The zen of drip

How a coffee nerd taught a food expert to craft a better pot of coffee


I have to confess something kind of embarrassing. I’m a skilled cook, a food expert, a former dining critic and culinary radio host. You would think I could make a decent cup of coffee since I get to practice almost every morning. Yet, despite grinding quality beans fresh for every pot, my drip coffee ends up too weak, too muddy or with grounds floating in it. 

After another miffed morning, I called on one of Boulder’s most notable coffee nerds, Justin Hartman. Usually, coffee lovers quiz the founder and owner of Ozo Coffee about espresso technique or the latest and greatest pour over device. He was intrigued because I wanted help with the device that most people use in their home kitchens: a standard drip coffee maker. (We shall not speak of the great environmental devil using those little plastic coffee capsules.)

Hartman invited me over for a little tutoring in the coffee training lab at Ozo’s Boulder roastery. I brought my coffee maker, filter and grinder to find out what I was doing wrong … and right. 

Hartman broke down the critical factors that make or break a pot of coffee.  

Justin Hartman demonstrates how to properly make drip coffee at Boulder’s Ozo Coffee Roastery.

A clean machine: When was the last time you cleaned your maker? Remember: Cleanliness is next to tastiness, according to Hartman. Never use soap, which can leave a residue, but rather diluted white vinegar or a special coffee maker-cleaning solution. Be sure to run a couple of pots of water through it afterwards to rinse it out. 

In hot water: The water in your brewer should pour over the grounds at 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit. My maker tested at the right temperature and chances are yours is also correct. However, if you have an older drip maker, it is worth testing to assure the water is hot enough to brew properly. 

No nuking: Hartman is not in favor of microwaving coffee. He recommends brewing the coffee into a preheated (with hot water) insulated carafe and then into a preheated mug. 

Blade versus burr: Buying pre-ground coffee absolutely guarantees you will get less flavor and bang for your coffee buck. Even in a sealed bag the flavor starts deteriorating, Hartman says. It only takes seconds to grind it fresh.

“Start with a blade grinder,” Hartman says. “One thing that helps is to shake the grinder as it works to get a more uniform grind. The next step up is a gravity-fed burr grinder, which is much more precise. That’s one of the best things you can do to make better coffee at home.” 

He made his point by brewing two batches of coffee, one using my blade grinder and one using his burr grinder. Tasted side by side, the burr batch was substantially more flavorful than my blade brew.  

“Ultimately, you want a uniform grind,” he says. “If your coffee tastes a little weak, your grind is probably a little rough. If it tastes ashy or muddy, the grind may be too fine.”

Don’t overstock beans: When you pick up freshly roasted beans, don’t buy more than you can use fairly soon. “We like to keep beans 20 or 30 days after roasting — that’s optimal for flavor,” Hartman says. 

Whatever you do, don’t refrigerate or freeze coffee beans. “They need to be sealed tightly in a dark, dry spot,” he says. “A Mason jar with a tight top is ideal. Exposure to air is what you want to avoid.”

Get filtered: I’ve been using permanent plastic or metal coffee filters for a while to cut down on paper waste, but Hartman insists paper filters can be useful. “Using paper filters does cut down on the smaller particles and remove some of the oil in the beans,” he explains. “Some people say that it makes it easier to taste the nuances in the coffee.” 

Clean water necessarily makes better tasting coffee, but not too clean.

While looking at my filter he discovered a hole, which explained the grounds in my morning brew. I bought a new filter on the way home.

Water with flavor: Clean water necessarily makes better tasting coffee, but not too clean. Hartman recommends using filtered water but not distilled or reverse-osmosis water. You want some of those tasty minerals to stay in the water so the brew doesn’t taste flat.  

Measure for measure: Chances are that you, like me, are not using the right amount of coffee per pot.“One of the most important things is the bean-to-water ratio. The ideal is 1-to-16: One ounce (by weight) of beans or ground coffee to 16 ounces of water,” he says. 

If that sounds too fussy, you really only have to weigh and measure once. Weigh the beans and then pour them into a scoop or container you use every day and remember the level.

Measure the water to see if those lines on the side of your coffee maker’s reservoir are accurate. Hartman recommends using Ball canning jars to measure water because the marked measurements are very precise. 

Right-sizing your batch: Right away, Hartman eyed the capacity of my filter and how the water saturated the grounds. He recommends opening up the top and watching. “Your coffee filter can only handle about 60 grams of coffee, which means about 40 ounces of water,” he says. “Your filter may not be big enough to handle enough ground coffee to make an entire pot. You may be better off making half a pot of coffee at the right strength.”

What about roast?: Once you find a local coffee roaster you like, try small quantities of medium and darker roasted varieties to see which tastes best to you. “Medium to darker roasts are going to be a little more forgiving because they are a little more soluble. That means it is easier to extract the flavor if you’re having water temperature issues or the grind isn’t quite right,” he says.

Hartman promises the effort is worthwhile: “The more precise you are at brewing at home, the more different these coffees will taste. You find that the Sumatra has a little more body and a little more oomph than that Guatemala, which is a little fruitier,” Hartman says. Discerning those subtle local flavor distinctions is what drove him to become a coffee nerd in the first place, he says.  

I took my equipment home and in the days that have followed, I’ve been pleased by the new improved flavor and my newfound drip ability. 

Local Food News

Left Hand Brewing Co. has gone where no brewer has gone before … into the 25th century. A sticker from the Longmont brewery is clearly visible on a recent episode of Star Trek: Picard in a scene where Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) eats lunch at a San Francisco restaurant. 

Boulder’s Peak State Coffee — the first whole bean coffee infused with functional mushrooms, that is, mushrooms that have medicinal properties — won Naturally Boulder’s recent 2023 Pitch Slam as the most promising Colorado natural foods company. 

Words to Chew On

“As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move, similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.” — Honoré de Balzac (1799-1859)

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles Thursday mornings on KGNU. Comments: [email protected].


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