Updated on 06.09.16

Six Steps to Brew Great-Tasting Coffee on the Cheap

We Americans love our coffee. About two-thirds of adults in the U.S. drink coffee every day, according to a recent Gallup poll, with the average coffee drinker consuming about three cups per day.

But here at The Simple Dollar, we also love to find ways to save money. Cutting back on coffee is an oft-discussed tactic that can put a lot of money back in your pocket — especially if you regularly buy it at a coffee shop or convenience store. And while you can also save money by not drinking coffee at all, isn’t that borderline heresy to the two thirds of us who’d be profoundly sad without our favorite beverage? Who would be insanely cranky without it? Who have thought about naming their firstborn child Joe, in honor of coffee? (Maybe that last one’s just me.)

Anyway, for many Americans, cutting out out coffee is not an option. But your morning ritual (or all-day habit) doesn’t have to be expensive, and it doesn’t have to mean sacrificing quality, either.

In this post I’ll explore how to save money while brewing coffee that is indistinguishable from what you’ll find at the fanciest cafes and coffee shops. I’ll do it with the help Brett Whitman, head of training and education at Four Barrel Coffee, one of the Bay Area’s most iconic and beloved coffee shop chains.

Now, it goes without saying that the number one way to spend less money on great-tasting coffee is to brew it yourself whenever possible, whether it’s at home, your dorm room, or office, instead of paying upwards of $2 a cup at the corner coffee shop. Buying the occasional cup won’t hurt you too much, but if you’re hitting the coffee shop three times a day, you’d save thousands of dollars a year brewing at home.

And while you’re not going to get that perfect, robust flavor from a bulk bag of pre-ground Folgers, you don’t need to splurge on super-fancy beans that cost $20 a pound, either. I’ve used the following methods to get the average whole-bean coffee you can buy at Costco to taste pretty darned delicious.

Here are seven steps to making heavenly home-brewed coffee without spending a lot of money:

Buy Whole Beans and Grind Them Properly

This one is a given for coffee aficionados, but it bears repeating. Buying whole beans and grinding them on your own will result in better coffee, period.

But, the type of grinder you use matters. You’re going to want to invest (as little as $18) in a burr grinder. This ensures that the beans are ground in a uniform manner — minimizing the amount of coffee that turns to dust during the grinding process, and allowing all the grinds to be extracted evenly.

If you want a more detailed explanation of all this, Handground.com offers one: “Think about what would happen if you were baking cookies, and instead of spooning out the cookie dough in uniform piles, you made them different sizes. You had very small piles, normal-sized piles, and very large piles all baking on the cookie sheet together. While the normal-sized piles would cook perfectly, the small piles would burn while the large piles would be undercooked.”

That’s the equivalent of what’s happening in your coffee with a bad, inconsistent grind. Since we’re all about maximizing flavor, a good grind is a must.

If you’re completely averse to grinding your own coffee, another option is buying whole beans and grinding them at the store or the coffeeshop where you bought them. Whitman notes that some coffee-snob baristas will “give you the stink eye” if you ask them to grind your whole bag upfront, but he says it’s worth it if you don’t have a burr grinder and you’ll be using the coffee within a week or so.

Keep in mind that whole beans stay fresh about three times as long as ground coffee — so if you’re buying in bulk, you’re going to want your own grinder at home.

Measure, measure, measure.

You might cringe at investing in another device, but a gram scale is also flat-out worth it. A small, digital scale can come as cheap as $10, and Whitman is adamant about their importance when it comes to maximizing flavor and saving money.

“People tend to use too many coffee beans for each brew. A scale can eliminate this impulse,” Whitman says. “The water can only extract a certain amount of flavor and caffeine from the beans, so trying to stuff your brewing device with beans is just going to waste money. Using too many beans will also make your coffee acidic and dry.”

Using care to measure out your water goes hand in hand with weighing your beans. You can’t have one without the other. In order to be efficient and get good flavor, you need to use the correct ratio of coffee to water. Whitman says that a good rule of thumb is 16 parts water to one part coffee.

Sixteen what-now, you say? This handy chart can help you figure out how much water and coffee to use. For example, if you and your spouse fit the mold of the average American coffee drinker, you’ll want to make about six cups in the morning. To do so, you’d want to use about 36 ounces of water and 64 grams (about 12 tablespoons) of coffee.

Use Good-Quality Water

If you’re brewing your coffee with water straight from the tap, you’re selling yourself short. Whitman recommends using a simple, cheap Brita-type filtering device to get rid of the chlorine commonly found in tap water. “[Chlorine] makes the coffee taste weird, and affects how the water extracts,” Whitman says.

This is another product with a low upfront cost that will provide long-term benefits, and it’s definitely worth it for those drinking coffee on a daily basis.

Heat Your Water to the Correct Temperature

If you let your water come to a rollicking boil and then dump it onto your beans (I maybe have been guilty of this in the past), then you’re doing yourself a disservice.

For anyone using a pour-over method (for example, a French press, Hario V60, or Chemex), Whitman recommends a temperature of around 200 degrees Fahrenheit — so pause for a moment after your water boils at 212 degrees. Too cool, and it comes out flat; too hot, and the extraction messes with the flavor.

Those using a good-quality coffeemaker have less to worry about, as the machine should consistently get your water to the correct temperature automatically.

Store Your Coffee Properly

“If you can, buy coffee that comes in bags with a two-way seal,” says Whitman. This ensures maximum freshness by letting air escape without a ton of air rushing in and causing oxidation. If you buy coffee in bulk, he says, “Store it in a cool, dark place, and place the coffee into a sealed container after about 15 days.”

If you really like to buy in bulk, you might end up with so much coffee that you want to store it in the freezer. Whitman strongly recommended against this from a flavor standpoint. But if you are going to do it, he advised, “Portion out beans into single serving sizes, and then use a vacuum seal on the bags. If there’s any air in the bags, it will pull the water out of the bean, and that water will then freeze on the outside of the bean, resulting in a very poor tasting cup of coffee.”

Use Whatever Brewing Method You Want

I was surprised when Whitman told me that you can get great tasting coffee using just about any preparation method. As long as you control your variables and prepare the beans properly, you’ll be good to go. Everyone’s taste buds are unique, so find the method you like the best and stick with it.

Despite his obvious passion for brewing great coffee, Whitman specifically cautions against beginners spending a ton of money on a more complicated brewing method in which they have to be vigilant about watching the brew. Basically, as with investing, perfect is the enemy of the good.

“Pick something that works for you and don’t sweat it too much,” is how Whitman puts it. “You’ll waste time and money if you let your beans go bad because you’re daunted by the preparation method you chose.”

Whitman also clued me in to something I never knew: Almost all of the caffeine is extracted from the beans in the first minute of the brewing process. I always thought that the longer I let my coffee steep, the stronger a caffeine kick I would get. Turns out all I was doing was creating a drink that was more bitter than necessary.

If all this coffee talk is making you want to learn even more, pay a visit to Four Barrel Coffee should you find yourself in San Francisco. They have a great coffee-making class that can give every beginner the tools they need to make amazing coffee.

Summing Up: Experiment, Iterate and Have Fun

Throughout our conversation, which delved deep into the granular details of making coffee, Whitman kept coming back to his core point: Experiment.

There’s no point in beating yourself up if you can’t make amazing-tasting coffee at first. It’s just a drink. But eventually, if you track your variables, you’ll hit on a process that works for your taste buds, and you can stick with it forever.

Do you have a favorite brewing method other money-saving techniques when it comes to your coffee? Let us know in the comments.

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