Photos by Joe Lingeman.
It doesn’t take much digging through the vast array of coffee-making apparatuses, either at your local kitchen store or online, to get overwhelmed. There are drip machines, pod-machines, French presses — even this odd-looking contraption.
When selecting the best brewer for you, you’ll want to consider a variety of factors: How fast is it? How much cleanup is required? How much coffee does your household consume? And of course, there’s taste.
For Me, Great Coffee Tastes Like Italy
Since I started drinking coffee in college, I’ve cycled through practically every way there is to brew and enjoy the stuff. When convenience was a priority, I frequented vending machine dispensers and used K-cups. Eventually I got into higher-quality coffee, and wanted to make it at home. I bought a pourover (more on that, below) and started grinding my own beans.
I thought I knew everything. Then I went to Italy.
Italy changed my ideas about what good coffee was, and about what it was worth doing to get that good cup. Even the stuff you buy at rest-stop gas stations there tasted infinitely superior to anything I’d ever had stateside.
When I got back, I was motivated to improve my home-coffee game. So I consulted with a couple coffee-making experts, Dan Pabst at Melitta and Giorgio Milos, master barista for Illy, to see where I could improve my brew.
What Makes Great Coffee, According to Experts
Pabst and Milos broke it down to its simplest components for me. A brew’s flavor derives from two primary things: There’s where and how the beans are grown (the terroir, like wine) and how darkly or lightly it’s roasted.
When it comes to roasting, Milos takes the view that there is no right or wrong level, it comes down to personal taste. He compared the preference for lighter roasts versus darker ones to liking steak rare versus well-done.
But what about the brewing process itself? With so many methods, surely there were differences in the taste of the final cup that went beyond the bean. There, Pabst and Milos had opinions, but to really find out firsthand, I decided to stage a cage-match style cup-off. I chose five of the most popular home-brewing methods to compete against each other for my own personal single best cup of coffee. Best cup, in this case, being the one that tasted most like I had enjoyed in Italy.
Photo by Joe Lingeman
How I Tested Coffee Methods
There are a lot of considerations that go into choosing a coffee-making method, including quantity, economy, and convenience. But for this test I wanted to determine which method simply yields the single-best cup of coffee. And my basis for consideration was my platonic ideal: the rich, smooth, complex, just slightly bitter brew I found in Italy.
In order to remove as many extraneous variables as possible, I didn’t give any consideration to whether a method makes a lot of coffee or a single cup, and I didn’t pay much attention to how complicated or time-consuming a method might be. Taste was the goal, although I realize that a coffee method is often more about how many people you need to serve or how long you have.
Then there was the choice of coffee beans and roast. Although my own preferences tend toward something a little more locally-sourced, I wanted to make this as even-handed as possible. I decided to use a high-quality, but widely available medium roast coffee: Starbucks Pike Place medium roast beans. If you decide to repeat my methods, you should most certainly use the beans (and the roast level) you prefer.
I bought my beans whole and used a burr grinder (see our current favorite here) to grind each batch fresh, and to the recommended level of coarseness. (To find the correct grind size for each method, I consulted this guide from the home-brewing blog Home Grounds.) Both experts agreed that a burr grinder, which crushes the beans and results in an even-sized grind, is infinitely better than a blade grinder. Both also noted that pre-ground beans can work perfectly well for most methods (though some require a particular size grind), and will be perfectly fresh if used within a week or so.
I used the amounts recommended by the manufacturer, unless otherwise specified, and tap water, heated with a gooseneck kettle, in all tests. All brews were judged black, without sugar or cream, also to reduce the variables.
I also followed Pabst’s advice to use paper filters for every method that needed them, not the reusable ones the eco-conscious cook in me loves. He explained that paper absorbs some of the oils from the beans, which can interfere with the taste. Armed with this knowledge, a bag of beans, and a kettle, I prepared to get my buzz on and determine the best way to brew once and for all.
Method: Drip Machine
- Time: 8 minutes
- Flavor Rating: 5/10
There are some high-tech coffeemakers out there, but the one I used was a standard- issue drip machine, the kind you’re likely to encounter in waiting rooms and other public places. Its most forward-thinking feature is probably a charcoal filter for the water. Adjustable settings allow you to pick your desired java strength (regular or bold) and temperature. After consulting the chart, I added three tablespoons of medium-grind coffee to the refillable filter basket, chose the regular strength and medium heat, and commenced brewing.
Drip Machine Results: I wasn’t expecting much, but I was secretly hoping to be pleasantly surprised so I could shock the coffee snobs. Alas, despite a deep appreciation for programmable machines that let you have a hot cuppa waiting for you, the flavor really was lacking. The coffee was much thinner and more translucent than all my other tests, and the taste was equally watered down.
Method: French Press
- Time: 5 minutes
- Flavor Rating: 7/10
I was on a daily French press kick for a while so the process was familiar. I added 42 grams of coffee, ground to the French press setting on my grinder, to the carafe. Then, I poured in water that was just below boiling, around 175°F. I let it steep for four minutes, using a timer. While steeping, I swirled the grounds in the water, which is supposed to give better extraction than stirring. Then I depressed the plunger to trap the grounds at the bottom, and poured my coffee. The whole process seems fussy, but honestly waiting is the toughest part.
French Press Results: Given that the grounds come into the most prolonged contact with the water in this method, I expected it would be the boldest tasting. It wasn’t, but it wasn’t bad. The color and aroma were both lighter than pour over, and I could see the oils from the coffee beans on top, left behind because there was no paper filter to trap them. The taste was enjoyable, smoother and noticeably less bitter than drip — but it also lacked a certain depth and punch.
Method: Moka Pot
- Time: 10 minutes
- Flavor Rating: 8/10
The Bialetti Moka Pot, that iconic little metal two-story hexagonal stovetop coffee maker, uses pressure extraction — similar to espresso. This is the classic Italian method, and the one I’ve been using to make my daily brew since I went to Italy last year, so I thought I had this method down pat. But on talking with Pabst and Milos, I discovered that I could be doing a few things differently.
The base holds water, which I learned should be just below boiling before you put it on the stove. When the water boils, it generates steam, which forces the water up through the basket of grounds resting on top of it and into the top chamber. I had also been told not to pack the grounds too tightly, because it can block the water, and cause too much pressure to build up. And I discovered that you can get a better cup of coffee if you brew with the lid open; then, as soon as the coffee starts flowing out of the spout, you remove it from the heat, close the lid, and wrap the base with a chilled towel or run it under cool water to stop the extraction process. This prevents the coffee from being too bitter.
Moka Pot Results: I still love this method, maybe even a little more now that I’m using this new method. It’s kind of Zen to set it up, the cleanup is easy, and the sputtering of coffee brewing will forever remind me of Italy. It makes a darn good cup, too: The coffee is steamy, thick, and dark brown with a strong, pure aroma. A sip delivers that classic robust, slightly bitter flavor to my tastebuds. The main problem I’ve found is that the metal filter cup leaves some sediment in my cup, but I consider that a small price to pay. Ironically, however, two methods seemed to yield a cup that was even better than the classic Italian way: The pourover and the Aeropress, below.
- Time: 5 minutes
- Flavor Rating: 9/10
I’ve been a pourover fan for a long time, mainly because cleanup is so easy. I suffered eco-guilt at the thought of paper filters, though, and switched to reusable ones a while back. This test convinced me to switch back, and compost the filters I use instead.
Following these directions, I placed a paper filter in my pour over and poured right-off-the-boil water into wet the filter to remove any paper taste. Then I added the grounds, 21 grams of a medium-fine grind, the consistency of table salt. (This was actually much finer than what I had typically used.) The first pour of the pourover process is supposed to “bloom” the grounds, or wet them and allow them to release their flavors. I stirred the grounds at this point, something I had also never done before. Then I added more water in a longer, swirling pour, followed by smaller quick hits until the mug was full.
Pourover Results: If this process seems a bit extra for your basic morning cup of coffee, I’m with you. But it’s not actually difficult. It’s slow, making only one cup at a time, but with practice it almost becomes second nature — and the results are unbelievable. The pourover yields a dark, thick liquid with a rich, robust taste. I never noticed the thin sheen of oils on coffee before, but using a paper filter definitely eliminates them.
- Time: 2 minutes
- Flavor Rating: 10/10
About: I’ll admit that, after my pourover test, I was convinced it couldn’t get better. But this device, designed by a Stanford University professor, has a cult-like following among certain coffee enthusiasts.
It certainly doesn’t look fancy. It looks like a plastic bike pump and works somewhat like a French press. After adding a paper filter to the bottom of the chamber, you put the coffee (ground midway between espresso and a drip coffeemaker) and hot water in, stir, and then use the plunger to force the water through the grounds into your cup. While a French press, requires a four minute steep, this method only sits 10 seconds before plunging (though it’s recommended that you wet the filter first).
Aeropress Results: The AeroPress, like a pourover or Moka pot, makes only one cup at a time, but it’s one superb cup. It’s dark, smooth, and rich with very little bitterness. (Because brewing happens so quickly, there’s no time for any undesirable elements to be extracted.) It’s fast, cleanup is easy, and you can pretty much use it anywhere —which is why it’s a favorite among camping enthusiasts. The only drawback I can see is the need to buy specialty filters. For coffee this good, it’s worth it.
Learning how to better my brew was an eye-opening experience, and not just because of the combined caffeine of six-plus cups of coffee. It’s good to know that Italian café-level quality isn’t out of reach for a home brewer, if that’s what you’re going for, and that there are choices that fit every lifestyle and need, from the six-cup-a-day family to the guy or gal who just wants a halfway-decent grab-and-go option. Like me, your coffee needs will probably change over your lifetime, and now you know how to get the maximum flavor out of any brewing method. And once you have good coffee, everything else is pretty much cake.