I was recently at the launch of a new coffee machine by a big brand and their marketing manager said to me, "Some customers buy our machines and then return them, because they think the machine will make amazing coffee every time with no input from them at all." I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. Of course, people spending hundreds or even thousands of $ or £ on an espresso machine might quite reasonably expect the machine to do all the work for them, but that technology doesn't quite exist yet.
Coffee makers – particularly the best espresso machines but more expensive and advanced bean-to-cup machines too – are splendid devices, but they can't turn crap beans and water into great coffee by magic, and they have a number of adjustable settings for a reason. Even pour over or pod coffee machines can benefit from some input from you, although these methods are more forgiving than the espresso method.
The good news is that, despite the way it's sometimes presented, making coffee is not a form of alchemy that only a select handful of people can ever hope to understand. Sure, making perfect coffee every time takes a lot of effort. However, making better coffee is usually a matter of correcting three simple mistakes.
1. Using unfiltered water
For many years, I thought filter jugs were something of a scam. In most cases, they will not make undrinkable water safe and in most of the Western world, the water coming out of the taps is perfectly quaffable anyway.
I now use a water filter jug but it is not due to any health concerns. It's because I had something of a double revelation when I got my Brita Style a few years ago. Firstly, it meant I didn't need to descale my kettle so frequently – and the same went for whatever coffee machine I was using at the time. Result, right?
Even better, the taste of coffee improved immediately and noticeably. And also tea, herb tea and anything else made using water; even carbonated water from a SodaStream. There was also no longer a dubious looking film of scum on top of every hot beverage I consumed which, again, a plus.
So if you are using a coffee machine, and particularly if you live in hard water area, a water filter jug is not so much a luxury as an essential. Unless you really enjoy that limescale-and-mild-chlorine flavour, of course. Personally, even when a coffee machine has a filter built in, I think it is still worth filling its tank using a water filter jug. The replacement filters are cheaper for a start.
2. Not adjusting your coffee machine's settings
A lot of users are understandably a little intimidated by the settings on their coffee machine, particularly if it's of the espresso or bean to cup variety. However, there is no reason to be afraid – you can't poison yourself by altering a setting or two, and you can always return to the default settings if it all goes horribly wrong.
The key to this is to make small adjustments to one or at most two settings at a time, then make another coffee and see what it tastes like. Is it much better than before you adjusted the machine? Great. Is it worse? Probably best put that setting back to how it was and try something else, then. Or try the reverse approach. Or double down and see what the hell happens! Like I say you can't really break anything and if the coffee you're getting is no good, it's got to be worth experimenting – you've got nothing to lose.
The most important setting to fiddle with when making espresso – and believe me, this does become a compulsion after a while – is the fineness of the grind. That could be on your bean to cup machine, or on your standalone coffee grinder – obviously, if you buy pre-ground, you're a bit stuck.
Putting it as simply as I can, if your coffee is weak and pissy, the grind is probably not fine enough. If it tastes bitter and burnt, it's probably too fine. Do not wang your grinder setting from 1 to 7 in a single move in an effort to address this. Instead, gradually inch it along and see how the coffee improves – or not, as the case may be – after each small adjustment. Soon enough, you'll have the perfect grind setting.
You can also try adjusting things such as dose, extraction time or volume and water temperature, although these are likely to give less of a profound effect than the grind setting unless you want to go really deeply into it, and start doing things like weighing the amount of ground coffee and the resulting drink, whilst timing it with a stopwatch.
Some machines for the British market seem to deliberately use water that is too hot, 'because UK customers like it that way', so this may be worth looking at if your coffee is consistently bitter or, indeed, simply too hot. It should be about 90-92ºC at most. Obviously if you find a cooler setting makes a cup of coffee that tastes better to you, you'll have to get into the habit of drinking it slightly faster before it goes cold.
UK machines also tend to dispense very large coffees as, again, Brits like a huge vat of coffee, of a morning. If this is the case with your machine, reducing the amount of coffee dispensed is usually a sure-fire way to get better-tasting coffee.
Don't be afraid to play with settings – you can always return to the originals if it all goes horribly wrong. I'm kidding; it shouldn't go wrong.
3. Using crap beans
If you upgrade your coffee machine, use a water filter jug and have played with the settings, and are still not getting the kind of coffee you want, try some different types of bean. This is such an obvious point, but so many people seem to just buy the first bag of beans they see, based on price or the packaging, and then never change their brand – or keep on changing it, at random. How do they know there isn't a type of bean that suits them much better?
An online coffee subscription service such as Sage's Beanz or Lavazza's Roast & Ground is one easy way to do this, but you could also just work your way through the selection at your local supermarket, if it's of any size.
It's not necessarily the case that you have to spend more to get beans that are better suited to your taste. Some coffee lovers may indeed find they prefer an Ethopian blend with overtones of blueberry cheesecake, but some just need to find a bean that 'tastes like coffee', and stick to it.
4. Not cleaning your coffee machine
It's a bit of a pain, but every part of your coffee machine needs to be cleaned on a regular basis. Depending on the type of machine you use, this need not be too arduous. Where water and coffee flow it is usually enough to just rinse some more water through to flush out the pipes. Fully automatic bean-to-cup machines will do this for you every day, accompanied by much whooshing and gurgling.
Anything used to froth milk most certainly needs to be throughly flushed out, or you will be getting yesterday's decaying milk in today's coffee, which is not something connoisseurs recommend. Depending on the model of your machine, you may need to run a cleaning programme every day for the milk frothing section of bean-to-cup machines.
When your machine informs you it's time to pop in a cleaning tablet and run the cleaning programme for the machine as a whole, I suggest you take its advice. Your coffee will remain so much tastier as a result. It's usually advisable to make a cup of coffee and throw it out straight after a cleaning or descaling programme.
Speaking of which, regular descaling is also essential. Thats true even if you use a water filter jug and/or live in a soft water area – although you will need to use it much less frequently, thankfully. This isn't just to keep it tasting nice; it's for safety and machine longevity reasons. I know a guy whose coffee machine once got so scaled up, it actually exploded. Yes, it blew up. Imagine that.
- Mend your ways!
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