I met Rachel from Bucklepodz recently at one of my small business web 2.0 workshops and she has fired an interesting question at me from the point-of-view of parents of babies and toddlers regarding the easiest and most inexpensive way to make good coffee at home.
I started answering her question on the Baristador Facebook Page but decided it demanded a longer answer for future reference, so here goes.
Firstly, we need to define “good coffee”. I will always argue that good coffee starts with fresh, quality beans, professionally roasted and then made using a device that is efficient in extracting the coffee oils and flavour from the beans in a pleasing way. For me, it is my very simple, home espresso machine which espresses the coffee beautifully in a fully manual operation, allowing me to adjust my technique when the grind is different or I am using one of my many different blends.
However, in all honesty, I am not sure that I would be persevering with this method if I had sole responsibility for a clingy baby or demanding toddler, or both, at once! So this means we look back down the scale from perfect espresso to next best method, and so on.
Working our way back, the next stop would be a fully automatic espresso machine. This wins points on no mess (well, not for every coffee but definitely chores involved to keep it clean and descaled) but loses points on coffee body and crema (no matter what the salespeople tell you) and cost (these don’t really come in much under $600 and the better ones hover between $1,000 and $2,000. A far cry from the $150 my Sunbeam espresso maker cost, albeit without all the automatic gadgetry. If budget is not an issue, and especially if you like milky coffee drinks, fully automatic machines can be perfect for you. TIP: If you use fresh, quality beans, be sure to only tip in enough at the beginning of each day for that day’s coffees, especially during summer. This protects the beans from sweating and staling in the heat and humidity of the bean hopper which is exposed to heat during operation and sometimes during idle periods. An alternative way to use automatic machines and still achieve nice quality is to spoon in your well grounded coffee directly into the machine, cup by cup. My wife did this during her first period of maternity leave when we had an automatic machine and found it quite simple.(In case you are worried about a nursing mum drinking coffee, she was drinking the Baristador Coffee Benchmark Blend B01 which has a mere trace of caffeine thanks to the safe, Swiss Water Method of removing caffeine from our organic beans – unlike those typical decafs which use hideous chemicals similar to those used in dry cleaning to expunge caffeine,; no wonder they can taste vile!).
The next stop would be the stovetop espresso maker. In fact, this is what led Rachel’s question. I do love my trusty stovetop and recommend buying a stainless steel one rather than aluminium because aluminium ones flower and bubble up inside, requiring rigorous cleaning. The idea of these devices is that water is boiled in a reservoir and as it expands with heat, it is forced up through the centre of the device, through coffee trapped in a pod, up into the pot top. Crema very rarely survives using this method but you can achieve great body and flavour. So this loses on extreme espresso perfection but wins on cost (aluminium ones can cost around $30 and stainless steel ones around $100) and general flavour. Depending on what cup size you buy (anything from single cup to 12 or 20 cups devices can be found) these can make it easy if you are entertaining visitors and want one brew to deal with all coffee orders. Do note that the cup rating does not equal full cups but rather shots of coffee. So divide out a shot for each visitor and top cups with water for long blacks or warm milk for milk drinks. The key downside to consider, however, is that if you have weak wrists or fingers OR are often laden with child or children, you will find the unscrewing of the stovetop can be quite a trial and is too much of a nuisance to persevere with.
Next in our list is the plunger. This is probably the most inexpensive and simplest of devices to help you make coffee at home. You throw in a spoon of coffee grounds for each cup (and one for the pot), cover with near boiling water for a minute or so while a paste develops, then fill to the desired height, cover with the plunger device, wait four minutes and then gently plunge. Easy. There are a couple of traps her. Firstly, really cheap plungers have pour mechanisms which can fail to plunge through the coffee and end up forming air traps. You push harder to break through and next thing you know you have either coffee shooting up out of the plunger all over your clothes, bench and baby, or the glass canister breaks, spilling hot coffee across benches and floors. So keep children away when you plunge. The other danger is that you can be tempted to leave the coffee longer than you should. This can allow the coffee to sit on the grounds and gradually become quite bitter as the spent husks contain tannins and other unwanted characteristics we usually avoid in the better coffee making methods where water moves through the coffee quite expeditiously.
Probably the last main stop along our pathway is a dripolator. These drip hot water through coffee sitting in a pod or paper filter, into a pot sitting on a warming tray. You see these at conferences and in Hollywood roadhouse cafes. This is quite an easy way to make coffee for a moderate price but the real cost is the lack of flavour and body. NOTE: As of October 10, 2010, sales of Baristador Coffee to people using dripolators have been banned.
So, in the end, I guess it will depend on your own needs and demands around coffee.
If it is simply price, then plungers have the upper hand. If it is just ease of use, automatic machines win. If it is pure coffee quality, my opinion is that manual espresso machines win but they do demand energy and passion to make each coffee. If you have strong hands, then a stovetop is a great balance of coffee quality and affordability.
Feel free to ask questions – I am here to help. And I would love to know what you decided, and why.
Thank you Rachel, for a great question.
Yours in the spirit of espresso
Founder / Espresso Evangelist
I just wanted to add a little to the discussion:
(a) plungers – I have owned a few, and while the beautiful glass plungers look great, I now have stainless steel ones. A big single wall one and a little double walled one. Too many times I have tapped the glass on a tap and smashed it. Now I can happily drop the steel plungers – much better. They are easy to put through the dishwasher with no nooks and crannies although I normally just rinse them.
(b)stovetop machines – It can be hard to make anything other than a full pot. If you only need half a pot (whatever size your machine is), it can be difficult to pack a half load of grinds in properly, so the coffee tastes bodgy. If I put a full load of grinds in, it packs nicely and tastes better – but I end up with two cups worth. So … it can be a good idea to make sure that your selected stovetop machine fits your needs ie a bigger one is not necessarily better.
Ant, what a great find! Stainless Steel plungers. I am sure they have been around a while, I just haven’t been looking for them.
And, yes, you need your stovetop to match your drinking capacity. It is crucial to always fill the coffee basket completely, even if you put less water in than usual.