How to brew a better cup of coffee, according to baristas and coffee experts

Lesley Kennedy, CNN Underscored
Updated Tue January 7, 2020

If you're hoping to save some cash in 2020, brewing your morning cup of joe at home can be an easy place to start — not to mention, it's better for the environment if you can skip a disposable cup.

And brewing your own java doesn't mean that you have to skimp on taste. With a few tweaks to your coffee routine, you can savor a more delicious cup without leaving home.

We asked baristas and coffee experts how to brew coffee at home. From a burr grinder to a coffee scale (don't worry, we'll explain), here are their best tools and tips.

Invest in the daily grind

A rule every home coffee brewer should know, according to Sam Spillman of Dillanos Coffee Roasters near Seattle, the 2019 Barista winner of the U.S. Coffee Championships: Buy your coffee whole bean and grind it fresh before each brew. "Coffee loses so much of its flavor, potentially minutes after it is ground," she says. "Your cup quality will be so much better with freshly ground coffee."

Spillman advises investing in a burr grinder. "You will be able to achieve a more consistent grind size, which will give you a more consistent extraction," she says.

Jessica Easto, coffee expert and author of "Craft Coffee: A Manual," agrees that the size of your grounds affects the quality of your cup and adds that different devices require different grind sizes. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach to all brewing methods," she says. "That's why preground coffee from the store is hard to work with; it's unlikely that the size of the grounds is appropriate for what you're using at home, even if you're using an automatic machine."

A burr grinder, Easto notes, allows you to adjust the size of your grind, and it grinds coffee more consistently than the blade grinder you may already have in your kitchen, which is more appropriate for spices. "Blade grinders tend to pulverize some beans into a powder while leaving some giant pieces," she says. "Just like different-size vegetables in the same pan cook unevenly, different-size coffee grounds extract unevenly." She says she loves her Baratza Virtuoso electric burr grinder at home and Porlex JP-30 manual burr grinder when traveling.

Baratza Virtuoso Conical Burr Coffee Grinder ($249; amazon.com)

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Porlex JP-30 Coffee Grinder ($62.99; amazon.com)

Getting the grind size correct comes down to experimentation, according to Dylan Siemens, a past winner of the Brewers Cup at the U.S. Coffee Championships and head of education for Arkansas-based Onyx Coffee Lab. "If the grind size is too coarse, expect the brew to go quickly and taste sour," he says. "If grind size is too fine, the cup will take forever to drain through and the cup will be flat and drying. Have a plan for the brew time, find the grind size that results in that brew time, and then adjust to taste from there."

As a rule of thumb, a coarse or medium grind is best for a French press or pour-over brew, a fine grind works for espresso, and if you prefer your coffee cowboy style, opt for an extra coarse grind. Experiment until you find your perfect flavor.

You can find high-rated burr grinders at a range of price points. And if you don't want to invest in a burr grinder, Easto recommends buying your coffee from a local shop and asking them to grind it for you. "If you tell them what you are brewing on, they should be able to set you up," she says.

Cuisinart DBM-8 Supreme Grind Automatic Burr Mill ($39.99, amazon.com)

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Capresso Infinity Conical Burr Grinder ($75.99, originally $130.05; wayfair.com)

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OXO Brew Conical Burr Coffee Grinder ($99; amazon.com)

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Baratza Encore Conical Burr Coffee Grinder ($139; amazon.com)

Don't forget about your water

"In my opinion, the most important ingredient to making coffee is the water and its quality," Spillman says. "Water matters — 98% of coffee is water. Therefore, the quality of water you are using makes an incredible difference in how your cup will taste. There are brands out there that offer a mineral packet that you can add to distilled water, like Third Wave Water." When there's magnesium and calcium in the water, more taste is extracted from the coffee beans, according to the Barista Institute.

Third Wave Water Mineral Supplement ($15; amazon.com)

Using filtered water from a Brita, Pur or other home filter will result in better taste as well, Spillman adds.

Brita Metro 5-Cup Water Filtration Pitcher ($16.99, originally $19.99; target.com)

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Pur Advanced Faucet Filtration System ($32.99; target.com)

Another important detail when it comes to water? Getting it hot enough, according to Siemens. "You want to brew with water between 195 to 205 degrees F," he advises. "I recommend boiling the water and letting it stand for one minute. That should put the water in the perfect spot for brewing. The next rule is being able to come up with an accurate ratio of coffee to water. I usually use one part coffee to 16½ parts water."

Weigh your options

Spillman believes the biggest mistake people make when brewing coffee at home is not using a scale. "A scale will give you the most accurate read of how much coffee and water you are using when making your coffee," she says. "It's the same with baking. If you were to measure flour by volume vs. weight it would be different every time."

Siemens agrees a scale is ideal to accurately hand brew coffee at home. "The ability to measure the amount of coffee and water, as well as timing brews, will make brewing more consistent and easier to diagnose what could be off about a given brew," he says.

According to the National Coffee Association, brewing time is personal and takes some experimentation, but in general, water contact time for a drip system should take about five minutes, a French press should take two to four minutes, and espresso should take 20 to 30 seconds. Coffee scales options include:

Apexstone Coffee Scale with Timer ($15.99; amazon.com)

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Coffee Gator Scale with Timer ($22.99; amazon.com)

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Zassenhaus Barista Digital Pocket Scale ($37.99; bedbathandbeyond.com)

Pour it on

So, what sort of coffee machine works best at home? The experts say to go with what you love, but all make a case for giving a manual option a try.

"The best method is whatever makes you feel the most comfortable when you are brewing at home," says Spillman, who recommends Dillano's Howie's Blend for pour-overs. "I find that it is easiest to control the brewing variables when using a cone-shaped pour-over, like a V60 or Chemex. Have fun with it — making coffee should be fun!"

Hario V60 Pour Over Starter Set ($20.50; amazon.com)

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Chemex 6-Cup Pour Over Coffee Maker ($41.33, originally $43.50; amazon.com)

Easto touts the Melitta cone dripper as a great starter device, and argues that "any manual brewing device, whether it's a French press or a pour-over dripper, will make superior coffee to a standard automatic machine. If you boil water in the kettle you have laying around and dump it over whatever beans you have, I guarantee it will taste better than if you used those same beans in a standard automatic coffee maker."

Melitta Porcelain Pour Over Coffee Maker ($19.99; amazon.com)

If you prefer rich coffee with a robust mouthfeel, Easto recommend a French press, "since its metal filter allows oils and some sediment through." Popular French press options include:

Bodum Chambord French Press Coffee Maker ($39.19, originally $53.50; amazon.com)

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Cafe Du Chateau French Press Coffee Maker ($25.95; amazon.com)

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Le Creuset Stoneware French Press ($70; nordstrom.com)

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Coffee Gator French Press ($39.99; amazon.com)

For a "cleaner" feeling cup, Easto suggests a pour-over device that uses a cloth or paper filter. But one general rule, according to Easto: "The bigger the hole(s) on the dripper (such as the Hario V60 and Chemex), the more pouring skills you'll need."

And Siemens says he can't live without his Kalita Wave. "I love brewing on the Kalita," he says. "It produces a balanced experience between acidity, sweetness and body. I can brew smaller or larger amounts, and it just tends to always work well."

Kalita Wave 185 Dripper ($25.08, originaly $44; amazon.com)

Upgrade your tools

Espresso-drinkers, take note: Spillman's favorite coffee tool is her push tamper, a small tool used to pack down loose grounds into a compact puck or cake, which results in more uniform brews, and, she says, creates more consistent-tasting espresso.

Apexstone Espresso Tamper ($12.99, originally $14.99; amazon.com)

And if you take your espresso topped with steamed milk, pay attention to the temperature that you're steaming to, she says. If the milk is too hot, the proteins will begin to break down, affecting the milk's texture. "When you are steaming, it is important to start by introducing air by slowly bringing the tip of the steam wand out of the milk. The second half of steaming, you want to submerge the top of the steam wand just below the surface of the milk, so it can push and blend the bubbles into the rest of the milk." Top-rated milk frothers include:

Zulay High Powered Milk Frother ($12.99; amazon.com)

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Ninja Coffee Bar Milk Frother ($29.82, originally $43.99; amazon.com)

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Breville Milk Cafe Milk Frother ($109.90, originally $149.99; amazon.com)

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Dualit Hot-Cold Milk Frother ($99.99, originally $124.99; macys.com)

Of course, keep in mind that even less-than-perfect espresso or coffee can still be your morning lifeline.

"Brewing is fun, ceremonious and meditative," says Siemens. "Don't stress too much if the coffee is 'right' or 'wrong' — simply brew with intention, giving every ground some attention, and the coffee is going to taste phenomenal."

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed price at the time of publication.