On Making a Great Cup of Coffee at Home

Tips from two coffee nerds

Photography by Brian Miller

I tasted my first coffee when I was about 10 years old, but it wasn’t until my early 20s that my relationship with coffee changed forever. I went on a roadtrip in Puerto Rico with some of my best friends and was served a homemade espresso while overlooking a lush, mountainous, tropical landscape. That was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve been learning, refining, and constantly improving my coffee-making skills at home. 

I’ve experimented with different equipment, techniques, roasts, and grinds, all in an attempt to recapture that magical roadtrip moment.

I even painstakingly picked my own coffee beans over the course of two months. Then I fermented, dried, lightly roasted in a cast-iron skillet, and hand-ground them to finally brew a single cup of coffee. If you’re asking if it was worth all of that effort, it was—but even that wasn’t the same as that first espresso high in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

Naiman Rigby would tell you that an experience like that is the product of emergence, which, he says, is “anything that can’t be predicted that emerges randomly from one’s individual reality, or cultivated group reality.”

Wait, what?

This is the type of thing that comes up during a conversation with Naiman, who is the former owner of Corona Coffee in Austin, Texas. These days you can find him behind the bar at both Boycott Coffee and the Memphis Chess Club, where he works as barista and advisor for sourcing green coffee beans for roasting. He also roasts coffee at home for himself, for the Chess Club, and for Rigby Roastery, which he co-owns.

He’s a lifelong musician, having grown up playing harmonica alongside the likes of Gary Clark Jr., Eve Monsees, Shakey Graves, Cirf Hashins (aka XPPR5-9), and—most commonly—his father, Marty Rigby. He’s also an avid reader of philosophical non-fiction. And that’s where the theory of emergence comes from.

But how does this relate to my experience in Puerto Rico? And how does that help you make a great coffee at home? Well, hear me out.

So many variables go into a cup of coffee that it is essentially impossible to predict exactly how it will turn out. “[There are] over 700 individually identifiable chemical compounds pre-roast and over a thousand post-roast, hundreds of which are aromatic compounds,” says Naiman. “And aromas are actually things you taste using your olfactory.”

And compounds aren’t even all of the variables in the equation. You can add to that all of the complexity of our world and its changing climate.

“Coffee is an organic thing. It’s an agricultural product,” says Naiman.

“And no matter how much you attempt to stabilize or control a situation—you could irrigate a crop and do everything that is proven over time to create the best crop—and the randomness of our weather (and just any other aspect of context in that situation) could change what that agricultural product becomes. Because of the complexity of coffee, there really is no way to rely on an absolute outcome.”

To me, this means that no matter how hard I try, and how good my coffee is on any particular day, I’ll never be able to recreate that espresso experience from my past. But what I can do is try my best with what I have to create a different and unique experience.

“There’s no exact science to brewing coffee. It’s sort of like contextualized in a moment,” continues Naiman.

“So you’re always just participating in that coffee becoming something, but it never really becomes it. It’s like the act of doing is in itself what is happening and what is experienced and what the outcome will be is totally unpredictable. You just do your best, and then you get something really unique and appreciate the emergence that happens during that process.”

Nuts & bolts of brewing at home

So how do you make “that process” happen in your own home kitchen? If you’re inclined to nerd out about coffee with us, and would like recommendations, then we have some for you. 

If you want to highlight the “fruity” notes and “clarity” of your brew, then Naiman recommends getting a ceramic V60 and a simple kettle with a long spout. This is the coffee we refer to as a pour over. Using a kettle (yes, like a tea kettle), you carefully pour hot water over semi-coarse ground coffee in a conical filter. The water seeps down gently through the grounds and into the cup below. This is a delicate technique that calls for a lightly roasted bean.

If you would describe your preferred coffee as “classic” or “nutty” or “chocolaty,” then the greca (aka moka pot) is the way to go. In this case, everything is integrated into one piece of equipment, with water at the bottom. The filter sits on top, and as the water heats up on your stovetop, it moves upward through the coffee grounds and into the container at the top, producing coffee along the lines of an espresso, only a bit “lighter.” Use a medium-light roast ground fine, like for an espresso. This is the type of coffee you’ll find in many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the one my mother still drinks to this day.

These are both great and affordable options.

If you already feel like you’ve got a solid foundation and are looking for an upgrade, Naiman recommends an AeroPress, which has thousands of recipes to try. Beyond that, try espresso machines in the $150 to $300 range. I’ve had a pretty basic De’Longhi for about five years now, and it still works great. I can get consistently good coffee with the occasional excellent one.

As for sourcing locally roasted coffee beans, Naiman recommends French Truck Coffee, in particular the Colombia Sidra Grand Cru from Finca Las Flores. He also recommends Vice & Virtue, specifically their Worka Sakaro – Ethiopia – Anaerobic Natural for the “fruity” option, and their Good Temper – Brazil/Guatemala Blend for a “nutty” option.

And now for a really special treat. 

Naiman is offering high-end pour overs at Boycott Coffee one day a week. These specialty coffees are sourced and roasted by Rigby Roastery and are sure to sell out quickly. I’m talking about a “there will only be 12 cups available” kind of deal. So if you want a seat at the bar, then you better get in early and check Boycott’s Instagram often.

Coffee is a topic where you can go as deep as you want, and the rabbit hole goes on forever. The most important thing is to be patient and kind to yourself.

With practice, you’ll enjoy better coffee at home more often.

And once in a while—boom—you’ll take a sip and find yourself going, “Mmmm good.” 

And when that happens, notice it, appreciate it, put down your phone, take a deep breath in, and let it out slowly, look around, listen, and be in the moment. That is the meaning of emergence.

Epic Jefferson is a designer, technologist, and avid home cook. Splitting his time between Memphis and Puerto Rico, his interests span many areas, from health and wellness practices, to permaculture design and the pursuit of food sovereignty and energy independence for Puerto Rico and other colonized nations. @epicjefferson

Brian Miller is known to love specialty coffee and photography, but underneath all that, he cares more about how those interests cultivate community. When he was an undergrad, he worked in specialty coffee. As an engineer, he hopes to one day contribute to the coffee equipment industry. @brianqzmiller