Riddle me this:

When it comes right down to it, your _________ can ultimately spell the difference between a good cup of coffee and a great one.

Go ahead… think about it. I’ll wait.


If you answered any one (or more) of these — grinder, water, or method of storing roasted beans — then you’re on the right track.

Truth is, while making a great cup of coffee isn’t exactly rocket surgery, it does require that a number of critical factors come together in concert. And if one of those factors is, well — less than harmonic — your symphony of flavors can easily become an avant-garde tone poem. And while the list above is something less than complete, it offers a ready frame of reference for this, the second part in the Best of Coffee series (which I’d better get on with or the holidays will be come and gone!)

Without further ado, let’s resume…

The List

Best Grinder

I’ve burned through a number of grinders the last few years. Idunno, maybe I’m hard on them… or maybe they’re just not built for the kind of volume that I dish out. I drink a fair amount of coffee… and I grind still more when I’m cupping, or tasting.

The grinder that’s outlasted everything that’s come before it is the Infinity, by Capresso. It has the features that are critical to a coffee grinder: conical burrs that are sharp and made of quality steel, a step-down gearing system to slow the grind (a fast grind heats the coffee, vaporizing delicate aromatic oils — not good) and short, straight path from the burrs to the ground-coffee bin. Capresso Infinity GrinderAlso on the plus side, a bean hopper design that effectively defeats “bridging” of darker roasted beans — ’cause there’s few things more frustrating than trying to grind coffee beans that refuse to fall from the hopper — and very little static build-up.

But the real reason that this grinder gets my pick is all about the grind itself. The Infinity offers the most consistent, uniform particle size of any grinder I’ve tried this side of $500 (and some on the far side of that number) with virtually no dust or fining no matter where on the dial you’re grinding — infusion to Turkish — which means a clean cup of coffee no matter your method of brewing. It’s great with coffee presses and vacuum pots, and fabulous paired with a SwissGold cone filter.

(Note: A very high Honorable Mention is due the Baratza-designed Maestro line of coffee grinders. They’re quality gear… but I’m really not comfortable with their design intent of double-duty brewed coffee and espresso grinder.)

Best Water Filter

Coffee is 98% water… so it stands to reason that if your water doesn’t taste good, neither will what’s in your coffee cup. Let’s face it, most municipal water supplies are plenty concerned with making sure what comes out of your tap won’t harm you — it’s really not their problem if it’s not tasty, too.

If you have a whole-house water filter, or an under-sink filter, or a fridge with a built-in water filter, good on you. (Er… when was the last time you replaced the filter? They’re usually good for about three months, tops.) Brita water pitcher If you don’t, get a Brita water pitcher.

Sure, there’s lots of dongles and doodads you can screw on to your faucet. I don’t like ’em. They get in the way of everyday use of your kitchen sink, and — honestly — they look funny. A Brita filtering water pitcher just large enough to fill your coffee pot is all you need… I particularly like this 40 ounce model ’cause it fits in the refrigerator door, and –unlike some models — it doesn’t dribble water where you don’t intend it to go.

Best Coffee Storage

Home-roasters know: green coffee can sit around in the cupboard for a year, easy… but once it’s roasted, the clock starts ticking. More, roasted coffee is pretty finicky. It’s hygroscopic, which means it’s something of a sponge. It’ll happily soak up water out of the atmosphere, and it also soaks up aromas and flavors (what is that… onions? fish?) that might be lurking in that vapor. So get your coffee out of the fridge, already!

I’ve tried any number of systems of coffee storage, from glass canning jars to coffee canisters of all sorts — glass, stainless steel, ceramic — not to mention lots of Rubbermaid and Tupperware products. In the end, unless you have a handy supply of nitrogen to flush them out, or one of those vacu-gizmos to suck out a significant quantity of air, your roasted coffee beans are going to be bathing in lots of oxygen… staling all the way.

The very best solution is to buy (or roast) only as much coffee as you’ll use in a few days to a week — two weeks, tops. But that just isn’t always practical. When it’s not, forget the canisters and gizmos… get a ready supply of valve-bags. Purpose-made for storing coffee, these bags feature multiple layers of metalized plastic film, which makes them a really good vapor barrier (unlike your typical zippie sandwich bag.) More, they feature a high quality zip-top, and a one-way valve that lets air out, but not in.

Where to get them? Try a home-roast supply company like Sweet Maria’s or The Coffee Project. (A word of caution: if you haven’t been sucked in to roasting your own coffee yet, you may be after visiting these web sites.)

In the final episode of the Best of Coffee 2005 series: Ephemera and Everything Else!

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