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General home-brewing tips

December 05, 2010

Brewing at home is a comfy experience for me. I've got beans that I like, equipment that I know the quirks of, and various amusement-park mugs with my name on them. That said, I know that I'm not making the best coffee possible. I don't grind with a Ditting and my Honduran Cup of Excellence Lot #3 isn't 72 hours out of the Probat that I nobly rescued from the desuetude of a secluded Swiss monastery. My understanding of brewing is better than that of the average bear but I haven't won any barista championships...lately. That said, I've a set of habits that bear consistently tasty results. Among them -->

Really clean equipment. This is particularly important if you're brewing using with a filtering method that doesn't trap insolubles (i.e., if you're not using paper filters). We're talking French Press, metal/cloth pour-overs, etc. Oils can linger on your stuff and taint future brews. There are coffee-specific detergents like Cafiza and Puro Caff, but with most things you're probably fine with a gentle soap. (Notable exception: cloth.)

Of course this applies to grinders as well. Even the Baratza line--which I really like for home-use, in part because they retain few grounds--benefits from a pre-brew purge. Before grinding my dose, I'll run 2-3 grams through to reduce the stock of old grounds that are still in the chamber. Every few days I'll bust out my vacuum to get the chamber even cleaner. Every few months I'll run a packet of Grindz or something equivalent to get it even cleaner than even cleaner. (Rice is not an equivalent and is potentially damaging.)

Dialing in. The drawback of trying a lot of different coffees is you have to dial in each coffee (then again, you'd have to do some of this even if you were using the "same" coffee...there's no such thing). There's no universal coffee recipe out there. I think it's easiest to do this by adjusting your dose. Espresso is infamous for its adjustment-neediness but what's usually called brewed coffee benefits from this kind of attention as well.

Freshness. There's not much you can do to extend coffee's life. When you've got an open bag, the best way to close it isto squeeze out all the air you can and then roll the bag up. There are canisters out there that do this in a more elegant way, if you're interested in that kind of thing. Still, there's discernible degeneration each day and eventually, after a week or so, distinct flatness. As far as freezing goes, I'm not in principle against it. I'd love to get a quarter-pound from my local roaster but the good ones in my city don't sell anything less than a half-pound. And if you're ordering from Roaste, obviously it's attractive to get free shipping, which often means buying more than one bag. But I don't want to just keep that second bag in the cupboard; it'll be better if it's properly frozen and unfrozen. How? 

I'll only freeze a bag that's been vacuum sealed (taking care to tape the one-way valve), I'll only freeze it once and I'll let it defrost overnight before opening (not strictly necessary, since whatever defrosting there is happens pretty fast). Coffee that's fresh before being properly frozen and unfrozen isn't the same as fresh never-frozen coffee but it's better than it would otherwise be if it was instead hanging out in the cupboard for a couple of weeks.

Your mileage may vary, etc. 

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