My first ever guitar was a beautiful looking thing. It was an acoustic, matte-black and about twice the size of me! Or that’s how it felt.
And when I played it, my fingers were in agony after no more than 30 seconds. My soft fingertips were no match for the brutality of the tightly-wound stainless steel guitar strings. I’d learn to play a chord then after 5 strums would have to put the guitar down for half an hour.
That was over 15 years ago. I still have that guitar and it’s still annoying to play. In hindsight, I should’ve got something a bit easier for a beginner. The smart choice would’ve been to go for something that played nice rather than looked nice. If I had, I probably would have fulfilled all my teenage dreams of rockstardom, right?
Either way, when you’re first getting into something, it pays to make a smart choice.
Something that eases you in while still enabling you to learn. This is particularly true of making coffee. If you think you can be pulling god-shots [link] out of your lever espresso machine after a week, you’ve got another thing coming.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t start with something difficult. You really, really want an espresso machine? Get an espresso machine. Just understand that it will be a lot of work, a lot of failing and a lot of trial and error before you’re making decent pulls.
What I’m going to suggest here is the opposite of that. In this article you’ll find my top four choices for a beginner to make coffee at home. Hope it helps!
What makes something forgiving?
Broadly speaking, we’re looking for a low risk of overextracting, a simple process with few idiosyncrasies and forgiveness of grind sizes.
IMPORTANT: There is no one method that is perfect. I’ve chosen 4 good options for a beginner, you’ll have to decide which one works for you.
Low risk of overextraction.
A major danger for a beginner is to overly extract. This means that the coffee is brewed to within an inch of its life and the harsh, bitter compounds that extract later ruin your brew. Long brew times, fine grind sizes and high temperature all can cause overextraction and the method you use plays an important part.
Coffee making is not easy. Sometimes. The difference between monitoring your temperature and pressure to get the perfect espresso and throwing a cold brew together in a mason jar is a big one. A coffee making method with a simple process leaves you less room to mess up.
Range of grind sizes.
If you’re a beginner, it’s likely that you are using a cheap burr grinder or (god forbid) a blade grinder. A poor grind will ruin your brew with a lot of methods, the usual issue is a coarse grind which is filled with coffee-ruining fines – tiny particles of ground coffee that get through a poor grinder. If you have lots of these sitting in a French Press for 4 minutes you can bet your ass you’ve got bitter tasting mud coming out.
* Quick tip: If you do have a poor grinder, try filtering the grounds through a fine mesh sieve. The more fine pieces you can remove, the better your coffee will taste.
1. Cold Brew
The number one all-time most forgiving method for a beginner is cold brew. At its simplest, this is putting ground coffee in a pot with room temperature water then leaving it in a refrigerator for 24 hours. You can use anything for this, a mason jar works well, but the filtering process at the end can be annoying. I recommend getting a Toddy or one of the other custom-designed models to help you get the best brew.
Cold brew is a slow, slow extraction. It’s brewed at a low temperature and is a simple process. There’s basically nothing to mess up. It’s also quite forgiving on the grind, the slow and cool extraction reduces the damage that those bitter fines can do.
Downsides? Well, your coffee will be cold. If you hate that then see you at number 2! It also is not renowned for its complexity. Cold brew coffee has somewhat muted flavors. The inherent flavors of the bean are still there, be they a fruity African SO or a nutty Costa Rican, but they don’t pop like they might with another method. It’s why some cafes will serve cold brew with a slice of orange to give it a bit more of a kick.
Also, you need to plan ahead if you’re making cold brew. It takes a day of sitting in your fridge. This is hardly the impromptu pick-me-up you can throw together in 5 mins. That said, once it’s made you can just throw it in a glass with ice and you’re done. Super easy.
I love drinking my coffee cold on a hot day, so I’m a fan. But it’s not exactly the first method I reach for when I’m looking to make something really nice. And if I’ve got some really nice coffee beans, I’ll be enjoying them made in one of the more complex (and hot) coffee making methods.
Biggest advantage? The long, slow brewing process gives very little room to mess things up.
Biggest weakness? It’s an acquired taste – you’re drinking your coffee cold and the flavors are (somewhat) muted.
2. Clever Dripper
The Clever is cheap, will make hot coffee and is very forgiving in terms of process. It’s a really good all-round option and my goto for a gift for someone new to coffee. The only issue is it needs a coarser grind and will not be suitable for someone who thinks a blade grinder is, in any universe, the right way to crush up coffee beans.
This is a newfangled design that imitates a pour-over while still having a small immersion period at the start. Put your ground coffee and boiled water in, wait a minute or two, then just put it on a cup. There’s a clever contraption that opens on the bottom of the device that allows the coffee into your cup as you put it on. It’s that easy.
If this sounds good to you then there are a few ways to get around the lack of forgiveness of grind size. The best is to invest (read: $100+) in a quality automatic or hand burr grinder. These things will last you many years and make you wonder how you did without them. Otherwise I’d go with pre-ground coffee. It won’t be fresh, but at least you’ll get a good extraction and you can always move on later without groaning at the $40 you wasted on that burr grinder that will be in a landfill in 3 years.
Biggest advantage? Best all-round option. It’s cheap, forgiving and easy to use.
The poor old American coffee maker. Where would we be without you? There’s millions of these devices all over the country sitting in the corners of dingy hotel rooms and garish kitchens. And they usually make bad coffee.
Autodrip coffee makers are often overlooked and it’s a shame. A coffee maker is just a pour over that’s automated. And that automation can be a very good thing. The water can be distributed evenly and heated appropriately. They can make great coffee. As good as anything else that’s come out of the Third Wave of coffee movement, but no-one pays them any attention because they are mostly rubbish.
If you like the idea of autodrip then you need to get one that is SCAA certified.
An SCAA certified autodrip is probably the easiest method there is to make coffee. Put your coffee in a filter, press the button and away you go. Everything is done for you. The only thing you are responsible for is the grind.
If you buy preground or have a decent grinder and don’t mind the outlay then this is your best option. It’s high quality pour-over coffee with none of the work. These new autodrips recreate the even distribution you get from a fancy gooseneck kettle spiral pour from your favorite hip coffee haunt.
The downside? It’s a hefty price tag for a beginner. A good quality autodrip will be $120 at a minimum. And don’t you dare think about cheaping out on one of these, it’s SCAA certified or nothing!
Biggest advantage? It’s all done for you. The only thing you can mess up is the grind.
Biggest weakness? High cost for a beginner. To get one that is worth having (i.e. is SCAA certified) you need to fork out over $100.
The Aeropress, that wonderful plastic piece of 21st century wizardry has its own place on my forgiving methods list. The first thing I have to mention is this, and this is important, imagine a klaxon is blaring as I say it.
THIS IS FOR THE TEXTBOOK 30 SECOND AEROPRESS BREW
There’s lots of ways to use the Aeropress. Inverse method, 5-minute method, reverse-backflip-boxing method. Ok I made the last one up. The point is that the Aeropress only has a space on this list for the brew type proposed by the manufacturer – fine grind, lowish temperature and 10-second immersion then 20-second filtering.
This Aeropress brewing time is really short, only espresso can compete with it. A short brew time requires a fine grind. This avoids the issue of getting your cheap grinder to produce coarsely ground coffee while letting through a whole load of fines – the coffee is being ground fine already. If you’ve got a cheap grinder then it’s really difficult to make a bad brew. In addition, you’re using pressure to filter the coffee so those fines will not clog up and slow down the coffee which also makes it overextract. Win!
Of course the Aeropress is not the easiest thing to use so you will have that to contend with. There’s the issue of pushing down on an unstable Aeropress+cup setup. I admit that more than once I’ve seen a freshly brewed coffee go flying across the floor.
Also putting the filter onto the Aeropress seems easy until you don’t put it on right and wonder why it takes you half a second to push the coffee down and now there’s ground coffee in your cup and oh no my coffee is ruined now. Which I’ve also done…
(Hm. Maybe I’m a beginner?)
Biggest advantage? The small brew time needs a very fine grind – good if you have a cheap grinder.
Biggest weakness? The process is a bit fiddly and very fast. You can’t leave your aeropress for 3 minutes while you watch the news, it’ll be dead.
Assorted beginner tips
If you’re reading this article it’s likely you’re new to making coffee at home. Here’s some stuff you need to know.
– The best thing you can do to improve your coffee is to get freshly roasted coffee beans. There are easy but solid options online, but if you’re willing to scout out your local area there are jewels to be found.
– The second best thing you can do to improve your coffee is to get a good grind – that means the chunks of coffee are even. A consistent and even grind means the coffee is extracted correctly and will leave you with a cup so smooth tasting you’ll wonder how you ever dealt without it. And you will actually be able to taste those notes of blueberry it tells you about on the bag. Really.
A good grinder is mandatory for excellent coffee but anything less than $100 is a waste of time. If you’re not ready to invest that much yet, I recommend doing preground until you can.
– Got your beans, grinder and a nice and forgiving method to make coffee? All there’s left to do is practice! Don’t be discouraged if your coffee doesn’t blow your mind at first. It never does. Just be persistent and always look to refine and improve what you’re doing. Pretty soon you’ll be gobsmacked with just how tasty that morning brew can be.