Steadfast standard drip drinker? French press promoter? Swear by the cold brew trend? These decisions might matter for more than bragging rights. Turns out the method by which a cup of coffee is brewed can tinker with more than taste—it can also change some of the drink’s most fundamental elements, including levels of caffeine and natural oils. And that can mean business for both your taste buds and your health. Read on to learn which cup of coffee (before the milk, sugar, and all those other add-ins) really is best.

1. Standard Drip Brew

You could say standard drip is the all-American brew, since it shows up everywhere from diner and pancake houses to kitchen counters. Standard drip brew calls for an automatic coffee maker. Coffee grounds are placed in a compartment (typically lined with a paper filter), then water is warmed to a near-boiling temperature via heating elements in the machine and dripped over the grounds, quickly brewing them. Standard drip brewing requires a fine ground; the finer the ground, the more surface area there is for caffeine, antioxidants, and oils to seep from.

What Ends Up in the Cup?
Caffeine: Drip brewing packs the most caffeine punch of any brew method. The length of a standard drip brew cycle is between two and five minutes; the longer the brew cycle, the more caffeine is released. The kind of roast used will also impact the amount of caffeine that winds up in the cup: In general, darker roasts contain less caffeine, since caffeine is typically cooked out of the bean during the roasting process.

Oils: Because of the paper filter, levels of diterpenes (the oils released from grounds that give coffee its aroma and flavor) tend to be low. While this may dull the flavor, it’s a plus for your heart; diterpenes have been shown to adversely affect cholesterol levels (though only for those who drink six to eight cups a day). Some machines come with a specialized metal mesh filter; while these trap the grinds, they don’t always trap the oils.

Taste: The hotter the water and the longer the brewing time, the more bitter a cup of coffee will taste due to overextraction of the grounds. Cleaning the coffee maker monthly will improve the taste; otherwise mineral deposits can build up and throw off the flavor.

2. French Press

While the French press brewing method was developed in France, it was actually an Italian, Attilio Calimani, who brought it to popularity in 1929. Today this super-simple method is popular in homes across the U.S. Toss some coarse grounds into the French press pitcher, add heated water, gently stir, cover, let sit for two to four minutes, push the strainer down, and voila: You’ve got yourself a French press brew!

What Ends Up in the Cup?
Caffeine: The caffeine levels of a brew from a French press are relatively high—though that depends to an extent on the coffee grind. Unlike the standard drip brew, in which water is dripped over just a section of the grounds, the French press method submerges the grounds entirely, allowing for more surface area contact between the water and the grounds. The finer the grind and the longer the grounds are steeped, the more caffeine that’s released.

Oils: This brewing method lets serious amounts of diterpenes trickle into the cup. As mentioned above, sipping on these fatty oils can cause a spike in cholesterol levels—but only if you’re throwing back six to eight cups a day. For those who make it through the day on just one or two cups, there’s little risk to no risk.

Taste: French pressed coffee is one of the richest and smoothest cups of coffee there is—probably because it’s swirling with the very oils that give coffee its luscious taste. However, due to the use of hot water, which can over-extract the grounds, this brew can have acidic notes.

3. Single-Serve Pod Coffee Maker

Peek into any office these days, and you’ll likely spot one of these machines. The brewing process is very similar to the drip method in that piping hot water is dripped over coffee grounds—only in this case, the grounds are nestled in single-cup pods. These pods are often made of plastic or aluminium lined with paper filters, filled with regular or flavored grounds and nitrogen gas, and sealed with foil. Users can also opt for a metal mesh pod that they fill with their own grounds.

What Ends Up in the Cup?
Caffeine: Because the grounds are condensed directly beneath the water source, a notable amount of caffeine is extracted even from this very short brew. The caffeine content also depends on the type of roast inside the pod—the lighter the roast, the more caffeine.

Oils: Pods lined with a paper filter will reduce the amount of diterpenes in the cup. If you opt for a metal mesh pod, levels of these oils will be similar to those found in the French press method.

Taste: Plastic and aluminium pods can taint the flavor, and, depending on the roast, this can mean that the coffee tastes flat and dull. However, taste improves when metal mesh pods are used.

4. Cold Brew

Cold brew is hands down the trendiest of brewing methods right now, and quite possibly the tastiest! Cold brewing is pretty similar to the French press method, except cold water is used instead of hot water and the coarsely cut grounds are steeped for 12 to 16 hours. Just because it’s cold brewed doesn’t mean it has to be consumed cold—if hot coffee is your favorite, simply make a stronger cold brew and heat it by mixing it with warm water or milk.

What Ends Up in the Cup?
Caffeine: Since the grounds are submerged in cold- to room- temperature water, cold brew coffee often contains less caffeine than hot brewed methods. Still, the 12- to-16-hour steeping process does extract enough caffeine to get your morning buzz on.

Oils: Much like the French press method, cold brewing retains more diterpenes because there are no paper filters involved. If you want to reduce the diterpene levels, strain the brewed coffee through a paper filter.

Taste: This will likely be the smoothest and fruitiest cup of coffee you ever taste—which is actually how coffee is supposed to taste. The acidic bite most of us are used to is a result of overheating oils within the grounds. But without that bite, some find this brew to be too bland.

5. Instant Coffee

There are few things in the world simpler than making a cup of instant coffee. Instant, which comes in powder form, is derived from roasted coffee beans that have been ground into a powder and dissolved in water to create an extract. That extract is then freeze- or spray- dried and packaged. All you have to do is scoop some of the powder into a cup, rehydrate with hot water, and stir—a cup of coffee in a matter of seconds!

What Ends Up in the Cup?
Caffeine: Because it’s just a coffee extract, instant coffee contains less caffeine than all other brewing methods. Adding additional spoonfuls of the coffee powder to the cup can increase caffeine levels slightly.

Oils: Instant coffee contains practically no diterpenes, as they’ve been filtered out during processing.

Taste: If you’re into sacrificing taste for convenience, then this is the brew for you. All hope for tasty instant coffee isn’t lost, though: You can create a richer cup by mixing in a few extra spoonfuls of the powder.

But What About Antioxidants?

What matters most when it comes to body-boosting antioxidants is how the coffee beans are roasted. Darker roasts may have more antioxidants How does roasting affect the antioxidants of a coffee brew? Exploring the antioxidant capacity of coffee via on-line antioxidant assays coupled with size exclusion chromatography. Smrke S, Opitz SE, Vovk I. Food & function, 2013, Apr.;4(7):2042-650X. , but more research needs to be done.

The Best (and Healthiest) Cup of Coffee: Could It All Be in the Brewing Method?

The Takeaway

No two cups of coffee are the same. The roast, method of brewing, and length of brewing can all have an effect on the caffeine, antioxidant, and oil content of a cup ‘o joe. The best way to find the brew that works for you? Experiment with different methods, roasts, and brew times until you find the combination that makes your taste buds say “ahh.”

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