With ‘WFH’ policies currently reinstated, we ask the experts how a great cup of coffee, brewed at home, can give you an extra dose of motivation.
The first American barista to take home the number one spot at the World Barista Championship in 2010, Michael Phillips knows a thing or two about how to make a ripping cup of coffee. You’re probably familiar with his work at Blue Bottle — the global sensation that purchased Phillips’s company, Handsome Coffee Roasters, back in 2012. As Blue Bottle’s Director of Coffee Culture since 2018, he has experience at every step of the coffee production process; and with it, a tonne of valuable insight.
It seemed all too appropriate then, for us to pick his brain when it comes to brewing at home. Which method is best suited to beginners? What’s the perfect water-to-bean ratio? Michael’s the guy with the answer to all your questions.
Tell us a little bit about how you got started in the coffee industry?
I was drawn into it while attending college for film studies in 2001. A shop opened in the small town I was based that roasted its own beans, had single origin, brewed every cup fresh-to-order and had traditional small sized espresso. This was something I’d never seen before and it fascinated me. The owner would teach me how to brew as we shared cups of coffee in the cafe, and each week he’d suggest I try a new single origin flavour to broaden my horizons.
At the time, coffee was becoming a passion but I was still striving to make a career in film. As the years went on I found myself more and more engaged with the various aspects of coffee: always wanting to learn more and hone my craft. Ultimately, I had to acknowledge that I was spending much more time on my coffee-making ‘hobby’ instead of my career in film. At that point, I decided to sell all of my equipment so I could fund a home roasting machine and small espresso set-up, in order to start learning on my own so one day I could enter the coffee business.
I still remember roasting coffee on my little screened-in porch adjacent to my apartment and sharing my experimental roasts with friends.
To you, what makes a perfect cup of coffee?
The mythic ‘perfect’ cup consists of many things. I think when most people ask this they’re thinking about the type of beans, brewing method, or maybe a specific technique. In truth, our experiences with coffee are so much bigger than that: The cup it’s served in; the sounds and smells in the space; the interaction with the barista; the soft morning light coming through the windows — those are all things that contribute to the ‘perfect’ cup.
From a technical perspective, I prefer a clean cup with no sediment, a good level of sweetness; a bit of fruity acidity; and a crisp finish. It would even be that much better if I could enjoy on the upstairs floor of our small Kyoto cafe, right next to a bike shop. That space is so magical that it makes any cup taste better.
What are some common mistakes beginners make when brewing coffee?
The most common one is the thinking that great equipment makes a great barista. Granted, a high-quality grinder is very important, but outside of that, simply investing effort and attention into the brewing process (and learning the nuances of each style) is the key. If you don’t focus on the process of brewing, buying a fancy kettle and some expensive beans will do little for you.
What’s the most important step that people don’t often think about?
One area of focus which will help people the most probably would be to pay attention to their recipe: You need to be really specific about how much water versus how much coffee you’re using. A digital scale helps with this but if you don’t have one, use volume measurements — anything to get more consistency.
Can you take us through a few need-to-knows on brewing the perfect cup at home? Give us all the details — optimum temperature, bean-to-water ratio, et cetera.
The first step is to understand your recipe — that is the amount of coffee to water — as this determines your strength.
At Blue Bottle, we use different recipes for different coffees in order to achieve the best possible version. A good starting point is 1g of coffee for every 12g of water if you like a stronger cup; 1g for every 16g if you prefer a lighter cup. As for water, it’s best to use fresh, cold water: Bring the liquid to a boil and then let it rest for 30 seconds.
I’ve almost never had a cup brewed with water that is too hot, yet many cups that suffered for having been too cool. The lighter the roast, the more important it is to get a depth of flavour. Every brewing method has its own technique, but I suggest you make your process very clear and repeatable if you want to improve as a barista. Once you’re able to get your technique down consistently, you can experiment with changing a single element at a time.
From siphon and Chemex to Aeropress and French press, what method of brewing coffee do you like the most and which would you recommend to beginners?
The Chemex falls into a family of brewing devices generally referred to ‘pour-over’ brewers. I find this category best for beginners: the pour-over teaches core brewing principles in a simple, easily understandable way (relative to devices like a siphon or Aeropress). It also produces coffee that has a cleaner flavour profile, as compared to that of a French press.
However, I would suggest a smaller pour-over brewer as opposed to a Chemex; because coffee is best when brewed fresh, so small amounts at any one time are the most ideal. The Chemex would be a good option if you need to serve groups of three or more in a single sitting.
What are the top things customers should consider when choosing their brewing equipment?
Think about the balance between the quality you desire, how long you want to invest in making the coffee, and how serious you are about mastering the process for that particular style. For instance, to make an espresso beverage at home you not only require very expensive equipment, but it’s also by far the most complex process to learn well. For this reason, I suggest most people splurge for drinks like a cappuccino or latte in cafes as opposed to attempting them at home.
For something that’s both easy and delicious, cold brew is probably the path of least resistance to a consistently high quality cup of coffee (especially when made using our signature Hario bottle). If you really want to savour the natural qualities of a particular coffee bean, I’d suggest using a smaller brewer like our dripper — that helps you get the most mileage out of unique single origin coffees. You can also work with it to make coffees at a higher concentration (i.e. great with milk) so it’s very versatile.
Any specific tips on cleaning and maintaining a coffee machine?
I advise most of our guests to clean any part that the coffee comes into contact with regularly, ideally with a coffee cleaner. These types of purpose-made solutions are good at removing grease and oil residue. Regular soap can work but you need to rinse very thoroughly, as it’s common for soap to stay on the carafe and add a bad taste to cups made with it later.
Is it fairly easy to learn how to do latte art at home?
Doing latte art at home is extremely difficult. For starters, you’ll need an espresso machine and a grinder. If you buy a model that is able to make a high-quality latte consistently, it’s going to be very expensive (i.e. thousands of US dollars). More challenging than that, however, is the task of developing one’s skill. At Blue Bottle, we train our baristas intensely for a very long duration of time in order to help them develop their skill. To replicate this process at home requires a lot of dedication — not impossible, just difficult.
What is your favourite type of coffee?
I tend to enjoy the unique aspects of our single origin coffees. Often people consider these all to be fruity in flavour; but the coffees we source for our single origin lineup have so many more dimensions to experience. Some of my favourites come from Ethiopia and are floral with a high degree of sweetness. Others from Brazil can be more chocolate-y and rich, and some that we bring in from Papua New Guinea taste like molasses and have a heavier body. If I feel like enjoying a cup with some milk in it, our blends are great; but the single origins are what I enjoy most for their ever-changing and unique profiles.
During the pandemic, Dalgona coffee has been a popular trend — do you think there’s a way to do a more sophisticated version that doesn’t use instant coffee?
The process of making Dalgona necessitates instant coffee, because the incorporated sugar is what gives you the whipped, creamy texture that has made it so popular. We’ve recently launched our own instant coffee (in select markets) and it sold out really quickly. Hopefully, as we increase production it’ll become readily available; and that’s a great way for people to spruce up their Dalgona coffees.
(Header image credit: Tyler Nix/Unsplash)