For the sake of argument, let’s say you spend $2 every morning for a small — or to use the company’s Orwellian Doublespeak, a “tall” — cup of coffee at Starbucks. Without blinking an eye, you’ve spent $60 a month on your caffeine fix.
And that doesn’t even take into account the travel costs, the tips and the potential lack of willpower to resist the caramel macchiato with extra whip, which will double your cost to $4 a day. This is real money, the kind that could be invested into your nonexistent retirement accounts or, more realistically, rolled into a better coffee ritual at home.
Two things will happen if you brew your own joe at home: You’ll save a little cash, and you’ll expand your options beyond the blends and the handful of single-origin coffees available at most chain shops. Over time, you might even find that your home brew is better, and more consistent, than anything found at Starbucks, Peet’s or other national chains.
Now, I can already hear you balking at this idea, dropping one of two standard arguments:
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“But I don’t have the time to make my own coffee!”
“But I can’t afford the equipment needed to brew good coffee at home!”
Like many rationalizations in life — all, essentially, variations on the dog-ate-my-homework plea from childhood — these are little lies we tell ourselves to justify our behavior. I plan to bust down these myths and show you the simplest, cheapest way to improve your coffee game at home, one element at a time.
1. Buy freshly roasted coffee beans
Computer scientists have long used an expression that applies to almost everything in life: garbage in, garbage out. Inferior beans will lead to inferior coffee. So, how do you define inferior beans? One way is to look at their roast date. Buy only freshly roasted beans and use them, ideally, within two weeks of the roast date, three weeks at the latest. Otherwise, oxygen will degrade the beans, affecting their flavors.
Be suspicious of packaging with “use by” dates that promise fresh beans six months down the road. These bags and canisters are probably nitrogen-flushed, which will indeed extend the shelf life of beans.
But once you open the package, you will probably have to brew those beans fast. Really fast. Once open, the beans are thought to degrade quickly. Another thing: Never buy pre-ground beans. Ever.
Price range for freshly roasted beans: $11 to $18 for 12 ounces.
2. Use filtered water
Coffee is, as experts will tell you, 98 to 99 percent water. You know what that means, right? Water quality is paramount to a good cup. You could use tap water. Then again, you could use ketchup as a pizza sauce.
But in both cases, the tap water and the ketchup will contain elements/ingredients that you don’t want in the final product. With tap water, it can include chlorine and minerals that will affect the taste of your coffee. You could use bottled water instead of tap, but that would be expensive, not to mention ecologically irresponsible.
I recommend buying a water filtration pitcher — such as the basic one from PUR, which filters out many of the chemicals that degrade municipal tap water without removing the magnesium that helps with coffee extraction — as well as some replacement filters. A filtration pitcher is the most cost-effective method to ensure you have the water quality necessary to produce a great cup of coffee.
Price for a PUR pitcher and four extra filters: about $43.
3. Measure to get the ratio close
Don’t worry. You don’t need to buy a Japanese scale with a built-in timer, which can set you back $40 or more, depending on your affection for gadgetry. A scale basically does one thing: It helps a barista dial in the proper ratio of beans to water, which can vary from coffee to coffee. But generally speaking, the ratio is 16:1 when brewing coffee. That is, 16 parts water to one part ground coffee beans.
I’ll spare you my math and just say that you’ll need 4 tablespoons of beans to produce one well-extracted cup of coffee. This shortcut is terribly imperfect, but for those who don’t want to weigh their beans, it’ll suffice. In some cases, you’ll probably have more beans than necessary and, in other cases, less. But you’ll be in the ballpark.
As for water, you’ll need 1 1/2 cups — plus a little more to compensate for the loss in liquid while heating.
Price for measuring your beans and water: Zero, assuming you already have a tablespoon and a measuring cup.
4. Use the right kind of grinder
Sure, a $140 Baratza burr grinder is great, but you don’t need one. You do need something better than a cheap blade grinder, which butchers your beans and leaves you with grounds of varying sizes. That, in turn, leaves you with poorly extracted coffee.
The solution? A hand grinder such as the miniature device from Hario. I have one, and it does a terrific job with a minimal amount of work. I can hand-crank 4 tablespoons of beans in less than a minute. Make sure to adjust the grinder to a coarse setting before you crank out the grounds.
Price for a Hario Mini Coffee Mill Slim Grinder: about $28.
5. Try this foolproof brewing device
Coffee pots. Moka pots. Siphons. French presses. Pour-over drippers (not to mention the tiny variations among the devices sold as pour over drippers). There must be 101 methods for brewing coffee. Some require more practice and patience than others.
Then there’s the Clever dripper, which is a cross between a French press and a pour-over dripper. It takes no skill to prepare coffee on this device. The process is ridiculously easy:
▪ Bring your kettle, filled with the pre-measured amount of water, to a boil. Pull it off the heat and let it sit about 30 to 45 seconds; the temperature should be in the ideal range, between 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on your kettle and how well it retains heats.
▪ Place a No. 4 size paper filter in the dripper. Add your 4 tablespoons of coarsely ground coffee into the filter.
▪ Pour your 1 1/2 cups of hot water over the grounds and lightly stir the mixture.
▪ Cover the dripper with the plastic lid and let it sit for 4 minutes. Eat your breakfast while your coffee steeps. After 4 minutes, place the dripper atop your favorite coffee cup — I’ll assume it’s a travel mug because you’re in a hurry, right? — and the Clever will automatically release the liquid into your cup.
Price for Clever dripper and filters: about $28. (I’m assuming you have a kettle, or at least a simple pot to boil water.)
You can have a good coffee in your hands in about 15 minutes, depending on how fast your water boils. Just as important: You can do other things while waiting for the water to heat and the coffee to steep.
The upshot: The start-up equipment costs for this ritual will run about $100, plus another $16 or so per bag of coffee. Not cheap, right? For the first month, a single cup per day will run you about $4.40. But hold on! Over a full year, your price per cup will drop significantly, to about $1.50, assuming you go through a bag of $16 coffee every two weeks. (And, naturally, the price per cup will continue to drop every year after.)
In the first year, you’ll save about $180 vs. a $2 cup of Starbucks mud. You won’t get rich, but you may get a richer cup of coffee out of the process.