Brewing a great cup of coffee depends on chemistry and physics

Even if you can optimize your brew method and apparatus to precisely mimic your favorite barista, there is still a near-certain chance that your home brew will taste different from the cafe’s. There are three subtleties that have tremendous impact on the coffee quality: water chemistry, particle size distribution produced by the grinder and coffee freshness.

First, water chemistry: Given coffee is an acidic beverage, the acidity of your brew water can have a big effect. Brew water containing low levels of both calcium ions and bicarbonate (HCO₃⁻) – that is, soft water – will result in a highly acidic cup, sometimes described as sour. Brew water containing high levels of HCO₃⁻ – typically, hard water – will produce a chalky cup, as the bicarbonate has neutralized most of the flavorsome acids in the coffee.

Ideally we want to brew coffee with water containing chemistry somewhere in the middle. But there’s a good chance you don’t know the bicarbonate concentration in your own tap water, and a small change makes a big difference. To taste the impact, try brewing coffee with Evian – one of the highest bicarbonate concentration bottled waters, at 360 mg/L.

The particle size distribution your grinder produces is critical, too.

Every coffee enthusiast will rightly tell you that blade grinders are disfavored because they produce a seemingly random particle size distribution; there can be both powder and essentially whole coffee beans coexisting. The alternative, a burr grinder, features two pieces of metal with teeth that cut the coffee into progressively smaller pieces. They allow ground particulates through an aperture only once they are small enough.

There is contention over how to optimize grind settings when using a burr grinder, though. One school of thought supports grinding the coffee as fine as possible to maximize the surface area, which lets you extract the most delicious flavors in higher concentrations. The rival school advocates grinding as coarse as possible to minimize the production of fine particles that impart negative flavors. Perhaps the most useful advice here is to determine what you like best based on your taste preference.

Finally, the freshness of the coffee itself is crucial. Roasted coffee contains a significant amount of CO₂ and other volatiles trapped within the solid coffee matrix: Over time these gaseous organic molecules will escape the bean. Fewer volatiles means a less flavorful cup of coffee. Most cafes will not serve coffee more than four weeks out from the roast date, emphasizing the importance of using freshly roasted beans.

One can mitigate the rate of staling by cooling the coffee (as described by the Arrhenius equation). While you shouldn’t chill your coffee in an open vessel (unless you want fish finger brews), storing coffee in an airtight container in the freezer will significantly prolong freshness.

So don’t feel bad that your carefully brewed cup of coffee at home never stacks up to what you buy at the café. There are a lot of variables – scientific and otherwise – that must be wrangled to produce a single superlative cup. Take comfort that most of these variables are not optimized by some mathematical algorithm, but rather by somebody’s tongue. What’s most important is that your coffee tastes good to you… brew after brew.

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