Pro advice on how to make better coffee at home

New year, better brew.

New year, better brew

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Perhaps you need a bit of extra caffeine for these dark winter mornings, or want to improve the taste of your morning cup of joe. If you're one of the 76% of Canadian coffee drinkers that prepare their coffee in-home, it's easier than you think to upgrade your brewing results without investing in expensive, complicated machinery (unless you want to!).

We talked to two experts, Masashi Nakagome of Toronto's Neo Coffee Bar and Alex Sereno of Barista in Montreal, to find out their best tips for making great coffee at home. Here are their top dos and don'ts, easy-to-follow advice, and recommended equipment for at-home brewing.   

Infusion or extraction brewing for you?

"To start off, you have to decide which infusion system you want to work with," says Sereno. "After that comes the bean, the roast and everything else." There are two primary methods for brewing coffee, says Sereno, who co-founded his well-regarded micro-roastery in 2004. Espresso machines use an extraction system, which creates a stronger taste, and where the oils of the coffee create a crema on top. French press, drip and pour over coffee makers all use the infusion system, where water and coffee are in contact for a longer period of time, offering more caffeine extraction, but a more subtle taste.

Find the right beans for your taste preferences and brewing method

"If you go for a lighter roast, you will usually get a product that's more acidic, it will taste more citrusy or fruity," says Sereno. "Darker roasts will be more nutty, more chocolaty." And although roasting profiles are a question of personal taste, Sereno mentions that dark roasts are usually not ideal for automatic machines because they tend to be oilier and are more likely to clog the grinder.

At Barista, the Italian blends have been created specifically for use with espresso machines, offering a better-balanced, more consistent product when extracted. According to Sereno, single-origin coffees are best-suited for infusion systems like the Chemex, where its characteristics and flavour can shine.

Avoid buying pre-ground coffee

It's hard to keep ground coffee fresh for long; the taste will change and the fragrance will disappear over time, according to Nakagome. "I always grind coffee just before brewing," says Nakagome. "I think it's the same as any other vegetable — when you cook, you don't want to pre-cut them too early."

"Beans are usually better freshly-ground, but if you don't have a good grinder, go to your local coffee shop and buy a small quantity of beans and have it ground there; buy for maybe a week's worth of coffee," advises Serano. 

Never, ever store your coffee in the freezer

"Coffee is like a sponge and it hates humidity, so when you pull it in and out of the fridge, it's not really good," says Serano. "And it will smell and taste like anything you put next to it." To avoid oxidation, he recommends storing small amounts of coffee in a hermetically sealed, air-tight container away from direct sunlight.

The water you use matters

"Hard water contains a lot of minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which interfere with the extraction of flavour [including] umami which are the main components of coffee," says Nakagome. "In my opinion, coffee brewed with hard water is heavily bitter and strong, [whereas] coffee brewed with soft water is more mild and delicious." Nakagome uses a water softener filter system at Neo Coffee Bar; you can use bottled water or a water softener at home if your tap water is hard (most cities' water information is publicly posted online). Nakagome also recommends using fresh water only, and to avoid boiling your water more than once.

The product recommendations

For a solo drinker: When making coffee at home, Nakagome uses the Hario V60 for one to two cups of coffee — expect a mild flavour and caffeine strength.

V60-02 Kasuya Black Ceramic Dripper, $35,

For a small group: Nakagome prefers to use a classic Chemex coffeemaker when he needs more than two cups of coffee, and for cottage and camping trips where electricity might not be available. "For both the V60 and the Chemex, I use a paper filter," says Nakagome. "Oil is absorbed on the fine fiber of the paper, and the taste is very clean and crisp."

Chemex Classic 6 Cup Classic Coffeemaker, $59.99 (on sale for $41),  

For hand-grinding coffee

Nakagome recommends the Porlex Tall Coffee Grinder, which is easy-to-use and clean, highly portable, and offers a very consistent grind.

Porlex Jp-30 Stainless Steel Coffee Grinder, $99.99 (on sale for $87.84),

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.


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