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Guide to Buying Coffee and Brewing a Perfect Cup
Mystified by the complicated world of coffee, replete with its myths, misinformation, java snobs and flavor fanatics? Hopefully, this Coffee Primer will help make your future coffee brewing experiences seem less like necromancy and more like, well, coffee brewing.
What kind of coffee should I buy?
Ahhh the most frequent of the frequently asked questions! And, its a toughie. Here are some things to think about as you choose.
The first step is to determine your roast dark or light. Dark coffee is simply coffee thats been roasted longer than light coffee see more about the flavor distinctions below. Once you've decided on a roast, you can choose from a variety of coffees from around the world, South America, Africa, Asia, etc. Like wine, the particular taste of coffee beans depends on the nuances of soil and climate they were grown in, so a bit of experimentation is in order to discover which region is your favorite.
Step One: Determining your Roast:
Different roasts are appropriate to different coffees and some coffees can even be roasted in all three ways (eg. Columbian Supremo). But usually there is a fairly exacting art involved in picking just the right roast to bring out the best flavor qualities of a particular bean.
Do you want a strong-tasting, full-bodied coffee? Do you like your coffee to have a zip, punch, or bite? Do you prefer using the term "cup a joe?" Will you be drinking this coffee during ice fishing expeditions? Ever considered a career as a fire-jumper?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, start with our "Dark Roasts" page. Dark roasted coffees (also known as French roasts, or City roasts) are beans that are suitable for longer roasting periods, giving them a more aggressive taste that could be described as toasty, smokey, caramelized, or even carbon-y. Dark roasting brings out more of the coffee's oils, leading to shinier beans and a cup that might show a bit of the oil floating on the top. Coffee typically gets more intense and loses some of it's complexity when it's dark roasted. In general when a coffee is dark roasted it sacrifices some of the character and nuance in favor of a bolder taste.
On the other hand, does it sound more appealing to have a complex yet smoothly balanced cup of coffee? One with an aroma that wakes you up before you even take the first sip? A coffee you can savor and consider and discuss, like fine wine?
If that's the case, go for a Light Roast. Light roasted beans, also know as American or Vienna roasts (Vienna is a bit darker) haven't been roasted quite as long, allowing the full complexity of the bean's flavor to come through, in a cup that's ripe with delicate flavor.
Finally, if you've got an espresso maker, you'll need the darkest of the dark roasts, Italian roast. These are beans that have been roasted even longer than the French Roasts. Espresso roasts are very dark and give a potent blast of coffee flavor that more than makes up for the lack of subtlety.See our espresso page, which contains Italian roasts and blends suitable for espresso.
Now, here's where it gets interesting: BLENDS. For nearly the past 100 years, Empire has been developing one-of-a-kind recipes for coffee blends that are crafted for a complete coffee experience. Start with a little Columbian dark roast, add a dash of Indian light roast, maybe a touch of an Italian roast from some other exotic locale, and voila! Only one out of every 20 blends that we experiment with earns the title: "Exclusive Empire Blend". This superb collection includes signature blends such as "Truckstop Fiesta". . . "Starry Night" . . . "Daylight Savings". . . "Bliss Blend" . . . you get the point.
And remember, coffee should never taste bitter, even extra dark roasts. If it tastes bitter or burnt, that's probably because it WAS burnt during the roasting process. (Perhaps the roaster was STAR gazing, or trying to BUCK the system.)
Step Two: Picking your bean:
Once you've navigated your way to the appropriate roast page, it's time to pick a coffee. Here's where you get to read our jaunty descriptions of all our coffees and blends. We've tried to be evocative and accurate, as well as entertaining, but of course the only way to know is to try some and see what works best for you. You might want to try putting together your own sampler pack: pick two or three descriptions that sound appealing and order a half pound of each.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
What's the best method for making coffee?
Once again, it's really a subjective issue. But here are some tips on the most popular methods.
In the U.S., most people use an automatic drip coffee maker, for convenience and reliability. You simply put the appropriate amount of fine- or medium-fine-ground coffee in the filter and add cold water to a compartment. The machine does the rest.
Some automatic machines use paper filters, others have a permanent gold-mesh filter. The paper filters are even more convenient, because you an just toss them after each brewing, whereas you have to clean the gold filter well after every use. However, some coffee drinkers feel that paper filters add a paper-y flavor to their coffee, that comes between them and the true taste of the coffee they've selected. Also, paper filters create more garbage, if you're concerned about that sort of thing (keep in mind that if you use unbleached filters, the whole affair is great for the compost pile). Empire offers a selection of both varieties from top manufacturers in various sizes, some have extra features, such as timers that brew you a cup of coffee just as you're stumbling out of bed. Ahh, true love.
It's important to thoroughly clean the carafe with warm soapy water in between brewings. The same goes for the gold-mesh filter, if you've got one. It's also a good idea to start with fresh cold water. Other than that, these devices are super easy to maintain and use.
The manual drip coffee maker is similar to the automatic, only less whiz-bang. You heat the water yourself to the perfect temperature in a kettle and pour it over the filter containing the fine-ground coffee, directly into your mug or a carafe. Within this category are the beloved Chemex and the nostalgic Melita.
The Chemex brewing system has an almost cult-like following, and it's easy to see why. First of all, it's gorgeous. In fact, it's part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. (Really!) Secondly, it makes a great cup of coffee. The secrets in the filters, which were designed by a chemist to allow the ground coffee more brewing contact with the heated water, while letting more of the aromatic oils pass through into your cup. Chemex coffee makers take nearly 2 full minutes longer to drip-through, increasing the time your ground coffee is in contact with the water, which results in a better brew. Special note: Chemex coffee makers work especially well with burr-style grinders (see the grind-your-own section of this page for more info on different kinds of grinders). Need an outstanding housewarming, engagement, or wedding present? How about a Chemex coffee maker with filters and a burr grinder?
The Melita is favored by college students around the world because it is perhaps one of the most economical ways to brew a great cup of coffee. Know of a student heading off to college? A Melita, some filters, some coffee, and a Wiseass Mug would make the perfect gift.
There are a few important things to remember when making coffee with your Manual Drip. Start with fresh cold water in your kettle. Either remove the water from the stove just before it starts to boil, or wait 30-60 seconds after it's stopped boiling before you pour it over the grounds. When the water is ready, pour a little bit over the ground coffee, just enough to wet the grinds. Then wait 30-60 seconds before pouring the rest of the water. This allows the grinds to swell, which will keep the water from running too quickly through the grinds.
The trickling of water through the freshly ground beans and the aroma of strong coffee as I read my morning paper set me in a positive frame of mind as I wait for that first cup. It's no wonder that coffee is an addictive beverage -- the whole process from start to finish is steeped in ritual and pleasure!
What type of grind should I get?
Basically, the grind mostly depends on the method you use to make coffee. The most popular method in the US is the auto-drip, using either disposable paper filters or a permanent metal-mesh. (All of these can be found on this site in our Machines, Vessels, and Devices section).
Here is a rule-of-thumb guide for what type of grind to use:
Espresso/Cappucinno machines: extra fine grind
Auto-Drip coffeemakers using paper filters: fine-medium grind
Auto-Drip coffeemakers with a metal-mesh filter: medium grind
Manual drip (pour-over): medium-coarse grind
French Press: coarse grind
Percolator: coarse grind
Now, remember this is a rule-of-thumb, not a rule. We recommend you experiment a little. Try starting with these guidelines and see how the coffee tastes to you. Then, to make your coffee taste a little stronger, you could try getting it ground more finely the next time. Or, if there is a touch of bitterness, perhaps your machine actually requires a coarser grind.
Should I grind my own coffee?
Grinding your own coffee beans just before brewing definitely provides the absolute, freshest tasting coffee. It's also an easy way to impress dates and dinner party guests ("Wow, he must know an awful lot about, well, EVERYthing if he grinds his own coffee!). So, if you want to give it a try, check out our selection of home grinders. The electric ones whir and purr in the most seductive way. The hand grinders make you look like the type of guy or gal who might dance with wolves.
Here's how to achieve various grinds at home:
Fine: 30 - 40 seconds
Medium:20 - 25 seconds
Medium-Coarse: 15 - 20 seconds
Coarse: 5 - 10 seconds
How much coffee should I use?
Our customers use anywhere from 1 to 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 oz cup, which is the size of a regular mug. (And speaking of mugs, we have some excellent ones to choose from, although we wouldn't call them regular, they're actually quite extraordinary!)
We'd suggest starting with 1.5 tablespoons of the appropriate grind. If that's too strong, use less next time. Want it stronger? Use a little more.
To fine-tune your cup of coffee to your particular taste see our roast guidelines and our grind guidelines. Don't worry, with a little patience and experimentation, everyone from the most mild-mannered to the most-behind-on-their-term-paper can find the ideal combination of roast, grind and amount.
What's the best way to store coffee?
If you'll use the coffee within a week, just store it in a clean, airtight container. This is the best way to keep your coffee fresh and flavorful.
If you need to keep it for more than a week, keep it in an air-tight container in the freezer. Whole beans stored this way will stay optimally fresh and good tasting for about two months. Ground coffee stored this way will be fine for about 3-4 weeks. Any airtight container will do. You can use tupperware, chinese food containers, or a ziploc bag. Or, for a more stylish solution, see our selection of airtight canisters.
Did we mention the container should be airtight?
Do some coffees contain more caffeine than others?
Some people think that dark roasted coffee has more caffeine, probably because it tastes stronger. In fact, the opposite is true roasting burns off caffeine, so the darker (longer) the roast, the less caffeine. This means that espresso, which is made from Italian roast (the darkest of the darks) has the least amount of caffeine, pound for pound. Of course, you can down a shot of espresso in 3 sips, which you can't do with a full cup.
However, don't get too hung up on this because we're talking about differences that are really minimal. If you need decaffeinated coffee, get decaf. Otherwise, just sit back and vibrate.