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Hold the Barista: How to Brew Delicious Coffee at Home

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We’ve all heard it: making coffee at home saves money. The problem is, home coffee can be so boring. It lacks the excitement of savoring that perfectly brewed, flavored, measured, dripped, and decorated cup of joe served in a cute little to-go cup that’s the standard at our beloved coffee shops. In an attempt to wrangle a little more control over my budget without ruining my morning ritual, I sought out some basic, inexpensive ways to make my home-brewed coffee taste just as delicious—and look just as pretty—as coffee-shop java. 


Study the Nearest Barista
As I sat, savoring my cup of Peet’s coffee (all in the name of research, of course), I felt almost hypnotized by the ease with which my barista flowed back and forth between measuring, pouring, stirring, foaming, and serving up cups with a smile. 


“After you get the techniques down, it’s easy to make a great coffee,” says Melissa Lobos, a San Francisco Bay Area barista. “Practice is key.” This means that if I want my skills to be on par with a barista’s, I’ve got to practice until I get them right, and then practice some more. 


Rule One: Look for Quality Beans
Did I mention that I spent a whole day on a recent Hawaiian vacation driving around the island to various coffee plantations? Other than realizing that the beach is more relaxing than getting lost and laughed at by locals, I learned something: quality beans are absolutely nothing like the preground, plastic-jugged stuff at the store. While regularly downing $20-a-pound Kona blends isn’t exactly sustainable, the experience left me spending a little more time in the coffee aisle. Lobos advises skipping generic brands altogether and looking for 100 percent Arabica beans, which require more careful growing and picking—meaning (you guessed it) better quality. 


Rule Two: Grind Right
Never, ever, ever buy preground beans. Here’s why: once coffee is roasted, it starts deteriorating quickly, and when the beans are exposed to the air, flavor and aroma start going downhill fast. Ground beans break down much more quickly because they’re so much smaller, so grind only what you need before you use it. Not too keen on grinding every morning? I’ve begun grinding up a small amount every three or four days, keeping it in a plastic storage container, and scooping from that each morning. 


Rule Three: Store in a Dark, Well-Sealed Place
What about the whole beans we aren’t ready to grind and consume? “Don’t store them in the freezer!” says Lobos. “This zaps the moisture and lowers quality.” She suggests storing beans in a dark, cool place inside an airtight container. This will keep them relatively fresh, flavorful, and ready to enjoy for about three weeks. 


Drip Coffee: It’s All in the Measurement
You’ve pondered the mile-long coffee aisle at the store, compared prices, found the beans on sale, smelled them, examined the packaging, and finally brought them home. After grinding them, should we just toss some into the maker haphazardly, splash in some water, and hope for the best? That’s certainly not how a barista would do it. Once we have the water and beans, we need the right ratio between the two. Start by tossing in two tablespoons per six ounces of water, then adjust the amount of grounds the next few times, depending on the strength you like. 


After Pushing “On”
Trash those grounds as soon as your coffee is done dripping into the jug. After brewing finishes, the grounds start to dissolve, dripping bitter juice into the pot. Tossing the grounds immediately will keep coffee tasting fresher while it’s sitting there. 


Metal jugs are better at keeping coffee warm, even when the machine is off. This means it’ll stay warm without burning, which is what often happens when coffee machines are left on. 


Into fancy flavors? Sprinkle in some spices along with the grounds, like vanilla powder, cinnamon, cocoa powder, or nutmeg. Voilà! Gourmet coffee. 


Lattes, Mochas, and More
Just because you’re looking for a little more than a basic cup of java doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a lifetime of $4 fixes. 


Milk-Foaming Tools: “Perfectly steamed milk will be creamy and silky, with a thick layer of foam on top,” says Lobos. Milk foamers come atop many espresso machines or can otherwise be purchased separately. (The cheapest I found was on Amazon.com for fifteen bucks.) When steaming, begin by placing the head of the steamer on the surface of the milk, lowering it slowly as you go. Keep the wand whirling below the surface until it reaches the temperature you’re looking for. 


How Hot? The coffee we get at coffee shops is typically 150–160 degrees. Thermometers can help gauge this at home, or you can monitor with your hand on the side of the container. (Carefully!) 


Pouring Tricks: Not only do baristas pour the perfect foam, but they make it pretty before handing it across the counter. Is this out of the question for at-home foamers? “Absolutely not,” says Lobos, who says the key is pouring super slowly and steadily. Try making a heart: “Move the jug side to side on one side of the cup until you have a circle of cream, then move it slightly forward a bit, continuing to pour until you have another circle (the top of the heart). Then move it quickly straight down the middle of your heart to form the tip.” 


Flavor Additions: Besides flavored syrups, other ways to add flavor include sprinkling in some cinnamon or cocoa powder, stirring in hot-chocolate mix, or pouring in a little white chocolate. 


One way to make fancy coffee at home is to shell out a small fortune for a fancy machine. But since, for most of us, the whole point of brewing at home is to save money, a few technique tweaks and reasonable purchases can leave us equally satiated—and with some cool party tricks under our belts the next time friends stop by.

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