In a simpler time—not much more than 10 years ago—few people were on a quest for the perfect cup of coffee. For most, making coffee was as easy as spooning your favorite brand of vacuum-sealed grounds from a can into a drip coffee maker and pushing the start button.

But today, a growing number of Americans want more from their morning joe than just a caffeine jolt, and they’re willing to pay a premium—and even grind their own beans—to get the perfect cup of coffee.

Last year, almost a third of the country’s coffee drinkers reported that they regularly drink gourmet brews (premium whole bean or ground) daily, up from 24 percent in 2010, according to the National Coffee Association. Supermarkets and websites are stocking artisanal brands and beans from far-flung places such as Costa Rica, Honduras, Indonesia, and Vietnam to meet the increased demand.

But those who want a satisfying, hot cup without a lot of fuss remain in the majority, which is why ground coffee still outsells whole beans by almost 10 to 1, and more than a third of Americans now own pod coffee makers—even though our tests show that the brew they produce doesn’t stand up to that made by drip machines.

No matter which coffee camp you fall into, here’s all the advice and ratings on machines and beans that you need to make the perfect cup of coffee.

Illustration: Ed Nacional

1. Harvesting

The coffee bean is actually a small seed inside a fruit, the coffee cherry. The cherry can be washed off the seed (wet processing) or left whole to dry (natural or dry processing).

2. Roasting

During roasting, any remaining moisture in the beans evaporates, the sugars caramelize, the beans begin to brown and swell, and their aromas and flavor are developed. Terms such as “medium roast” and “dark roast” can vary by brand.

3. Buying

Freshly ground whole beans usually make the best-tasting coffee. Buying loose whole beans, as opposed to bagged ones, lets you buy smaller quantities, so you can sample new varieties without having to buy a whole bag. But loose beans may not be as fresh as bagged beans, which are often vacuum-sealed.

Illustration: Ed Nacional

4. Storing

Keep beans in an airtight container—stainless steel, ceramic, or opaque glass—out of direct sunlight. Heat and light oxidizes the oils in the beans, diminishing freshness. Don’t store beans in the refrigerator or freezer, where they can absorb the flavors of other foods. Leaving them in a kitchen cabinet is fine.

5. Grinding

Avoid using the grinding machine at the market: Your coffee can pick up flavors of other beans that have been ground in it that day. Burr grinders are more expensive than blade grinders but are a good investment because they grind beans more evenly, allowing more even extraction of flavors from the coffee. For the best taste, brew grounds right after grinding.

6. Selecting the Grind

Match the grind size to the type of coffee maker. If the grind is too fine, too much coffee will be extracted, giving you a bitter brew. If the grind is too coarse, your coffee will be watery-tasting. Generally, use medium grind for drip coffee makers, slightly coarser grind for French press, and fine grind for an espresso machine.

Illustration: Ed Nacional

7. Water Filtering

Most tap water is chlorinated, which kills bacteria but also affects the taste of the coffee. Filtering tap water with a simple carbon filter may reduce chlorine taste and improve the flavor of your coffee, no matter how it’s brewed.

8. Water Heating

If the water’s not hot enough—195° F to 205° F—it won’t extract all of the flavors from your coffee and can make a weaker brew. If the water’s too hot, it will extract undesirable flavors such as bitterness. (We rate coffee makers by how well they reach the ideal brewing temperature for 5 to 6 minutes, the industry standard for optimal brewing.)

9. Measuring

The ratio of coffee to water is important. Start with 15 grams—about a heaping tablespoon—of coffee for every 8 ounces of water, and experiment. (Measure both so that once you’ve found a ratio you like, you’ll be able to do it again.) An inexpensive kitchen scale helps. Drink coffee right away or pour it into an insulated carafe. Coffee will develop harsh, acid flavors if you leave it on the hotplate.


Colombian Whole-Bean Coffees That Impressed Our Expert Tasters

Counter Culture La Golondrina Colombia Certified Organic: $23 per pound; 59 cents per 6-ounce cup
Complex and intensely flavorful, this medium-body coffee has fruit and citrus flavors with traces of berries and chocolate. Pricey but still less than a cup at the coffeehouse.

Allegro Colombia Agustino Forest (Whole Foods): $10 per pound; 23 cents per 6-ounce cup
Bright, tangy, and complex, with citrus, honey, milk chocolate, and vanilla notes. It’s sold as loose beans, so you can buy as much or as little as you like.

Dunkin’ Donuts Colombian: $13 per pound; 25 cents per 6-ounce cup
Solid cup with some fruity and chocolate notes. Impressively, it tasted better than many of the coffees we made from whole beans.

Kirkland Signature Colombian Supremo (Costco): $5 per pound; 13 cents per 6-ounce cup
The medium dark roast is moderately bitter, with notes of chocolate and dried fruit, though it has some burnt flavors, too.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.