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Brew Quest Coffee Basics 101: The Trifecta of a Great Brew (part 1)

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Proper grind is one of three facets of brewing good coffee.

Here is first installment of a three-part series that covers the trifecta of what you can control during your brewing towards a great cup of coffee.

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Do you ever wonder why your coffee brewing device gives you inconsistent results from one morning to the next? It could be that you have made a common mistake in any one of the three components that make up the trifecta of a great brew: the grind, the water, and the ratio of the two.

The Grind

Possibly the biggest difference you can make in how your coffee tastes is by varying the grind size of your beans. Basically, if your beans are ground too fine your coffee will taste bitter and lay kind of heavy over your tongue. If your beans are ground too coarse, your coffee will taste more on the sour side of flavor and feel too lite over your tongue. Most of the time, however, when you are new to brewing and following basic brewing recommendations that came with your brewing device, you are somewhere in-between in flavor and spot-on in disappointment.

Brew Quest Coffee Basics 101: Turning Water Into Coffee

Fortunately, it’s an easy fix and the first variable I would recommend changing before trying anything else toward improving your next cup. But first, a little more about why the grind is so important.

The Importance of Getting the Grind Right

There are two facets about getting the grind right: the level of extraction and the time spent extracting which I will refer to as your flow rate.

Level of Extraction—The level of extraction is most heavily influenced by the size of your grind. It all has to do with surface area. Think of it this way: if you have ever added a tea bag to a glass of hot water, you will see the tea infusing into the water rather quickly. However, if you add whole leaves of tea to hot water, the infusion is visibly much slower.

Why? Because a whole tea leaf has a particular surface area that is easily measurable. But break-up that same tea leaf into much smaller bits and you will have increased the total surface area so significantly that it would take some heady math to get an approximation of just how much more area of the leaf is in physical contact with water when water is added. All of this translates into just how much of those soluble and insoluble compounds we discussed in an earlier article wind up leaching (extracting) from the leaves (beans) into the water.

The caveat to this, however, is that while grinding your beans results in faster and better extraction, it also means that you can extract too much and have a bitter end result.

Time Spent Extracting (your flow rate)—The problem with grinding your beans to increase or improve the extraction is that it also affects flow rate. In other words, how quickly the water passes through the grind and into your cup.

Grind your beans too coarse, and the water passes through having barely enough time to make good contact with the bean particles and extract any flavor. Grind your beans too fine and the grind becomes compacted when water is added, forming a physical barrier in your brewing device filter that significantly slows down the flow rate to nearly a standstill and resulting in a bitter extract.

Brew Quest Coffee Basics 101: Paper Filtering Your Coffee

However, this does not mean that you would never grind your beans into a fine grain or even powder. Rather, it all depends on your brewing device and how the extraction happens. But for now, the point here is to provide a lesson in being mindful of why you grind your coffee beans and the results that can occur when the conditions are too coarse or too fine for most brewing applications.

A Word or Two (or more) About Grinders and the Grind

I’m going out on a precarious limb here, but since my articles are geared for coffee brewing beginners and those who want to take a sip on the wild side in the shadows of brewing aficionados—many recommended grinders are over-priced and unnecessary. There. I’ve said it. And here’s why.

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My years of coffee brewing experience have taught me that while the more expensive and admittedly better grinders are the burr type, every one of us is capable of getting a blade-style coffee bean grinder to do a pretty good job…and at a much lower cost.

I mean, let’s be honest about it. There’s a very profitable industry in coffee brewing when it comes to the latest gadgets and man-on-the-moon technology toward convincing potential buyers that they can brew the perfect cup every time just by “investing” in the right equipment and products.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for high-tech. But I will not overpay for something when there are less expensive options that will work just as well—in the right hands. Which is why I shop at Harbor Freight much more now than I did in the past when I was first learning how to build and repair things.

That said, I don’t care whether it’s a top-rated burr grinder, a cheaper blade style grinder, your family heirloom turn-of-the-past-two-centuries hand-cranked coffee grinder, or even a stone mortar and pestle, you can develop your own technique that will achieve a perfect grind to match your brewing needs. Go old-school—it makes the coffee brewing experience more enjoyable.

For example: I’ve used the same blade style coffee grinder for years now and as long as the motor continues to last, I will stick with it. However, if I am ever “gifted” with a burr style bean grinder, I would switch…just to be polite of course.

Anyway, the secret—if there is one—is that technique is what can create your perfect grind for whatever job. In my case using a blade style grinder, I pulse-grind a particular number of times and for varying lengths of time with an occasional shake to achieve the grind I need depending on the brewing device and what cup experience I desire with a cup of coffee. It’s not perfect, but neither are many models of expensive burr grinders.

The point I am hoping to make here is that nothing teaches how to brew like experimenting. Understand the basics of how and why something works (and does not work), and then apply it to developing your own technique for brewing your perfect cup of coffee regardless of the brewing system(s) you may have.

So for now, take whatever you have grinder-wise, play around with it, and see what you can achieve in your next brew.

In future articles, we will discuss the finer points of the nearly-exact type of grind you should be shooting for when using a particular brewing device.

Brew Quest Coffee Basics 101: The Proper Way to Pour

Coffee Talk

Coffee Talk is meant to encourage discourse between you and someone you are having coffee with, as well as for the comments section below. If you agree or disagree with the topic and what is said, or have something you would like to share, Coffee Talk is there for you.

Here’s an informative NPR podcast about upping your coffee game that touches on the trifecta of what you can control during your brewing towards a great cup of coffee.

Minimalist Coffee: A Must-Own Simple 30-Second Brew Cup System for the Beginner

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between coffee and healthy living. For continual updates about the benefits of coffee on your health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Reference: It's Pretty Easy To Level Up Your Coffee Game — Here's How,” NPR podcast July 28, 2020.

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