Beyond the Bean How to Make the Best Coffee

Coffee is a way of life for many people. In the United States alone, 400 million cups of coffee are consumed each day. This amounts to a staggering ​146 billion cups of coffee per year​​, or 449 cups per person. You can practically find a cup of coffee at every intersection, in every department store, and in most restaurants. A coffee maker usually takes up prime real estate in our kitchens. Dozens of brands, and thousands of varieties line the shelves of our grocery stores. Coffee beans are sourced from exotic lands and combined into exotic blends. Coffee is one of those few things on which everyone has an opinion, like politics, religion, or craft beers. Many of us have a favorite coffee mug — a holy chalice from which to drink the most divine of nectars. Many of us would be doomed to the confines of our beds for all eternity without it.

We all take great coffee and our access to it for granted, but what actually makes the best coffee? Is it the imported beans from foreign lands, the proprietary roasting techniques, the water to coffee ratio, the optimum brewing temperature, or the fancy coffee makers? The answer is yes and no. While all these things play a factor in the taste and aroma of a great cup of coffee, the component that plays the biggest part in producing the best cup of coffee is something that needs no introduction — water. Without quality water, the rest of these factors would simply not matter.

It sounds simple, but what makes the best coffee water? Before I can answer that questions, let us discuss all the things that can be present in the water delivered to your business.

  • Chlorine/Chloramines: ​​Chlorine and chloramines are a necessary evil in our water supply. City municipalities add chlorine and chloramines to the water supply in order to kill cysts, bacteria, algae, and viruses. The levels of chlorine and chloramines in the water supply typically depend on the temperature of the water and how far the water has to travel until it reaches the end of its service line. While chlorine and chloramines are great for keeping people safe, they are a major issue when trying to create the best coffee water. Chlorine and chloramines affect the taste and odor of water. They impart a chemical taste and a swimming pool like odor. These are
    not desirable qualities in a cup of coffee.
  • Organics: ​​Organics are by-products of things falling into the water supply and breaking down
    into microscopic pieces. This can be plant matter, insects, manure, and a wide range of other contaminants. These organic by-products can affect the taste and odor of water. Crickets and animal waste are definitely not a component of the best coffee water.
  • Color: ​​Color is a property of water that does not always affect the taste of water. However, green, yellow, or rust-colored water is unsightly and most likely will not be appealing to your customers. Some contaminants like iron, can cause water color to change. Iron in your water can also impart a metallic taste that will effect the taste of the coffee.
  • Total Dissolved Solids: ​​Total dissolved solids (TDS) are a measurement used to determine the total dissolved content of in-organic and organic contaminants in water. This can include minerals, agricultural runoff by-products, and organic by-products. TDS is not necessarily a bad thing at the right levels. High TDS levels can cause issues with taste and aesthetics. Low levels of TDS can cause your water to taste flat. Finding the right balance is important to making the best coffee water.
  • Dissolved Minerals: ​​Dissolved minerals are introduced to water as it passes over rocks in streams, rivers and aquifers. They can include calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. While all these contaminants in water are good for you, they tend to affect the taste of water. Keeping these in balance is important to allow the taste of the coffee to shine through. Also, minerals like calcium and magnesium form scale. Scale can build up in your water reservoir, and throughout your coffee machine. This scale will eventually coat the heating elements of your coffee machine, resulting in lower efficiency, and eventually failure — not an ideal outcome.
  • Total alkalinity: ​​Total alkalinity represents the concentration of alkaline substances that are dissolved in water. These include carbonate, hydroxides, and bicarbonates. These substances are typically introduced as water breaks down rock. While it is rare that alkalinity levels will be high enough to affect taste, they do have the capacity to buffer acids and keep pH in control. Most likely you will not find yourself having to adjust these levels, but it is still important to know the factors that change the properties of water.
  • pH: ​​pH probably needs no introduction. If you have ever had a high school chemistry class you are probably aware of pH. pH represents how acidic or alkaline water is based on a scale of 0 to 14, with 0 being extremely acidic, and 14 being extremely alkaline or basic. High pH levels in your water supply will result in your water having a flat taste, while low pH levels will result in a bitter flavor. Keeping pH balanced is an important component to the best coffee water.

Now that we know all the factors that can affect the taste, odor, and appearance of your water, let us discuss what is actually required for an amazing cup of water. The following chart was created by the Specialty Coffee Association and represents their recommendations for the ideal water for coffee making.

I hope you now understand the importance of high-water quality in making the perfect cup of coffee. It can feel like a daunting task to achieve this level of water quality. Fortunately, water treatment systems exist that can help you achieve this goal. If you would like to find out how you can start using the best coffee water in your business please read our ​Achieving the Best Coffee Water​ article, where we discuss treatment techniques for controlling each of the water quality issues you may be experiencing in your business.