Step Up Your Grind

Whether you want to upgrade your morning joe or become a coffee connoisseur, knowing your roast’s origins can make a critical difference.

    By Bailey Payne '19
  • Photography by The Voorhes
  • Oct. 26, 2021
    4 min read

It perks you up in the morning and helps you power through hard deadlines at night, but have you ever thought about the work that goes into your cup of coffee? Dr. Taya Brown ’19 does—every day. Brown is a graduate of Texas A&M University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-founder of the Center for Coffee Research and Education, housed in the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture. Since graduating, she has developed initiatives collaborating with smallholder coffee farmers in Guatemala to shed light on their production obstacles and create solutions.

Despite sky-high demand worldwide, farmers who build their livelihoods growing and harvesting coffee struggle to see their work justly rewarded. Shifts in climate can make or break an entire harvest. Even when the stars align and farmers have a booming season, large buyers and roasters may underpay and underrepresent them. “As the market shifts, the stress and insecurity often stay with the producer,” Brown said. Her work focuses on empowering producers so they can build and enjoy more sustainable communities.

A lifetime of coffee drinking has taught Brown best practices for a better brew, which she is more than eager to share. Understanding that fancy grinders and artisanal beans are not for all of us, she divvied up her advice for all coffee drinkers, whether you enjoy the occasional cup or have already splurged on personal brew equipment. Her research inspired her first tip, which is for everyone who enjoys a cup of joe.

For All Coffee Lovers

Buy ethically sourced. Purchase your beans from roasters that have an actual relationship with their producers. If a roaster can tell you not just where their coffee came from but also who produced it, they are more likely to have an equitable working relationship with the farmers.

Level 1: Caffeinated Casual

Use fresh ground beans. Simply buying fresh, whole beans every two weeks and grinding them yourself can improve your coffee’s flavor dramatically.

Kick the K-Cups. Single-cup coffee makers have exploded in popularity in recent years, but their convenience comes at a steep cost: Millions of non-recyclable plastic pods end up in landfills each year. If you want an easy brew without the waste, try a reusable pod instead. Reusable pods also allow you to grind freshly roasted beans just prior to brewing—a major improvement over plastic cups.

Level 2: Hopped-Up Hobbyist

Experiment with different roasts and brew methods. Sick of the old 12-cup drip coffee maker? Use a pour-over. Is your usual dark coffee getting stale? Try a French roast. You can even get precise and measure your water-to-coffee ratio (16:1 is recommended for most brewing). There are a million ways to make a cup of coffee; explore and find what you like.

Invest in a better grinder. An electric blade grinder may do the trick, but premium burr grinders offer a more consistent, high-quality grind.

Level 3: Espresso Expert

Attend a cupping. Cupping is a tasting technique that producers and buyers use to quality-test their batches, but you can use it to expand your palate and learn the difference between roasts. See if there is a cupping event in your area and discover a deeper, more social way to enjoy coffee.

Make a Difference: The Center for Coffee Research and Education strives to improve the quality and supply of coffee globally through impactful research. To support the center's mission, visit

About Dr. Taya Brown ’19

Dr. Taya Brown ’19 is passionate about coffee and its production. Originally from Seattle, she holds bachelor’s degrees in organic agricultural food systems and plant biology from Washington State University and a doctorate in horticulture from Texas A&M. Brown works extensively in Guatemala, investigating the linkage between socioeconomics and the uptake of hybrid technology on small-scale coffee farms. Her mission is to provide the industry with a better understanding of the obstacles faced by smallholder coffee farmers and identify pathways to greater prosperity for producers.