Barista Secrets: 3 Tips For A Better At-Home Cup

| September 4, 2014 | 18 Comments
  • 18 Comments
A barista talks to a customer at Blue Bottle's W.C. Morse location in Oakland. Photo: Shelby Pope

A barista talks to a customer at Blue Bottle’s W.C. Morse location in Oakland. Photo: Shelby Pope

As much as the Bay Area loves its seemly infinite number of third wave coffee shops, it’s cheaper and more convenient to make coffee at home. And with the rise in coffee maker alternatives—the Aeropress, Chemex and pour over methods which have all gained popularity over the last few years—there are now more options than ever before to make a quality cup at home.

Yet even if you’ve dutifully followed all the advice on how to improve your home coffee making—you’ve shelled out for a burr grinder, bought a cone dripper, and have carefully selected coffee beans from your preferred third wave roaster—sometimes there’s still something missing. Why, if you’re using the same coffee as Blue Bottle/Philz/Four Barrel, will your morning cup made at home not taste as good as it does as when it’s made in their respective stores?

“Magic elves,” Michael Philips, Blue Bottle’s director of training (and 2010 winner of the World Barista Championship) said, deadpan. “That’s the secret to everything we do.”

“How do you get it to taste as good as the stores? You can’t,” said Philz Coffee CEO Jacob Jaber, son of the eponymous Phil. “You can try to follow the same process and procedure but there’s so many little details that we do, from the coffee making methodology, to the equipment we use, to the amount of beans we use, to the type of grind we use, to the quality of the water we use, to the way we pour, to the way we stir, to the ingredients that are added. Those are all factors, and important ones, and unless you get all of those right, it’s going to be hard to replicate it.”

But while making coffee will always lacks the obvious advantages of making coffee at a shop, like the expensive equipment and access to the freshest beans, with a few easy tweaks, it’s possible to get closer to that café taste–no magic elves required.

A cheap Brita filter can upgrade your water quality--and coffee making Photo: Shelby Pope

A cheap Brita filter can upgrade your water quality–and coffee making. Photo: Shelby Pope

Water

When someone opens a coffee shop, not only do they have control over which $15,000 espresso machine to buy and what type of Edison bulb will best artfully light their café, they’re able to completely control what kind of water they’re using. And since coffee is 98% water, home coffee makers are immediately at a disadvantage when it comes to getting that café taste. At home, you’re not going to have access to the state of the art reverse osmosis system Blue Bottle uses, but even just a $20 Brita filter can make a huge difference, says Erin Meister, who trains baristas for Counter Culture Coffee.

“The secret hack of making great coffee at home is not necessarily spending a ton of money and only using Fiji water to brew your coffee– because who wants to be that person–but considering the water quality, knowing that you should always start with cold fresh water, [and] making sure that your water doesn’t impart any taste or odor,” she said. “Anybody who’s making coffee at home, anything that’s Brita level filtration should be just fine.”

The right kind of dairy plays an important role in making espresso drinks Photo: Shelby Pope

The right kind of dairy plays an important role in making espresso drinks. Photo: Shelby Pope

Dairy

Fans of Philz Coffee are convinced the company has a secret. On a 2012 Quora thread, a debate sprang up: does the Bay Area chain, which encourages customers to take milk in their coffee, use olive oil to make their cream taste richer? Or is the secret extremely high fat manufacturer’s cream? It’s an urban legend about that Jaber is happy to debunk—“We do not put olive oil in our milks or cream”—but the obsession with Philz’s cream highlights the important role dairy plays in coffee.

If you’re simply adding coffee to your morning cup, it doesn’t matter what kind you use. Like soy, skim or even manufacturer’s cream? Keep using that. But if you’re steaming milk at home for espresso drinks, things get more complicated, as different types of milk can heat into froth that ranges from smooth and silky to dry and Styrofoam-like.

At Four Barrel, barista trainer Umeko Motoyoshi recommends that her wholesale accounts use Straus Barista Milk, which she prefers not only for its “pleasantly floral, very sweet” taste but its distinctive foaming properties. A few years ago, at the request of several coffee companies, Straus developed a lightly homogenized version of their milk—it’s easier to get reliable microfoam with lightly homogenized milk.

While the resulting Barista Milk is only available for wholesale accounts, Motoyoshi says you can get good foam from virtually any milk (except raw milk, which separates when heated). Higher fat milk has a smoother mouth feel and highlights the taste of coffee better, but don’t overdo it: half and half may be delicious, but it’s harder to steam.

A digital scale is an easy way to ensure consistency in your coffee Photo: Shelby Pope

A digital scale is an easy way to ensure consistency in your coffee. Photo: Shelby Pope

Testing and Consistency

Yes, you know how to make a cup of coffee. But do you measure out your coffee and water—in grams, for more accuracy—the way Blue Bottle employees do?

“You can have the best coffee and the best espresso equipment around but if your technique is not accurate and consistent, all that will mean very little,” said Philips, who emphasized “making sure that you’re using the same amount of coffee, the same amount of water, so that you can control and recreate your formula. In a lot of our coffee bars you’ll see that we have little digital scales tucked away and those digital scales are a really easy trick for the home user to be able to take that consistency that we have in our shops into their personal lives.”

Every coffee shop has its own formula borne from a serious of exhaustive tests on everything from grind size to ratios—and once they’ve nailed down a formula, they don’t deviate. Start measuring your coffee and water, and it’ll be easy to isolate the characteristics you prefer to discover the formula for your personal perfect cup.

And if you’ve been making coffee the same way for years, try brewing a new way. Four Barrel’s Motoyoshi recommends a 1:15 coffee to water ratio, and Blue Bottle has instructions on their website for brewing in anything from a drip machine to a moka pot to pour-over system.

Ultimately, the best way to improve your coffee making is to experiment with your coffee, discover what you like, and to keep trying new methods, said Philips.

“That’s the thing that’s great about coffee. Your personal opinion can very easily define the product that you get,” he said. “If you’re a home aficionado and you feel like you’ve got some basic tools, your next step is to start looking at different ways you can work with those same coffees to bring out different aspects of them and create different styles of beverages,” said Phillips.

Even though spending extra time and money on your daily cup of coffee may seem frivolous, it’s worth the effort, says Meister. “Coffee means so much to people that there’s no reason not to go whole hog and make it an occasion in your day. One of the best things you can do [for] yourself is to take a moment out of your day, to make it as pleasant a sensory experience as possible.”

Getting the coffee shop experience at home is easier than you think Photo: Shelby Pope

Getting the coffee shop experience at home is easier than you think. Photo: Shelby Pope

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Category: bay area, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, beverages, local food businesses, tea and coffee

About the Author ()

Shelby Pope is a freelance writer living and eating her way through Oakland. She’s written about food, art and science for publications including The Bold Italic, The East Bay Express and The Toast. When she’s not taste testing sourdough bread to find the Bay Area’s best loaf, you can find her on Twitter @shelbylpope
  • Sunshar

    “The Chemex Coffeemaker is a manual, pour-over style glass-container coffeemaker, which Peter Schlumbohm invented in 1941″ (from Wikipedia) — hardly a new entrant in the coffee making world.

  • Shelby Pope

    You are correct! But it has become substantially more popular in recent years, which is what I was referring to–in this article, the president of the company says sales started increasing in 2007: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/22/ristretto-chemex/

  • Yolanda De LosAngeles

    Good article about coffee!

    However I must take exception to the suggestion of a Brita filter and how cheap it is.
    First of all I’d like to point out that Brita’s have to be replaced fairly often because they break or leak, and that the Brita filters are really not that cheap when you consider how often you have to replace the systems themselves and how often you have to replace the filter cartridges.

    I would suggest that a better filter – that filters out much more than the Brita filters do – would be not only cheaper to maintain and operate, long term, but also better for health, and quite possibly better for the taste of coffee also because they not only filter chlorine but chloramines and chlordane, and other contaminants that may add weird tastes to the water you use for your coffee.

    Please take a look at this site that compares the filtration and the cost per gallon of Brita and 2 other popular filters, and gives the facts regarding what the yearly costs are and which contaminants are filtered.
    http://comparingwaterfilters.com/

  • Chris J

    Good article, I agree. Consistency is important and I appreciate the effort the various cafe and coffee purveyors effect to make their cups distinguishable. That being said my local baristas where I might regularly visit do the same thing FAIRly consistently as well, and they use fairly mundane equipment and ingredients.

    I don’t know the name of the espresso machine, nor do I notice what kind or brand of milk is being used, nor do they tell me how they measure out precisely in grams each serving. Aaiiieeee!

    Bottom line….agh. It’s just coffee (please don’t hate me for discounting all the efforts…but I don’t notice or care).

    Still, interesting to see the OCD necessary to start ones own business!

  • David

    Implying it’s somehow not possible or practical to make a better cup of coffee at home is a disappointing premise for the article. The equipment is not that expensive, and I doubt that the Blue Bottle staff has more time (and care) available to make your coffee than you do.

    Buy a gram scale (I love my AWS sc-2kg scale; $18). Buy a decent burr grinder (a Hario ceramic hand grinder can be had for $25). Pick a pour over method (a V60 cone and filters cost less than $30). Most grocery stores sell RO water in bulk (you can even mix it 10:1 with tap water to replace some of the lost minerals). A goose-neck kettle does make the pouring easier.

    I think the hardest thing for people to accept is that you have to weigh the beans and the water to get consistent results. A water-to-coffee ratio of 17:1 is a good starting point. Just brew right on your scale. However much coffee you start with, multiply that weight by 17 and that’s how much hot water to add. Use grams—the math is much easier.

    Most importantly, the freshness of the coffee overwhelms all other variables (by far). If you use fresh coffee (days 3–7 are heavenly) it will make all the difference, so get to know your local roasters or, better yet, roast your own coffee (it’s not that hard and high-quality green beans cost $4–6/pound).

  • Chaya

    Try using Heavy Cream like Philz, of course it tastes good!

  • MinWoo

    A fool and his money are soon parted…..

  • Frank Wolfmann

    The gram/milliliter relationship for cold water is the same as the ounce/fluid ounce relationship, so using grams doesn’t actually make much of a difference here. Incidentally, the same applies to pints and pounds – customary measurements aren’t actually as irrational as people sometimes believe.

  • David

    I accept your point that there is no innate advantage to grams over ounces. What I should have said was to make sure the scale measures in grams or *decimal* ounces. I have a Salter kitchen scale that I don’t use for coffee because it measures in grams and fractional ounces. While it can distinguish between 12 g and 14 g, it shows both those weights as 3/8 oz, which isn’t accurate enough. Also, multiplying 3/8 oz by 17 is no fun either. The scale I mentioned in my comment can measure tenths of a gram, which means you can pretty accurately measure to the gram. Whether you prefer that expressed as 14 g or 0.49 oz is up to you!

  • herblelecti

    Anyone who thinks the coffee being served at Blue Bottle, Philz, or Four Barrel is good coffee doesn’t know what good coffee tastes like. Coffee shouldn’t be sour. Only someone who didn’t drink coffee before the current trend of hip, pricey cafes started thinks otherwise.

  • Lisa

    And what was good coffee 20 years ago? Sanka? Flogers? Nescafe? Please.

  • herblelecti

    Let me guess– you start each day with an overpriced cup of sour coffee and you LOVE it? It’s okay– as a new coffee drinker you don’t know better.

    What was good in the past, and is still good today, is coffee made from better beans, roasted by people who didn’t just learn to roast coffee when the new trend hit. In other words, coffee not from Blue Bottle or other purveyor’s of the Emperor’s New Coffee.

  • apotatofarmer

    WHOA! Someone else knows that coffee is supposed to be delicious and not “face melter” garbage!!!!

    I thought I was the only one.

  • swagv

    There are no “secrets”. NPR can stop acting like it’s Cosmopolitan magazine, please.

  • Gallifreyan

    I have a couple of them (Brita and Pur) that still work fine after 5+ years, including a crock-style filter. And if you buy the filters in multipacks, they’re very affordable.

    Target has a line of drop-in replacement filters that runs around $3-4 per filter in multipacks. So $4 every 3 months is probably not as painful a cost as you might have originally thought.

    Obviously if you have biologically unsafe water, you need something stronger, but for most of the Bay Area, the Brita-type filter is just fine.

  • Gallifreyan

    The Philz CEO may be correct that you can’t do it identically, but you can do it as well, and maybe even better, with a few simple steps (much as you’ve outlined in this comment, David). Exploration followed by consistency will get you where you want to be.

  • Gallifreyan

    Some people think that because of the Coffee Theatre experience, that must be how good coffee tastes. And if it’s good enough for them, good for them. But they can probably find better.

  • http://whatsthebestwaterfilter.com Yolanda

    Hi Gallifreyan, It depends on which Pur and which Brita you are
    talking about. The PuR *on the faucet* Ultimate model is pretty good,
    but the PuR Plus is not so good. If you’re talking about a pitcher
    filter none of them are very good. As for Brita, this is a quote from
    their own site:

    “Both [the pitcher and the faucet mount] products
    reduce the contaminants that most commonly concern consumers — lead and
    chlorine (taste and odor) — and both products deliver great-tasting
    Brita® water. The Brita® Pitcher Systems also reduce copper and mercury —
    which the Brita® Faucet Filter can’t do. But unlike the pitcher, the
    Faucet Filter removes the microbes, Cryptosporidium and Giardia, and
    reduces the chemicals Atrazine, Lindane, Benzene, Trichloroethylene and
    Asbestos”.

    This is a very limited list of contaminants reduced
    and while the government has done a good job of making our water
    *mostly* safe and convincing everyone it is very safe, the fact is that
    there are many contaminants that get through to our tap that the City
    water system does not filter *and neither does the Brita pitcher.*

    Check the official web site or the NSF Consumer page re water filter certification to see if your filter reduces:
    chlordane
    pcb’s
    toxaphene
    asbestos
    mercury

    Many
    do not and I don’t believe either the PUR nor the Brita faucet mounted
    filters reduce these and almost sure none of the pitcher models do.

    My point is that when buying a water filter :

    Look
    at the Water Quality Report for your area and find out what things your
    City is not filtering very well. In Los Angeles the water at the tap
    has 1000 (one thousand) TIMES THE AMOUNT of the Public Health Goal set
    by the California Environmental Protection Agency.

    Furthermore
    look at the NSF or other Certification of your water filter. Which
    contaminants are Certified to be reduced? Brita pitchers have a short
    list as do most pitcher filters. Pitchers of any type are not adequate
    to reduce the many chemicals now reaching our tap. Is it “SAFE”? The
    government says yes but with all due respect they have said that many
    times and been wrong. (Ever watch the Silkwood movie or the Erin
    Brokavich movie?)

    Please see the comparison chart here re the
    Facts on which filters reduce what: (It does not cover pitcher filters
    because they are not even in the ball park of “real” “good” filters):
    whatsthebestwaterfilter.com/CompareWaterFilters.htm