If you fancy yourself a coffee geek, there are plenty of new coffee technologies to spend your money on. From portable brewers to smart scales that rate your pour, you may be wondering if these features are worth it and where your money is best spent.
Smart Coffee Tech is everywhere
You can prefix almost any gadget with the word “smart” these days, and someone has probably already done it. From smart fridges to smart doorbells, the idea that connectivity makes everything better is ubiquitous (and seemingly profitable). Of course, the same goes for coffee.
Some of the biggest advances in coffee have been made thanks to these next-generation devices, like the Decent DE1 and successors like the DE1PRO. These multi-thousand dollar machines allow the operator to define the pressure, temperature and flow rate as he pulls the bullet.
This is the definition of “smart” espresso, providing precise control and real-time data on every cup that is poured. The machine has a built-in tablet computer that controls almost every function. You can even update the firmware, pair it with your smartphone and connect the smart scales via Bluetooth.
Portable espresso is another area that seems to have taken off in the last decade or so. Although machines like WACACO Picopresso and Uniterra Nomad are completely manual (non-electric) devices that explore the new idea that espresso can be made anywhere.
Smart scales such as the entry-level Brewista Smart Scale II and the more expensive Acaia Pearl Model S have also grown in popularity. They connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and provide real-time feedback on pour and brew times. They work on the basis that an even pour is most desirable when brewing pour-over coffee using a brewer to improve your technique.
You can use this data to make changes like a coarser grind for a shorter brew time or a slower pour for a more even extraction. Ultimately, the taste of the coffee (and how you like it) should influence the changes you make.
If you’re on a bigger budget, coffee robots or automatic brewers take the guesswork out of preparing your daily cup. Brewers like Breville Precision give you precise control over the many variables that affect the outcome of filter coffee such as bloom time, brew temperature and flow rate. You can program it to make coffee in the morning, but you’ll need to grind the night before and leave the grounds in the coffee maker.
These machines are great for getting identical results every time, provided you use the same dosage, beans, grinds and water.
Standard cooking methods give excellent results
While smart scales and automatic brewers can help you get more consistent pour-overs, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get good cone and filter coffee. Pourover brewers are ideal for anyone who wants more control over their coffee, offering an easy way to change variables like grind size and dosage to influence the outcome.
You can start with a small plastic Hario V60, a regular kettle and cheap digital kitchen scales. For better results, you can upgrade to a drip coffee maker like the Hario Buono to regulate the flow rate and dedicated coffee scales for better accuracy. Finally, the plastic V60 is one of the best brewers of its kind (and retains heat better than more expensive glass, metal, and ceramic models).
For an easier cooking method, try a French press. There’s a good chance you already have one in your closet, and you can find it for sale everywhere (even used in thrift stores). Nothing could be as simple as throwing coffee grounds into a pot, pouring hot water over it, and pressing the plunger a few minutes later.
Many of these breweries and techniques have seen a surge in popularity over the past few decades, but some have been around for generations. One of the latest success stories is AeroPress, an immersion brewer that even has its own world championship. It is portable, durable, flexible and very cheap.
Everyone has their favorite way to make AeroPress coffee, with countless recipes available online. You can replace the paper filters with metal or cloth to get different results and add accessories like the Fellow Prismo for something meant to better mimic espresso. There are even accessories like the Puck Puck, a cold brew accessory for slow brewing coffee.
Even a good espresso can be more affordable with the right approach. Lever espresso machines like the Flare NEO take the hard work of building pressure off of you, while still delivering better results than comparable or inexpensive espresso machines with real technique. They also take up much less space in your kitchen or office.
Spend your money on a good grinder
The grinder you choose will certainly make the biggest difference to the coffee you drink (although you’ll naturally want to use good, fresh coffee as well.) This is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck in terms of return on investment, especially if you’re using a manual pour-over brewer or immersion, something basic like a Hario V60, an AeroPress or a French press.
If you don’t already grind your coffee fresh, you’ll notice a huge difference once you start. Coffee oxidizes when exposed to air. The more surface area the coffee has, the faster it will break down. By pre-grinding, you speed up the process that makes your coffee go stale. A fresh grind means better coffee and gives you control over grind size for better brewing.
A “good” grinder will grind the coffee more evenly. Uneven grinding can produce a lot of fine particles, and these fine grinds are extracted much faster than coarser ones. Fewer fines mean you’re less likely to brew over-extracted coffee. When people say coffee is too bitter or “burnt,” they mean coffee that’s been over-extracted.
If you prefer dip and pour techniques like the Aeropress and Hario V60, there’s a world of cheaper mills at your disposal. Manual grinders are cheaper than electric ones because they don’t have a motor, but they grind more slowly and require effort. Something like the Porlex Mini or Timemore Chestnut C2 will do the trick for about a third of the price of a good entry-level electric grinder.
Electric grinders are faster, louder, and only require you to push a button (they also have to stay on). We love the Baratza Encore, often cited as one of the best entry-level coffee grinders in the world. You can even upgrade the built-in clipper kit for even better results later.
For a good electric espresso grinder, you will have to spend a lot more because fine and even grinding is a more difficult endeavor. You might be better off looking for used gear if you’re on a tight budget, rather than looking for a brand new Fellow Ode or Niche Zero.
Raise your daily glass
Let’s say you have a good cheap setup and you’re grinding fresh, but you’re not happy with the coffee you’re drinking. If you want to be a coffee geek, buying accessories isn’t necessarily the way to go.
The first thing to do is get quality (ideally specialty) coffee that has been roasted within the last 4 to 6 weeks. You probably want to use a low to medium roast if you’re making drinks for pouring or dipping. Stay away from strong espresso unless you’re craving dark coffee.
Understanding which variables to change when brewing and how they affect the coffee can help you get a cup that’s more to your taste. The finer you grind, the more extraction takes place. If you find your cups too bitter for your taste, grind coarser. If you find that your coffee has a spicy taste or is too acidic, grind finer. Remember that a change in coffee may require a change in technique.
Higher temperatures will also extract more coffee, but unless you have a kettle that allows you to adjust the temperature, you probably shouldn’t worry about it. It’s much easier to just change the grind and add boiling water each time.
If you’re stuck, there are dozens of great recipes available for your brewer of choice. Check out the recipes of the AeroPress Cup winners. For the Hario V60, there are three popular methods that stand out: James Hoffman’s Ultimate Recipe, Tetsu Kasuya’s 4-6 Method, and Scott Rao’s “Rao Spin”. Mix them up, change the grinding method and come up with your own.
There is no such thing as a perfect glass
For many, coffee should be fast and made by someone else. For others, it’s something to geek out over. Wherever you stand, don’t fall into the trap of paying more for coffee machines that will necessarily give you great coffee right away.
Be aware of gear acquisition syndrome if you fall down the rabbit hole. Coffee gear is like camera gear where, as soon as you get into the hobby, you’ll accumulate things you don’t necessarily need but desperately want. There’s nothing wrong with playing around with expensive coffee machines, as long as you know where to spend your money to get the best results.