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How to Make a Damn Fine Cup of Coffee

The definitive VICE guide to beans, brewing and the best equipment.
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There are so many factors that go into brewing coffee that it can feel daunting. Like sommeliers analyzing every single aspect of a wine, the experts who serve your java are trained to look for the little things that can make or break a good cup of coffee. But there’s a long-held secret that Big Coffee™ doesn’t want you to know: It’s actually not that hard to make an awesome cup of joe. Yes, the baristas at your fave cafe might know about evaluating espresso crema composition, calculating TDS (total dissolved solids), and reading complicated flavor profile maps, but to be honest, that’s just not stuff you need to master in order to make a very dank cup.


‘Okay then,’ you might be thinking. ‘Where do I begin?’ Well, it really just starts with deciding to invest in a few key items, learning to recognize and handle good beans, and being willing to adapt and try new things. The truth is that literally anybody can make good coffee, and for not too much money. Yes, you can get a K*urig pod machine (but just don’t) or a cheap Mr. Coffee with grocery store beans that were ground three months ago. Sure, you can get a janky, third-hand French press that makes a cup that’s equal parts bean juice and charred coffee grinds. 

You can do these things (and many do), the same way that if you want pizza in Chicago, you can order Papa John’s instead of going to Pequod’s or Spacca Napoli. My point is that if you want to make good coffee, it has to start with a commitment to having higher standards—that’s 90 pecent of the battle. 

Whether you’re starting your coffee journey from humble beginnings, as I did almost 20 years ago (shoutout to the frappuccino, my first true love), or are looking to improve an already decent home brewing situation, you’ve come to the right place. My goal here is to convince you that, wherever you’re starting from, you can learn to make excellent coffee at home every day. Now, go forth and caffeinate.


What makes a perfect cup of coffee?

I think this is kind of a red herring question, because there isn’t really a perfect cup of coffee. Ideally, you want the coffee to taste clean so that its rich, flavorful notes come through. When the coffee isn’t burnt, the beans are ground properly and within the right window of time from roasting them, and the water is the right temperature, then these factors can coalesce to allow the brewed coffee to maximally express the terroir of the beans. Said another way: You can clearly taste the qualities of the land where the beans were grown. For example, beans from Guatemala might be earthier and more chocolatey, while Ethiopian beans might taste fruitier and more floral—coffee is like wine in this way.

If everything I just said seems like I’m complicating the average cuppa, let me put it like this: I think a “perfect” cup of coffee is just one that puts the fewest obstacles between you and the essence of the beans.

A French press, a Hario V60, a mug, a gooseneck kettle and a perfect little espresso cup.

A French press, a Hario V60, a mug, a gooseneck kettle and a perfect little espresso cup.

OK, fine, what do I need to get?

You should start with the question of whether you want to do a pour over – where you literally pour the water over the ground beans—or a drip coffee machine (think: your office’s Mr. Coffee). A lot of drip coffee machines can produce bad brews, because they aren’t really calibrated to make high-quality coffee; that said, there are some great ones out there. I recently reviewed the Moccamaster by Technivorm and found it to be quite good.


That said, most serious coffee heads make pour over coffee at home, because it gives you the most control. A popular way to go here is the Hario V60, a ceramic dripper you place atop a carafe or mug; then, you put in a filter with ground beans, and pour a calculated amount of water over it at specific intervals (ideally 15 to 17 grams of water for every gram of coffee, poured in 100 gram portions). The Chemex is also a fine choice, because it’s a sexy, hourglass-like option that combines the carafe with the dripper and lets you easily make enough coffee for multiple people. Some prefer the Kalita Wave, which has a flat bottom, resulting in a pretty even extraction across your grinds (read: all your ground coffee gets wet evenly). Fellow also has some great pour over gear and even starter kits. Some say filtered coffee (pour over or drip) can be healthier, so there’s that, too. 

Alternatively, you could try an AeroPress, where you brew coffee in a cylinder and then manually press it down into your cup. I don’t personally use one (and you rarely see them these days in cafes), but they can make fantastic coffee and many people swear by them. For example, VICE editor Gregory Babcock stans this method: “I have an AeroPress and I definitely think it’s a great low-investment way to make coffee without taking up a ton of countertop space,” he told me.


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What about the French press?

The French press has a small footprint, is minimally time-consuming, and can make delicious coffee; for these reasons, it has a huge following among home coffee makers. With this device, you’ll want a coarser grind than pour over but a similar bean-to-water ratio.

As for timing, some say to let the coffee steep for around four minutes, while others say as long as six to seven minutes. The truth is, like with many things in the world of food and drink, there doesn’t seem to be one “correct” way to make French press coffee. Start by making a cup of coffee using 20 grams of coffee and 300 grams of water, and steeping it for about four minutes before pressing it. If you don’t feel like you’re getting the full flavor of the beans, consider steeping for a little longer or using slightly less water, like 280 grams. 

Does it matter how I buy and grind my beans?

In short, YES. The size of the grind has a huge impact on how your coffee turns out—quicker, more powerful coffees (like espresso) should be ground very fine, while longer brews (pour over) should have a medium-ish grind; French press and cold brew, which take even longer, require a more coarse grind. We don’t really need to get into this, but TL;DR: This has to do with the surface area of the grounds after the beans pass through the machine and the amount of time they have contact with the water.

You’ll want to get a conical burr grinder—these grinders press the beans slowly, ensuring that the grind size is precise and the beans don’t heat up and start releasing their magic before you’re ready. If you get a grinder that uses blades, it’s almost impossible to be precise with the grind—it’ll just chop your beans and start cookin’ em. I prefer the Baratza Encore grinder, but there are many good options. 


Oh, what’s that? Your grocery store has a grinder in the coffee aisle and you want to know if you should just use that? Excuse my language, but absolutely fucking not. Why? The second you grind those beans, they start oxidizing and breaking down. After that clock starts ticking, you basically want to use them as quickly as possible. The following piece of advice is imperative for making tasty coffee, and is one of the most important things you should take away from this article: Buy good beans, and grind them at home.

On that note, knowing where and when the beans were roasted is Very Important. If you’re buying superior beans—try starting with Counter Culture, Onyx Coffee Lab, Verve, Sweet Bloom, or Stumptown—the bag will definitely have a roasting date on it. Some say just under a week from roasting is optimal to brew, while others say one to two weeks is the perfect window. I think if you can use coffee within two weeks of it being roasted, that’s great; within three, it’s probably still quite good, but likely declining. If it was roasted over a month ago, I’d probably search for a fresher bag. 

How important is water quality and temperature?

Regarding H20, many people prefer filtered water (some cafes even use reverse osmosis water). I use filtered, because I think the final taste is a bit cleaner, but it’s definitely fine not to—I didn’t for many years. As for temperature, it’s generally believed that water between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit is best for brewing coffee. To pour it, use a gooseneck kettle, which gives the most precision. Get an electric one that lets you heat to the optimal coffee temp. I like the Cosori Electric Gooseneck Kettle, but there are certainly many good options.

You’re only talking about coffee, but I want to know about espresso. When are you going to talk about espresso?

Whoa, dude, I was just about to get there! The truth is that espresso is really its own beast—made with its own machines, with beans ground a specific way, with times, temps, and ratios that are different from coffee. Espresso is coffee, of course, but it’s different in the same way that sourdough and pizza are both flour-based, baked items, but are prepared and executed completely differently.

That said, here’s a little info for you if you’re determined to leave this article pursuing espresso. There are really two main options: You can use a manual espresso machine, which can be fun and delicious, but takes an incredible amount of work and knowledge to dial in (check out my review of the Flair PRO 2). There’s also the ever-popular stovetop Moka pot.


Otherwise, you can get a more classic, electric option. There are many different kinds of automatic and semi-automatic machines, so start with something high-quality but not too hardcore (like this Breville or the Rancilio Silvia), so you can learn to tamp and pull your own shots without breaking the bank.

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Any other tips and tricks to level up my game? 

For sure. I recommend investing in a nice coffee scale. I love the Acaia Pearl, which does so much of the work for you, from measuring beans and water to calculating the rates and pour times. Also, get some nice mugs to drink out of! Yes, it’s fun to drink out of the mug your sister-in-law made you with pictures of your nephew on it, but a beautiful, rustic ceramic mug can be a game changer. Check out either the stack mug or their super chic studio mug at Heath Ceramics. Real talk: I drink coffee out of that studio mug almost every day.

And here are a couple of our shopping guides for awesome coffee gifts.

This is a lot of info. Can you sum it up for me?

Sure. Use the best ingredients, be precise with measurements, and remember (or record) what you do so you can adjust if you have to. Also, don’t be afraid to ask real baristas for tips—they love talking about coffee. Before long, you’ll be the annoying person at the cafe (or in your kitchen) explaining total dissolved solids to newbies. 

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