Your coffee-loving friends have already told you that it’s a bad idea to buy ground coffee. They say it’s not as fresh, that ground coffee goes stale quickly. But hey, you’ve been drinking coffee for years, buying it already ground, and you’ve been perfectly happy with it, right?
I understand where you are coming from, because even though I have always been an advocate of fresh, whole bean coffee, I’ve had some pretty decent cups of coffee that went straight from the bag to the brewer. Coffee is what they call in the food industry, “shelf stable”. It doesn’t go bad the way milk, eggs, or apples do. With coffee, something else happens. It fades. What starts out as vibrant becomes muted over time. Something that starts out as a vivid red, softens over time, turning to a pink rose. Still flavorful, just not the brilliant flavor it once was, or could have been.
Maybe you’re perfectly happy with muted colors. Perhaps flavor isn’t enough reason for you to change what you’re doing. After all, you’re happy with what you are drinking now, and maybe you enjoy adding cream and sugar to mask the rougher flavors and create a smoother beverage. It’s easy to stick with what you know. Grinding coffee is messy, time-consuming and requires going out and buying another appliance, then learning how to use it, how fine to grind, how much coffee to add. It’s confusing.
In truth, it’s not that hard to figure out, and the reward is worth it. Think about all of the times you have had coffee in your life, and think about that one time you were amazed by how good the coffee tasted. Maybe you were on vacation, or at a fancy restaurant, or at a friends house. Somehow, that one cup transcended your experience of what coffee could be. It was a glimpse into what a coffee connoisseur strives to achieve on a daily basis. And while they may not achieve perfection, every cup of coffee they make is better than what you drink almost every single time.
And it’s not because their coffee is fresh. That’s only part of it. It’s also because they understand the importance of grinding coffee.
The reason you should grind your own coffee is because every coffeemaker has an optimum grind, and there is no way that coffee roasters can provide you with a single grind that works perfectly on all coffeemakers. The best we can do is shoot for a common denominator, and leave the rest to chance.
Let me provide you with an example. I have 3 different coffee brewers, and all are relatively similar. They use a paper filter with a flat bottom. But that is where their similarity ends. I can grind coffee to a standard grind for all three brewers, using the same ratio of coffee, 1 oz. of ground coffee per 20 oz. of water. On one brewer, the coffee will come out near perfect. On the second, it will come out weak, and on the third, it will be bitter and over-extracted. I can adjust my grind coarser to solve the bitterness problem, but would this new grind work on the other brewers? Nope. I’d try to adjust by adding more coffee, but that would lead to over-filling my basket and getting coffee grounds everywhere. The only practical solution is to adjust my grind for each brewer, and only then can I achieve coffee that is consistently flavorful and lacking bitterness.
By grinding your coffee, you can find the perfect grind for your coffeemaker. It requires experimentation, but once you lock in to your perfect grind, your coffee will be consistently better, every single day. Here’s a recipe for finding your perfect grind.
You will need a burr grinder* and a kitchen scale or other scale with an accuracy of .1 oz. or better, and a bag of decent whole bean coffee. You don’t need the most expensive coffee for this, but it should be fresh, and a medium roast. Measure the amount of water that makes a full pot with your coffeemaker. Don’t go by the markings on your coffee pot, because with coffeemakers, a cup is not 8 oz. It might be 4.5 oz. or 6 oz. or some other arbitrary number that lets the manufacturer say it’s a 12 cup or 14 cup coffeemaker.
Now that you know how much water you are using, measure out 1 oz. of coffee beans per 20 oz. of water. This is your starting ratio, you may adjust it later, but for now, you want to stick to the same amount of coffee for each pot. Grind your coffee so that it is a little coarser than table salt, and a little finer than Kosher salt. That’s the range you want to work within.
Make a pot of coffee, and ask yourself, is it bitter? If the answer is yes, set your grind coarser and make a new pot of coffee. If it’s not bitter, ask yourself, is it weak? If it’s weak, set your grind finer and make a new pot of coffee. Repeat these steps until you can say the coffee is as strong as you can make it, without getting bitter. Once you reach this point, it’s time to move on to brew ratio.
Now that we’ve removed bitterness from the equation, ask yourself, is my coffee too strong, or too weak? If it is too strong, reduce the amount of coffee by .25 oz. If it is too weak, increase the amount of coffee by .25 oz. That should be enough to make a significant difference in the strength of your coffee. If you over-shoot your mark, adjust accordingly. If it doesn’t go far enough, change the ratio of coffee to water a little more. if at any point the coffee starts tasting bitter, back off on your grind by a small step, making it coarser.
Using this method, you can adjust your grind and brew ratio over several days, to fine-tune your settings without wasting much coffee. You’ll probably toss out a few pots of brew on that first day, but once you get close to something that you can enjoy drinking, it’s a fun challenge to tweak your formula a little to see if you can improve things just a little further. Chances are, after the first few rounds of adjusting your grind you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much better your coffeemaker is performing, and it won’t be long before you are inviting your coffee-crazy friends over to share a cup of something close to bliss. 🙂
• About coffee grinders: There are essentially 2 types of coffee grinders made for the home, burr grinders and blade grinders. Burr grinders have been around for a long time, and can be either hand-operated or motor driven. In every case, the bean go in the top and drop into another part that catches the grounds. Blade grinders are a fairly recent invention, and they operate like a food processor, where a blade spins at a high rate of speed, shattering the beans into finer and finer pieces.
I always recommend burr grinders because blade grinders are too inconsistent. They make some of the coffee into a fine powder, and that powder will quickly make your coffee bitter. Burr grinders can have some inconsistency, but much less than blade grinders. Also, you can set a burr grinder to a specific size of coffee ground, providing much more control over your coffee extraction. With blade grinders, you really have no control, so you have no consistency. It’s really not possible to optimize your coffee brewing with only a blade grinder.