The New Coffee Rules You Need to Know, According to Experts
Don't underestimate the power of a cute cup.
Serious coffee nerds love to obsess over their favorite beans. They have special brewing techniques that require equipment that looks like it may have been discarded from an 8th grade science lab, use a psychedelic wheel to talk about how coffee tastes, and can be really snobby about the popular breakfast brew.
Two of these coffee enthusiasts, who run a seriously nerdy coffee site called Sprudge, have written a book devoted to all things coffee called The New Rules of Coffee and want to tell you how to drink, prepare, and think about coffee.
I’m not a coffee nerd, but these rules were useful, and the book is perfect for anyone who has even a passing interest in coffee. It also has gorgeous illustrations to teach you everything you need to know about coffee. I hopped on the phone with one of the co-authors, Jordan Michelman, to talk about a few rules of coffee outlined in the book.
You don’t need fancy gear to brew great coffee at home
Here’s what you need: high-quality, fresh coffee that’ll cost between $12-25 for a 12-ounce bag, filtered water, a good grinder, and a brewing apparatus (in this case, a coffee machine). That kind of sounds like a lot, but trust us—it's an investment. I pictured Michelman spending at least 10 minutes a day making fancy pour-over coffee, but surprisingly, he doesn't. Instead, he brews it in a coffee machine every morning both at home and in the office for the convenience—and because it tastes damn good. “You can make really awesome coffee at home and it doesn’t cost that much money,” he said.
In order to make excellent coffee, you need a few things. “This is what we’ve set our families up with over the years: an entry-level Baratza grinder (approximately $100), an entry-level Bonavita batch brewer (also approximately $100), coffee, and a scale,” he explained. “It can be a $10 gram scale from the head shop down the street.” There are a few reasons why you want a scale, but a big one is that it’ll ensure you don’t waste any of your precious coffee. Plus you can always use the scale for other stuff, too.
Roast profiles matter
You may have noticed that coffee shops often have a dark, medium, and light roast coffee available. “When we talk about roast level, what you like is what you like,” Michelman said. “There are people reading our book who’ve been drinking coffee for longer than we’ve been alive, and the last thing we wanted to do with this book is to be like, ‘Everything you like is wrong.’” Regardless of your preferences, it’s good to know the general differences between a lighter and darker roast.
If you’ve ever had Folgers or Yuban, you’ve had dark roast. “Starbucks also has some classic chocolate, chewy, dark coffee, roasty-toasty carbon kind of notes—it’s what people think of as a bold coffee,” he said.
Brunch is a good time for a cup of medium roast coffee. “It still tastes good with pancakes and syrup over breakfast, but it won’t make you feel like you need a breath mint as soon as you’re done,” Michelman confirmed.
It’s simply “coffee roasted for less time.” Why? The style started in Scandinavia in the last decade and has taken off since then among aficionados. It results in coffee that “evokes fruit and tea-like notes.” If you don't want anything too strong in dark, full flavor, this is the roast for you.
Fresh coffee lives in nice packaging
“All coffee has a Mission: Impossible-type this-will-explode-at-the-end-of-this-message date on it,” Michelman warned. “It’s one of the things about coffee that makes it so different from almost all kinds of wine and tea, and other consumables that feel like they’re in the same universe. None of those lose their value in a month to six weeks. But roasted coffee does! It’s the chemical nature of the decomposition of the beans.”
When you buy coffee, make sure it comes in a bag, and steer away from the big bins at the supermarket (unless they sell out of it and replenish it daily, which is unlikely). Light and oxygen are not coffee’s friend. “Coffee is produce. You wouldn’t treat produce like that and expect it to taste good—it’s the same with coffee,” he said.
Cute cups make coffee taste better
Think about your favorite mug. It may be perfect to wrap your hands around, or it has a cute design, or perhaps the lip is perfectly thin, or the handle is ergonomic. Whatever it may be, guess what? That mug makes everything in it taste better. “It’s brain science!” Michelman explained. “We’re unreliable sources when it comes to how stuff tastes. Especially for something like taste, which is malleable with our imperfect ape brains. We’re super prone to bias.”
The nice cup you were drinking from at your local third-wave shop might’ve been from a local ceramicist. He noted that even though your coffee is probably grown 5,000 miles away, “every city has awesome ceramicists.” He recommends going to Etsy or finding a local maker, where you’ll likely spend $35-40 on a mug. A small price to pay for making everything taste better.
Please always tip your barista
“Tipping is this imperfect thing,” Michelman said. “It has super racist and classist roots back in American society—it’s as imperfect as the electoral college. But it’s this thing we’ve been doing because they always used to do it, and there’s a lot of things about it that sucks. Here we are, and it’s the world we live in. The thing we do is to make the best of that and always tip.”
You gotta do it. He notes that it’s important to do because it can account for a lot of your barista’s income, not to mention your restaurant server, Lyft driver, and bartender. If someone is providing you a service, be considerate and tip.
Baristas know the coolest stuff in their neighborhood
Sure, you know all the best bars and shops in your own neighborhood, but what about when you travel? Trust the baristas. “Everybody comes into the [coffee shop],” Michelman said. The people who own and work in the record shops, cocktail bars, new restaurants, vintage stores, and bike shops go to the local cafe because “coffee is a delicious, legal drug, it tastes really good, and the places to drink them in are nice.”
The barista gets to know all these people—they’re regulars!—and then when they finish their shift in afternoon, the coffee-shop employees spend their cash in those same bars and restaurants. “The barista is the [neighborhood] watchtower guard. They see everything,” he explained. Trust the all-seeing eye of the barista. They're like Sauron, but probably more chill.
Let your coffee cool down a little bit
It’s tempting to just dive right into a hot cup of coffee the second you get it, but you should really wait a minute.
“Diving into a cup of coffee while it’s too hot to taste and burning your tongue or whatever is not conducive to a positive tasting experience,” he said. “There’s more in-depth physiological reasons like how our tongues access taste and what does or does not get shut off when [you consume something] above a certain temperature.”
Basically you taste more of the coffee when it’s not so damn hot that you roast your tastebuds, so let it sit for a bit. And then savor.
Coffee is a gateway drug
Michelman explains that while he grew up drinking Starbucks and eating Thanksgiving dinner straight out of a Betty Crocker cookbook, he had some mind-blowing experiences with coffee that made him realize it was more than just a black liquid that helped him stay awake.
“You can have the the same experiences with tea, wine, restaurants, and all this stuff in life that if you like things that taste good, they’re the most important kinds of experiences that you can have,” he noted. “Coffee is the thing that flipped my brain around to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I have this flavor computer on board of my unit that I have been deeply neglecting and need to think about more critically.’”