Coffee is perhaps the most mysterious of all the hot drinks. Sure tea comes from the Far East and can at times be shrouded in ceremony and complicated cultural codes. But as a drink it’s simple. You take leaves, you put them in water that’s not too hot. After a while, you remove the leaves and enjoy your tea.
While coffee works on this same principle, I think what makes it an endless puzzle is the literally thousands of devices that man has thought up to do the job of soaking ground coffee beans in water.
Off the top of my head there are hand drip pots, auto-drip pots, moka pots, turkish coffee pots, french presss, various types of espresso machines, percolators, vacuum pots, vacuum press pots, pod machines, and god forbid, coffee bags.
The range of available products can be intimidating to say the least. So I am here to help with my guide to coffee makers that make me happy because they appeal to my particular tastes. Like most food opinions, these are only my opinions, but I’m still right.
When making coffee, what you have to keep in mind is that there essentially four variables that you have direct control over. For these purposes, I’m assuming you’re not going to home roast beans or something. Although I know people who do that. Anyway, these four things are:
1. How much coffee and how much water you are using.
2. How fine you grind the coffee.
3. How hot the water is.
4. How long the water sits in the coffee.
Except for espresso, where the size of the portafilter is fairly standard, the first variable is completely up to you. You might like your coffee to have a consistency similar to brown dishwater. I guess that’s your prerogative. You freak.
A great way to control the other variables is to buy a fancy coffee grinder and espresso machine. The key to using these machines well is practice and consistency. You should practice and adjust your espresso ritual until you can do the same thing in exactly the same way every time. I get a bit anal about it, but I have found that if something or someone gets in my way in the middle of putting together my favorite coffee drink it doesn’t come out well and then I get annoyed.
One problem with espresso is that it can be hard to obtain the proper mental state for doing it well first thing in the morning, especially if you have not had your coffee yet. This is like the barber paradox, but for coffee. Maybe we should call it the barista paradox. Who will make the barista’s first shot of coffee in the morning so the barista can make espresso?
When I have this problem I fall back on drip coffee. Almost all of the devices that I listed at the start of this article are really drip coffee pots. You take the coffee and put it in a filter. Then you take the hot water and pour it over the coffee and let the nourishing drink drip through the grounds and the filter into a receptacle of some sort. The main differences between the various devices are the physics they use to put the water and the coffee together and then to separate them again.
My favorite drip coffee device is a big plastic filter cone with a pot or thermos under it. You put a paper filter into the cone, put the medium-fine coffee grounds in the filter, and then pour hot water slowly out of an electric kettle into the filter. When you have filled the filter with enough water you just let it drip through the coffee into the pot below. I like the hand drip device because I already have an electric kettle and I don’t want to waste more counter space on an auto-drip coffee machine. I also don’t trust the auto machine not to pour boiling water into the coffee grounds, which would be evil.
The filter cone has the twin advantages of simplicity and ease of use. There are no moving parts. You don’t have to figure out how to open the machine up to clean it. You just toss the filter away and rinse out the cone. It’s also less fussy and fragile than something like a vacuum pot. Finally, we can write off the industrial drip machines and percolators out of hand as devices that murder poor coffee beans.
However, for the occasional change of pace, I do enjoy press pot coffee. This is the polar opposite of espresso in that you use a very coarse grind a very long steep time (minutes, rather than seconds). When done well you get much of the richness of a nice espresso combined with the pleasure of being able to drink a huge mug of hot black goodness. The only down sides from my point of view are that french presses are fussy to clean and you have to be careful to avoid a sort of fine sludge at the bottom of your coffee mug. Both of these concerns are fairly minor.
No matter how you choose to indulge your coffee habit at home, always remember that while all of these coffee machines seem different, they are all really doing the same thing. It’s just up to you to experiment until you find the combination that you like best, and then stick with it. Of course, if you don’t agree with my favorite way, you are just lost anyway, so give up now.