology, that’s great. I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m just responding to the many people who are curious about how I go about my coffee ritual every day.
This is the model I use. Just the basic 6-cup. Not the expensive hand-blown version. I imagine that one is beautiful, but I can’t imagine it has any effect on the taste of the coffee.
I can’t put my finger on why I prefer the Chemex to the Aeropress; something about the openness of the flavor. There’s nothing wrong with the Aeropress; I use it in my travel rig, thanks to its more compact size and better durability for travel. But at home, I’m going to run to the Chemex just about every day.
I also own a French Press, which I will use from time to time for fun. But it’s messy compared to the Chemex, and the flavor, while a nice change up, doesn’t suit me as well on a day-to-day basis.
A burr grinder is very helpful for good coffee. The Baratza Virtuoso came on the recommendation of Marco Arment, who is seldom wrong about these things. I can add that I’ve had this unit for a few years now, and when the plastic piece that holds the burrs in place broke a few months back, I was able to get a replacement part in a few days for a few bucks. Baratza really stands behind its products, and this thing was designed to be repaired—not simply tossed away when things go wrong. I suspect I’ll be using this grinder for many years to come.
So while this may look pricey to some, there’s no question this grinder is worth the money ten times over. Anything you use every day for several years has to be worth more than a couple hundred bucks, doesn’t it?
If you’re not convinced, find yourself a much cheaper burr grinder. I started out with a simple blade spice grinder, and while it got the job done, I immediately noticed a difference when I switched to the burr. There are inexpensive burr grinders in the $30 range. And I’m sure they work perfectly well. Don’t let the cost of a grinder stop you from making good coffee. Most reputable bean sellers will also grind coffee for you if you ask. It’s not as ideal to grind the coffee all at once, rather than one day at a time, but it’s still better than not using fresh beans at all.
This is one area where I disagree with many coffee aficionados. A long time ago, a Japanese tea snob convinced me that hot water and metal are a terrible combination. There’s a reason the more expensive loose leaf tea pots are all ceramic, without a metal cage for catching the tea leaves. Metal is great for music, not so much for liquids. At least for me. Maybe you like coffee that has that metallic aftertaste. I use glass whenever possible for heating up my water.
For a while, I was using the Chemex glass kettle. This thing looks amazing; it’s in the MoMA for it’s beautiful design, in fact. But it’s a bit unwieldy and hard to keep clean in practice. Plus, heating up water on hot summer days via the stovetop makes the kitchen hotter. So I’ve moved to a glass electric kettle.
This one from Bella is reasonably priced and works great.
As I mentioned on Release Notes, I subscribe to Blue Bottle for my beans. This started as a Tonx subscription, but Tonx was later bought by Blue Bottle. This scared me at first, as I feared there would be a loss in quality going from two guys in their LA garage to a bigger company like Blue Bottle but they haven’t let me down so far. Every two weeks, I get a new bag of beans from various regions all around the world.
The thing I like about the bean subscription is that I get to try all sorts of varieties I probably wouldn’t try on my own. I’m very open-minded about the various places that produce good coffee around the world. I’m certainly not a “Kenya or bust” sort of person, by any means. If the beans are good, they are good. And the change in flavor every few weeks is welcome, given that I’m drinking this stuff every single day.
If I had to choose a favorite region, though, I’d have to say that the farms in Guatemala tend to produce my favorite beans. Other parts of Central and South America are also favorites. I’m not nearly as big a fan of African coffees, in general, as most coffee snobs are. But again, I’m not going to say no to any good quality beans roasted properly. Your palette is yours. Drink coffees from everywhere and decide for yourself what suits you.
A note about “flavored” beans. French Vanilla. Honey hazelnut, etc. These are generally attempts to cover up lower-quality beans, or to sweeten-up the flavor of coffee, thus making coffee more appealing to a wider audience. It’s very similar to adding milk and sugar. Good coffee should never require any of these things. Coffee is not a sweet beverage, but neither is it particularly bitter.
I will repeat that. Coffee is not particularly bitter.
Burnt, poorly roasted coffee is bitter. Low-quality beans are bitter. Coffee that’s been sitting in a percolator all day getting reheated several times is bitter. If your coffee is coming out bitter tasting, there’s something wrong in the process.
I’m not saying no one should put milk in their coffee. But it’s sort of like putting ice in Scotch. Something you might do to make it more palatable early on, but something from which you eventually want to wean yourself as you develop a taste for the beverage.
I started my coffee drinking life with cheap Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with tons of cream and sugar. If I tasted that now, I’d probably reel from the sweetness bomb. Open your palette when trying high-quality coffee. At least try it without sugar or milk occasionally. Then work yourself down to drinking it black every day, if you can.
Black coffee has 0 calories. A Starbucks Caffe Mocha with whipped cream has 400 calories. Go with non-fat milk, or skip the whipped cream all you want. You’re never going to beat 0 calories in black coffee.
I have the metal-top version of this scale, not the glass, but it’s the same basic model. I use it not only to measure the beans before grinding, but also while pouring the water into the Chemex. Water to bean ratio is extremely important for good coffee consistency. But again, this is a matter of preference. Don’t be afraid to experiment with more or less water to get the coffee to a place where it makes you happy. The “rules” are guidelines. As with any good recipe, you measure for consistency, not because a particular number that someone put in a book is magical.
Shameless plug time: I actually use my own timer app, Fin, when making coffee every morning, though the app isn’t made expressly for that purpose. The reason is that I can set Fin to change the color of the entire screen at 30-seconds into a four-minute countdown. In the morning, before I’ve had my coffee, seeing a screen change to bright yellow is a bit more attention-grabbing than a number going from 3:31 to 3:30.
Why 30 seconds? The theory goes that freshly ground beans need to “open up” when they are first exposed to water. So you pour just a bit of water over the grounds and wait that 30 seconds before going all-in with the water. I have no idea if this actually has any real effect on the taste of my coffee, but I do it every day more as part of the ritual than anything else.
Once the 30 seconds are up, I pour in more water and let the timer count down the rest of the way to 0, so I know when the water should be completely dripped through the filter. Because I’m measuring the amount of water I’m putting in carefully, and because I’ve been doing this for years, I can count on the water being through the filter by 4 minutes every time. This is important, as coffee beans will start to go bitter if they are exposed to water too long.
I use my trusty Apple mug from the Apple Campus Store in Cupertino, of course. Some days, I’ll opt for my blue Heath Ceramics mug, just for a change of pace. As long as it’s not metal, pretty much any reasonably-priced receptacle will do.
I don’t move around with my coffee often, so I don’t have a travel mug. If I’m leaving the apartment, I’ve already finished my coffee, or I’m heading to a cafe for my second cup and a change of atmosphere. Maybe because most travel mugs tend to be metal, I’ve never had any real motivation to find one that I like. I had a small glass thermos in my travel rig (until I accidentally broke it recently). But glass is difficult for travel. So I usually use whatever cups or coffee mugs are available to me at the hotels in which I stay.
I start by measuring out my beans. One ounce is all I use. A lot of people will say that I don’t use enough beans, or I use too much water, etc. I don’t like my coffee super strong. I want to taste it; I don’t want it to punch me in the face. Like I keep saying, find a ratio that works for you.
The Baratza is set to the middle coarseness for Chemex, roughly somewhere around 21 clicks into the 40 available. Very slightly to the coarse side of the scale, in other words. If I’m doing Aeropress, I’ll move this to a 6 or 7—almost as fine as it gets. If I’m using the French Press, I’ll go in the other direction, out to 30 or 35. The Chemex uses a paper filter, so technically, you can go as fine as you like. But since you are not pressuring the water down, but rather letting it drip, it can take too long to drip through very fine grounds. That leads to the beans getting overexposed to the water, which means bitter coffee. Experiment until you find a coarseness that works for you.
I always grind my beans at the last possible moment. After measuring, I don’t grind right away. I just pop them into the hopper, and move on to filling my kettle with water. I filter my water at the tap, as my New York City apartment doesn’t have the cleanest pipes in the world. I just fill the kettle to the recommended max line, and heat it up.
Next, I get a filter ready. Once the water is just about boiling, I stop it, activate the grinder, then saturate my filter with a bit of the hot water. This helps get the filter into proper position, as it will move around too easily when it’s dry. Just a bit of water to wet it down, then pour out the excess water.
Then, the ground beans go into the filter, and the Chemex gets placed on the scale. I reset the scale to zero at this point, so I can measure exactly how much water is going into the Chemex. I start the timer, pour in just enough water to make the beans wet, then wait the 30 seconds for the blooming of the beans. Once the 30-seconds are up, I pour in water in a circular motion, slowly, until I fill up the upper reservoir. Then I wait for the water to drip down, and repeat, until I’ve poured about 35 ounces of water in. At that point, I know that any more water will likely overflow the Chemex. I move on to whatever else I need to do in the kitchen at this point, to wait out the remaining two minutes or so on my timer. Get some eggs started, read some articles on my iPhone. Whatever.
Once the four minutes are up, the filter can be removed, and the coffee is ready to pour. I get about three and a half cups out of the Chemex every day, which is good, since I’m not the only coffee drinker in the household. If you live alone, or you’re the only coffee drinker, you can make less, of course.
I usually wait for the coffee to cool a bit before drinking. One of these days, I’ll get a kettle that allows me to regulate the temperature of the water to be exact, but in the meantime, I don’t mind making it a bit too hot then waiting a minute or two to drink.
I use this cool glass topper to keep the coffee hot inside the Chemex between cups. Since I’m generally up earlier than others, this will guarantee that the coffee is still hot for the last person to pour.
I generally only drink one cup a day at home. The older I get, the more sensitive I seem to get to caffeine. Not that it keeps me awake; I can still sleep fine right after having coffee. But it does make me anxious if I have more than two coffees in a single day. So I do one at home, and then another at a cafe, if I happen to be going out to work, which is quite often.
Cleaning a Chemex is even easier than an Aeropress. Just throw out the filter with the beans in it and give the Chemex a nice rinse after all the coffee is gone. It’s all glass, and there are no ground beans anywhere but in the filter. Once in a while, I’ll give it a more thorough cleaning with a brush, for good measure, but in general, a Chemex is about as low-maintenance as anyone could ask of a kitchen appliance.
I wish I could say the same of the grinder, which is a bit more challenging to clean.
All told, it takes me about 6 or 7 minutes of my morning to make coffee that rivals anything I can get in the best coffee shops in New York or San Francisco. And it’s significantly cheaper on a daily basis than a K-cup machine or going to a Starbucks every morning. Of all the things to get hard-core geeky about, coffee is one of the least expensive.
So that’s basically how I do coffee.
Traveling is another matter, and I will address my travel rig in a follow-up piece soon. Different equipment is required for packing into a small suitcase. But there’s no reason to suffer through hotel coffee when you are on the go. So we’ll have a look at what I use on the road soon.
- Unlike many Mac tech geeks, I never bought into the Blue Bottle craze when it became popular thanks to the shop near Moscone West. It’s good, and all, but hardly the best coffee in San Franciso. When I lived in the City, my favorite roaster and bean source was always Four Barrel in the Mission. I still make it a point to visit Four Barrel every time I get to San Francisco. They only do pour over during limited hours in the late morning/early afternoon, but it’s well worth the trip. Many non-coffee drinkers I’ve taken to Four Barrel over the years have told me they finally understood the coffee craze after trying a cup there. ↩
- I consider myself a whisky snob, and I don’t like the peaty Islay malts nearly as much as most do, either. I think my palette is just different. Or maybe I’m just a contrarian at heart. ↩
- This is critical. Do not reheat coffee. At least, not if you want it to taste good. If your coffee gets cool before you finish it, drink it cool. Or put some ice in it and try it as iced. Reheating will introduce bitterness into the flavor. You’re better off making a fresh batch if you really need it hot. ↩