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A Quest to Find the Best Coffee Maker

For a coffee drinker, there is nothing better than sipping on that first cup of Joe in the morning. But the reality is that some (most) coffee just isn't that great. The stuff I used to make in the morning would do in a pinch, but how much more effort would it really take to find that perfect combination of machine and beans?

I intended to find out.

It's taken a long time to sift through the information (and there is a tremendous amount of it) available, but I have finally come to a few conclusions and at least two amazing ways to get that perfect cup. If you are looking for information on the best coffee maker, keep reading because I found a few machines (and a manual method) that really do a fantastic job.

What makes a great cup of coffee? Well, it really comes down to a few important factors (4 actually):

Water temperature – The water used to infuse the coffee should be between 195-206F.

Coffee Grind – Making sure the coffee is optimally ground for the extraction method you are using is crucial and is probably the biggest factor when it comes to the quality of your morning cup.

Amount of Coffee – 2 tablespoons of coffee for every 6 ounces of water is the generally accepted ratio. Although you may want to experiment with this according to your taste.

Extraction Time – how long the water is actually in contact with the ground coffee will determine how your coffee tastes.

Before I get into which machines are better than the rest, I want to talk about other factors that can affect your coffee.

While we all know that freshly ground makes the best coffee, did you also know that the roast has a lot to do with how enjoyable the final product is going to be? I know what you are thinking, “There is no way to control the roast, except to make sure that I get fresh roasted.” Of course, the fresher your roasted beans, the better the coffee (max 2 weeks from time of roast), but the actual roast is also within your control if you are adventurous enough.

I bought some green beans online from a place in Toronto called the Green Beanery and have been roasting my own ever since. How? Why, with a popcorn maker of course! I bought a used one on Ebay and it has been working great for me. Want to know how to do it? Just do a search on Youtube for coffee roasting using popcorn maker.

Buying green also means that you are able to sample coffee that you would not otherwise have had a chance to sample. Supply houses seem to have a lot more variety of green coffee than roasted. Oh, and did I mention that it is cheaper to buy your coffee green?

If you can't be bothered with the hassle of roasting your own, try to find a local roaster. If this is not doable, simply get the supermarket beans that have been vacuumed packed after roasting.

Other than freshly roasted beans, another important thing you can control is the water. Try to use filtered water when possible. Do not use distilled, it just doesn't work that well.                   

When looking for the best coffee maker, you have to first think of how you are going to brew your morning cup. There are a few ways to go about this:

Automatic Drip – This is the method we are most familiar with. Fill with water, put a paper filter in the basket, fill with coffee grounds and the machine does the rest. Water is brought to temperature as it passes through a heated aluminum tube and is forced up and over the coffee grounds.

Did you know that unless the water is delivered via a shower head to the grounds, you should use a cone filter as opposed to a basket filter? Most auto drip machines do not use a shower head and only deliver the water in the middle of the grounds. If you use a basket with a flat bottom, the coffee is not extracted evenly. In a cone filter, it all goes toward the center and saturates evenly.

The other thing I discovered is that the expensive machines with all the bells and whistles are not necessarily better at making coffee. Sure, you can program it to brew just before you get up, but that is about it. And leaving the grounds in the open air all night is one way to guarantee a bland cup of coffee in the morning anyway.

* Side note – Always grind just before you brew. More on that in a bit.

Once the coffee is brewed, try to get it into a thermal carafe or drink the pot in under half an hour. If you don't, the warming plate is going to burn what is left. An alternative is to get a machine that has a thermal carafe. However, there are conflicting reports on how long these pots will keep your coffee hot.

Pros 
1. The machines tend to be inexpensive and can deliver consistent results.
2. If you use a cone filter, the quality can be quite acceptable, especially if you grind your own.
3. Many have advanced features (though nothing to do with making a better cup of coffee!) and you can program them to wake you up with a fresh pot.

Cons 
1. Water temperature is a big issue. These coffee machines struggle to maintain water temperature on the way to the grounds. Often, you could be looking at temperatures in the 180F range hitting the coffee grounds – way out of spec, considering the perfect range is 195-206F. Of all the things that make your morning cup of coffee mundane, this is it.
2. If your machine has a glass carafe, the coffee is going to burn in half an hour on the hot plate. If you can, get a unit where you can control the warming plate temperature. This helps unless you really like piping hot coffee an hour later. For that, I have no solution other than to get a machine with a thermal carafe or pour it into a thermos immediately after brewing.

What makes an auto-drip coffee maker the best?

It should have a cone filter, the ability to control the hot plate temperature, and you should be able to select your brew strength. When you are able to select between regular, bold, and robust, you have a little control over the brewing process. All this does is change the rate of water flow over the grounds. And that may be all you need to hit a combination that is above average. Experiment with different grinds in conjunction with the brew strength feature.

Displacement Automatic Drip Coffee Makers – These machines heat and maintain water in a reservoir until needed. When cold water is added, the hot water is forced out to a shower head and over the grounds that usually sit in a flat bottomed basket. Most restaurants use this type because it's fast.

One thing I do notice about my Bunn machine is that it takes more coffee to get an acceptable cup. I believe the reason for this is the speed the water rushes through the grinds. It uses a spray head and the flat bottom basket filter. You can see how fast the stream is as it enters the pot. Yes, it is fast. Yes, the right temperature is achieved. However, the problem is really with how quickly it brews. The hot water needs a certain amount of time to extract properly.

I think the reason this design is so popular with commercial establishments is that it is fast. Busy restaurants just want to get the pot filled fast, even if they are using more coffee than they should. Not sure if this is the case, but it is my opinion.

Pros
1. It's fast.
2. The water is always ready – and at the right temperature. Resulting in a great cup of coffee.
3. Sturdy and well made as they are usually restaurant grade.

Cons
1. Water is constantly being brought up to temperature (195-205F) in the holding tank, so you are wasting energy unless it is being used frequently.
2. Tastes better if you do a full pot at a time. Not sure if the water to coffee ratio is accurate if you are only doing small batches.
3. Uses more coffee than a standard drip for the reasons above.

Percolator – Some swear by this “old fashioned” method and feel that the coffee taste is unsurpassed. Others will argue that boiling your coffee is the worst thing you can do. Just make sure your grind is not too fine.

Pros
1. It can make a really good cup of coffee, even though you would think the temperature of the water is too high.
2. If you get a stove-top unit, you don't have to worry about it breaking down as long as you can heat it up.

Cons
1. If you don't mind a few coffee grounds in your cup, this is a great method to make a good cup of coffee.
2. Requires a courser grind, and there is no leeway on this.
3. Coffee becomes stale fast it seems.

Manual Pour Over – Coffee purists rave about the pour over method and say that it makes the best cup of coffee out of all the methods. You will need a cone, filter, cup, and of course, good coffee grounds. Heat water in a kettle, pour over grounds in the cone/filter and if you do it right, you'll be enjoying some of the best tasting coffee you have ever experienced.

I have to agree that this is my favorite method. Nothing I have tried even comes close as long as you take the time to do it right. If you are in a hurry for that cup of coffee, or if you are serving more than one person, it can really become a hassle and not really worth it. In a case like this, I go with my drip coffee maker (which I'll talk about in a minute) and save this method for myself.

When I started making my coffee in this manner, I was not expecting much. In fact, I didn't really want to put out that much money, so I started with a plastic Melitta cone and number 2 filters. Following the instructions I saw on a few instructional videos, I ended up with the best coffee I have ever tasted. Was it a fluke? Well, I tried it the next day and the coffee was amazing again – just as good as the previous day.

The procedure

Start out with a coffee cone and filter. I now use a ceramic cone and number 2 filters. Place the filter in the cone and pre-wet with boiling water to warm the cone and rinse the filter. As the boiling water enters the cup, it heats as well. Toss the water.

After grinding your coffee (I find that a medium grind works well), scoop the required amount (this varies by taste) of coffee into the filter. Soak the grinds by pouring a little water on the surface of the grinds. You may see them expand if the coffee is fresh. Wait 30 seconds.

Now slowly add water to soak the grounds, but avoid hitting the wall of the cone, as the water may just run down the sides and not the coffee. Do not add too much at once. If you do, the coffee isn't going to taste right. A tedious task, no doubt, but worth it. In a few minutes, you could be drinking the most amazing cup of coffee you have ever had.

Pros
1. Simple, inexpensive
2. Almost no equipment maintenance (cleaning).
3. Complete control over every aspect of the process
4. Amazing coffee if done right.

Cons
1. Only one cup at a time
2. Tedious and time consuming
3. Technique sensitive

Chemex – The chemex method is really just a pour over method that uses a special flask-like container that has the funnel cone attached. It uses heavier filter paper and is a favorite of coffee snobs the world over.

Pros
1. Uses the same principles as the pour over method, so the coffee is understandably above average.
2. Makes more than one cup at a time

Cons
1. If you make more than one cup and it is not consumed right away, it is going to cool off rapidly if not poured into some sort of carafe.
2. The flask/cone vessel is fragile

French Press – Fill a glass cylinder with course coffee grounds, pour in water that has just come off boil, steep for a few minutes, and then use a plunger to press the grounds to the bottom of the container, leaving the liquid on top. That is about it, and it is one of the best ways to make a quality cup of coffee according to coffee snobs world-wide.

I am not a fan of this method to be honest. Maybe I'm not doing it right, but the pour over method just seems to yield a better cup. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the coffee is completely immersed and steeped before being filtered.

Having said that, there are coffee aficionados that swear by this method.

Pros
1. Makes a great cup of coffee
2. Inexpensive to buy
3. Quick for one or two cups

Cons
1. Coffee grounds and sediment. This is unavoidable it seems.
2. Coffee left in the container will over extract and become bitter.
3. Only good for one to two cups at a time


AeroPress - Similar to a French Press, this method uses a small, two part cylinder. Add coffee and hot water to the cylinder, after a few minutes, press the mixture down through a paper filter. Use a finer grind for this method.

Pros
1. Seems to make a brew closer to what you would get with the pour over method.
2. No sediment
3. Inexpensive
4. Easy clean up

Cons
1. Good for a single cup only
2. Reportedly uses a little more coffee than average.

Pod Machine – Uses pods to make individual cups of coffee. Can be expensive for just an average cup of Joe. Furthermore, it is extremely wasteful as each pod is thrown out after making only a single cup. Convenient? Absolutely, but if you are serious about good coffee, reducing waste, and spending less per cup, not much of an option to be honest.

Truly, I dislike this method. What does it say of our society when we are all making one cup at a time and discarding a little plastic pod afterward? It might not seem like much, but imagine doing it billions of times world-wide. Convenient, yes, but at what cost to the environment?

Pros
1. I don't see any (okay, it's fast)

Cons
1. Truly awful coffee (just my opinion).
2. Very Expensive - Costs at least 50 cents a cup to make. That translates to buying coffee at $50/lb!
3. Machines can be pricy
4. Pods are discarded after use and are not environmentally friendly.
5. Only makes a cup at a time

So, what is the best coffee making method? Well, that comes down to your personal needs and wants.

For me, I wanted the best of both worlds. I wanted the ability to make a coffee so amazing that it would knock the socks off anyone who tasted it, yet I also wanted to have an above average brew to serve to guests or for days that I was feeling lazy.

For this reason, I chose to go with the pour over method as my primary, and I bought a Melitta drip coffee maker as my backup to make coffee in larger batches.

For the pour over method, I started with a plastic Melitta filter holder, but eventually bought the Cilio Porcelain Filter Holder that holds number 2 Melitta filters. I would also recommend that you buy an actual pour over kettle like the Hario V60 Buono Coffee Drip Kettle. The reason for this is that you need very fine control over the flow of water and where it is directed. The average tea kettle is not that precise. Not a necessity, but if you can afford it, buy it.

Other than that, you will need number 2 paper filters and that is it.

The best coffee maker

Okay, so now on to the drip coffee machine I mentioned. I chose a machine that had brew select, a cone filter, and the ability to control the hot plate. I found all this in the Melitta 46893 12-Cup Coffee Maker. The price is right, and it really does make a great cup of coffee. Probably the best I have had from a machine. I have owned Melitta machines before and they work flawlessly.

If you have the money and you really want the best of the best, you can't go wrong with a Technivorm Moccamaster KBG-741 Coffee Brewer. This is one precise coffee making machine that is handmade in the Netherlands.

One of the best features of the Technivorm machine is the fact that the water arrives precisely at the optimum temperature (between 198 and 205 degrees F to their unique shower head). Something the cheaper drip machines simply cannot do. And that is really what allows this machine to make coffee that rivals the manual pour over method in quality.

You also have a unique feature called a brew basket stop. This allows you to hold back some of the water in the filter via a manual lever on the side of the basket.

While the cost is not out of reach, it's not cheap either. Is $299 worth the price for the best machine-made coffee you will ever try? I think it is and something that I am eventually going to invest in. Actually, considering the coffee it makes, I am surprised it isn't more money.

However, I digress.

For the time being, my little Melitta is doing a great job.

Grinders

Now, one more thing that I need to touch on is the need to have some sort of grinder. Unless you enjoy ground coffee from a tin, you are going to have to have a way to grind your beans before you brew. There are two basic types available:

The blade grinder

This grinder is advertised as being able to grind coffee and spices and whatever else you happen to have. However, it really isn't made for coffee. Why? Because it uses a whirring blade to chop/pulverize your beans in a small container. This results in uneven “grinding” where you are going to have everything from course grind to powdery dust. You do not want this in the filter of your pour over or your automatic (or any other method mentioned). It has to be uniform or you are going to get some grinds over-extracting and some under-extracting. Needless to say, it is going to result in a poor cup of coffee.

Additionally, the blade grinder can produce excessive heat that can taint the flavor of the beans.

The burr grinder

If you're serious about your coffee, you'll use a burr grinder. It is what baristas and coffee houses use the world over, and it is what you should be using.

A burr grinder contains two abrasive wheels that the beans pass between. They are set apart according to the grind set. They produce a much more uniform grind and heat is not an issue as in the blade grinder because they operate at a much lower speed.

There is no need to go crazy with your grinder purchase. They start at around 50 dollars and up from there. While you may not want to go with the cheapest, the law of diminishing returns says that you are not going to benefit from a thousand dollar grinder unless you operate a coffee house.