Why Doesn't the Coffee I Make at Home Taste As Good As Café Coffee?
The other day, a friend was lamenting to me that a revelatory coffee she had at her favorite café recently just didn't have the same sparkle when she brought the beans home to brew herself. She tried everything: Different amounts of coffee, different brewing methods, even drinking it out of different mugs—but something was just...missing. What gives?
I actually get asked this question all the time, so my pal can rest assured she's not alone. The truth of the matter is that you will probably never get as good a cup of coffee at home as you can at the best coffee shop—even with the same beans—and here's why.
Blame the Tools
There is something to be said for the fact that the equipment your local baristas work on probably cost in the thousands of dollars, were installed by professional plumbers and electricians, and are regularly maintained. Not that expense necessarily equals quality, but the engineering and design that justifies the expense in this case does: Your 8-cup Mr. Coffee machine just doesn't have the oomph that a half-gallon brewer does, nor is it as temperature-stable.
And espresso? Forget about it: Unless you're dropping a grand or more, your countertop unit is probably good but not great. Even if you're carefully weighing out your dose, your machine probably doesn't have the pressure or temperature control of a pro version. You can certainly pull tasty shots for your dinner guests, but I would refrain from charging $3 a pop for 'em.
It's a Grind
Related to the above, there's also the grinder to consider. While there are plenty of really high-quality burr grinders on the market for home use—Baratza makes a number of them, and even Porlex hand grinders are pretty solid—they're still just that: Designed for home use. They tend to be a fraction of the size of commercial grinders, which makes them less efficient: They heat up faster because they're working that much harder to get the job done, and heat can negatively impact flavor before the water even touches the grounds.
Smaller burrs, too, can create a pretty widely varied grind profile with every batch, too, meaning that your finished product will always be a sort of mishmash of very coarse and very fine grinds in addition to the "just right" size you were shooting for. (Unless you're sifting your grinds before brewing—which, let's face it, is going a bit far—you will always have this kind of discrepancy. It occurs in commercial grinders, too, but often to a lesser degree.)
Furthermore, even if you do have a great burr grinder at home, how often does that thing get cleaned? When is the last time you changed the burrs on it? Because coffee shops make their money from producing a high-quality product reliably over (hopefully) a long period of time, there's more incentive for the equipment to be meticulously maintained. (Not that every shop does it right, of course, but the incentive is there.)
Professional Driver, Closed Course
Say what you will about the craft of the barista, but the people who work in coffee shops are trained professionals, and anyone with any degree of vocational training at a particular pursuit (e.g. brewing coffee) is going to have a leg up from the purely amateur. While you're pulling a few shots a day, they've got practice in spades, and sometimes the shop will even employ a quality-control person to make sure each barista's work is up to par.
This isn't to say that there aren't home baristas who are far more adept and careful and attentive than the myriad mediocre baristas out there, but again, remember, we're talking about why it's hard to re-create great coffee here.
Something in the Water
One of the most overlooked details and differences between café-quality coffee and home-quality coffee is the other ingredient in the stuff: Water. While most of us are content to drink and brew with whatever comes out of the tap (or comes out of the tap and into the cheapo carbon filter we keep in the fridge and forget to change basically ever), any café worth its TDS has had more of a say in what's in the H2O.
Commercial filtration ranges from simple taste and odor systems to more intense stuff like reverse osmosis, and because your finished cup is roughly 98% water, you better believe that makes a difference. Test it for yourself: Brew yourself two batches, one with whatever water you normally use, and the other with premium filtered—but not distilled—bottled water, like Fiji. If your house is water lucky, the difference might be subtle, but if you're in a less-ideal-water situation, you'll probably be surprised at the custom-water improvement.
Fresh Is Best
No matter how many mugs it takes you to wake up in the morning, your personal coffee turnover isn't going to be nearly equal to that of your local coffee shop, which means your beans are probably a bit longer in the tooth than the cafe's are on any given day.
The most common advice is to buy and use whole beans within two weeks of their roast date for optimum deliciousness, which can be hard to manage when you're picking them up from a third-party retailer instead of buying them directly from the roaster, like the café itself does. If you can buy smaller amounts more often, you'll be better able to simulate the retail rate of use, and you'll probably notice your coffee has a little more "sparkle" the fresher it is.
Don't Give Up
Just because you don't have an industrial oven that can cook a pizza in a flash doesn't mean you shouldn't make pizza at home; same thing goes for coffee. You can make yourself a perfectly delicious cup every morning with very little fuss and at relatively little cost, and then savor the occasional exquisite specimen at your favorite coffee shop.
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.