People drink a lot of coffee. Especially people in Finland. And yet for all the coffee that everyone pours down their gullet every morning (rookie mistake), how many people actually take the time to prepare great coffee for themselves? Time for an analogy. Pretend you want a burger. Obviously you want Kobe Beef for your burger because, if you’ve ever had Kobe beef, you don’t need an explanation. But Kobe is expensive, and you can save a buck and eat a great burger by learning how to actually prepare that gooey tube of 92/8 Ground Beef at Wal-Mart into a good meal. This should surprise no one. It’s what makes us usually describe cooks as “good cooks.” So why don’t we pay much attention to what’s in our cup?
If you said you don’t have time or money for it, prepare to get educated. For less than $100 you can set yourself up with a coffee making setup that will brew a better cup of joe than Starbucks.
The Coffee Maker
Chances are that you are most familiar with the electric drip kettle. This is your parent’s Mr. Coffee that sits on the counter all year long and makes 12 cups of brew when the sun comes up. For decades this was the way to make coffee, and with good reason. It offers affordability, ease of use, and practicality all in one package. It keeps your coffee warm, takes away most of the user input where things can go wrong, and it makes a ton to drink. Good for convenience, but not great if you want an excellent cup of joe. Double that if you have a single cup system like a Keurig.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are pourover coffee makers. The famous Chemex system is a great example of this, although simple ceramic coffee cones are the easiest to understand. Basically, this works by sticking a unit on top of a collection agent (like your coffee cup or the bottom of the chemex). Filter goes in top, coffee goes in filter, and a steady flow of hand-poured water works in tandem with gravity to get fresh brewed coffee into your mouth. Pour-rate is a big concern around pourover afficianados, but a cheap gooseneck kettle is really all you need. If you go this route, try and grab a Chemex for their house brand filters, which are some of the best in the world.
Next up are the aeropress and vacuum system. These use the power of pressurized air and steam to create mad-scientist concoctions that are decidedly more Heisenberg than your standard fare. Opinions vary on whether all the work is worth it, but for hobbyists, the fun of using one of these tools is undeniable.
For my personal favorite and recommendation for the burgeoning home barista is the French Press. These contraptions include two pieces: the pot and the press. The pot works like most pots do, holding your coffee grounds and hot water while it lets the press do all the heavy lifting. Lazy pot. In lieu of paper coffee filters, a French Press uses a fine mesh filter attached to a plunger. After allowing the coffee to steep and stirring to ensure that grounds are evenly distributed, the plunger is pressed down with very little force (almost just resting your hand on the handle) and the coffee grounds are pressed ot the bottom of the pot, leaving smooth, fresh
The Coffee Grinder
Coffee experts agree that grinding coffee is of critical importance when making a great cup, which is why buying whole bean is the only way to go. There are two things to consider with grinding: time and coarseness. The first of these is answered simply: grind your beans as close to brewing time as possible. In fact, start heating your water before you grind, for best results.
Coarseness is a bit more complicated. The size of the grain dictates how much surface area is exposed to the water during brewing, and a finer grain is recommended for automatic drip coffee makers, where water is moving quickly through the coffee grounds. In contrast, French Press coffee makers call for a heavy grain as the water and grain steep together for several minutes and a finer cut would leave the beverage too bitter.
As for buying a grinder, you have two options. Blade grinders work with a spinning blade that typically gives you control by way of manual pulsing of the motor, like the pulse setting on a blender. This translates to a significant lack of fine control for the user, and blade grinders are really only worthwhile on a budget.
Burr grinders on the other hand, are the best option. They work by turning a spinning gear against an unmoving surface, like the cogs of every industrial building you’ve ever seen in a horror movie. The distance between the cog and the surface dictates the size of the grind and it creates a uniform and effortless product. More expensive versions are much quieter, and volume is really the only downside of a burr grinder.
You will need a kettle to heat water for the coffee and you can either use the old fashioned stovetop variety or an electric version.
If you’re willing to drop some serious dough, electric kettles are the obvious choice. Some even let you control the exact temperature that the water is heated to, which is a godsend for serious coffee brewers. But at a budget level, this is little more than a duplication of a service you already have: a heating component. They typically cook water to boiling temperature and you can kill the heat before it reaches that point, but you will need to store the bulky kettle and stand on the counter.
Opt instead for the gooseneck kettle we mentioned before. They are cheap, effective, and allow you to control the rate of pour. Also they just look cool. Again, temperature control is not an exact science with these kettles, but you can deal with this is two ways. First, you can accept that you are not such a coffee snob as to care if your water is five degrees hotter, because it’s still coffee at the end of the day. Second, you can buy a thermometer and check. Here’s a laser thermometer that will work double duty by making you feel a little more like Han Solo in the morning.
Oh yeah, this is pretty important. Make sure the coffee you buy is good stuff. Hipsters will tell you to buy from local brewers and to do some research about where it was sourced. I hate to agree with them, but they have a point. Starbucks famously over-roasts their beans because it allows you to buy large batches of low-quality coffee beans and blend them into a uniformly-flavored batch to go out to all facilities tasting exactly the same. The scale of Starbucks success makes it almost impossible for the brand to stay consistent across locations and still serve a high-quality product.
Enter: local roasters. That ma-and-pa owned coffee shop down the street where they buy their own beans and roast them in-house? It does more than justify a premium price and make the place smell good. Small batches come from the same farm, and it allows for lighter and more flavorful roasts. The mineral content of the soil where coffee is grown affects the flavor of the final drink, much like the effect of terroir on wine.
Find a shop nearby or online that sells whole beans (Not only does this minimize grind-to-brew time, but it also makes sure that you are only getting coffee in your coffee). If you can, talk to the roasters and get their opinions on each individual product. To get a good taste, you will of course need to sample and experiment, but the end result is a cup of coffee vastly better–and cheaper–than what you can buy at the store.
The Under $100 Setup
So how do you set it up? Here’s our suggestion to get yourself started in the world of coffee:
Total Cost: $83.87
Cheap enough that you can buy a mug and a nice plate to put it on so you can look all fancy. But keep in mind that what you want is what you want, and you should stick to that. We offered a lot of options here and by rejiggering the budget, you could build dozens of setups. But the key to finding out what you like is to begin exploring today.