Sunday, April 25, 2004

Your Coffee Sucks!

I've been to your home or apartment. We've broken bread, drank some wine or beer, had a few laughs and a good time. Its getting a little late, and a little caffeine would be good for the ride home.

Here's the problem: Your coffee sucks. That's right, I said it: You do not know how to brew a good cup of Joe.

You suffer (actually, I'm the one who suffers) from one of four likely problems. Lucky for you, opinionated bastards like me are here on the 'net to give you good advice you didn't even know you needed:

   1) You Use Crappy Coffee. Forget instant, that's not even under consideration. Store bought, no name, canned ground coffee is at its best, mediocre. If you buy a good French Roast, and use 5 to 6 heaping scoopfuls (not spoonfuls, but those little plastic scoopers), you get a halfway decent brew.

But most people don't. They buy whatever lame ass coffee is on sale that week, and then they use  miserly portions. Bleeeccch.

  2) Your Coffeemaker Sucks
That's right, its a piece of shit: It brews too fast, and it doesn't make the coffee hot enough.

A good brewer will slowly let the water drip into the basket, allowing the natural oils, flavor and aroma of the beans to come out. Ahhhhh, can you smell that? Hmmmmm.

Ideally, your brewer will use fresh filtered water, crank up the heat, and then have the warmer turn off quickly -- otherwise, it will burn the brew.

By the way, when was the last time you cleaned that stanky coffeemaker of yours? You can buy commercial products, or just run a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water. Clean it every six months or so.

  3) Your Coffee Was Ground Ages Ago
Forget the stuff in the can -- that was factory ground in 1994. I'm talking to the people who buy beans, ground them up immediately, and then put them in a jar in the fridge for months. That starts the gradual loss of flavor and aroma immediately. (Why even buy beans?)

You want beans, and you want them ground as close to the brewing process as possible.

  4) Your Tap Water is Nasty
Depending upon where you live, your tap water ranges from tasty to industrial run off to chemical comtaminants to carcinogenic.

Cancer flavored coffee tends to taste bad.

OK now you know why your coffee sucks. Let's resolve each of these issues for you poor shlumps who up until know, did not know any better (but now ya do): 

There, that wasn't too hard to figure out, was it? It doesn't have to be expensive, just good.

My favorite coffee supplier is Porto Rico Importing; They have excellent coffee, and its about 1/2 to a 1/3 of what Starbucks charges. Here's their contact info:

201 Bleecker St.
New York, N.Y. 10012

If you are tight with the moolah, then you can stock up during their twice yearly sales: Going on right now is the Springtime sale (April 15-30); They run a fall sale (for Peter's birthday) in October.

Try the Danish Blend (1/2 Mocha & Java, 1/2 French Mocha), or Peter's Blend (1/3 French Mocha, 1/3 Colombian Supremo, 1/3 Venezuelan Tachira).  Both are on sale for $3.99/lb this week. 

I'm sure there are plenty of other good roasters in your region. Outside of NYC, the Fairway on Long Island has their own roaster -- also good coffee at reasonable prices.

Hunt around a bit, you'll find something.

  2) Get a Kickass Coffeemaker
My machine is the Capresso 453.01 CoffeeTeam Luxe 10-Cup Electronic Coffeemaker with Conical Burr Grinder. It cost me about 2 beans (I never see it go on sale). Its a great balance between performance and cost. The next step up beyond it are $600 to a few grand (see picture at bottom). That's a lot of wood, Jerry.

For half the price of my machine -- about $100 -- there's a decent looking Cuisnart. It comes in Black or White; You can spend $150 for the Chrome machine, but at that point, you are better off spending the extra 50 clams for the Capresso.  I've never used this Cuisnart machine (but I have used their previous model grind and brew). Please post any comments on this if you have first hand experience (There's a wide range of opinions at epinions).

Way back when, Toshiba made a grind and brew called "My Cafe" -- and it was terrific. They still pop up on eBay, and in used appliance stores from time to time. Nice symmetrical design, too. There was a cottage industry repairing them. If you see one, grab it.

  3) Grind Your Coffee Fresh
The 'grind and brew' machines resolve this issue. If you don't want to go that route, than buy a small burr or blade grinder. As close as possible to the actual brewing, freshly grind the coffee beans. (Hmmmm, smell the aroma).

If you grind them at night for the morning's coffee, that's acceptable. Anything longer than that loses too much flavor.

  4) Use Fresh Filtered Water
You have plenty of options: Some people buy the large 5 gallon jugs of bottled Deer Park water, or, you can buy the 2 gallon refrigerator size. Others use a separate filter (i.e., Brita) -- its a pain, but better than tap water.

We installed a Moen carbon filtration system right into our kitchen sink; Most brand name kitchen hardware companies -- Moen, American Standard, etc. -- offer this as a modestly priced option. If you are remodelling your kitchen, this is a MUST DO option. If not, it is merely highly advised. 

Yes, I'm being a bit on the picayune side here? Yes, but that's the price for really good java.

I've been meaning to get this post up for sometime. Now go make me a good cup of coffee. I'll be right here waiting . . .

UPDATE October 29, 2006 7:53 am

I originally posted this here over 2 years ago. This week, I received as a birthday gift the latest Capresso Design -- and its awesome: The Capresso 455.05 CoffeeTEAM Therm Stainless Coffeemaker/Burr Grinder Combination


Yeah, its $300 -- but its the best machine I've come across that's under 4 figures.

P.S.You probably don't want to spend this type of wood, but consider what you get if you spend 10X as much, you can get the $3,000 Magic Saeco.

Now that's a nice looking machine . . .

Graphic courtesy of  New York Times

Posted at 01:00 AM in Design, Food and Drink | Permalink


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Update to Your Coffee Sucks! : The main complaint I've received over this rant was that the prices of the grinding breewers were very expensive. I hear ya. Today, we note that Target has on clearance sale the Melitta Mill [Read More]

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» Nectar of the gods from Road To Forbes

And essential part of my day involves coffee.  It is a ritual I enjoy from the grinding of the beans to the smell to the sound of the coffee maker (or expresso maker on somedays).  I like making my own.  Again, the ritual.

An... [Read More]

Tracked on May 30, 2005 7:46:37 PM


As usual, love your blog Barry.

My formulas for coffee.

For brewed coffee the following methods:

1. vacuum - the Bodum glass model - not the plastic one - is serviceable. The better is Cona

2. French Press

a. cold - grind coffee very coarse, use cold water, let steep for 10 hours.
b. 2 press method - make in one, immeadiately transfer to the other.

(will someone please make a piston system?)

3. espresso

a. Krups semi-automatic - hand tamped and ground. Very packed for the slowest possible draw.
b. bialetti electric - serviceable and convenient.

I've tried the all in one machines - they clog too often under my usage, but there are several that make servicable espresso.

the capresso ultima is average, and while clean a poorly made unit.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry | Apr 25, 2004 8:09:00 PM

In general I agree with you, but there are a few points to clarify:

Almost without exception, drip coffeemakers don't put hot enough water through the grounds. Testing showed that the *vast* majority was filtering water in the 155-180 degree range. For full extraction of flavor and oils from coffee, water should be just off the boil -- 208.

Also, traditional drip coffemakers, even if they made good coffee, proceed to destroy it because they have that hotplate that the glass carafe sits on. The continuous heating of the coffee breaks down critical elements of the flavor within minutes.

I personally use a $6 "melita method" machine which percolates down into a vacum pitcher, which I fill with just off the boil water from a small electric kettle. I'm regularly told that it's the best cup of coffee people have ever had. (Oh, and a burr grinder helps keep things consistent.)

Posted by: Joshua Barratt | Apr 26, 2004 1:01:13 PM

5. You have a build up of burnt, bitter oils in your carafe and filter basket. Wash them off with *soap* between every pot. (This is different than running vinegar through your machine, which removes hard water deposits. If you use distilled water you'll never need to de-scale your coffee machine, but you still need to wash the pot every time.) I'm always surprised how many people just throw the carafe, full of dried coffee stains, back in for the next pot, and almost nobody washes their filter basket.

6. Rinse your paper filter and insert it wet. It rinses off the papery taste and being pre-moistened means that you have less of the first (and yummiest) bit of the extraction wicking up to the top of the filter.

Posted by: Brad | Apr 26, 2004 3:47:40 PM

I was taught when I worked in a coffee shop decades ago to NEVER NEVER NEVER to use soap to clean a coffee pot. It leaves a residue and spoils the taste of your coffee.

The glass you can clean with a mix of ice and salt (try it, it works).

If your dishwasher gets hot enough, you can wash it in there also -- but use less soap than normal.

The machine itself run thru with a vinegar and water 50/50 solution . . .

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Apr 30, 2004 5:54:45 PM


Congrats on your site. I read your articles frequently (I picked you up through Altercation) and I like your writing stile and your comments.

Now... on the coffee topic! Being Italian and a coffee addict, I believe I have some authority on this issue! :-)

First: coffee can't be brewed. It may sound a little radical but sorry, no exceptions here. Same with flavored coffee. Either you have coffee or you have cinnamon. Cinnamon-flavored coffee is an absurd. Creamers are worse. Flavored creamers are... dangerous! How do you know what's in there?

If you intend to enjoy coffee you have to switch to espresso and avoid foreign flavors. In case of war, national emergency or earthquake, I'd take any alternative method (coffee press, gravity-filtered or Turkish coffee) over drip.

I know this puts me at odds with 99% of America, but this is about good coffee, not a popularity contest! The sad fact is, American's don't know how to drink coffee! They care more about volume than taste. You don’t drink coffee by the bucket, two ounces is all it takes, four if you like it light.

The espresso method was developed to extract the flavor of coffee under pressure while also extracting a reasonable amount of caffeine. Brewed coffee, on the other side, because of the longer time of contact between ground coffee and water, yields a higher caffeine ratio than the espresso method.

I wish I could find evidence on this, if I do I'll send them to you. I bet some espresso maker has them.

Espresso machines aren't practical: they need to be operated every time you want a cup, and they require a little more cleaning than drip coffee machines. The coffee is not there waiting for you, but it's fresh every time. Again, not practical, but if it was about practicality we'd be all drinking soluble coffee.

Still the results are worth the extra effort: even people who find espresso too strong for their tastes (most of my friends do) say that my "watered-down" version of espresso beats their brewed coffee hands down. Another option is the "Americano," a shot of espresso plus hot water. I wouldn't drink that if my life depended on it, but most of my friends do, especially when they're in Italy (it's no coincidence it's called "Americano!") since they find the Italian coffee to strong.

There are two keys to a good espresso machine: pressure and timing. You need good pressure to get the flavor out of the grains; while you can't hurry or go too slow on espresso, the rule of thumb is 1 cc per second, give or take (adjust for each machine). Faster than that you may get washed-out coffee. Slower may result in heavy, bitter coffee.

Most automatic machines offer a reasonable solution to this problem. The ideal is a manual machine such as La Pavoni (handle operated) and a good "barista" who knows the perfect timing for his particular combination of machine, coffee and water. Of course, this is hard to get and a little impractical. If you can afford the automatic machine, go for it.

Somebody mentioned that you shouldn't use dish soap or chemicals to wash coffee machines, which is correct. There are some special products for that and you can also use some vinegar, but the favored Italian method is to use a lemon. You can use the lemon juice to cut on the coffee oil and even use the lemon to rub on some surfaces. Of course, you need to wash everything thoroughly after you're done.

The coffee can be freshly ground or can be ground and vacuum-packed, if possible bought from some store with a reasonable turnaround in their stock. You don’t want to buy coffee that’s five years old!

We use both methods, but lately we seem to obtain better results with ground coffee. We used to buy Illy and ground it ourselves, but finding the right point is hard. Some people make careers around finding the right toast and the right grinding point for coffee, so it’s understandable that we find it hard to get the appropriate grind with a small coffee mill at home.

Currently we use ground, vacuum-packed, Lavazza brand coffee, and keep in the fridge in an airtight container. The results are excellent as long as the coffee doesn’t stay in the fridge too long. In our case we go through a pack per week, so ground or grain makes not much of a difference in terms of flavor and aroma.

You can see a bias towards Italian coffee here… but in my experience most American coffees are over toasted.

We had mixed results buying coffee at specialty shops, but it may be a result of the area where I live. In my experience, while you can find some good coffee mixes sometimes, there is little consistency in the quality, so the same type of coffee may not be so good the next time. Not to mention that it’s more expensive than buying a can of Illy at Whole Foods.

I agree with your recommendation of using filtered water or bottle water if you don't have a filter. It makes a huge difference in the final result.

Finally, try holding off the sugar. If you currently do use sugar, start cutting down on it, you'll see how the true flavor of the coffee starts appearing. After a few months, when you're drinking coffee with no sugar at all, you'll wonder how did you ever put sugar in your coffee!

Oh, and just for the record, before anyone asks, Starbucks sucks. Big time.

Thank you!

Posted by: Felix | Jul 21, 2004 2:54:08 PM

Living in Melbourne, Australia - where we have a huge coffee culture - means that I know that Felix is 100% correct about how to prepare coffee.

As for Starbuck's... Here's a real-life story about Starbuck's I had to deal with. England 2003 - young Starbuck's man wearing a stap-on thermos flask on his back approaches, "Would you like to try Starbuck's new expresso?", "Yes, certainly, please", "Here you go, what do you think?".... without even tasting it I could tell the poor man that the product was absolute crud. "How?" the poor man queried. "I can see the bottom of the cup" I replied...

In my experience people in the USA, canada & UK don't like coffee - they like coffee flavoured milk/water.

Posted by: Tony D | Aug 16, 2004 2:45:20 AM

Starbucks is nothing more than a fad!!
The corp.dept. has done nothing more than get
a "legal" drug,CAFFINE; and move to promote it.
When you have the addiction "crave" added to
your saleibility;well, need I say more!!!
That is how we got into cigerettes,booze,
and ALL the other vices! Hey, If as a country,
we are to GROW less "dependent" than lets stay
away from addictions;in ANY shape or form.


Posted by: paladinghh | Sep 21, 2004 1:30:30 PM

Ah yes, the elixir of the heavens - the java.....the smell of the beans, the mechanical process of grinding the beans and brewing it up. I love it. I work Help Desk for an IT Dept. and it's our life's blood. I have found that Boca Java is a grand brand - they have many different roasts and "flavors". I prefer the tried and true espresso. Here in Phoenix iced coffee is the ticket and I brew up a HUGE carafe of it each night via french press and let it steep a long time. Then it goes into a glass carafe placed in the 'fridge for easy decanting and icing in the morning. Add ice, add chocolate syrup and some sweetner and you have the Breakfast of Champions.

Posted by: Heather | Sep 28, 2004 10:16:37 PM

Starbucks sucks because they buy low quality coffe beans. To hide that fact, they over-roast their beans, and that is why you get the burnt coffee taste.
They cannot tell the different between latte and cappuccino. Latte should not have any foam. Cappuccino is the drink that should have foam. Otherwise, what is the difference between the two?
The biggest reason why they suck is that they are opening too many stores and putting all other small coffee shops out of business. I don't mind that there are Starbucks around, but as a customer, I would like to have some choices as to where I get my coffee. Please stop buying from them and helping them have a monopoly of the coffee industry.

Posted by: Vivian | Oct 4, 2004 3:16:24 PM

For good, cheap, already-ground coffee (perfect for the office, where you don't have time to be grinding and you have lots of moochers sucking down your excellent brew), you can't beat the Latino espresso brands, such as El Pico, Café Bustello, or (if you must) Goya. Although made for espresso machines, I brew it in my standard coffee maker and end up with a fine pot.

Posted by: Queixa | Nov 8, 2004 7:21:02 AM

Stirling Newberry:

For the love of god, please don't make coffee cold! And steeping coffee for 10 hours! That's insane and scary. Making coffee with cold water will get you nothing but the bitter acids coating the ground coffee without extracting any of the flavorful oils from the beans. Yeugh!

Posted by: Alex Bernson | Feb 23, 2005 12:14:12 AM

Hi Barry,

Just a spillover reader from RealMoney ... wanted to add my $.02.

First, web design. I'm running IE 6.0, and the black left sidebar in your design overlaps with the dark blue text in your posts, and makes it tough to read. Otherwise the design looks good.

Second, I have to plug my favorite coffee supplier, Armeno ( They also have a great little shop in Northborough, MA. I used to drive out of my way to Ithaca, NY on the trip from Boston to Buffalo (not a minor detour) in order to stock up on coffee from a little shop near my alma mater that I later found out they supplied.

Finally, I would like to add that too many people are knocking brewed coffee as an fundamentally inferior American concept, and it seems a little close-minded. Is a Pinot Noir inferior to a Rioja because it is not as assertive? Is Mozart inferior to Metallica because he's not as Forte or Allegro? My point is that espresso brewing, to me, extracts too much flavor to appreciate the nuances in finer coffees (Celebes Kalossi, Kenya AA, Kona), with lighter roasts (Full City/Vienna). At the very least, the subject is open to debate.... Anyway, the best way to brew coffee is still however you enjoy it most!

Posted by: Andy | Mar 18, 2005 1:42:17 PM

Thanks Andy -- I will check out Armeno (

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Mar 18, 2005 6:49:39 PM

Porto Rico!!! I've been ordering from them since a New Yawker friend took me there. I'm a very big fan of the Aggie's blend. I also dabble in their fair trade & bird friendly beans. I would probably have to pay $20/lb to get anything that was appreciably superior to their beans.

Biggest improvement in my coffee came when I went from crappy grinder to slightly less crappy burr grinder. I grind the beans a little bit more fine than suggested, and I have yet to have a person complain.

I'm all over that Capresso -- it looks like there's an additional $25 off at Amazon, so you can get it for $175.

Posted by: David | Mar 31, 2005 9:34:48 AM

There's about fifty "Capresso" machines for sale on eBay right now.

Posted by: David Wade | Apr 6, 2005 6:45:23 AM

Just so everyone understands - not EVERY American is in love with CRAP coffee - just the majority that have bought into the same CRAP fast-food, CRAP beer, CRAP Wal*Mart, CRAP sport-utility-vehicles, CRAP president, CRAP.

There are many of us that prefer good real aromatic coffee. Really.

Posted by: James W | May 9, 2005 10:48:38 AM

Well.. Italians dont have the definitive answers for coffee, as they seem to think they do. The Greeks, and the Arabian countries around the med, have been drinking coffee way before the Italians (coffee was only inported into central Europe in the 1600)... And imo the best method to drink coffee is the Turkish/greek method (which comes from constantinople)...

Get a small pot, (Briki) add water some sugar if your like, and then add greek coffee (greek coffee is prepared in a certain way) to the mix... bring to the boil, take the pot of and do this 3-4more times, then pour into small cups...

very strong, very tasty coffee...

Posted by: best_coffee | May 22, 2005 5:52:08 AM

Let's keep it simple. Vacume or FP is great, but I don't have the time for all of the ritual along w/everything else that's packed into each day. However, I do love a good cup or 4 every day, so the trick is a decent set of compromise products.

Brewer is Technivorm Moccamaster -- 200 degrees+ brewing temp. [Boyds Coffee]

Filter is swiss gold -- paper traps those essential oils!

Grinder is Rancillio -- direct drive [no tiny motor over worked by a gear box] w/50+ settings so that you can really fine tune the grind and it does the same thing day in/day out. [Abree Coffee]

Coffee from a local roaster [Baltimore Coffee & Tea]

Use bottled spring water and as soon as it's brewed, place into a preheated SS Nissan thermos.

Fast, efficient and in the top 95%.


Posted by: Bob | Jun 12, 2005 12:23:53 AM

It's great to see all you coffee lovers here, but I'm disappointed there is no mention of America's own coffee. Hawaii abounds in great coffee beans. Kona is well known, and I use pure Kona for a particularly fine cup -- or a Kona blend for everyday wake-up coffee. But there are some other good coffees starting to come out of Hawaii's other growing areas on the Big Island, Kauai, Maui and even the north shore of Oahu. I live in Honolulu, but many of these coffees are available via the net.

I always use a French press. The fancy machines sure look impressive, but nothing beats the simplicity and easy cleaning of a press. The combination of a press with Hawaii coffee never fails to impress my guests. And nothing beats a sunny morning on my lanai with a great cup of java!

Posted by: Steve Craven | Jun 18, 2005 9:17:23 PM

Enjoyed your coffee rant and the comments that followed. Sadly, no one knows the true art of coffee making anymore.
Forget the thousand dollar (or 29.95) gizmos. My grandmother taught me how to make the real deal. I always call it cowboy coffee because that's who drank it. (I grew up in south Texas on a ranch, go figure)
Here's what you do: Get a big pot or one of those old humongous blue coffee pots. Fill it up with water (distilled is a good idea but not really necessary unless you live someplace where the water tastes like crap)put one to three handfulls of ground coffee and a tiny bit of salt (I mean way less than a pinch)in it and heat on low. When it gets hot, add an egg shell to settle the grounds. Drink and enjoy! Also, never turn it off. Just add more water and coffee as it gets used up.
My Grandma always had a pot going for the men (and, truth be known, herself) 24/7 and it was wonderful! I do the same today so there's always coffee, hot and ready, if folks come by or I get an itch for a good cuppa.
Your right about the beans being better but if I'm out I like French Market ground with chickory. The good thing about this way of making coffee is that it's self correcting. You make a mistake, you just adjust what you did last time.
Frank in San Antonio,Tx

Posted by: Frank Whitecotton | Jun 19, 2005 10:39:18 AM

Although I agree with many comments on this site, I must protest some of the negativity towards Starbucks in general. Before the company began shifting the stores to the automatic machines, a good espresso bar person could do wonders with the LaMarzzocc machine. Before the advent of the grind and brew machine, there was an artistry behind the drink. There is nothing more beautiful than a handcrafted, free-poured cappuccino.
When the company phased to the auto machines, I was really concerned that the quality would decrease- and it has. I can determine the difference between the Verisimo shots and the LaMarzzocco. It is unfortunate that the company has changed.
However, witnessing some of the "baristas" makes me think, maybe the art of the espresso bar is the relationship you develop with the customer instead of the machine that makes the drink. Being able to say "I have a triple grande nonfat latte for Mike" does make a difference. I would like to be recognized as a regular customer instead of another person in line, and I think in most cases, Starbucks has done this.

Posted by: MJ | Jul 25, 2005 12:55:34 AM

Someone has already mentiond a French Press. They are not expensive and make a good cup of coffee. Just for those that want to make 'good coffee', but may not have the money for a quality coffee maker. (We live in Berkeley and drink Peets.)

Posted by: LS | Aug 3, 2005 6:58:16 PM

Queixa is right on the money. If you like good coffee that tastes like coffee (not hot water), Latin espresso is far and away the best bang for the buck, especially when the convenience of pre-ground coffee is helpful. It's not ground quite as finely as Italian espresso so it works for filter drip methods. I recommend a paper filter, not the gold mesh types, if you're using this type of coffee -- better results.

American coffee (Maxwell House, Folgers, etc.) is crap -- don't ever buy it, not even their so-called "French Roast" blends, which only produces a slightly darker cup of hot water.

I'm not a Starbucks evangelist, but I give them credit for at least improving the quality of coffee you can get on the run. Maybe on the West Coast you always had good coffee available, but before Starbucks came East, you had to go to a 4-Star restaurant here to get a decent cup of joe away from home. Just don't buy the rip-off "drinks" at Starbucks. Stick with the regular brewed coffee -- it's hot, it's fresh, and it tastes like coffee, not dishwater. Dunkin' Donuts is an okay alternative, but I usually find their coffee a little watery -- better than 7-Eleven, but not by much. I wish some competition (Seattle's Best, Peet's, etc.) would come East and challenge Starbucks, but I don't see it happening, unfortunately. Still, any improvement over that horrid swill that came in those Greek-themed blue-and-white paper cups was welcomed, and I give Starbucks grudging props for it.

Posted by: West 12th Street Guy | Aug 19, 2005 10:22:00 AM

Sorce matters, and in my opinion, Guatemalan beans are the best, but not as good as they used to be; Ethiopian as well, where it seems they still sun 'roast'.

Posted by: juan de la O | Dec 2, 2005 10:45:46 PM

These cooments miss EVERYTHING. Ignore them all and buy GREEN beens and roast them yourself. Then you know they
re fresh. I buy from from Theme Gifts in Scarsdale, NY

Posted by: Howard Caine | Jan 21, 2006 3:45:11 PM

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