Anyone who wants to up their coffee game has an idea of how much they would like to spend. With all of the options out there, what are some things to take into consideration when investing in your coffee tools? What constitutes a bare minimum setup? Also, what are some ways to invest now that will have lasting value even when you decide to add more and more tools to your collection later on?
It may be surprising to you that quality does not always cost an arm and a leg. There are many very affordable ways of making delicious coffee. The greatest secret for combining quality with budget is a willingness to use your hands instead of an automated device. Unless you're interested in spending several hundred or even thousands of dollars, machines will pale in comparison to a manual set up. A decent manual setup can be had for a fraction of the cost of an automated one and will provide you with a lifetime (or several!) of satisfaction.
What makes good coffee?
Manual brewing provides real control. Like other culinary arts, making coffee properly will have a slight learning curve, but when you get it right, you will never want to go back to using a machine.
So, what kind of control are we talking about? The best kept secret to brewing great coffee is a credo consisting of three simple elements: good grind, good water, and good ratio. If you can get the tools that provide control over these three things, you will find wondrous results time and time again. You may be surprised to learn that the filtering device you choose is much less critical than your ability to grind consistently, use pure and properly heated water, and measure accurately.
We advise that you start by getting control over your grind. Expect about 75 percent of your tool budget to go towards a decent burr grinder. Why? Precision in grind determines so much in extraction. There are great electric burr grinders out there for several hundred dollars, but you can accomplish the same (if not greater) consistency in grind by purchasing manual burr grinders that cost about 15 to 25 percent of what these 'counter hogs' will set you back. The greatest thing about manual options is that once you do upgrade to electric, you can still use your hand grinder for travel and camping.
As for water, a tea kettle will suffice to begin with. Anything which you can use to bring water to a full boil will work. When you desire more control, you will find that the Japanese and Korean markets especially have some wonderful kettles specifically designed with goosenecks for pouring water perfectly onto your ground coffee. Realize the critical thing here is the ability to get your water temperature high enough to ensure a more favorable extraction. This is one of the greatest failures in most automated brewers; another failure is how the water is directed onto the ground coffee, achieving incomplete or uneven saturation. No machine can replicate human visual aid in this regard.
Finally, be willing to measure. It is fun to say we just 'eyeball' things, but there is a confidence and a satisfaction that comes from knowing what ratio you prefer. Most Americans prefer a ratio that ranges from 15:1 to 17:1 (water:coffee) by mass. There are some very affordable scales on the market to help, but it is also okay to approximate if you have an idea of how much a tablespoon of your favorite coffee weighs. Your local roastery should be glad to help you with this. Water can also be approximated as 1 gram per milliliter, which will allow you to simply use a conventional measuring cup.
Don't spend a fortune on a filtering device. There are some very practical and beautiful options for under 50 dollars. Again, your local roastery is a great resource for helping you decide what you want in this regard. Some things to consider are: brew volume, beauty, durability, and (of course) how it makes the coffee taste. Eventually, you may want to have a collection of different devices. Let the one you start with be the one that will bring you the most immediate pleasure.
We want you to express yourself by what you choose, and we want you to find the same joy we have found in the process. Take some time to find the manual methods that bring you joy by using some of the ideas here. If you've already found your ideal setup, challenge friends or family members who might not be very happy with their own at-home configuration. And please tell us about your experience; we'd love to hear what you've uncovered. Coffee was never meant to be enjoyed by a machine. Rise up and take what is yours. Use your hands, use your heart, and use your mind.