Consumer Corner: Turns out, we've been going about making coffee and tea the wrong way

By MARCELLA S. KREITER  |  Nov. 7, 2010 at 4:31 AM
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CHICAGO, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- I've been searching for the perfect cup of coffee most of my life.

The quest began when I was but 5 and would make coffee for my grandfather when he babysat: three scoops of Folgers, fill the 5-cup aluminum percolator to the line, put the pot on the stove and turn on the burner. My grandfather pronounced it the best coffee he ever tasted; I have my doubts.

From there I graduated to making coffee for my parents on Sunday mornings. My reward was a dollop of coffee in my milk.

By the time I was in high school, I was drinking it black, no sugar -- except my mother's, which was too bitter. We won't even mention the swill brewed by my first boss who never cleaned the coffee urn and would reuse the grounds.

Over the years I graduated from percolators to drip machines and now to the French press. I've gone from pre-ground to store-ground to home-ground, from Eight O'Clock to Starbucks to Trader Joe's. I've even taken advice from Chef Paul Prudhomme, who advised adding a pinch of cocoa, and Robert B. Parker's Spencer character, who recommends adding a bit of salt.

Things are looking up -- even if they're not quite there.

It seems we've all been doing things improperly for years. Coffee experts say you really shouldn't boil the water -- 190 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal. And those beans? Don't grind them until you're just about to use them -- they lose half their flavor 20 minutes after being ground. Even better, roast your own beans and use them within a week. And never, ever store coffee in the refrigerator or freezer. That dries it out.

I've been doing a bit of experimenting lately with my Bodum French press, with a little help from miam.miam, a division of United Brands, and cookware-maker Meyer.

Both miam.miam and Meyer have come up with fresh takes on the French press.

The Duet does double duty for miam.miam, serving as a teapot as well. Spokesman Baran Dilaver said the idea is to give consumers a space-saving option. The cap on the French press plunger comes off, and the stem and plunger are replaced by a tea strainer. What makes this infusion device different is that the stem on the basket has a joint that bends so the basket can be lifted out of the brewed tea. The stem then locks in place on the lid and the brewing process stops. And if the right temperature water is used, there's no bitterness. In addition, I haven't noticed any residual taste to ruin either the coffee or the tea.

Dilaver said it doesn't matter whether a teapot is short and stout or tall. The secret is in the brewing.

"You cannot brew at boiling temperatures," he said. "Different oils are brought out depending on the temperature.

"Some teas you can brew over and over. Some teas, if you keep them in hot water too long, they immediately get bitter. Stopping the brewing process is very important for tea drinkers."

Now if only I could keep from breaking the beakers.

That's where Meyer comes in. Spokeswoman Stephanie Beck said Meyer's BonJour Ami-Matin is unbreakable, made with Tritan, a bisphenol-A-free plastic.

And the sludge that winds up at the bottom of the cup?

"There's a feature in the plunger: The holes have little silicone flaps. When you press the coffee down, the flaps close so there's no more infusion or brewing," Beck said. Additionally, the company's French presses have a fine screen rather than just "the prison bars" at the spout to trap particles.

It turns out waiting for the kettle to whistle when brewing coffee or tea is a mistake. The best coffee is made at 190 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature for tea should be even lower, although it will vary from tea to tea. And brewing times for white and green teas are less than for black teas. None, however, should be brewed more than 5 minutes.

Seems to me that kettle should have a way to alert the consumer when the water temperature is perfect, maybe changing color for different temperatures or the words "coffee" or "tea" appearing at the right time as the water heats.

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