Gear for making great coffee
There is no one "best" method of making coffee. So, there is no best gear for making coffee.
Declaring such a thing would be like declaring that deep frying is the best way to cook anything. It’s partly a matter of personal taste — you might really like the results that deep frying produces! — and a matter of what you’re making. The same is true for coffee-making methods: siphon or pourover is probably my favorite way to prepare coffee, but some people really like press pots. The point is that you can’t quite declare one piece of coffee making equipment to the best, no more than you can say that the T-Fal ActiFry is the best way to cook anything. (That said, pod machines are truly awful.)
But I can give you some advice and options on the best gear for a given way to prepare coffee.
To really understand my picks, you’ll want to understand the fundamentals of coffee gear and how it’s all used.
First off, whether you brew with an Aeropress, French Press, Chemex or Clever, you’re going to spend more money on a grinder than the actual brewing gear. And that’s okay, because it’s the most important piece of coffee gear you’ll own.
A grinder will serve you no matter how you brew coffee. If you’re just brewing auto-drip today and then Chemexing tomorrow and then using a siphon in six months, you’ll be using a grinder. Obviously, the more serious you are about coffee — or think you will be — the more value you’ll get out of a higher end grinder.
That’s because it all starts with the grinder. Well, yes, it technically starts with the coffee. But assuming you have good, fresh-roasted, whole-bean coffee, the grinder is the first potential failure point. Making good coffee is ultimately about extraction. You want even extraction. The first step to an extraction is an even grind — and you want the particles to be as close to the same size as possible.
Baratza produces what most consider to be the gold standard for basic home grinders.
Baratza’s Encore is the cheapest grinder I could get any coffee professional to recommend. It starts at $150 new, but every Thursday Baratza stocks its online store with fresh refurbs, where it can be had for around $100. This is what you should get if you’re simply interested in making basic drip coffee.
I personally own the next step up from the Encore, a Virtuoso, which starts at $230 new, or around $180 refurbed from Baratza. What that extra money gets you is a far more consistent grind at coarser sizes, suitable for a press pot, according to Mark Prince’s white paper, and the ability to eke out a grind that’s passable for espresso which the Encore cannot produce at all. (Correction: The Encore can technically produce an espresso grind, but it’s the lowest rated Baratza grinder for espresso, and the pros I talked to recommended a Virtuoso or better for that.)
Better still, all Virtuosos now come with Baratza’s new, redesigned burrs that were created for the higher end Precisio — though make sure you get the Virtuoso 586, not the 585. (The 585 uses the older burr set.) In Prince’s testing of the Precisio, he got “a very clean grind with minimal ﬁnes; if you want a 700 micron sized grind for drip coffee, that’s what you’re gonna get.”
Basically, this is the score: If you’re planning on doing more advanced techniques and think you might really fall down the coffee rabbit hole, you’ll want a Virtuoso, at least. If you’re getting the bare minimum, get an Encore. But ultimately, you should buy the best grinder you can afford because it is the most important piece of coffee equipment you will own. In fact you could basically ignore the rest of this from here on out.
And now we diverge into choose-your-own adventure mode.
If you don’t actually want to make coffee, but you want it to magically appear and be good, you will spend more money on your brewing equipment.
Having said that, here’s a disclaimer: An automatic machine is going to be more consistent than a human — it’s the nature of man vs. machine. But the best 10 percent of coffee I’ve had out of a machine is a pale shadow against the best 10 percent of coffee I’ve had brewed by hand.
The long-time gold standard in the industry for an automatic drip machine has been Technivorm’s MoccaMaster, which runs around $300. The major thing that Technivorm’s machines do that the average automatic home drip machine do not is that it heats the brewing water to the proper temperature for brewing coffee, which is 195-205 degrees. Nearly all common home machines often only hit around 180 or less. So the coffee they make sucks.
Should you get the Technivorm? No.
More recently, a cheaper machine appeared that takes after the MoccaMaster’s design. It’s the BV1800 by Bonavita and it starts at $130. The BV1800 is only the second automatic machine (besides the MoccaMaster) to be certified by the Speciality Coffee Association of America. When I tested it with coffee ronin Mike White — formerly of Gimme Coffee, but who can occasionally be spotted behind coffee bars at a number of places — we found it to be pretty good.
(Note: A new machine, Bodum’s Bistro Pourover, is a beautiful automatic that also produces very good coffee. But I do not think it’s a better deal than the Bonavita, since it starts at $250.)
So if I were to get an automatic machine, I would buy a Bonavita.
Best advice for beginners who have a home coffee auto-drip brewer is just use the brewer, but do a little extra work. Fill up your brewer with water but don’t put any coffee in. From the moment water starts coming out of the shower head (which may be a bit after you turn the brewer on), start the timer and measure how many ounces of hot water is produced in three minutes. This is what the brewer will yield; NO MORE, NO LESS. Use 2 tablespoons of ground coffee per 6 ounces of water. The actual brew time will be 30-60 seconds longer than those three minutes, since you’ve got coffee to slow the water down, but do this bit of pre-work and adjust your grind to taste (too weak and you’re too coarse, too bitter and you’re too fine) and you’ll be getting the best that your home coffee brewer has to offer. The problem is that home brewers will heat and deliver the water that’s provided, whether that’s one second or 10 minutes. About 3.5 minutes is generally a good target brew time, so the only easy way to control that is to control the amount of water (and the temperature of the water going in, but that’s a bit beyond ‘beginners’). If even then your coffee tastes shitty, you’re gonna have to look at something more advanced, or get a less shitty coffeemaker.
I’m sharing this with you because if your budget only allows $100 for new coffee equipment, you should spend it all on a new grinder, which will have the most dramatic effect on your home coffee.
If you want to make the best coffee with the smallest learning curve and lowest cost, my pick is the Clever Coffee brewer. It runs around $18, and I like it for beginners because it’s cheap and it’s harder to screw up in comparison to other manual methods — or to put it another way, it’s “more forgiving” as Batdorf & Bronson‘s Jason Dominy remarked to me at the opening event for the latest Dancing Goats cafe.
The Clever Coffee brewer is an immersion method, meaning you’re letting ground coffee sit in water for a few minutes while it extracts. You don’t have to master a pouring technique; you don’t really have to stand over it while it brews. You simply grind coffee, toss it in with hot water, wait, and then it pours out of the valve built into the bottom of the brewer. Unlike a press pot, it uses a paper filter, so you get more flavor clarity (at the expense of less body, admittedly, but flavor clarity is probably what you want if you’re spending good money on good beans). I would follow one of the methods listed here. It’s so easy I’ve converted tech analyst Michael Gartenberg over from his Nespresso pods, at least part time.
At the more advanced end of the spectrum — in other words, you’ll need to practice and learn — most pros recommend a pourover method, in particular the Hario V60, which you can see in speciality coffee shops all around the world. Cho recommends the Kalita Wave — which he sells — because it uses a flat-bottom coffee bed geometry, wave-shaped filter and three-hole design. In theory it promotes a more even extraction than the standard Hario V60, which Cho says “sets you up for the best potential success. If the coffee still tastes shitty, then you’re the shitty one.”
Another point in favor of the V60: It’s going to be much easier finding white filters for the V60 than the Wave, since it’s a far more established product. And you’re going to want to stick to white filters. No matter how much you rinse a brown filter, the paper taste doesn’t go away.
(Undoubtedly, someone will ask why I am not recommending an Aeropress — it only makes tiny amounts of coffee at a time — or a Chemex — the paper filters can be too thick — or some other method they prefer. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and taste is ultimately subjective. I’m no big fan of press pots, for instance.)
Lastly, if you don’t have an accurate scale, I would invest in one. Specifically, American Weigh’s 2KG pocket scale. It holds up to 2 kilograms — enough for even a giant Chemex — and measures down to a tenth of a gram. At $19, it’s cheap relative to other kitchen scales, and it has a small footprint. I love this scale. Why the scale? Coffee recipes are about coffee-to-water ratios and most of the best ones use mass as their measure of choice, not volume. (One oft-used standard is 60 grams of coffee per 1 liter of water. Adjust accordingly.) Mass is simply more accurate for measuring both coffee and water. Also, it’s easier.
Again, the cheapest coffee gear setup I’d recommend — and what I’d pitch to beginners — is a $100 refurbished Encore and an $18 Clever coffee dripper. It’s also the easiest of the bunch to nail right out the gate; you’re basically producing decent coffee every time from the first time you use it, as long as your beans are good. It doesn’t always produce the most nuanced cup of coffee relative to pourover, but it’s good, and a definite step up from your home machine.
For the best overall quality, my pick is a Baratza Virtuoso ($250) and a pourover method ($10-$35 for the dripper; $50 for the kettle), for a total of $310. It’s just a question of commitment: You will have to learn and practice your pourover technique. You will probably screw it up in the beginning, and maybe even after you know what you’re doing. But it offers the possibility of making the best cup of coffee you’ve ever made, something you’ve never tasted before, with unreal clarity and complexity. Plus, a lot of the knowledge you’ll pick up from learning pourover — about extraction, etc. — will carry over into any other method of coffee you want to pick up, from Aeropress to Chemex.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Again, an automatic machine won’t make anything nearly as good as a cup brewed by hand. The gulf between what your Mr. Coffee was making and a properly made cup using a Clever with an Encore grinder is enormous.
But once you’ve spent the money upgrading your coffee beans, your grinder and your brewing method by using the cheapest possible option, you quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. The extra $200 to move to a Virtuoso and a Kalita Wave or V60 does not produce a difference even one quarter as stark as the difference between a bad automatic machine and a hand brewed cup.
If anything, you’re talking about preferences. Yes, the grind the Virtuoso offers is going to be more consistent and give you a better shot at producing an evenly extracted cup of coffee than the Encore, but the difference between what a Clever produces and what comes out of a V60 can simply come down to a matter of taste. I usually (but not always) prefer pourover to any other manual method because of the clarity it offers. And since you can use an Encore with any coffee method you like, you can pick it up and brew with a V60, or whatever.
Obviously, this is all useless if you don’t have good coffee. It’s possibly difficult to come by where you live. So I’d recommend buying coffee online from any of these guys (a by-no-means exhaustive list):