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How to Get a Half-Decent Cup of Caffeinated Coffee

How to Get a Half-Decent Cup of Caffeinated Coffee

coffee

    The art of coffee making might not seem like the sort of topic you’d expect to see in a publication like this one. But there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be covered: we use caffeine as a productivity and lifestyle tool, using it to wake up in the mornings, keep ourselves going longer than usual when deadlines approach and emergencies arise, and even to enhance the effects of twenty minute naps known as “caffeine naps.”

    Not all coffee is created equal — some methods of delivery will provide more taste and caffeine than others. There are also different tips and tricks you can apply to get more of the caffeine out of the bean and into the cup during the brewing process.

    Note: Don’t even try and convince me that coffee is bad and I should remove it from my lifestyle. Even if you win me over intellectually, I’ve spent way too much money on the habit to change my mind now. ;) And while we’re still using italics, the image is by VisualPanic.

    And if you’d like to know how to defend yourself from the assailants of our faith, check out this article I wrote around about this time last year.

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    Throw Out the Instant

    You shouldn’t be drinking that instant swill. It tastes like garbage. But taste is not the most central focus of this article: caffeine delivery is. On that note, you should still throw out the instant.

    Depend on your morning cup of instant coffee to “get you going”? Here’s the breakdown on caffeine content in a variety of types of coffee thanks to Energy Fiend, in milligrams of caffeine per ounce of beverage:

    • Coffee (brewed): 13.44
    • Coffee (drip): 18.12
    • Coffee (espresso): 51.33
    • Coffee (instant): 7.12

    And for comparison’s sake:

    • Coca-Cola Classic: 2.88
    • Diet Coke: 3.75
    • Dr Pepper: 3.42
    • Mountain Dew: 4.58
    • Red Bull: 9.64

    In short, while instant might yield better results than most soft drinks, it is the worst performer among varying types of coffee at delivering caffeine. You might also notice that energy drinks like Red Bull don’t hold a candle to a decently brewed coffee.

    Buy Cheaper Coffee — Arabica vs Robusta

    So I said “half-decent” cup of coffee in the headline. This particular point has absolutely nothing to do with decency of taste; what I’m about to suggest will actually worsen the taste, and truth be told I wouldn’t actually ever choose to do this myself, as an espresso brewing hobbyist who does it for the taste. But if you drink coffee purely for the caffeine, your choice might be different.

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    There are two types of coffee bean: arabica and robusta. The pros and cons of each can be easily summarized.

    • Arabica tastes much better, but has around 1% caffeine content.
    • Robusta tastes like monkey hairs, but has around 2% caffeine content.

    If you hate coffee no matter what kind it is, go for the robusta so you can get more caffeine while drinking less.

    If you do care about the quality of the beans, you might want to look around for an arabica bean that is grown for its higher-than-average caffeine content such as Black Magic.

    Spend Your Money on the Grinder

    Thinking about dropping a few hundred on an espresso machine and grabbing a $20 grinder to go with it? Think again.

    When it comes to coffee equipment, the grinder is the most important piece of gear, and is also one of those pesky devices where you need to pay fairly respectable amounts of money for something that does the job properly, depending on what that job is. I’m not as familiar with the American market but the absolute minimum spend for a quality grinder that does espresso, French press, filter and percolator is about AU$220 (US$150) at this time.

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    Espresso can’t be made without a fine grind. Cheap grinders cannot grind fine enough. The level of grind and the level of tamp pressure are the two factors that generally affect pour time, which should be between 23 and 30 seconds for a shot of espresso. A cheap grinder and cheap espresso machine will usually get you a 10 second pour, which is far too quick. On the flip side, grind too fine and you will choke your machine and nothing will come out.

    When it comes to budgeting for your gear, Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek.com recommends that a budget of US$300 for espresso machine and grinder should start with a split of $150 designated for the machine and $150 designated for the grinder, and you can slowly back off the portion of funds dedicated to the grinder as your budget goes up.

    But what you care about is the caffeine, right? A coffee brewed from a finer grind yields a higher caffeine content than one made with a coarse grind. While brewed coffee in our list above had a lower caffeine content than drip coffee, French press tastes a whole lot better and if you follow these instructions for French press brewing from the founder of Sweet Maria’s you should be able to get a cup of plunger coffee that packs more of a punch. Of course, I doubt that’s his motive for brewing that way, but it works.

    A note: just because French press, percolator and filter coffee will let you get away with a coarser grind, they still have to be even grinds. That means your average $20 grinder will not do.

    Turkish coffee requires a grind even finer than espresso and should yield a high caffeine content (though I have no evidence), which may explain why the two dedicated Turkish coffee drinkers I know are always yelling at each other.

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    Myth: Darker Roast = More Caffeine

    It’s not true. It’s a myth. The level of roast actually has very little impact on caffeine levels in coffee, so feel free to experiment with different roast levels and find out what tastes best for you without feeling deprived. Intuitively speaking I would’ve thought the opposite — that a heavier roasting process would destroy more of the caffeine than a lighter roast would, but that’s not true either.

    The caffeine content of a bean is influenced by its type and origin, not roast level.

    What to Buy

    So you want to give up drinking instant but don’t know what sort of coffee equipment or brewing method to go for. My recommendations…

    You want cheap and convenient. Get a French press and a decent grinder. Any French press will do (don’t worry whether your model is insulated or not, because after ten minutes your coffee is stale anyway), and you don’t need a grinder that can grind particularly fine but you do need one that grind evenly, so get a burr grinder. Don’t buy one of those “whipper-snipper” pieces of junk.

    You want quality and caffeine. Not to imply that you can’t get a quality brew from a French press — bean brokers and roasters use French press to test beans because espresso ruins many of the subtleties in the flavor — but if you want to pack a lot of caffeine into a quality cup of coffee and maybe pick up a complicated but fascinating art form, I recommend espresso brewing.

    Espresso brewing is fun and involved, and sometimes difficult (regularly difficult at first). The resulting cup of coffee is much more your own creation than regular brewed coffee because of all the variables involved. And in my opinion, it’s the best tasting. In this case, you need a decent espresso machine that you’ve done plenty of research on and a high quality grinder — it’s an option that requires more money and more research into the gear you buy.

    If you want to continue exploring coffee, I suggest a site like CoffeeGeek.com — run by people who know way more about coffee than me.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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