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.
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. (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 cup (12 oz.).
Timer that will let you time in both minutes and seconds (I use the one on the microwave oven).
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.
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.