"Coffee is a complicated thing," Sean Henry told me. He and I were both perched on chairs inside the ground floor of the Frost Tower. That's where Henry, who owns Houndstooth Coffee, a lauded coffee house on North Lamar Boulevard, expects to open the store's second location in January.
In the morning light, I had confessed to him that I was a diehard tea drinker, and that I didn't really know what great coffee tasted like. Henry said not to worry — many coffee drinkers have never tasted great coffee, either.
"A lot of our customers have 'A-ha!' moments with coffee,” he said. “They'll taste the notes in a cup and say, 'Wow, I didn't know coffee had a flavor beyond bitter!'"
Like wine, Henry explained, coffee can vary in acidity, mouth-feel, balance and aftertaste. But unlike wine, you can make coffee at home in under four minutes. "Sign me up!" I said. And signed up I was.
I attended a class on coffee home-brewing at Houndstooth on a Sunday. The class, led by Houndstooth barista Daniel Austin Read, had 12 students. Like a chemistry class, Read had prepared beakers and filters and scales for the group. And, in a sense, it was.
To successfully brew coffee at home, Read offered these tips:
1. Start with good water and good beans
Use filtered water, not tap. (At Houndstooth, they use a reverse osmosis system and an additional filter that adds some minerals back into the water.) Additionally, seek the best of beans.
2. Get your grind on
Grind your coffee beans no more than 15 minutes before you use them. If you can, purchase a burr grinder rather than a blade grinder.
3. Pick your process
There are a variety of ways to make coffee at home. We worked with two in our brewing class: the French Press method and the pour-over method.
French Presses are pretty common, but the pour-over method was new to me: It involves pouring water over coffee grinds placed in a small filter, which drains into a glass carafe. (For pour-overs, Houndstooth favors the Chemex+Kone carafe/filter combo. )
These methods yield coffee with different tastes. The pour-over method preserves coffee’s lighter notes (e.g., citrus). The French Press makes fuller bodied, oilier, more chocolate-y coffee.
4. The golden ratio
Lots of home-brewers are curious about the proper water-to-coffee ratio. For a 12 oz (365g) cup, you want to use 22g of coffee. Barista Read recommended that home brewers use scales, not scoops, to measure their coffee.
“If you use a scoop, the amount of coffee you’re getting out of that scoop will vary, because bean size varies.”
5. The 3 T’s: Time, Temperature and Turbulence
It is here that we enter the Coffee Nerd Zone. The Houndstooth team has specific recommendations about how long you should steep your coffee, the temperature of your water, and how often you should stir your brew.
The temperature part is simple: You always want to use water heated to around 200 degrees, or just below boiling.
For a pour-over cup of coffee, place fine-ish grounds into your strainer and pour water steadily into the center of the grounds for about 15 seconds. Pause for 30 seconds, so the coffee can bloom (let out gas). Then, steadily pour the remaining water into the strainer. Total steep time should be about 2.5 minutes.
For a French press cup of coffee, throw coarse grounds into the press, add hot water, let the mixture sit for 30 seconds and then stir gently. Seal up the press, wait about 3 more minutes, and your coffee should be good to go.
6. Keep the faith
Sean Henry told me, “Houndstooth coffee is delicious, in large part, not because we have expensive equipment but because we start with great beans and we’ve got all our ratios down.” You can perfect your chemistry at home, he said, and get a terrific cup.
I asked Henry why he wants so many people to know how to make coffee at home. Doesn’t that eat into his profit?
"Part of Houndstooth’s mission is education," he explained. "We want people to understand what great coffee is. The more people know, the better it is for our business."
He shrugged and smiled, "And if people decide to make their coffee at home, hopefully they'll buy their beans from us."
To learn more about Houndstooth’s class schedule and free, twice-weekly cuppings (tastings), visit Houndstooth's website. The next brewing class will be held on the evening of November 18.