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Posted by Philip Schmidt | G+ | Sep 13, 2011

Happily caffeinated, at home

A coffee enthusiast and seasoned DIY writer compares and contrasts home coffee-brewing methods.

Dharion/FlickrCoffee is a fact of life for most adults. Fortunately, it's a good fact of life, unlike aging and tiredness, which happen to be two things that coffee helps you forget about for awhile. And despite the ubiquity of Starbucks and other caffeinated convenience stores, many of us prefer to have our morning fix at home. Yet, no matter how committed we are to our coffee routines, there's part of us that will always wonder if there's a better way to make coffee. In light of this eternal search, here's my lovingly researched personal review of the most popular methods for making coffee at home

Automatic Drip

Pros: Convenient; makes a lot of coffee at once and keeps it hot.

Cons: Not practical for one-cup brewing; taste quality steadily degrades as pot continues to heat.

No explanation needed here. Automatic drip coffee makers are consistent and reliable, and their familiar sound is a soothing balm for the alarm-clock-bruised mind. The quality of the coffee depends on two things: water temperature and coffee grounds. Makers that don't heat the water enough will always make weak coffee. Generally, the better the grounds, the better the coffee. 

One-cup Drip Filter

Pros: Perfect for one hot cup of joe, your way.

Cons: Not automatic; relatively time-consuming.

This is coffee made by pouring boiling water into a little plastic filter device that sits atop a coffee cup and uses a disposable cone-type paper filter. Recent testing confirms that this is still my favorite way to make one cup of regular coffee in my own kitchen. The paper filter ensures a grit-free brew, and the boiling-hot water pulls lots of flavor and strength out of the grounds, noticeably more than with an auto-drip maker. I also have a cup-shaped filter device with its own metal-mesh filter, but it's slow and doesn't concentrate the brew like the tapered cone device. Expert tip: Moisten the dry grounds in the filter with a few splashes of the hot water before filling up the filter with the remaining water. This helps to keep the water from rushing through the center of the grounds.

Coffee Pod

Pros: Super-convenient for one cup.

Cons: Expensive maker; expensive coffee; limited coffee options.

New owners of these trendy machines swear by them. I tested a Senseo model while staying with friends recently and found that it made a pretty darned good cup: hot, grit-free, and even with a little crema-like foam on top. It's really convenient for a quick cup anytime of day, but making coffee for a household makes you feel like the only barista who showed up for work that day. Also, since you have to buy your coffee in the proprietary filter packs, you're limited to the blends (and suppliers) offered by the company.

Stovetop Espresso Maker

Pros: Makes both coffee and espresso; can make a lot of espresso at once; inexpensive "old school" maker.

Cons: Somewhat inconvenient to clean; not true bar-style espresso.

I've been using a good old-fashioned, Italian-made, Bialetti stovetop coffee maker for years, and I still love it. These actually work like traditional percolators, but they don't recirculate the coffee while brewing. They make perfectly respectable espresso and, depending on the maker's capacity, you can brew enough for several servings in one go. You can also use them to make your own version of the thick, dark coffee served with breakfast at hotels and pensiones in Italy. But back to the espresso: If you use really good coffee (think illy rather than Lavazza), this maker can produce espresso that's better than most of what you can get outside of the old Italian coffee bars of New York or Boston (sorry Starbucks; your espresso lacks a little amore, in my opinion), but it's not quite the real thing, and it has no crema, the dreamy layer of froth on top of straight espresso.

Cowboy Coffee

Pros: Can be made in any type of pan, pot or metal can.

Cons: Like a sharp spur to the taste buds; very grainy.

Just like Cookie made it on the campfire: Boil a pan of water, sprinkle in some regular ground coffee and let it simmer for a few minutes. Then turn off the heat and let the grounds settle to the bottom before serving (Cookie likes to toss in some eggshells to help sink the grounds, but you don't have to). Cowboy coffee sure tastes good when you're camping, when all meal prep is so laborious that you're ready to eat a stick by the time soup's on. At home, cowboy coffee is a good option only when you have no other way to make coffee, such as when you're staying with a freak who prefers tea or ginseng smoothies to real caffeination. It's extremely muddy and gritty, but it does pack a whollup, both in questionable flavor and undeniable strength.

French Press

Pros: Convenient one-cup option; good for those who like a robust cup; no paper filter required; easy to clean.

Cons: Coffee is somewhat muddy.

A French press brew is a cross between cowboy and auto-drip coffee; because the grounds steep in boiled water, the coffee is strong and flavorful and has more depth than with either drip styles, but it's also a little bit muddy and leaves a layer of silt at the bottom of your cup. The mechanics of a French press are simple, and there's no need to get anything fancy. I have a travel version that's basically a large plastic travel mug with the plunger built into the lid. You can fill it up with water, hop in your car, and let the coffee steep while you wait in traffic.

Cold Brewed Iced Coffee

Pros: Makes good, strong iced coffee that keeps for a long time in the fridge.

Cons: Uses lots of grounds for relatively little concentrate.

Properly made iced coffee starts as a cold-brew concentrate and is poured over lots of ice, with or without being diluted with cold water. You could buy an ice coffee maker, or you could cold brew in a French Press and then filter out the coffee grounds. The thick concentrate doesn't taste watered down like regular coffee that's allowed to cool before going on ice. However, the flavor of cold-brewed iced coffee is curiously nutty, and the texture is a bit heavy and silky (but not cloying). It's not a bad flavor; just different from regular brewed coffee. You can also add hot water to the concentrate for hot coffee, but the unusual flavor is highlighted this way. 

Philip Schmidt is a Hometalk - http://www.hometalk.com - writer. Read more articles like this one - http://www.networx.com/article/happily-caffeinated-at-home - or get help with your home projects on Hometalk.com.

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