There's Only One Recipe for Coffee
There are two ingredients in a cup of coffee: water and ... um, coffee. But this base allows for an endless web of exploration and experimentation.
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Lately, I’ve been cooking a lot, and posting my finished dishes to the Boss Barista Instagram account.
Instagram is the home base of Boss Barista. It’s where I announce new episodes, repost interesting and important things happening in the coffee industry, and occasionally wax poetic about blueberries. I tend to share a lot of my personal life stuff on the page, and lately, I’ve been cooking a lot.
But this weird thing happened. I posted photos of food, and more people responded to these photos than to … almost anything else I post.
Hello my sweet friend! Please don’t skip over this—Boss Barista takes a lot of time and I hope, if you can, you’ll consider a paid subscription.
Recently, I participated in a program with Substack (the platform that hosts this newsletter) called the Food Writers Intensive. As part of the program, our group of 11 fellows met with and asked questions of a variety of food writers, including Andrew Zimmern, Ruth Reichl, and Andrew Janjigian. But another important part of the fellowship was creating systems to streamline posting and brainstorm stories that would encourage readers to opt for a paid subscription.
I realized that one of the things many (not all) of my fellows had in common, not just with each other but with all the mentors brought in to chat with us, is that they make food. Duh—this was a food writer fellowship. But one of the ways fellows were encouraged to think about their pages was to put some of their recipes behind a paywall.
This makes sense. One of the mentors we talked to, Caroline Chambers, who publishes a newsletter called What To Cook, mentioned that the price of a yearly subscription is about the price of a cookbook—and subscribers get roughly the same amount of recipes plus other content and bonuses when they sign up. There’s also the simplicity of the model: Subscribers don’t have to fret about what they’re going to cook this week, or pore over endless cookbooks searching for the right recipe. A new recipe just ends up in your inbox, every week in perpetuity.
It may sound obvious, but making food is both exciting and overwhelming because there are just so much ingredients and preparations and options, so many different combinations of flavors and textures that you can put together. The folks who do the work of recipe testing, and creating new and exciting combinations of food, deserve every cent they receive.
But coffee is different. With just two ingredients, there’s really only one recipe for it: coffee + water = hopefully something tasty. Yes, you can play with the ratios and methods of combining the two fundamental ingredients, and seasonality and regionality are incredibly important in determining the flavor of any given bean, but you really don’t need to know much else beyond how to combine water and ground coffee to get a really excellent cup.
For a moment, in my fellowship group, I lamented how limited I felt, but then I talked to Tara Jensen. She wrote a book called “Flour Power” that’s coming out in August about baking sourdough bread. In her book, she writes that the ritual of bread baking is a way to stay present, and that rang true in the way I view coffee. I began thinking of coffee’s fundamentals—the combination of coffee and water that is both simple and endlessly complex—as a way to engage meaningfully with what’s in front of you.
Even though the recipe for making coffee is as simple as they come, it can also be deceptively complicated. Despite the fact that a cup of coffee is made from only two ingredients, once you learn how to pay attention, no two cups of coffee will ever taste the same.
For example, coffee is 98% water, so coffee in your hometown might taste different than coffee in New York or LA. Obviously, coffees from different parts of the world will taste different, reflecting their unique terroir and inherent flavors, but there are about eight million other factors during preparation that will inherently change your coffee’s flavor: roast level, grind size, heck—even the ambient humidity can affect how a coffee tastes. I think in the simplicity of coffee’s base recipe, we as curious brewers can begin to notice all the small (and big) factors that determine what we’re tasting in the final cup.
I remember, as a barista, we’d talk a lot about the difference between a shot of espresso pulled with the door to the shop closed versus one with the door open (yep, here’s that pesky humidity coming into play). We’d notice that shots would slow down, that water would move more slowly through a puck of espresso when the door was open.
In one telling of the story, this feels needlessly finicky, but in another, it’s kind of this incredible moment of awareness, a moment so quiet and small, one where we were given space to take in our surroundings. It feels like sitting in an empty park and listening to the birds fly by versus never hearing them sing because you’re too distracted.
Coffee forces you to notice the world around you through its quiet simplicity and complete unrepeatability. Once your preferred ratios and brewing methods are in place, once you feel like you’ve grasped the relationship between coffee and water, you can go into every cup with a sense of wonder: Why did this cup taste slightly different than yesterday’s? Why is my coffee brewing way slower? Why am I getting that citrus note today, but I didn’t get it yesterday?
And it all starts from one simple combination.
I think I took for granted how much awareness is built into brewing coffee, and I see that as I observe how other food authors and recipe developers push home cooks to be aware as they work through a recipe. I see recipes built around broad suggestions for seasonal vegetables rather than specific ones, encouraging home cooks to buy what tastes best. “Taste as you go,” is perhaps the single-biggest piece of cooking advice I see popping up in recipes, reminding folks that the goal of a recipe isn’t to nail the exact ratios written, but to make something tasty that you’ll want to eat when you’re done in the kitchen.
What’s kind of stupidly beautiful about all this is that everyone can make coffee, but no one will ever know everything there is to know about it. Every day, the web of possible experiences when you’re brewing extends outward, but you always have that base. That small reminder that all you’re doing is combining water with some ground beans. It’s both humbling and truly magnificent.
ON THAT NOTE! I’d love to do another AMA—this time about COFFEE BREWING ☕
A few weeks ago, I published an AMA about organizing a union, which I think people liked? Maybe? I don’t know—if you did, please tell me!
I’ve never thought of Boss Barista (or myself, really) as a repository of actual coffee information, but I do think—as you’ve just read—that brewing coffee professionally for as long as I have has helped me hone my senses, and think creatively about how to ask questions when I’m tasting. So if you have ANY coffee brewing questions, please leave them in the comments below!
Speaking of leaving comments and letting me know if you like stuff, you should check out the “Introduce Yourself” thread from a few weeks back. I almost cried reading a comment someone left today, and I’d really love to meet more of you and hear your stories.
I’m really struggling to figure out ways to make this newsletter sustainable. I launched a paid option for folks a few weeks ago, and so far I have 57 paid subscribers—which is amazing, but is kind of lower than most of my colleagues (I was told to expect a 7-10% conversion rate, and I’m at about 3%).
I think you can tell why the “Intro Yourself” thread was so thrilling for me—it can be hard for me to know what’s landing, and also what’s keeping people from making the switch. Subscriptions are $6 a month, or $50 for the year, so if you can, please consider making a financial contribution.
Right now, I’m writing this on my couch at 1 in the morning because that’s the only time I can reasonably dedicate to this (I have to prioritize paid work), and I’d love to make this a regular part of my workweek. If you can’t contribute, no worries! Sharing the work and just letting me know you’re out there is a big deal, and keeps me motivated. Thanks so much for being here.
Last, but not least, because this is technically a “recipe” post, here’s the only recipe for brewing coffee you’ll need:
One part coffee
Sixteen parts water
I usually use a Kalita Wave to brew a new or unfamiliar coffee. Kalita Wave brewers are forgiving and also expose errors in grind size really clearly.
I always use the ratio of 1:16 coffee to water. If I’m brewing coffee for myself in the morning, I’ll use 30 grams of coffee to 500 grams of water. I don’t think you need a scale and could intuit this ratio over time, but it’d take some work. It’s hard to measure coffee uniformly, but water is always uniform, and 500 grams is two cups.
Once my ground coffee is in the brewer (grind medium coarseness — you’ll taste this cup and determine if you want to go coarser or finer next time, but don’t fret about getting it exactly right if you’re not sure), I’ll pour a small amount of water over the grounds to just saturate the coffee bed. This process is called blooming, and it releases trapped CO2, which is made during the roasting process and looks like bubbles coming out of your coffee bed. You want that CO2 outta there. I’ll do this for about 45 seconds (again, don’t fret if you’ve forgotten a timer — once you see the bubbles stop popping out, it’s time to pour again).
Pour water in stages. I usually do about four pours of roughly 100-ish grams, but if you don’t have a scale, no big deal. You’re just trying to pour to keep your coffee bed even so water touches every ground little bit evenly. Sometimes that means pouring in concentric circles, sometimes that means pouring right in the middle. Stick to one method and see what that does to your coffee. You can try the other method the next time you brew.
I try to aim for my last pour around the 3:00 minute mark, and for my coffee to finish brewing around 3:30-4:00. Again, if you don’t have a timer, no big deal. You’ll begin to build an internal sense of how long your brew is taking.
Some helpful tips!
If you’re brewing espresso, obviously the method is different, but the idea is the same. Espresso is also just about honing in on the relationship between coffee and water, but you’re going to use a much tighter ratio because pressure is speeding up the brewing process (drip coffee uses good ol’ gravity—an espresso machine adds around nine bars of pressure to unlock all of coffee’s goodness). Try a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio and grind much finer. Aim for a shot anywhere between 25-40 seconds. Your taste buds will tell you where to adjust.
If you notice your coffee tastes sour, lacks sweetness (it’s hard to associate sweetness with coffee — but try thinking about what it tastes like on the tip of your tongue) or your brew time was really fast, try making the grind finer.
If you notice your coffee tastes bitter, if it took a long time for water to move through your coffee bed, try grinding coarser.
If your coffee tastes too strong (like the flavors taste really intense) try a ratio with more water. 1:17 or 1:18 is a great way to space out the flavors.
If your coffee tastes weak (like the flavors are really spaced out), try a tighter ratio.
Start with these tips, and let’s get into the nitty-gritty in the comments below!
Cover photo by Thom Holmes.
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