How you make your coffee matters

Depending on if you dig drip, French press, cold brew, or prefer to single-pod it up, your method of coffee making has a measurable impact on flavor and quality.

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Cold brew, drip, French press, single-serve -- there many ways to get your java on. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Whether you choose to whip up pots of fresh drip, drop the plunger on a hot French press, or would rather brew one K-cup at a time, your preferred method of coffee making will yield drastically different results. And I'm not just talking about how long you have wait to enjoy your java or the degree you must work for it, either.

Indeed, various coffee brewing styles will affect your product in significant ways, from intangibles such as differences in texture, body and flavor to more concrete scientific values you can quantify in the lab. Chief stat among them is a brew's percentage of total dissolved solids (TDS), that golden number which indicates just how much actual stuff has been leached out of the grounds and entered your beverage solution. Too low a TDS figure and you're in for swilling something akin to dishwater. Too high and you might have either glorious coffee ambrosia on your hands, or a bitter bile not suitable for human consumption.

That's why TDS by itself isn't the only piece of the delicious coffee creation puzzle. Temperature, time, tools and ingredients are extremely critical factors as well. Even so, TDS is the crucial linchpin around which all coffee drinks must turn. So grab your favorite cup while we dive headlong into popular home brewing techniques and investigate what kind of coffee you can expect them to conjure.

The drip is back

There's no question that the reputation of drip coffee makers has been sullied in recent decades thanks in part to cheap, underwhelming appliances flooding retail shelves. Specifically I'm referring to the kind of machines that brew weak, flavorless liquid if you're lucky or noxious, bitter drinks if you're not. Worse, those same devices tend to sport overpowered hot plates and glass carafes that turn coffee to burnt sludge quickly.

Quality drip brewers like Technivorm Moccamasters serve up a mean cup of joe. Brian Bennett/CNET

Of course drip done right is essentially a fancy pour-over, an old-school technique that has enjoyed a renaissance in trendy coffee shops. The keys to quality drip are water temperature (approximately 200 degrees Fahrenheit, equivalent to 93 Celcius), brew time (between 4 and 8 minutes), proper ratio of grounds to water, appropriate grind size and of course the freshness of your beans. On the surface it all sounds simple but I assure you it is anything but and only a select few automatic coffeemakers I've tested can pull this feat off. For an in depth deep look at the complex interplay of all these factors check out my guide to better home coffee brewing.

When a drip machine succeeds, however, the results are spectacular. For example both the Bonavita BV1900TS and Technivorm Moccamaster KBT 741 consistently created pots of coffee which measured right in the TDS sweet spot, 1.28 and 1.2 percent, respectively. According to the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) the ideal brew should have a TDS percent of between 1.15 and 1.35 percent. I agree because the coffee I make from these two gadgets is always rich, flavorful, rounded and never bitter.

Serving it solo

Another recent trend in the retail coffee maker world is the rise of single-serve brewers. To be clear, these aren't premium espresso machines but slingers of drinks made from coffee in prepackaged plastic cups. Machines from Keurig popularized this category, but more traditional appliance and beverage firms such as Bunn, Cuisinart, Nestle and Starbucks have entered the fray.

The main appeal of these gizmos is their undeniable convenience; they are fast and both easy to clean and to operate. If you're expecting a great cup of joe from a single-serve device, though, you're in for a letdown. That's because while you can tweak them to brew the acceptable ratio of coffee to water, these products in general don't have the heat or brew time necessary for true quality beverages, and the TDS numbers back this up.

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Single-serve Keurig-style gadgets are fast, not great brewers. Brian Bennett/CNET

For instance, using a standard Green Mountain Breakfast Blend K-cup, the Bunn MyCafe created bland java that was weak in flavor and physical concentration. TDS numbers for the solution came in at an anemic 0.77 percent as well. I even adjusted the coffee-grounds-to-water ratio myself to match the test formula I throw at high-end drip coffee makers (0.3 ounces coffee, 8 ounces water). I made sure to use our freshly ground test beans as well in one of the MyCafe's special brewing heads. To my surprise the result was an identical 0.77 percent TDS.

Cold, super-concentrated, yet sweet

Cold brewed coffee has grown in popularity as well and chances are good (especially in the summer months) that your local cafe will offer this chilled concoction. I'd argue though that cold brew's special appeals are enough to warrant quaffing it all year long.

Different from ordinary iced coffee, correctly made cold brew is many times stronger than conventional drip coffee. In fact some recipes call for a brewing ratio of 1 to 4 (coffee grounds to water). In my experience this is way too concentrated and I prefer to use a more reasonable proportion closer to 1 to 8. Regardless, if you plan to try this style of coffee making be prepared to consume a heck of a lot more beans.

Cold brew, similar to French press (which I'll get into later) uses about twice as much coffee as creating pots of drip (1:16, coffee to water). Another factor to consider is that like French press, cold brew requires a very coarse grind. That's because unless you have a fancy glass drip tower, not to mention the skills to use it, most home cold brewers will take the budget route.

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Cold brew has pull all year round. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Essentially all you need is cool water, a refrigerator, plus a French press, mason jar, or plastic pitcher. Just dump your grounds into cool water sans filter. After a good stir you pop the brew container into the fridge and 12 hours later (overnight) you'll have a fresh batch of veritable cold brewed coffee. Don't forget to either strain or French press the liquid or you'll be chewing a healthy amount of grounds, too.

Besides being very strong, the long saturation time and low water temperature help cold brew have almost no trace of bitterness. Indeed, properly made cold brew has a sweet, almost syrupy texture that I find just plain delicious. The added benefit here is cold-brewed coffee won't dilute easily which, makes it perfect for drinking with ice.

Refractometer readings confirmed the strength of my cold brew. I measured the TDS of my dark solution to be a whopping 3.57 percent. Even so, this translates to an extraction percentage of 23.3 percent, which is right on the edge of what coffee experts consider overextracted. That said, the flavor of my brew was certainly bold but not bitter at all, rich and tasty (if a bit sandy).

Respected for a reason

I'm sure that for many people out there, the old ways of making coffee are still the best. One in particular, French press, remains well regarded among a subset of coffee fans. As it turns out there's a reason for this method's remaining popularity. While brewing French press coffee requires the same exorbitant level of grounds that cold brew demands (1 ounce coffee to 8 ounces water), the flavor payoff is big.

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The dark allure of French press. Brian Bennett/CNET

I tapped a standard 34-ounce Bodum glass press and a Brazen Plus machine for carefully controlled hot water. After manually releasing water at a precise 200 degrees Fahrenheit into the press, swirling with a wooden skewer (chopsticks also work well), I let my mixture sit for 4 minutes. After that and a slow plunge of the French press later, the Bodum's contents had transformed into a delectable frothy coffee broth.

TDS numbers for this batch of French press were off the chart. I logged total dissolved solids at a high 4.8 percent, which given the other factors like coffee-to-water ratio yields an extraction percentage of 30.9. It sounds way overextracted, but like the Bunn Velocity Brew BT , another coffee maker that created brew in short order, my French press was lusciously rich, dark and well-rounded. Of course it had a decent amount of grit, too, which some coffee drinkers may find off-putting.

Just brew it your way

Like any personal pursuit or pleasurable endeavor, brewing and enjoying coffee is highly subjective. Some java drinkers will surely prefer the clean and refined taste of quality drip over the rustic and powerful flavors of French press. Others will crave cold brew like no other coffee style no matter what the forecast. As long as you know just what kind of drink these popular methods will likely yield, I suggest trying your hand -- or at least wrapping your taste buds around -- as many brewed coffee types as you can. You never know what kind of black gold will float your boat.

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