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Coffee shops across the country are invariably closed or limiting their offerings and hours, given the growing national response to the coronavirus illness COVID-19. While your access to your favorite coffee might have diminished in scope, you've got many options at your fingertips to create a high quality — and delicious — cup of coffee at home. It may be the right time to set up a proper coffee brewing situation in your space. It's certainly possible to brew an excellent cup of coffee from home (not that you really have a choice) and you might find that you'll save money in contrast to buying coffee at coffee shops. But what kind of coffee maker should you get and what are the best coffee makers out there? To help you get started finding the best coffee maker for your taste and preferences and to help guide you on how to make coffee with a coffee maker, we consulted coffee experts for tips and recommendations.
In this article
- Coffee maker basics
- Coffee bean basics
- Why a coffee grinder is so important
- Best coffee grinders
- Coffee maker types
- How to shop for the best coffee maker
- Best coffee makers
Coffee makers starter guide: coffee maker basics
To start making coffee at home, you most likely want to get yourself a coffee maker or brewer of some sort — those come in many shapes and sizes:
- Drip coffee makers heat water and disperse it evenly across a basket of coffee grounds
- Single-cup coffee makers brew one cup of coffee using a pod of coffee grounds (reusable or otherwise)
- Programmable coffee makers are typically drip-makers that allow you to schedule your brew and for increasingly smarter options.
- And manual coffee makers, the widest-ranging of the group, include several types: Some manual coffee makers require you to steep and then strain your coffee grounds, like the French press. Others rely on a vertical system that mimics a drip coffee maker — but you have to pour the hot water over the coffee grounds yourself.
A great brewer can’t fix a bad quality grind.
Scott Rao, Coffee Consultant and Author
So which coffee maker is right for you? And how should you even get started shopping for a coffee maker? According to coffee experts we consulted, the answer lies several steps ahead of brewing the coffee itself. A “good cup of coffee” from a home coffee brewer should be “flavorful, of the proper strength and non-astringent, or dry on the tongue,” says Scott Rao, a coffee consult and author of “The Coffee Roasters Companion,” as well as other books on coffee.
“You may be surprised, but I would recommend investing more in a quality grinder than a brewer,” he told NBC News. “A great brewer can’t fix a bad quality grind.” Rao argues there are four descending qualities that “impact the quality of the final cup."
- The quality of the raw coffee beans
- Their roast quality
- The coffee beans' grind quality
- And, finally, the coffee maker's brew quality
Coffee makers and coffee beans
“As for coffee beans, like any food product, there is a range of quality out there,” says Jessica Easto, author of “Craft Coffee: A Manual,” adding that they directly impact your coffee, even from the best coffee maker. “Since coffee is only made of two ingredients (coffee and water), the ‘quality in’ is directly related to the ‘quality out.’” Even a skilled brewer can’t fix bad beans. Coffee is graded on a scale of 100. Specialty coffee beans, which she suggests you buy, must score an 80 or above on a quality scale set forth by the nonprofit Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCA).
Roasting is a complicated process but shopping for the best roast for you is not. Easto said that “the best roasters spend years perfecting their craft to learn how to evenly roast beans and unlock the flavors they want to unlock.” The level of roast comes down to personal preference. “With darker roasts, you are tasting more of the process of roasting coffee — those dark, smoky flavors associated with cooking,” she explains. But you may be trading strength of flavor for complexity.
Easto says that “lighter” roast profiles actually “allow the unique flavors of the bean itself to shine.” So choosing a lighter roast could open up your cup with a larger variety of flavors, which can range from “fruit flavors to nutty flavors to chocolate flavors, commonly served at craft coffee shops. “Don’t pigeonhole yourself,” Easto suggests, recommending you try new roasts and flavors. “After a while, you’ll get to know what you like.”
A coffee grinder might be just as important as your coffee maker
Rao considers the actual brewer, or coffee maker, last in his list of priorities when it comes to making the best coffee at home. The kind of grinder you opt for mostly depends on your price point and how much of the grinding work you want it to do for you. A burr grinder, for example, grinds a few beans at a time between two revolving abrasive surfaces and allows you to adjust your grind size. “I recommend a very coarse grind for French press, while a drip maker likely does better with a medium to medium-fine grind size,” says Easto.
Do whole coffee beans go bad? Yes, Easto says, but average coffee drinkers may not notice. “If you're drinking a cup or two a day, you'll go through the bag in a week,” she explains, “which isn't long enough for an average palate to notice a big difference in quality.”
Rao and Easto both highly recommend investing in a coffee grinder. But if that’s out of your at-home coffee brewing budget, they argue store-ground coffee is typically better from local roasters, whom you can ask to grind the coffee for you.
Best coffee grinders to shop
Coffee grinders at a wide range of price points. More affordable options tend to ask more of you in terms of doing the job of grinding.
“It is a pricey purchase, but Baratza makes high-quality machines that last a long time,” Easto says of the brand that makes her favorite electric burr grinder. While it’s an entry level coffee grinder in the brand’s inventory, she says it’s still an excellent choice to level up your home coffee brewing.
Easto is also a fan of manual versions of burr grinders. “Yes, it takes some elbow grease but they are much cheaper and great for traveling,” she said. This mini will set you back less than $100, though it isn’t great for preparing large pots of coffee — unless you’re also looking for a workout.
If you’re looking for the best affordable buy for a grinder, it has to be something from the Hario line, Easto argues. These grinders are manual, like the one from Porlex, but are more affordable. It’s still not ideal for large batches of coffee but might very well suit a solo Saturday morning cup.
Yummy flavor compounds are quickly destroyed over a hot plate. To retain the taste of larger batches of coffee, it's better to never let the coffee cool in the first place.
Jessica Easto, Author of “Craft Coffee: A Manual"
Coffee maker types: automatic, manual, pour-over and immersion
You’ve likely seen coffee makers at coffee shops and offices, and might have one at home. Most coffee makers fall into one of a handful of categories: manual brewers, drip brewers, and single-cup brewers. Whether you go manual or choose an automatic drip machine is up to you.
When it comes to manual brewing, Easto notes that pour-over devices “require a bit more technique and some work best with special kettles, but there are tons to choose from at a bunch of different price points.” If you enjoy the ceremony and ritual of making coffee, a pour-over brewer might be your best choice. “Most pour-over devices are shaped like cones, which are set over a cup or carafe,” Easto explains. “You add a filter and the coffee, and then pour water over it — hence the name.”
People who drink both coffee and tea will be more familiar with the full immersion style. “Full immersion divisions let the coffee steep in the water for the whole brew cycle, like tea,” she explains, adding that the most popular example is the French press. “It's super easy and you don't really need special equipment to use it, so I always recommend it to people trying to dip their toe into manual coffee,” she says.
How to shop for the best coffee maker
Easto prioritizes three qualities to look for when shopping for coffee makers:
- It’s able to reach “proper brew temperature,” generally between 195 degrees and 205 degrees.
- It “sustains the brew temperature for the length of the brew cycle.”
- And it “ensures the water is in contact with the coffee for the right amount of time.”
“Generally speaking, a typical coffee maker brews too cool or hot, has wild temperature fluctuations throughout the brew cycle and doesn't have a long enough brew cycle,” she argues, noting most coffee makers fail to meet her qualifications. But that’s also a lot to look for, she admits, and potentially a heavy load of research on the shopper. If you’re planning to shop for an automatic coffee maker, Easto suggests consulting those certified by the SCA, which tests a range of automatic home brewers. “Look for a machine that brews into an insulated carafe, as opposed to brewing into a carafe that is kept warm on a hot plate,” she advises, especially if you plan to brew large batches.
“Yummy flavor compounds are quickly destroyed over a hot plate,” Easto said. “To retain the taste of larger batches of coffee, it's better to never let the coffee cool in the first place.”
Best coffee makers
Here are Easto’s top picks for best coffee makers, as well as options for those who prefer manual or automatic brewing. They fall into a wide range of prices, though both experts agree the grinder is where you should invest more of your cash. And, of course, the best coffee maker for you depends on how you plan to use — and how often, given the investment.
Best manual coffee makers and brewers
Here is a simple set for those who are ready to try pour-over brewing at home. It comes with a 6-cup carafe, a pour-over cylinder, a coffee scoop and five coffee filters. Although you may need to invest in a special kettle to regulate your water temperature, this is one of the most affordable options for the serious coffee home brewer. The brand makes another set with a thermal carafe to keep coffee warm.
The Chemex has always been a solid choice for crafting pour-over coffee. There is a special art to wetting the filter — if you want to get really fancy — and the brand suggests buying their filters, which they claim are 20-30 percent thicker than the standard kind.
Easto counts the Hario V60 among her favorite pour-over coffee brewers for consistent results at an entry point price.
Best automatic coffee makers and brewers
This automatic drip coffee maker is on the pricey side, but it hits all the key points like proper brew temperature, sustained brewing temperature and thermal carafe. Easto uses one of these brewers in her own home and approves of anything from the Moccamaster line.
Bonavita’s automatic coffee maker brews eight cups at a time and uses a thermal carafe, as well.
You can get this brewer from Breville with a glass carafe (the BDC400 model) or a stainless steel thermal carafe (the BDC450 model) — which is the one you want. It also automatically adjusts the water temperature and brew times to meet the standards set by the SCA.
With a 4.5-star average rating from reviewers, an insulated carafe to keep your coffee warm and an operation that ensures the water is in contact with the grounds for enough time for the flavor to “bloom,” this Cuisinart model hits all the right notes.
This automatic drip-brewer from kitchen-favorite brand OXO gets SCA’s stamp of approval. Thanks to the double-wall carafe, you can take your pot to the breakfast table to ensure your coffee stays hot for longer so that, as Easto explained, the compounds that give your coffee the flavor you love don’t get destroyed on the hot plate.
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