Greta’s Perfect Cup of Decaf Coffee

coffee beans
I only ever drink decaf coffee. I’ve been off the hard stuff for many years now — it gives me bad mood swings — and with the meds I’m on now, I definitely can’t drink the hard stuff at all. But I still like the taste of coffee, and the aroma, and the ritual. And since I don’t ever drink the hard stuff, the small amount of caffeine that’s left in decaf does have a gentle stimulating effect that I enjoy and am attached to.

Alas, being a decaf-only drinker means that coffee in cafes is very hit-or-miss. Some cafes do decaf very well indeed (a shout-out to the decaf French roast at Philz); others either don’t know how to do it or don’t care. (Do not get me started on cafe snobbery about decaf.) So since I drink decaf coffee every day, I’ve learned to make it myself.

I’ve been refining my technique over the years, to get it exactly how I like it. And on the off-chance that there are other decaf drinkers out there, I thought I’d share with the rest of the class.

Note that this is made to my taste (obviously). I like my coffee quite strong, and I like it with cream and sugar. So this might not be your perfect cup of decaf coffee. But if you’re a decaf drinker and haven’t been happy about it, it’s probably worth a try.

INGREDIENTS

12 fluid ounces filtered water. (If you have good tap water, filtered isn’t necessary — but if you have a water filter, there’s no reason not to use it.)
3 Tbsp. whole decaf coffee beans, French roast. (French roast is very important — possibly the most important feature of this process, except maybe the heavy cream. The most common way for decaf coffee to suck is for it to be sour. French roast is rarely sour. I use the fair-trade organic French roast beans they have at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, but other decaf French roasts are good, too.)
1 Tbsp whipping cream. (NOT half-and-half!!! Whipping cream! Heavy whipping cream. Strauss if I can get it, another brand if I can’t. In a pinch, when I’m out of cream, I have been known to use vanilla ice cream. In fact, I keep vanilla ice cream in the house just for this purpose.)
1 tsp. (packed) brown sugar.

French press coffee maker
EQUIPMENT

Tea kettle.
French press coffee maker. (This is not absolutely 100% necessary: if you don’t have one, you don’t have to run out and buy one. At times when French press isn’t an option, I make drip coffee that I’m reasonably happy with. But I do prefer French press: it makes the coffee stronger and somehow more substantial.)
Coffee grinder.
Coffee cup (12 oz.).
Timer that will let you time in both minutes and seconds (I use the one on the microwave oven).

INSTRUCTIONS

Grind beans for French press. With our coffee grinder, this means grinding for ten seconds. Yes, I time it — ten seconds is both longer and shorter than I think. If you don’t have French press instructions for your coffee grinder (what? you threw away the instructions for your coffee grinder?): A French press grind is coarser than a drip grind. (For drip coffee, we grind for twenty seconds.)

Put grounds into French press coffee maker.

Boil water. If possible, I actually try to heat the water to just below boiling, and take it off the stove right before the tea kettle starts to whistle. Coffee is supposed to be made with just-under-boiling water: boiling water will sour it. If I don’t successfully do this, though, it doesn’t matter hugely, because my next step is to:

Decant the water into the coffee cup, and THEN pour it into the French press coffee maker. This accomplishes two things: it brings the water temperature slightly down, and it warms the coffee cup.

Stir grounds into water, put top on French press coffee maker, and let steep for eight minutes. (Yes, eight minutes. I know most French press instructions say three to five minutes, but that doesn’t make it strong enough for me. And again: Yes, I time this.)

While coffee is steeping: Mix cream and sugar into a slurry in the coffee cup, and let sit. (The reasoning behind this: I find that if I stir the sugar into the coffee after I pour it, it tends to settle into the bottom of the cup. If I mix the cream and sugar ahead of time and give the sugar time to dilute into the cream, it mixes into the coffee better.) Stash cup in pantry so Comet can’t get at the cream.

While coffee is steeping, make breakfast (usually toasted bread and cheese, and a piece of fruit).

After eight minutes, press the French press filter. Re-stir cream-and-sugar slurry, as some sugar may have settled out. Pour coffee slowly into cup with cream-and-sugar, stirring briskly. (A brisk stir thoroughly mixes the cream-and-sugar into the coffee, and also aerates it slightly.) Do not pour all of the coffee — the French press method leaves a bit of sludge in the bottom of the coffee maker.

Yield: About 10 ounces of coffee. (You lose a little water in the process, mostly in the sludge.) That’s just about right for a 12-ounce coffee cup, with room for cream and room for the cup to not be full to the absolute brim.

IF I WERE GOING TO GET SERIOUSLY OBSESSIVE ABOUT THIS, I WOULD:

Get a burr-style coffee grinder: apparently these grind the beans more evenly, thus creating less sludge.

Get one of those electric kettles that you can set to heat water to exactly the temperature you want. Or, alternately: Use an instant-read meat thermometer to measure the temperature of the water before pouring into the coffee grounds.

Aerate the coffee, by pouring it back and forth between two cups a few times after it’s brewed. They used to do this at Philz before they got so busy, and it does seem to make a difference — but not enough to be worth dirtying two cups every time I want coffee.

***

So if you have a coffee ritual — what is it? Decaf drinkers are especially encouraged to share.

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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Greta’s Perfect Cup of Decaf Coffee
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8 thoughts on “Greta’s Perfect Cup of Decaf Coffee

  1. 1

    Agree with you on all (but the cream – I drink mine straight).
    The burr-style grinder does make a difference with the french press (less so with filter techniques). Try swiss water process decaffeinated beans. Also, consider roasting your own. With a Behmor roaster, it’s not hard, and fresher beans helps.

  2. 2

    Cream, definitely. All the anti-Peet’s reactionaries complain about dark roasts, but how else to be sure of escaping that nasty acidic quality.

    If I’m ever on my feet financially, better coffee will be one of the first promotions.

  3. 4

    going on 25 years ago I stopped drinking anything caffeinated past mid day, now I find that even a “full fat” coke of an evening leaves me jumpy at bedtime. The upside, although I’m on the chubby side and get little exercise, my blood pressure is exactly where it should be.

    My coffee ritual is a pint of strong black fully caffeinated instant in the morning , then turning down offers of coffee for the rest of the day until I can have an instant decaf at home in the evening.

    The UK is only just starting to become aware of alternatives to instant coffee, and as I am someone who likes the taste but cant take the caffeine of coffee, your post is extremely timely .
    I was wondering if beans were available in Decaf but hadn’t gotten around to doing the googling.

  4. 5

    Just as an illustration, a google search for “french roast decaf coffee beans” in google shopping brings up two, a full two results, both from health food suppliers and at 4 and 5 times what I normally pay for instant.

  5. 6

    Heavy whipping cream.

    The difference between “heavy cream” and “whipping cream” is what’s written on the label. I find the local dairy cream to be perfectly acceptable (I refuse to pay extra for name-brand cream, there’s no difference for me except the price). Sometimes the heavy cream is more per pint, sometimes the whipping cream, I get whichever is cheaper.

    BTW, I hate coffee. It’s so bitter I have to load it with so much sugar and cream to make it even close to drinkable I might as well buy coffee ice cream and melt it. I’m a tea or cocoa drinker.

  6. 7

    Please, may I come to your house for coffee? I’ll bring my own turbinado or white sugar, though. Well, I might also bring my own French roast regular coffee beans (Fair Trade, organic), too. Always heavy cream. Always. Can’t wait to try French press coffee; I used Chemex drip makers for years until I tired of breaking them (very easy to do), so now use Melitta. I adore the Chemex kettle, but since I broke TWO in my life (nearly impossible to do), no more.

    I love the complete OCD-ness of this entire article. Score one for the home team. 🙂

  7. 8

    I’m just experimenting with French press vs. drip lately. A problem I have with the press is when making a single cup the coffee is weak – even with more coffee, and regardless of whether I’m using a multi-cup or single cup press. I allow a good five minutes or more to steep. What might I be doing wrong?
    Sorry for the alphabet soup ID via Facebook. Real name is Bruce Coppola.

    Geez, here I am de-lurking on Greta’s blog, and is it to finally offer a pithy comment on a weighty issue of gender, sexual orientation, or third wave feminism? Noooo…! :/

    Well, while I’m here a little note that may interest Greta and others. My sister has an estate sale biz here in MI, and we recently did one for a deceased gentleman’s family. He lived a full and interesting life. One of the items in the estate was an original poster for the first annual Hooker’s Convention in SF designed by Margo St. James. “Our convention is different. We want everyone to come.”

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