Making Filter Coffee:

… “on the cheap” but still good.
(c) 2014, Davd

New Year’s Day reminds me of coffee. I don’t think i drink more of it than on other days; methinks it’s because i’ve noticed many other people taking coffee that morning, who don’t on most mornings.

If you’re going to have coffee—however often or seldom—it might as well be good coffee, and it might as well be made right at home, even in your slippers and pajamas if you don’t feel like getting dressed before breakfast.

I never understood why people would drive to Robin’s or Tim Horton’s [Starbucks, etc, in the US] to buy a cup of coffee! Good coffee is easy to make at home; and if you’re not wealthy, you can make it quite economically. In the past two years, i’ve bought dark-roast coffee for seven to ten dollars per kilo and made good, re-heatable coffee from it. (I’m not going to push dark roast at people who prefer lighter coffee; but i’m making the point that dark-roast, which usually costs a bit more, can be had that cheaply. Me, i definitely prefer dark.)

Coffee should never be boiled. An old professor, decades ago when i was a young professor, told me that “coffee can be made with water that’s not boiling, but for tea, the water must be boiling!!” (Yes, he was English.) I did remember his insistence about tea, but i also remembered what he said about coffee, especially after i read that boiled coffee is less healthy (even carcinogenic? Let me know, via replies*, if you know.)

The answer, as Germans especially and most Finns know, is to put the boiling water on the coffee-grounds, and filter the liquid from the solids. Because the coffee-grounds are cooler than boiling, the mixture is at least slightly cooler also—but hot enough to brew the coffee.

The standard ways to do that today are a drip-machine and the Melitta filter cone. The cone is simpler, less expensive, and works at the barbecue, in camp, anywhere. If the electric power fails, the coffee doesn’t. And i get to tell you “how to boil water.”

I doubt any man who can read this, can’t boil water somehow. As we proceed to learn more and more ways to cook, we’ll also learn that there are better and worse ways to go about boiling water—and the way that’s best for sausage soup may not be best for pea soup or rye porridge. Sausage soup is pretty easy to cook; some kinds of porridge are a little more difficult; and if you want a challenge, try cooking pea soup or black beans with bay and onion, in a pot that’s full almost to the very top.

Boiling water for coffee amounts to getting it to a lively boil and then easing back to just-bubbling (very much like cooking sausage soup.) If you’re making coffee and not doing much else at the same time, then you want the water to take just long enough to boil, that you can have the pot, filter, and coffee-grounds ready for it.

I make a full pot three or four times per week, and then heat leftover coffee for breakfast and at mid-afternoon on the other days. My stainless steel pot can hold a litre and a half of liquid, and i usually make about a litre and a quarter of coffee. I find that five rounded but not heaping scoops, of the kind that come in cans of Melitta and some other brands, makes a 1¼ litre pot whose flavour pleases me. (That might mean that one level measure per six ounces [which for some strange reason is the volume coffee can instructions define as one cup, rather than eight] is close to my tastes.) There’s some work to making coffee, and good filter-cone coffee keeps its flavour well and reheats well, so i make a full pot most times and only empty a pot at one sitting when there are two or more others drinking it with me.

First part of the job, then, is to decide how much water to heat and how much coffee to put in the filter cone. For me, that’s a long-established routine. You may need some trial-and-error to get the ratio of coffee to water where you like it best; the can of coffee will probably have some advice from which to start. (Remember, the sellers are in business to make profits, so they may suggest using more coffee than most people need.)

Use fine-ground coffee. I do not believe the claims on some coffee cans, that “all purpose grind” is good [even “ideal”] for all coffee makers—my experience has taught me it is not ideal for filter cones or drip machines. (I do buy some dark roast coffee in that “all purpose grind”—and then re-grind it in a Braun coffee grinder i was lucky enough to buy at a yard sale. No grinder?—no “all purpose grind”, then, is my advice.)

When water approaches its boiling point, on an electric stove or a hot woodstove, the bottom of the pot begins to “roar” softly. That’s your clue: Get the ladle [a clean mug will do if you don’t have a ladle yet, and if you’re heating water in a kettle you don’t need either] and as you see very small bubbles** forming at the bottom, take a small amount of hot water and just dampen and heat those grounds. Leave the heat under the water [port or kettle] fairly high until the larger bubbles start coming to the surface, and then ease it back to whatever setting [or position on the woodstove] will just keep a lively boil going.

With luck, the time it takes the small amount of water you added, to dampen and heat those grounds, will be the same as the time it takes the main pot of water to boil. When both have happened—when the grounds are dampened and the main pot of water is boiling—ladle water onto the grounds until the filter cone is full. You’ll smell a fine, fresh coffee aroma as the not-quite boiling water extracts the flavour from the grounds. Keep ladling until the filter is full of water and grounds.

Next, let the filter drain, which will probably happen pretty quickly. The sides of the cone will be covered with coffee grounds and no water will show at the bottom.

Next, ladle boiling water [it will actually be just below boiling temperature when it reaches the filter cone] onto the grounds, all around the cone, washing them into the middle of the filter. When you’ve done this, the filter probably won’t be full of water; if it’s not, ladle some on top of the mixture of water and grounds, to fill the filter again; and then let it brew. The filter will probably take longer to empty this time.

It’s OK to pour yourself a cup after the second drain-down, even if there’s a little water left to “brew with”.

If you’ve put on to boil, a little more water than you expect to produce in coffee (because some water will be left in the grounds, which start out dry and end up soaking wet, and a wee bit will boil away); then whatever hasn’t been used up in the first two filter-fillings should be added when the second filling has drained into the coffee-pot. Pour it so as to ‘wash’ all the grounds into the bottom of the cone, and then, i suggest, stir them briefly [the handle of a spoon or fork will do; a big spoon may be too big]. They will drain slowly, perhaps even more slowly than the second filling. When the water has drained away, the surface of the grounds is likely to be shiny.

That’s it—good home-made coffee, never boiled, and (perhaps for that reason) good when reheated*** as well.


* at everyman dot ca

** Those very small bubbles are dissolved air being driven out of the water, i’ve heard, not the water itself boiling: The hotter water is, the less dissolved gas it will hold; and as the water comes close to boiling, dissolved air will be driven out so fast you can see it. The larger bubbles are water-vapor (steam); boiling is the transformation of liquid water to gas.

To transform any given amount of water from liquid to steam takes more than twice as much energy, as to raise itstemperature from freezing cold to boiling hot. Once water reaches its boiling temperature (100C [212F] at sea level and normal atmospheric pressure) it won’t get any hotter before turning to steam. Boiling water hard doesn’t make it hotter, it makes it vaporize more quickly.

*** It might be worth adding that i usually cook breakfast on a woodstove; and i set a mug’s worth of leftover coffee in a small stainless steel cooking pot, off at one of the cooler parts of the stove top. I don’t reheat the whole pot of coffee, only what i’ll drink next; and i don’t use a microwave or high heat.

I also use a cloth filter, sewn up from bedsheet or pillowcase type fabric, which has a tight weave and is designed to take hot water. I rinse it between brews of coffee and occasionally throw it in the washing machine—but not with white fabric, unless you’re trying to dye it light tan.


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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