A quick Google search of “coffee makers” could leave you comparing a $40 drip coffee brewer to an $800 espresso machine, all the while wondering, “Will either one even satisfy my coffee needs?” Maybe you’re a person who needs your coffee ready quickly so you can run out the door, or maybe you’re a budding barista with a minimal amount of counter space. Rather than spend money on machines you’ll end up returning, take some time to identify what you need in a coffee brewer.
I’ve made my own mistakes when it comes to selecting the right coffee maker. I love a hot cup of coffee in the morning, but I live with someone who enjoys their morning cup iced, even when it’s snowing out. For that reason, I bought a coffee maker that came with a little button that says “iced.” Problem solved, right? Not exactly. It turns out there’s more to consider when buying the right coffee maker than meets the eye. For example: the guilt I felt while attempting to wash out and recycle hundreds of little plastic K-cups filled with spent coffee grounds.
Thanks to insight from Dathan Denton, a lab technician for specialty coffee brand Red Fox Coffee Merchants and a former barista, I can promise you there is a coffee maker out there for you.
“There are so many romantic parts to coffee that keep me coming back, but there’s also a lot of science and knowledge to be had,” Denton says.
Here are some basics to help narrow down your search and hopefully lead you to the machine that’s right.
A drip coffee maker is sort of like the McDonald’s of coffee machines: You can find it everywhere and lots of people recognize it. Denton says for most at-home consumers of coffee, when they think “drip” coffee, they’re thinking of an automated system like a Mr. Coffee brewer.
This type of brewer is best suited for someone who is routine oriented. If you’re the type of person who wants to be able to dump some coffee grounds in the machine, pour in some water, push a button, and walk away while you do other things, then this is the right type of machine for you. This is also the type of brewer that requires the least amount of effort.
One thing to look for in a drip coffee maker is whether or not it has a boiler. Denton explains that many automatic systems will percolate hot water but never actually get it to the proper temperature for brewing coffee, which he deems “wasted potential.”
Another detail to look at in a drip system is the stream, the part that releases hot water into the coffee grounds. If the stream is just a pinhole, not enough of the hot water is coming in contact with the grounds to make for a solid cup of coffee.
“I would make sure it has a sprayer head so that water is distributed over the whole coffee bed,” says Denton.
If you’re considering a pour-over system, it’s important to know what exactly you mean by “pour-over.” The definition of a pour-over is very broad. Perfect Daily Grind defines it as a system in which you pour hot water over a bed of coffee grounds in a filter. The water drains through the grounds into a carafe or mug, and there’s your coffee. Denton points out that “pour-over” is a bit of a misnomer, but in general, when people refer to it they mean that they want a single cup of manually brewed coffee.
This coffee system has a much steeper learning curve and requires more effort than the set-it-and-forget-it drip system. If you’re a coffee drinker who wants to learn more about coffee and you have ample time to perfect your brewing technique then this could be the coffee maker for you.
Do keep in mind that because this system requires some learning, there will be more trial and error, which means you may end up paying more money upfront until you achieve the perfect cup. To get the most bang for your buck with this system you’ll need an array of pieces that will take up some space in your kitchen; this includes a kettle, possibly a grinder, filters, and the carafe or mug.
Denton notes that both the advantage and disadvantage to this type of system is the level of control you have over every step of the process. He says manual brewing is ideal for people who work from home or are otherwise flexible on time because making a cup this way takes at least 15 minutes.
Technically a French press could also be categorized as a pour-over system because you do pour hot water over coffee grounds and then filter it through. However, the main difference between the two is that with a French press you allow the grounds to steep in the hot water for a few minutes before passing the water through the built-in filter and extracting the coffee.
A French press is “incredible,” says Denton, partially because it’s the most cost effective. No need to buy a kettle, a grinder, or filters. Denton recommends steering away from very finely ground coffee beans when using a French press because the metal filter will end up creating a sort of sludge when you press down. Instead, opt for a more coarse grind when using a French press.
This system is a happy medium between the automatic drip coffee machine and the more involved pour-over system. With a brewing time of around 5-10 minutes, and very little counter space needed, a French press is ideal for someone who wants to have some control but values ease of use.
Probably one of the most easily recognizable systems next to the drip machine is the single-serve capsule system. Yes, this is where Keurig gets its moment. The way these systems work is pretty straightforward. You’re meant to buy little plastic cartridges of pre-measured coffee grounds (or other fancy coffee-related drinks), load a cartridge into the machine, push a button, and be done.
This system is the quickest way to get your caffeine intake. There are pod systems meant for one person and there are larger options with more features and more cup sizes, so finding one that fits your available counter space won’t be difficult.
The downside to these systems is how disposable they are, says Denton. In addition to the pods themselves, which you have to rinse out before they can be recycled, the system cannot be taken apart to clean. This means that after a while, unless you’re very good about running a descaling process regularly, you’ll have buildup inside the machine that will cause it to stop working. Once this happens, your only option is to get rid of it and buy a new one.
Stovetop coffee makers, also known as moka pots, are one of the oldest methods for making coffee. You pack finely ground coffee into a chamber at the base of the pot and fill the bottom with water. Then, put the pot over a stove burner and wait for it to build pressure and steam. Once the water is boiled away, this leaves you with coffee.
This process creates such concentrated coffee that Denton says you could consider it espresso. He adds that this coffee maker is for the bakers out there who love to pair intense coffee with a baked good or add it to a recipe.
The moka pot suits the coffee drinker who is accustomed to something not so sweet and is okay with a small yield. Unless you fit that description, though, this type of coffee maker is not recommended.
No matter the coffee maker system you choose, here’s one final pro tip from Denton: If there is a type of coffee you enjoy that is only sold as whole beans, or if you just don’t have a grinder and want perfect grounds, go to your local coffee shop. Denton says most local coffee shops, if you buy the beans in store, will grind it for you if you ask. Now go get caffeinated!