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Brewing Coffee Manually College Edition – 6 Tips to Get You Started

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The summer days are starting to dwindle and for a large selection of the population the “endless summer” is starting to be numbered. The number of days are rapidly turning from double to single digits. Start saying goodbye to your friends, It’s almost time for college to start back up again.

In your excitement, checklists and packing guides, don’t forget about coffee. You will be leaving the shelter of the carefully (or maybe haphazardly) curated coffee selection of your parent’s house and striking out on your own. Are you prepared to navigate the oft turbulent waters of the college coffee environment?

If you don’t want to be stuck with the mediocre-at-best dorm coffee or shell out two bucks each morning at the trendy cafe for their drip coffee, it helps to have a plan. Manual brewing is a great way to ensure you will have great coffee at an affordable price. Here are six tips for getting the most out of your college (coffee) experience.

If you are new to the blog or manual brewing there are basically four items you will need in order to brew a great cup of coffee in your dorm or apartment: Fresh roasted coffee, a coffee grinder, a manual brewer and an electric kettle or hot water source. Feel free to check out my Start Here page for more links and resources on brewing coffee.

Buy Good Coffee

It should come as no surprise that a quality fresh-roasted coffee is at the top of the list. I recommend finding a business that roasts locally and trying out their offerings. It is fun to get involved in the local community and a local roaster or coffee shop can be a great resource for a lot of coffee related things.

A great bag of coffee could run upwards of 15 dollars for a twelve ounce package but don’t let this deter you. That twelve ounce bag of coffee contains roughly 24 single cups of coffee (.5 ounces per 8 fluid ounces). A quality cup of coffee at 63 cents a cup is a bargain. What does the coffee at your dorm or coffee stand cost? What about a can of Coke from the vending machines?

Tip 1: Do yourself a favor and start out with a quality fresh-roasted coffee

Grind your Coffee Fresh

Coffee stales a lot quicker when it has been ground. In ground form there is much more surface area exposed to oxidation, which is the enemy of fresh coffee. Grinding your coffee and then brewing it in a timely manner (within the hour) is a big step towards great coffee.

The intricacies of selecting the right grinder for your situation is a blog post in itself. However, for college purposes I recommend a hand mill. A good electric coffee grinder is overkill in a dorm room 1-2 cup situation and you can get a decent hand mill for about 1.5 times the price of a new cheap blade grinder.

Hand mills are simple coffee grinders that are run on human power (kind of like a pepper grinder). They are perfect for a college manual brewing set up because they are durable, small, easy to use and have an acceptable grind range and particle size consistency

Here are a few of the most promising and popular models:

  • Hario Slim Mill- One of the more popular models of hand mills. The Slim Mill is durable and versatile. While there are some minor concerns about the consistency of the particle size, it is great for pour-overs and other filtered brew methods. If you are interested in a hack to make it a little more consistent, check out this mod on Coffee Brew Guides.
  • Porlex Mini Stainless Steel Coffee Grinder- Another popular option. I have no hands-on experience with this grinder but know it can have some of the same consistency of particle size issues. This grinder is often paired with the Aeropress, as it’s small size supposedly travels well with the brewer.
  • Handground- A brand new and exciting hand mill. The Handground claims to solve some of the consistency problems of the standard hand mill design. It is actually still in the pre-order phase of production, but it has been getting some great reviews and a lot of attention.

Once you are set up with a hand mill, you will be able to store your fresh-roasted, whole bean coffee for a couple weeks and only grind what you need. If grinding your coffee fresh if not an option, consider buying your coffee in smaller quantities (such as eight ounces) and have your local coffee shop grind it for you. Store the coffee in the dark and in an airtight container.

Tip 2: When possible, grind you coffee fresh right before you brew it.

Get an Electric Kettle

You can’t brew a traditional cup of coffee without hot water. In a dorm setting an electric kettle is a must. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to be able to boil water and have a spout for pouring. You can find an acceptable kettle at Target or the like.

The commonly accepted temperature for coffee brewing water is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. For Aeropress, some people go lower. You don’t need a thermometer, just bring your kettle to a rolling boil then wait 10-15 seconds.

If you have access to a microwave, a 2 cup pyrex measuring cup can be used as your “kettle.”

If you do not have access to hot water, don’t despair. Cold brewing your coffee is pretty easy and can be a great solution for at-school (or at-work) coffee. All you need is a mason jar, a dripper and filters.

Tip 3: Get an electric kettle and brew with water of the appropriate temperature for your brewing method.

Get a Manual Brewer

The amount of manual brewing devices available to the consumer can be overwhelming. There are so many designs and methods that is hard to keep track of and even harder to choose just one. For a college set up, I would look at three factors: expense, durability and ease of use (and clean up).

Based on these criteria, here are four manual brewers that I think fit the bill:

  • The Clever Coffee Dripper- This is a great dripper for immersion coffee that is also filtered. It can also function as standard manual dripper. It is made of durable plastic and clean-up consists of dumping out the filter and grounds then rinsing the brewer. Brewing is pretty easy as well and a gooseneck kettle is not needed. You can find a brew guide for the Clever here.
  • The Aeropress- A great manual brewing device that is both easy to use and durable. The filters are inexpensive so the operating costs are really low. You do not need a gooseneck kettle for Aeropress coffee. It is also practically self cleaning. You can find a brew guide for the Aeropress here.
  • The Melitta “Ready Set Joe”- This is the least expensive manual drip cone on the market, but it still works great. You can sometimes find them at grocery and kitchen stores for less than five dollars. The dripper takes number 2 or 4 filters which are readily available. Clean-up consists of dumping the grounds and filter into the trash. You can find an introduction to manual drip here.
  • Kalita Wave- This is probably the most expensive and least practical brewer of the four. The filters are a little more expensive than the other filter options (10 cents each). Besides the extra filter cost, the Wave is a great dripper. It is forgiving, durable and it takes cool pictures. Clean-up is the same as the “Ready Set Joe.” I don’t have a Wave brew guide yet, but you can follow my introduction to manual drip instructions.

Get an Inexpensive Scale

Like the hand mill, a scale is an optional item that will give you and your hand-brewed coffee an advantage. It is not necessary, but it makes the brewing process more repeatable and consistent. If you are going to cut something from this list out, the scale is probably your best option.

Weighing out your coffee and water helps to insure you are using the right dosage (the ratio of coffee to water).

You don’t need a fancy Acaia scale or even the Hario Drip Scale. Feel free to use any digital kitchen scale that weighs in 1 gram increments.

Tip 5: Use a scale for monitoring your dosage. This will keep your coffee consistent and repeatable.

Be Suspicious of the Water

If you show up to school and your coffee is not nearly as good as it was when you tested your college manual brewing set-up at home, be suspicious of the water situation.

Water can have an enormous impact on coffee but it is often downplayed or ignored all-together. Coffee is over 97% water. If you suspect your coffee problem to be water related, get some bottled spring water and see if brewing with it helps.

Unfortunately, if the water situation is not great, you have little options besides purchasing water for brewing or getting use to the current situation. A charcoal filter (like Brita) can help a little but will often not solve the problem.

Tip 6: If the quality of your brewed coffee suddenly changes, don’t overlook water as a likely suspect.


These tips encompass more than just a college dorm set up. They can be applied to an office coffee set up or be a good base for a home manual brewing set up. Across these situations, the theme remains the same: You can enjoy a great hand-made cup of coffee with a minimal start up investment and minimal recurring costs. Manual brewing is the best way to consistently drink great and affordable coffee. It is fun too.

Do you have any advice or experience with brewing coffee at college or with limited space and equipment? Please share any ideas, tips or thoughts in the comments below.


  1. Sharon Turner

    Another great and thorough post John — I see this topic come up over and over on the subreddit for coffee if you haven’t already cross-posted there. The user demographic seems to fit the bill perfectly, except maybe a few more trolls :)

    • John

      Thanks Sharon!

      I haven’t spend much time interacting over at the coffee subreddit yet. I will have to head over there and check it out.

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