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I work at a company of about sixty people. Like most offices, there's a communal coffee machine in our break room. It's what I understand to be a typical drip machine, pretty confident it's a Bunn VPS 12.

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The grounds used are Maxwell House.

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The filters are pretty generic looking, and the water is straight from our local tap.

The end result of all this could charitably be described as burnt water.

I know you can spend pretty much any amount of money on beans, roasters, grinders, presses, additives, and everything else that could possibly be coffee-related. But I'm not trying to make the best imaginable cup of coffee. I'm trying to make about 200 decent cups of coffee a day, for relatively little investment.

I've cleaned out the machine with Goo Gone coffee maker cleaner, to no significant effect. Past that, everything I can think of involves permanent changes to the process, and I want to have some way to justify that before I push for it. Where would my investments of money and political capital be best directed?

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    I don't have an answer, but I will say don't hate on the tap water. Some offices mistakenly use water from large jugs delivered to the office. If that water was cleaned using reverse-osmosis then the minerals have been removed and it makes the coffee even worse. US tap water is actually pretty good for coffee.
    – Justin C
    Feb 4, 2015 at 15:16

6 Answers 6

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The easiest step would be to swap out the Maxwell House coffee for something of higher quality. If there are local roasters nearby, check to see if they do wholesale or bulk orders, and then order some 5lb. bags of coffee from them. Since the idea is to keep costs low, they should be able to grind it for you ahead of time so that you won't have to add the cost of a grinder for the time being.

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    Why buy 5lb bags at once? Buy enough to make a few cups, see if it tastes well, and then go for bulk. What if he buys a lot and then discovers it wasn't the coffe that was the problem?
    – Ludwik
    Feb 5, 2015 at 11:35
  • This is an interesting idea. Is there a directory anywhere of local roasters? Feb 5, 2015 at 12:50
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    @StephenCollings - Go rogue; drop 20 quid and do a test: replace one day's supply and tell just a couple friends that you've done this. Buy a couple pounds of decent arabica beans from anywhere; pick a roast and grind to look as close as possible to what you're using now. Put them in the Blue canister. Hang out near the coffee maker more than usual, and listen for chatter. If you hear positive feedback, you've got traction and currency. If you hear complaints or nothing, re-po the coffee and learn to enjoy making pour-over at your desk. :) +1 for suggesting local.
    – hoc_age
    Feb 10, 2015 at 19:52
  • @StephenCollings Is this "Bean Central" place near you? Found from your profile page + Google Maps for "coffee roaster".
    – hoc_age
    Feb 10, 2015 at 19:59
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Coffee beans - I mean the type of coffee you actually drip. Exchange the coffee for 100% arabica coffee. it does not have to be even single source coffee. Good start for decent cup of coffee is ... You bet, it is Starbucks.

While I personally am in movement away from Starbucks, it should be good choice for decent cup of coffee for reasonable price

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  • Most drip coffee, including Maxwell House, is 100% arabica.
    – fixer1234
    Jul 2 at 23:19
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My suggestion would be that you stop using the machine and take a pour over cone or french press and your own grinder to work. The reality that I have found is that most people are willing to drink horrible coffee so long as it is free. And that given that choice, most people would rather drink free horrible coffee than good coffee they have to pay for. I tried for a long time to have a "coffee pool" at my office. What I found is that a couple of people payed me money every now and again, but mostly, my good coffee just got poached by people that didn't notice the difference between it and Folgers. I am much happier making my own cup of coffee when I want and not dealing with anything political or financial with my fellow employees.

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If you think you can get some money but not a lot, I'd start by switching to whole-bean coffee and purchasing both a grinder and air-tight containers to store the coffee in. Even cheap coffee tastes much better when it's fresh and freshly ground. Buy a mid-range grinder and two airtight containers (one for whole beans, and one for grounds). At the start of every day, you can grind enough to get you through the day. Coffee is best when it's used within about 2 weeks of being roasted and ground, though it'll still be drinkable longer than that, especially if stored properly.

The other thing you can do that doesn't cost any money is to experiment with how much coffee you use per pot. I've been in a lot of offices where people assume that more grounds automatically means better coffee, but adding too many grounds can lead to a very unpleasant bitter, metallic, or acidic taste. So try adding slightly less coffee when brewing a fresh pot and see if that helps, even if you don't change anything else.

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It'll be best to take a multi-faceted approach, there are some things you can do that don't require a significant monetary investment, but it will cost you a bit of time in the name of science.

First, try having decent filtered water delivered, and use that to fill the machine. I know that it sounds trivial, but the quality of water can affect how any coffee tastes. It can render your espresso tart, or turn your Folgers into mud pie soup. This should also result in less build up of 'gunk' in your machine.

Second, eliminate your filters as a cause of bad taste. To do this, heat some water to about 95 degrees Celsius, pour it through a few of the filters and into a container to cool. Wait for it to cool, smell and taste the water. Any after taste or odor? You got it from the filters, change your brand. While it's not always true, the more expensive the filter, the better the chance that it's not going to shed fibers or tastes into your brew.

Third, have your machine cleaned. Ask any diner who does it for them, and take it to wherever that is. Stuff can build up that a simple cleaning can't handle, the machine should be broken down and cleaned thoroughly, especially if you're getting that vegemite-like 'burnt' taste to things.

Finally, if Maxwell House is the coffee everyone can agree on, try putting a pinch of kosher salt in the basket with the grinds before you brew - it can really help to bring out latent flavors that might still be in the beans (provided that the coffee is still reasonably fresh), it won't make the coffee taste salty. Not much, 10 crystals or less, but try adding a pinch.

I think pound for pound, you'll get the most out of:

  • Having the machine professionally cleaned
  • Having better water delivered, and using that to brew
  • Tossing a few crystals of kosher salt in with the grinds

The machine you've got is a classic workhorse, and I'm sure it's got plenty of get-up-and-go left, but it does need to be maintained periodically.

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A lot of good recommendations here, but I think some of them miss what is likely the problem. A lot of restaurants use a machine like that; it can make good coffee. As Tim Post suggested, it should be serviced once in a while.

There's nothing wrong with fresh Maxwell House Original Roast coffee. It's popular for a reason, and many restaurants use it.

Taste the tap water you're putting in. If it tastes good to drink, and doesn't have any weird smells or taste, it should be fine for making good tasting coffee. If you wouldn't want to drink it, try bottled water that tastes good to you for making the coffee.

Most paper coffee filters should be fine. Satisfy your curiosity by brewing three nested filters with no coffee and about one cup of water. That will produce a much stronger concentration of any paper flavor you would get in normal brewing. With some cheap filters, you might notice a paper taste if that's the only thing adding flavor. But unless it produces a strong off-flavor, it will be overwhelmed by the coffee flavor unless you have a very discerning palate.

If the machine is clean and the water is good, the two most likely culprits for coffee that tastes like burnt water is stale coffee and too little grounds.

A big canister of ground coffee smells and tastes great when you first open it, but it degrades very quickly. Within a few days, very little of that great aroma will be there when you open the canister, and by the end of a week, what aroma there is will be of grounds that have started to oxidize. At least buy coffee in a canister size that the office can go through in a few days. Restaurants use prepackaged coffee pouches (including Maxwell House). It isn't just for portion control and to save employee time. The pouch is opened and then used immediately, so the coffee is like when you first open the canister.

The amount of coffee is a common source of weak flavor. People often use way too little coffee. It will be more expensive to buy the coffee pouches, but if you do, and buy the appropriate size (they are sized for different machine capacities), the pouch will provide an appropriate amount of fresh coffee. If you spoon out ground coffee from a canister, target the industry standard 16:1 water to coffee ratio.

Coffee scoops are typically either one or two tablespoons. A level measure will be about 5 grams per tablespoon. The markings on the carafes are usually either 5 fl oz or 6 fl oz cups. For easy calculation, figure 30 grams per fl oz of water, so 150 or 180 grams of water per marked cup. At a 16:1 ratio, that's roughly two level or rounded tablespoons of coffee per marked cup. People often use one tablespoon per marked cup, which produces watery coffee.

Another source of the burnt flavor is making more coffee than can be consumed within about half an hour, then keeping the carafe warm on the built-in hotplate. If you are measuring your own grounds, you don't need to make a full carafe at a time if that's more coffee than the office can quickly consume.

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