How to Learn to Make Black Coffee, in Seven Steps
I have drunk enough black coffee to push myself out of depression, and enough to spiral back into one. I’ve fallen in love over pour overs and out of it over decaf in a diner. I’ve grown up with Folgers and grown into French presses. I’ve had black coffee to help me focus and black coffee to help distract. I’ve had black coffee to ground me and black coffee to transport me and black coffee to ping-pong me between the two.
I've drunk a lot of black coffee in my life, but I didn’t really know anything about drinking black coffee until I dated someone who bought the beans whole and ground them every morning to make a single cup at a time. He used a pour over, calculating the exact ounces, getting the temperature of the water just right, pouring and blooming and watching it drain. I thought he was being pretentious and that it was a waste of time, but damn, that coffee was good.
It took three years for me to buy my own whole beans and start using the kitchen scale he bought me, and it’s only been since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent self-quarantine that I’ve stopped hating him for making me into a person who measures stuff and cares about flavor profiles. Nothing is normal now. I’m doing grad school work in my childhood bedroom at home, alternating between black leggings that are for work and black leggings that are for fun. As I shift between scared and calm, nervous and grateful, fine and not fine, I lean on black coffee for comfort and order again.
There is simplicity and normalcy in making a big mug of black coffee every morning. I can draw out the process, taking the time I’d normally spend walking to the subway to watch the hot water extract the flavors of the coarsely ground beans. I can’t go to a coffee shop anymore, but this feels like a reminder of all the black coffee I drank when the world was still working—like there was once a life for me outside of this kitchen, and one day there might be again. Besides, black coffee is no-nonsense, and we need no-nonsense right now. Milk and sugar are luxury items, and skipping coffee because you ran out of them would be perfectly asinine.
As I shift between scared and calm, nervous and grateful, fine and not fine, I lean on black coffee for comfort and order again.
Developing a taste for black coffee is the ideal isolation hobby, I think. You don’t have to reinvent yourself or do push-ups or meditate. Just take something you already love, and deepen your love for it. And there are no wrong ways to love black coffee. I cherish my French press, but I’ll be damned if I give up my favorite burnt decaf from 24/7 diners. It doesn’t matter what you like. It matters only that you like it.
Black coffee has served me for so long because you can almost always have it, and it is never too complicated to ask for. It gives you something to explore—beans and roasts and brew methods—that you can take out of your kitchen once all this is over. So start learning to make it and to love it now. Here's how to begin.
Step One: Don't make assumptions.
You can ease yourself into the process of drinking coffee black instead of coffee-flavored sugar milk. Dave Sands, co-founder of Grady’s Cold Brew, recommends a simple first step: Before you add milk or sugar, just take a sip of your coffee black. Don’t assume you’re not going to like it. Taste the flavors, the impact, the acidity or smoothness. Each of the elements you notice now is something you'll be able to control later.
“Also, don't just assume the one you always get is the one you actually like,” says Sands. Getting a medium Pike from Starbucks with cream and two Splendas could just be habit. By learning more, you might realize you actually like dark roasts or specific origins better. “Fuck it, you know? We got nothing but time.”
Step Two: Learn the tasting notes.
Michael Phillips, Blue Bottle Coffee's director of coffee culture, says to look for the five main tasting notes, which come from the origin of the beans, the process of the roasting, and the brew method itself: sweetness, body, acidity, finish, and flavor.
This is all about breaking down your black coffee-tasting experience into something tangible to you. These notes are a framework, not a law. "You might just sit there and wonder, ‘What am I doing?’" says Sands. "It doesn’t matter. Just start.” Thinking about the notes will arm you for better orders in the future. If you're buying coffee online (or, one day, in a cafe), you can say that you like a little sweetness and anything that includes notes of cinnamon.
Step Three: Learn the roasts.
Keep in mind roast notes, which refer to how long the beans have literally been roasted: light, medium, and dark. You might not like every one of them black. This is important. I, for one, can crush black cups of light and medium roasts of nearly every kind, but find I have to choke down dark roasts without a splash of almond milk. But you won’t know the difference in how they taste and feel if you mask them with milk and sugar before trying.
Light has been roasted for the shortest amount of time, so it retains the most caffeine and original bean flavor, but also leans acidic. Sands says that “coffee taste” that people generally try to avoid is actually the acidity level—an easy element to play with when you’re controlling your own coffee.
Dark roasts have been roasted the longest, so they have the least amount of caffeine and the boldest flavor. Medium roasts are a bit of both, and often strike the right balance for people just learning what they like to drink black.
Different roasts require different water temperatures for brewing, too: You want lower temperatures for darker—hot water can burn the deeper coffee flavor of dark roasts, whereas lower temps will bring that flavor out—and high temps for lighter, says Sum Ngai, co-owner of Coffee Project NY and a Q-grader (essentially the sommelier of coffee). Medium roasts have more flexibility in how much heat they can take, so they’re the easiest to get good enough every single time.
A note on water temps: The optimal range is between 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Coffee Association. That's the benefit of having a temperature-controlled water boiler, which can give you the exact number. But if you don't have one, Ngai says to brew water up to boiling and then leave it out uncovered for one minute, which will give you a rough temperature range of around 200 degrees—safe for brewing without burning the beans. Most drip machines do this automatically, which means you give up some creative control.
Step Four: Brew a cup and pay attention.
Brew your coffee, whatever you've got. Take a sip. What do you taste first? After a second? What’s the aftertaste? Keep in mind those tasting notes. Did it taste sweet? Bold or light? Could you taste something fruity, or did it seem more like chocolate? Once you start noticing the elements that make a cup of coffee taste good to you, you’ll open up room to experiment with making it better.
This really is like learning how to drink wine. Once you know that you like light and fruity or dark and bold, you can start buying coffee to match. Blends and single origins often have notes listed (a Blue Bottle example: candied orange, milk chocolate, white peach), which will mean absolutely nothing if you've never tried to look for them.
Step Five: Upgrade your coffee.
Once you've started learning what you notice, taste, and feel when you're drinking your coffee, you can play with what you're making. The easiest first upgrade is to start buying different beans. You can branch out with the origins (there are blends and single origins) and the roasts. Phillips recommends getting a good coffee subscription service to send you high-quality beans regularly. If you’re looking for a way to support local businesses right now, this is it. See if your go-to coffee shop is offering online orders, or opt into a service that’ll do the sourcing for you.
Perfectionists might go for whole beans and a grinder, but who cares? Just buy your coffee ground, says Sands. Barrel down the barrier to entry. Every brew method has an “ideal” grind size, which matters the most for something like a French press, where finer grounds get stuck in the plunger. In general, look for coarse ground, which has the most flexibility in what it can be brewed with.
Step Six: Upgrade your brew.
The next level is to change up how you're brewing. A drip machine is the easiest method, but the brew varies drastically over machines, and you just don’t have as much control. A French press makes a bolder coffee, because the grounds are steeped. Pour overs are the most attention-intensive, but they also offer the most control. You can get fancy with the speed and the angle of the pour, which is where next-level coffee pros have fun. Try cold brew, too: “Don't just brew up coffee and throw it in the fridge,” says Sands. “Think of it like barbecuing: brew it low and slow, [keep] in the fridge overnight.”
Step Seven: Realize the coffee is always right.
Coffee can have this pretension around it that I for one think is alienating and unimportant. There are strategic ways to buy and blend and brew your black coffee, but it doesn’t really matter as long as you like it. Just because I’m married to my French press right now doesn’t mean I won’t run to a Dunkin’ immediately post-quarantine. Sands, who owns a cold brew coffee company if you’ll recall, still gets stale coffee from one of those oversized bodega thermoses on his way to work when it’s 25 degrees out and he needs something warm. “It warms up my hands. It soothes my soul," he says. "When you eat steak every night, sometimes you just want a cheeseburger.”
Sometimes you like black coffee for its perfect brew or its exact right temperature, and sometimes you like black coffee for the context the coffee lives in. I’ve needed black coffee in a lot of ways for a lot of reasons, but I need it now for something more important than an increased attention span. I need coffee for normalcy, for routine, for remembering what the world is like outside of this house and who I am in it. I used to get it with friends and write over free refills, to sit in a cafe to be alone in public, to down gritty cups at a bridal shower and hot cups gone cold on a nervous first date. Those days seem so long ago and so far to come.
I don’t know much about coffee or processing a public health crisis. But it’s enough, for now, for me to sit in the kitchen while the grounds slowly brew, to drink hot coffee black, thinking and not thinking and forgetting and then remembering, until it’s time to go fill my cup back up again.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.