Coffee is my hobby. I don't drink nearly as much as most people do, I don't need it to get through my day. But when I make a pot of coffee, I extend myself. Coffee is too important to make badly. My guests know that good coffee is an essential part of the hospitality they receive in my home. I make it a habit of reading alt.coffee daily. I can assure you dear reader, I know my coffee.
This guide will deal with the typical form of coffee drunk by millions of North Americans. I won't go into detail about turkish/greek coffee, cold water extracted coffee, espresso, or any of the milk drinks derived from it. Those will be left to their own respective nodes.
Species & Variety
There are many species of coffee, but only two that matter; coffee arabica, and coffee robusta. Robusta is easy to grow, but does not taste very good. When you buy common supermarket brands, you can be sure a large portion of the beans are robusta. Arabica takes more attention and effort to grow, and is therefore more expensive, but it tastes considerably better. When buying beans, look for %100 arabica, in whole bean form. Bulk beans sold in small coffee houses are probably arabica.
The plant species is not the only factor in flavor. Elevation, weather, and soil composition play an important factor in the flavor of coffee. The country, even the plantation of origin, makes a noticeable difference in the final product. Finding a variety you like is very subjective. I suggest you locate a coffee house that sells a good selection of coffee, and take the time to experiment until you find out what you like. Once you are familiar with the varieties, you may choose to blend them yourself to come up with new and unique flavor combinations.
This is very subjective, see coffee roasts for a good explanation. Personally, I prefer medium roasts to preserve the finer, more subtle flavors of a specific variety. Darker roasts have more body, and will cut through cream or other such additives much better.
Store coffee in a sealed container, away from light, in a cool dry place. Whether coffee can be frozen without a loss of flavor is a source of much contention among hardcore coffee drinkers everywhere. I don't do it, I suggest you don't either. And unless you can totally seal your coffee, don't put it in the fridge! Have you ever left milk open in the fridge? Just like milk, coffee beans will absorb the odors of the other foods. So keep coffee in the pantry, unless you want your coffee to taste like onions...
If you're not home roasting, (more on that later) I suggest you find a local coffee house that roasts their own coffee. The importance of freshness cannot be overemphasized! After about two weeks, whole bean coffee has lost most of it's flavor, while green coffee will last for a years. Once you have located a suitable source of whole bean coffee, we move onto the equipment side of things.
Buy a grinder, this is not optional. The difference in quality between freshly ground coffee and pre ground coffee is overwhelming. If you intend to make good coffee at home, fresh grinding is the biggest factor. Once coffee is ground, it will go completely stale in a matter of hours.
There are two types of grinders on the market. You are probably familiar with the whirly-blade style coffee chopper, but you will get better results from a burr grinder, also known as a coffee mill. Mills work by crushing the beans between opposing adjustable burrs. This will provide a more uniform grind size, and allow you to get the exact size you want. The only control you have over a whirly-blade grinder is how long you hold the button. Whirly-blade grinders will work just fine for drip, and possibly for vacuum coffee, but produces too much powder for a french press.
Coffee should be brewed at temperatures just under boiling, for about 4 minutes. This will ensure optimal extraction of just the right flavors. If left for too long, the coffee becomes bitter. If boiled, the coffee tastes burnt. I recommend one of two methods for brewing, the vacuum pot, or a french press.
The french press, or press pot, is becoming increasingly common in this country. It consists of a glass carafe, and a wire mesh plunger/filter. It produces coffee that is noticeably better than that of a drip machine. Boil water in a kettle, wait a few seconds for it to cool, pour it over the grounds in the carafe, wait four minutes, press and serve.
If you can ever find one, buy an all glass vacuum pot. Hands down, vacuum pots make the greatest non espresso coffee possible. Searching eBay could be a good starting point. If you buy one, you can find instructions under Vacuum coffee brewing.
I don't recommend the use of electric drip coffee machines for two reasons. First of all, coffee must be brewed at about 200F, and many drip machines only heat water to about 170 degrees. Secondly, paper and cloth filters, as well as the other plastic components within a coffee machine, subtly alter the flavor of the coffee.
Whichever method you use, keep things clean! Fresh coffee will absorb the bitter flavors from stale coffee residue within your brewer.
How much coffee grounds you use depends on your tastes. Keep in mind that fresh coffee will be much more flavorful than your usual cup, so you may wish to use slightly less grounds than usual.
Notes on Water
Don't forget that water makes up most of the final product. It would be a shame to go through all this work, and ruin your coffee with water that would otherwise taste disgusting. Use water that you would normally drink. Whether it be bottled water, tap water or distilled water. Although I've never made coffee with soda water, something tells me I don't want to.
Taking it up a notch; home roasting.
I won't go into depth on roasting coffee at home yet, as I'm still a homeroasting neophyte. Many people consider DIY roasting as being overwhelming, but it's easier than it sounds. You can use your stove, or better yet, an air popcorn popper. Specialized home coffee roasting appliances are available, if you have the cash.