Use your nose — how to make coffee at home as good or better than a café

The top two secrets of making excellent coffee — notes from an ex-café manager

Do you remember the first time you went to a café serving good fresh coffee and you thought, “Wow! this coffee's really good…”

And maybe you too thought, “I wish I could make coffee like this at home!” So you bought a bag of coffee, over-priced though it was, and raced home full of excitement ... but at home it wasn't the same.

So then you thought maybe it's not just the coffee but also the marvellous steam-punk coffee machines they have, and then you found that real ones cost £1,000 up and would take over half of your kitchen. But maybe you went ahead anyway and bid on one going cheap on ebay and then you discovered that oops it doesn't fit a domestic electric socket it requires a 440v 3-phase power supply so you ... What? Are you saying you didn't do this – was it only me?

Fortunately I was outbid. I did buy a domestic espresso which felt a bit dolls-house compared to the real thing, especially for steaming milk, but it was fine otherwise. When it stopped working I replaced it with an old model Gaggia Classic.

Meanwhile however, having been part of the team that opened Café Encounter Birchwood, I slowly realised that the real secrets of making coffee better than Costa or Starbucks, or as good as your favourite coffee house, are not the obvious ones. The big shiny machine and the packets of coffee on display are the smoke and mirrors. The real magic is somewhere else.

Actually it's very mundane, and very simple.

The first secret to excellent coffee : Keep it fresh

When we had our barista training the guy started off with 'Coffee is a fresh fruit product'. Oh, how we laughed! He didn't laugh, though. He was serious.

If you buy your coffee in pre-ground packs, try this test. Buy your next pack just before your old one runs out. Open the new one. Breath in. Oooh, doesn't it smell fantastic? Even people who don't like coffee love that smell. Now, take your not-yet-empty coffee container, stick your nose in and sniff. How does that smell? Stale? Like an ashtray?

This is the first secret of coffee. Keep it fresh. You see, the biggest real advantage that a café has over your kitchen is not the equipment. It's the fact that while a quarter kilo of coffee may last a week or even weeks in your kitchen, in a busy café it will last less than 2 hours. The coffee you get at a café is fresh because they're getting through hundreds of cups per day.

If you buy pre-ground, may I suggest that you reconcile yourself to the fact that it doesn't taste as good when the pack has been open for weeks. The very best taste is only going to be there for the first couple of days. If you have the money, the way forwards is to buy beans and grind your own, but more on that on another post.

You can improve your coffee's lifespan by keeping it airtight. I had a favourite coffee tin which, when I washed it one day, turned out to leak -- it was no longer airtight. Sad though it was, I binned it. I bought some spice jars, which are okay -- spices, like coffee, are best kept airtight in small quantities, until one day I found myself owning a container-and-airpump combination. Which you won't need if you drink your coffee faster than I do, or don't live in a house of tea-drinkers.

The second secret to excellent coffee : Keep it clean

Did you know that the staff of a small café will probably spend more time cleaning than making coffee? This is largely because of food hygiene rules, but the consequence is this -- coffee making equipment in a café is cleaned every day.

Use your nose. Breath in that fresh pack of coffee again. Now, stick your nozzle in your coffee jug, or run it over the business end of your coffee machine and take a few good sniffs. Are you getting hints of ashtray again? A heavily dull but bitter layer of staleness? That's the flavour you're getting in your coffee. Clean it!

Cleaning is simple. Knowing when to do it, is simply a case of using your nose -- clean when it doesn't smell fresh. If you haven't cleaned for years then you may want to start with commercial coffee machine cleaner, or you could try using baby-cleaning sterilisation fluid. Either way, follow instructions carefully and flush out with plenty of clean water afterwards.

Enjoy your coffee!

So the chief rules of excellent coffee are these:

  • Keep it fresh
  • keep it clean

Cafés do it as a matter of routine; this is what you want to imitate first.

How to make coffee badly

It has been said that cooking is an art, baking a science. Coffee is like baking  - making the perfect cup of coffee every time means doing it right, doing it the same, every time.

Which is not to say that there aren't dozens of different ways to make coffee. Rather that, just like someone who loves to bake their cookies that little bit softer learns exactly how long to set the oven timer for; so for your perfect cup of coffee, you want to learn exactly how much, how long, how hot ...

So here are half a dozen ways to ruin your coffee; or even worse, to get that okay-but-not-quite-what-you-were-looking-forward-to effect.

  • Don't clean your equipment
  • Use stone cold cups
  • Don't descale
  • Use old coffee
  • Use different quantities every time
  • Use the wrong grind