Since we started ROASTe, I've sampled probably 250+ coffees and consumed about 2,000 cups of coffee. Prepared by every conceivable method -- Aeropress, Chemex, Clover, hand-lever espresso machine, super-automatic espresso machine, siphons, french presses, the ordinary drip coffee machine and stovetop espresso machines. I've drank the coffee from McDonalds and Bob's Big Boy to Espresso Vivace and Counter Culture Coffee.
Our office space looks like a coffee drug den with every possible coffee preparation technique. Or maybe a laboratory, that would be a better analogy.
After all that coffee and samples I've learned 5 things:
1. Freshness is paramount. Drink the coffee within 2-3 weeks of opening the valve bag and/or roast (ideally both). Anything longer and it loses flavor. Valve bags definitely preserve the flavor for 2-3 months but I find that once opened valve bags lose their flavor more quickly than fresh roasted beans - in about a week. That's why we love shipping fresh coffee to ROASTe customers. It does taste tremendously better. The only exception here is that some espressos taste better to me 5-7 days after roast. Credit goes to Velton of Velton's Espresso for that tip.
2. Buy a decent burr grinder and purchase coffee in whole beans. Grind just before brewing. Freshly ground coffee does taste tremendously better. Even the Cup of Excelence winners taste ho-hum if they are sold ground and a week old (I know, we've tried a bunch at ROASTe). Flat blade spice-style grinders yield coffee that tastes thin. A $29 blade grinder will waste its weight in gold of good coffee.
3. Microroasters rock with more unique limited=run single origins or estate coffees. They also roast ligher, typically. They will bend over backwards to make sure you're happy as a customer. They care deeply about every cup. They give back to the farmers (whom in industry lingo we call "producers"). They answer your questions. They're usually not selling you a marketing story; they're selling you great coffee.
4. Spend $400 or more for an espresso machine and the taste will be demonstrably better. Spend $400 or more for brands like Ascaso, Rancilio, Saeco, Unica, Quick Mill or Nuova Simonelli and you'll get a much better cup of espresso. You'll be able to experiment with different boiler temperatures, pull times, and pull pressure (depending on the machine's capabilities) so that you can get things just right.
5. this is the most innovative time ever to enjoy gourmet coffee. 50 years ago coffee was sitting in sweaty jute bags smelling up your dry-goods grocer. 20 years ago Starbucks was roasting up 1 roast. Now you have an endless variety of single-origins, estates, dry-processed / naturals, wood-roasted, profile-roasted, machines galore and wildcatting Indiana Jones style roasters obsessed with finding unique beans. 50 years ago it was Mokka Java or Folgers. Today it's 1,500 different coffees.
Now go enjoy all that wonderful variety in gourmet coffee.