Methods of Making Coffee

You could go out and try all of the different ways to make a coffee – indeed I think you should, but before you do… maybe you’d like to read about them?


Methods of making coffee *

Once you have your roast coffee beans – and the story behind that is a whole other article in itself – the process of turning them into a drink of coffee is, in essence, quite a simple one. The beans are ground up, so that that the surface area available for contact with the water is vastly increased, meaning that all those delicious oils and flavours are now exposed. Then these roast, ground beans are mixed with water, which draws out all the aforementioned oils and flavours, and finally they are in some way separated from the now infused hot water, which can now be placed in a cup and served. Simple.

However, within this straightforward process there are a near infinite number of variations, and the method by which the water is placed into contact with the grounds varies massively from place to place and in different cultures. Some methods use all kinds of technical equipment, others hardly any at all. There are methods such as Turkish coffee making that require little more equipment than a pot in which to heat the water, then there are more sophisticated methods such as the percolator or the Aeropress® coffee maker, that employ specialist equipment. Each produces different flavours and results, and has different advantages and disadvantages, such as speed and convenience, as well as the other, less measurable aspects such as the impression it creates in your kitchen or at your dining table. As is well known, thoughts and impressions created by sounds, sights and atmosphere can affect how we perceive taste, so the sound of (for example) a bubbling coffee percolator or steaming stovetop espresso maker will already be shaping how we expect the coffee to taste before we have even seen it in the cup.

Here, in no particular order, we take a look at a few of the many, many differing methods there are for making coffee. In this article we shall look at three of the most well known coffee making methods – the percolator, the cafetiere and the espresso maker. We shall also take a brief look at one of the most widely practised coffee making methods in the world, but one that is little used by us in the West, and that is Turkish coffee (note that this is a coffee making method, not a type of coffee). And we shall also look at cold brew coffee, a method of coffee making that is rarely seen here on account of how long it takes (upward of 12 hours per infusion) but which is easy and fun and that you may find interesting to try, as it produces quite a different taste to that which you will likely be used to.

Percolator *

There was a time when, in the UK at any rate, the percolator was seen as something of a statement of dinner party sophistication. The peak of this image was probably during the 1970s, the era of fondue parties, car-key swapping and chiffon gowns. Not that these are necessarily bad things, and some of these are still revived from time, both by people trying to be ironic and also, in the case of the fondue for example, because they are inherently good things. Nevertheless, taken as a whole they do speak of a different age.

Although their popularity declined quite rapidly from the 1970s, for reasons we’ll come on to below, even during the 1980s there was an advert for a brand of instant coffee in which a middle class woman offers her guests coffee at the end of a dinner party, but she clearly can’t be bothered with the faff of using the percolator. Instead, the crafty bint makes them all instant coffee using whatever the brand was, but as she is doing so she makes loud “plop plop hiss” noises from the kitchen, so that the unsuspecting guests think that their coffee is being percolated. She then brings the coffee through, and the payoff is that when she serves it, rather than saying “This tastes like instant coffee”, they comment on how delicious it is. She smiles to herself at her clever trickery, and we, the viewer, smile with her – as we are in on the joke and we think it’s marvellous. And then, so the thinking went, we rush out to buy said brand of instant coffee so that we can similarly wow guests at our own dinner parties.

This was an odd choice of advert, as by the time it was on TV very few people used percolators or would have been particularly impressed by them anyway, and the idea that you’d want to identify with a woman who’d just taken pride both in her laziness and her dishonesty was more peculiar still. The fact that I can’t even remember what brand of coffee it was for also suggests it was not all that successful, although having said that, the fact I can remember the advert in reasonable detail shows that it must have worked on some level. I don’t know – what about you: can you remember what brand of instant coffee was being advertised, and were you – or your parents – impressed enough by it to actually buy that brand?

Anyway, the percolator works by heating the water, either electrically or on a stovetop, and as it heats the water is forced up through the a tube in the centre of the pot. At the top, the water spurts out of the tube – giving that characteristic spluttering sound that the woman in the advert above was attempting to replicate – and is distributed over the grounds by a spreader plate. It drips through the grounds, drawing some of the oils, flavours and colours from them (this is the ‘percolation’ bit) and then falls to the bottom of the pot, where it is heated and then the process repeats. Thus the water is being cyclically passed through the grounds time and time again. It is for this reason that the percolator is not all that highly regarded by many coffee connoisseurs – which is not to say it does not have its adherents, because it does.

What its detractors say is that passing the same water through the coffee grounds repeatedly can lead to over-extraction, with some of the more subtle flavours and aromas lost in the process. This does have the advantage that it creates delicious aromas in the air during percolation, which is obviously pleasant at a dinner party (not sure how the woman in the advert attempted to replicate that aspect of percolation with her instant coffee; maybe her guests were all just too drunk to notice), but can lead to a slightly ‘flatter’ tasting drink, albeit quite a robust tasting one, which some people prefer.

Another disadvantage, claim some, is that the water in the percolator can get a bit too close to boiling point. There is an adage: “coffee boiled is coffee spoiled”, and it is true that if you boil the water when making coffee it can make it taste rather bitter. However, advocates of the percolator say that this can be avoided by taking a bit of care during percolation, and they also say that the distinctively strong, robust of percolated coffee is actually superior to that produced by some other methods. As with so many things, at the end of the day it comes down to personal taste.

Cafetiere *

The cafetiere, or what the Americans refer to as a French press coffee maker, is one of the simplest of all coffee making methods. It is not as sophisticated as the Aeropress coffee maker, nor as hipster as a stovetop espresso maker, but nevertheless it has its own aesthetic charms and a kind of elegant simplicity. It is also worth noting that when professional coffee tasters are judging and comparing coffees, it is this method they use to ensure the most consistent taste, so if you really want to taste different coffees and get a good comparison between them, this may well be the best method as it does very little to adulterate the taste between bean and cup – unlike with some other methods where steam and high pressure can lead to delicious results but also maybe can remove some of the more subtle idiosyncrasies of certain coffees.

Unlike the percolator discussed above, the process here is very simple. Ground coffee is first placed in the bottom of the cafetiere. Note that you will need coarser ground coffee than for many other methods, for the simple reason that if it is too finely ground it will pass through the holes in the gauze or mesh filter, thus defeating the purpose of having a filter at all. However, it should not be too coarsely ground either, as this would then not have sufficient surface area in contact with the water to produce the best flavour. Medium ground is about right.

Once you have the grounds in the bottom of the vessel, you pour water that is just off the boil over them. As discussed above, boiling water can bring out bitter flavours in coffee, so if you are pouring it from a kettle, allow it to boil then wait a few seconds before pouring it over the grounds, to avoid scorching. Start by pouring about a third of the total amount of water over the grounds. You will see them change, as the water soaks in an attractive, creamy, bubbly ‘bloom’ floats to the surface. Give about half a minute for this process to complete, and then pour the rest of the not-boiling water over, ensuring that all the grounds are in contact with water. Some people like to give it a stir at this point, although if it’s been carefully poured and all of the grounds are covered in the water, this should not be necessary.

At this stage, you can replace the lid and plunger, so as to keep the heat in, but do not yet depress the plunger. You then leave the coffee to brew for about four minutes (that’s as measured from the moment you first began adding water, not from when you finish pouring the water), and then depress the plunger. This should largely stop the brewing process, but not completely, so if you leave it too long it can become bitter. Some people actually prefer this strong bitter taste and see it as part of the coffee experience, but if you are not one of them you should pour your cafetiere coffee fairly soon after making it.

The cafetiere is a good all-round coffee making process. If you’re just an occasional coffee drinker, you can pick one up for just a few pounds from a supermarket or kitchenware supplier (or of course you can spend much more on one if you’d like a designer name), keep it at the back of a cupboard in your kitchen and its there, ready to go if ever you need it. It’s easy to adjust the strength of your brew in subsequent presses (by adding more or less coffee, depending on how you liked the first one) and it has few moving parts to go wrong. All you need is your coffee and a kettle or pot to heat the water in. Another advantage is that cleaning is very easy. You can usually just throw away the grounds and rinse the pot out, rinsing the mesh filter under a running tap, and you’re done.

Other advantages of the cafetiere are that it’s quite aesthetically simple and unpretentious, yet with a kind of elegant functionality that many find pleasing. And there is also (though you may not agree with this) something oddly satisfying about pressing that plunger down. Kids often enjoy being allowed to do this, even if they are too young to actually drink coffee.

There have been various attempts to market an adapted version of the cafetiere for use in making tea. This would seem a good idea, as it would mean loose leaf tea could be used and it solves the problem of filtering the leaves out when it is poured, and also it means you can slow down the infusion process when the tea is at the desired strength. Strangely though, these attempts have never really taken off, perhaps because of the enduring popularity of the traditional teapot, and also because the convenience of the teabag is very hard to beat.

But for coffee making, it has to be said that the cafetiere or French press is one of the simplest and best methods of making a decent, consistent, all-round cup. That said, it won’t produce the intensity or concentration of an espresso, so if you’re looking to make cappuccinos or lattes, for instance, the cafetiere won’t cut the mustard. But if you’re just looking for to make straightforward, reliable, medium coffee (similarly to what is sometimes termed an ‘Americano’ when sold in high street coffee chains) then the cafetiere is an inexpensive and useful bit of kit for you to have. And it looks good on a dining table too, even in a nice restaurant or cafe, perhaps next to a plate of cakes or biscuits to be served after dinner – something which is probably less true of an espresso maker or percolator.

Cold brew coffee *

Cold brewing is a coffee making process that you don’t see all that often, the reason being that it takes such a long time. There is some logic to it though, and you might find it interesting to try for yourself some time.

With cold brew, the ground coffee beans are left to steep in water at room temperature (sometimes even chilled water is used, although this does seem a bit unnecessary). Because the water is not heated, it takes much longer to extract all the flavours from the ground beans. It should be left for at least 12 hours, and some people like to leave it for longer still, say up to 24 hours. Therefore cold brew coffee is something you will be preparing well in advance, rather than just knocking together after dinner some time. Use a very coarse grind and, as always, the best quality coffee you can get hold of.

This method produces noticeably different flavours than all the hot brew methods. With hot water, more sharp, acidic flavours are produced. So a long cold-brew process can lead to a flavour profile that is sweeter and smoother, with an almost chocolaty or caramel type hint. This makes it particularly good for producing delicious iced coffee drinks. However, you can also heat it up once made and serve it as normal hot coffee. Because the beans themselves are never heated, the liquid will retain its distinctive slightly sweet, smooth flavour even when heated.

After it has been steeped for at least 12 hours, you can then separate the liquids from the grounds in one of the usual ways, such as with a paper filter or a cafetiere. It really is quite easy and fun, and worth a go some time if you’re not in a hurry and feeling a bit experimental.

Espresso *

As we saw in our discussion of the cafetiere above, the French press method is a great all-rounder but a bit limited. The espresso on the other hand, as well as being a very distinctive (and very well regarded) drink in its own right, is incredibly versatile, and is used as the basis for all those drinks we are familiar with seeing in high street coffee shops these days, such as caffe lattes, cappuccinos, frapuccinos, mochas and so on. So even if you don’t like the particularly intense taste of the espresso (although a lot of people love it), you may still find an espresso maker a useful addition to your kitchen range if you’re going to be entertaining. While you can of course get dedicated cappuccino makers, if you have a basic espresso maker then you have the beginnings of a vast array of coffee varieties to offer your guests or to experiment with yourself.

With espresso, very hot (but not boiling) water is forced through very finely ground coffee beans. The finely ground powder is packed quite densely and the water is forced through it at some pressure, due to the heat. Because of this, more oils and some solids are extracted than with other methods, leading to a slightly viscous consistency with a very intense flavour. The oils and the pressure also lead to the formation of a light brown ‘crema’ on the surface, which adds both different texture and flavour to the beverage, as well as having an aesthetic appeal.

Other coffee makers, such as the Aeropress coffee maker, now also use this method of forcing the water through the grounds at pressure so as to extract more and different oils than steeping alone.

Unlike with the percolator method discussed above, with espresso the water is only passed through the grounds once, so the flavour does not become sullied. The espresso maker has not been around for as long as the cafetiere, having been invented in the late 19th century. Many people buy electric espresso and cappuccino makers, and some of these are indeed excellent, but the traditional stovetop espresso maker is inexpensive, easy to clean and maintain and very easy to use once you know what you’re doing.

You start by placing the coffee into the hopper. As said, use the finest grind you can get and then tamp it down using a dedicated instrument or just the back of a spoon. This ensures that the hot water and steam that is forced through will be evenly distributed. However, don’t make the mistake of packing it too tight, as if it is ridiculously compacted the water won’t be able to penetrate it properly.

Then you fill the bottom chamber with cold water and place it on a hot stove. In a few minutes, the water will begin to reach near boiling and as it does this, the hot water and steam are forced up through the grounds and into the top chamber. You’ll hear it bubbling and hissing through; it’s an appealing sound, and will be accompanied by mouth-watering coffee aromas that will waft through your kitchen.

Once ready all of the water will have been transferred through from the bottom to the top chamber and it’s ready to pour or to use as the base for milky drinks such as the cappuccino or latte. Note that these will need to be made with hot (usually steamed, so that the desired foam can be produced) milk, as the espresso is very small in quantity so if you added cold milk as people often do with coffee from cafetieres and percolators, the whole drink would rapidly turn cold.

All of the best flavours and oils will have been extracted in that first pass of water, so never attempt to get a second shot from the grounds – the result will be thin and bitter. It’s worth mentioning that many people think of espresso as being strong, caffeine wise, and they are in a way correct. However, as it’s such a small amount of liquid the total amount of caffeine is actually less than in a typical cafetiere-produced cup, for example.

You can now go on to make cappuccino, mocha, latte or whatever you like – and that is a whole other topic which we could go into in some detail. But purists may just want to enjoy the espresso as it comes, straight from the coffee maker to a small, dedicated espresso cup and without any milk to dilute or alter the intense taste, and with the delicious and visually attractive crema adorning the surface. If you’ve only ever had your espresso in the form of hot, milky drinks, you may enjoy trying it neat some time.

Turkish coffee *

Next we come to Turkish coffee, which is quite a different method of coffee production again. Unlike more modern methods such as the Aeropress coffee maker and even the espresso maker (which while considered ‘traditional’ is actually only a century and a half old), Turkish coffee making is a relatively ancient process, having been prepared in this way since probably the 15th century. It should be noted by the way that Turkish coffee refers to the coffee making process, not to the type of coffee, so Turkish coffee can be produced with any kind of coffee and this will vary with region and with personal taste.

This type of coffee is produced this way throughout the Middle East, as opposed to just Turkey, so the name is slightly misleading. Indeed, in Greece they have stopped using it altogether, in response to their dispute with Turkey over Cyprus. They now call coffee produced in this way ‘Greek coffee’. This could be seen as pointless and childish as when the Americans tried to change ‘French fries’ to ‘freedom fries’ during the Gulf war, in protest at the refusal of the French to join in. While in both cases the anger of Greece and America may or may not have been well founded, in both cases the name change only succeeds in making them look a bit petty, and indeed turns them into figures of fun in many people’s eyes. Thus it does nothing for their cause and may even weaken it.

There were similar examples in previous conflicts. For instance, during World War I many vendors in the US began selling sauerkraut as ‘victory cabbage’ and frankfurters as ‘liberty sausages’. While some historians believe that banning the word sauerkraut may have had a major impact on the final result of the war, most do not. Although before we get too sneery, we should mention that the UK has form here too: the Alsatian breed of dog was formerly known as the German shepherd, and still is in many parts of the world, but was changed here in the wake of WWI. However, this was more for commercial reasons than for silly propaganda, in that breeders feared, probably correctly, that the word ‘German’ in the title may actually hit sales.

Anyway, back to Turkish coffee. What makes this coffee distinctive in both its taste and its method of making is that it is never filtered. The grounds and the water, and even the sugar and maybe spices if some are added, are all boiled up together and then served together. This gives it a very strong, distinctive taste and thick consistency.

The roast coffee beans are first ground very fine, and then they are heated up in a vessel along with water and (if desired) sugar and maybe even spices such as cardamom or cinnamon. Boiling the coffee – as in other methods discussed above – will spoil the taste, but bringing just to the boil does not, so much of the art of Turkish coffee making involves bringing it to the boil and then as soon as the foam starts to rise, removing it from the heat. This process can be repeated two or three times to extract maximum flavour from the beans, without ever boiling it for more than a split second.

Then the coffee is served, complete with the foam that bubbles up during heating and which is considered desirable. The pourer will often try to get more foam into it by pouring it from a height.

When you get a cup of coffee served in this way, it will be very hot and will also have lots of coffee grounds floating around in it, so for both reasons it is good to wait a good half minute or so before beginning to drink. The grounds will then have settled onto the bottom of the cup, and when drinking you stop when you reach them, and leave them behind. In some parts of the Middle East, these can be used for fortune telling in a not dissimilar manner to tealeaf reading in this country.