Automatic coffee machines range from horrible to decent. For absolute control to make the best coffee, pour-over (manual) methods reign supreme.
Simple Coffee Aficionado Method (simple yet tedious, easy clean-up, best control over coffee): Chemex
Chemex 8 Cup Glass Handle $38 [Amazon] and Coava / Able Brewing Kone Filter (reusable metal filter) $80 [Amazon]. Note: Get the 6 or 8 Cup (10 cup loses heat too fast) and Glass Handle is nicer. The metal filter lets oils pass through for a richer heavier-bodied coffee (albeit these oils may raise LDL cholesterol levels) similar to a French Press, while paper filters will catch oils for a sweeter vibrant coffee with more clarity (may have to run some water through them first to get rid of the paper taste).
Directions to make one mug: Grind coffee, fine to medium fine (more finely for the Kone than for a paper filter, #15 setting on Baratza Encore with Kone or #21 on Encore with paper filters). Add coffee (grind ~1/2 cup beans to get 20g which is ~4 tablespoons). Boil 450g (2 cups) of water, then pour in the center (as opposed to traditional pourover where you pour all around in a swirl pattern), with a one minute pause after the grounds are fully wet to let them bloom. Add the remainder of the water as slowly as you can, typically taking between 2-3 minutes of pouring and total 4mins dripping. Chemex Instructional Video
Kettle (Water Boiler):
Note: You’ll need a gooseneck kettle to boil and control the pour of the water. The classic is the Hario Buono stovetop ~$50, but an electric kettle is faster and more precise with temperature ie set it to 205 fahrenheit (ideal for brewing is 195-205).
Bonavita Variable Temperature Electric Gooseneck Kettle $53 [Amazon]
Recommended Coffee Aficionado Method (More convenient than the above): Bonavita
The Bonavita Connoisseur Brewer $180 [Amazon] automatically boils and drips water, making it way more convenient than the Chemex
Directions: 30g coffee, medium fine grind (20 on Virtuoso), 500ml (same as 500g) water
In addition, it works way better than drip coffee makers because it sends out the water at perfect temp 202 Fahrenheit, keeps coffee hot for hours with the stainless steel thermal carafe (unlike the glass Chemex and French Press which cool fast), and the new 1900 model has auto-off feature. The Connoisseur is a slight upgrade to the 1900TS.
Get the Coava / Able Brewing Kone Filter (reusable metal filter) $80 [Amazon] to fit in the stainless steel carafe, so you won’t have to keep buying the Melitta #4 Paper Filters.
Best Burr Grinder for Non-Espresso Coffee
Baratza Encore $130 [Amazon] is the best value, the best budget pick.
(For the high-end, if you also may be making Espresso in the future, see Espresso Grinders below). Faster, more consistent grind, and more reliable than the Breville Smart Grinder.
Substitute: If you must get a manual burr grinder, the budget pick would be the Hario Skerton manual burr grinder $40 [Amazon], and the premium would be the Lido 2 manual burr grinder $175 [OrphanEspresso Hand Grinders] (Best Method, Recommended)
Accessory: Electronic Digital Scale
A scale is optional for precision, just eyeball it! If you must, best is the Jennings CJ4000 $26 [Amazon]. Recommended over the pricier Bonavita BV2000SC $80, which is not worth the extra premium.
Other “Epicurean Coffee” Setups:
Hario V60 $20 – While many say this is best, better tasting than a Chemex, does not have option for a metal filter
Clever Coffee Dripper $22 – Some say tastes better than Hario V60 but it loses heat very fast due to the small extraction hole, ie coffee pours too slowly out, yet more body than Chemex coffee
Aeropress (a medium bodied smooth cup – but single serve only, see below section for making espresso with the Aeropress)
French Press (annoying to clean, coffee has more body but a little muddy, if you do get one go stainless ie Kuissential [Amazon] so it won’t break like glass) or Cafe Solo
Hario Woodneck (Cloth Filtered, the cloth is difficult to clean)
Siphon (makes great extra smooth coffee but takes more work, not as easy or consistent as Chemex/pourover, less forgiving of the grind but completely manual so you have very good control, use paper filters only as glass filters have a harder time)
Cold Brew – ie using Toddy or Filtron, but cold brew is on the flavorless side (removes the acidity and the flavor). Only for the iced coffee enthusiasts. Nitro is just a gimmick (to foam it a little, at best makes it a tiny bit smoother and creamier)
Bunn MCU – decent for a simple single serve machine (solid substitute for pod machines), but still not as great coffee as recommended
Don’t get: Moka Pot (not that great gives you something in between coffee and espresso, difficult to be consistently great, albeit what the Italians/Europeans most use), Drip Coffee Maker (almost all are bad), Pod Coffee Maker (super fast/easy, but pods are expensive at ~$0.50 each although a Keurig can have a Reusable Pod to put your own coffee in, but either way the coffee makers are unreliable with their electronics lasting avg ~1 year), Technivorm (albeit more luxury feeling it’s $300, and the Bonavita Brewer is the same quality making it a better value), Ratio Coffee Machine $480 (expensive), Chemex Ottomatic $350 (expensive), Invergo (waiting on reviews once it’s produced), Blue Bottle Moka Pot $100 (not sure if this is much different from a regular moka pot ie Bialetti)
Best Espresso Machines
Espresso requires better equipment and more effort, but the resulting concentrated, delicious flavor is intoxicating. The grinder is much more important with espresso to attain higher grind uniformity, and the machine must apply the water through the grinds at high pressures. The expensive machines are only worth it if you’re going to make espresso-based drinks every week.
Budget Espresso Machine Alternative: AeroPress
Aerobie AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker $30 [Amazon] – Named a coffee AND espresso maker, due to its ability to both make regular coffee and a variant close to espresso, albeit with a lighter crema. To make the espresso, you must use the inverted method – follow this youtube video: Youtube, and also see this reddit post: Reddit. Don’t need the more expensive espresso grinders below, as the Aerobie is forgiving on grind, could get the Baratza Vario recommended above for regular coffee.
Ratio: 25g of coffee (#9 setting on Baratza Vario), 80-90g of water
Get the Able Stainless Steel Fine Filter (Fine is better for Espresso than the Ultra Fine or Mesh) $12.50 [Amazon]. Slightly better reviews than on the Kaffeologie S Filter and Altura.
Best Budget Semiauto Espresso Machine: Gaggia Classic $380
Gaggia Classic $380 [Amazon]. The stock Pannarello steaming wand is horrible so definitely add the Mod: Rancilio Silvia V1/2 Steam wand @EspressoParts (Also fits the Delonghi EC155, fairly cheap and easy to install) that allows for better milk frothing and latte art – Instructions. This is also better than the substitutes: the discontinued Saeco/Gaggia Pannarello wand (but don’t get the turbo frother), and the Gaggia Latte Art arm (which is shorter).
Don’t get: A cheaper espresso machine than this (ie De’Longhi EC155 or Mr. Coffee for $100-$200) – the Gaggia Classic will pull better espresso every time than those.
Best Mid-Level Semiauto: Rancilio Silvia $630
Rancilio Silvia $630 [Amazon] with added $200 PID mod (Crossland CC1 $700 unreliable, better than Breville Infuser BES870XL, geeks will advise against the budget beginner’s entry-level Gaggia Classic $373 because it doesn’t have a PID). A PID (digital thermostat) will help monitor the temperature so that you can pull more consistent flavor profiles from your espresso shots, while without you’ll have to “temperature-surf” and you might make a bitter or tasteless shot on occasion. However, with the PID, pricewise you are getting into Lever (Manual) Espresso Machine territory, which would probably last the longest. Breville BES870XL $560 will not last as long.
Best Premium Value and Recommendation [Will last a lifetime]: Astra Pro $1k
Astra Pro $1k on eBay (better than machines costing $2k, can only match it by buying a $4k+ home machine)
Don’t get: Expobar, Breville BES920XL $1200 has the dual boiler but the single quality bigger boiler is more important than a cheap dual – the single will still be faster than the dual
Holy Grail Buy
La Spaziale – Direct Plumb A53 Espresso Machine (Vivaldi II refresh for Clive Coffee) $2700 from Clive Coffee (for the classy wood paneling) Better value than the Marzocco GS/3 $7k, which wouldn’t offer much marginal value except in a commercial setting.
Lever (Manual) Espresso Machines (only for the absolute purists):
For the best of manuals, get a used Micro Casa a Leva (MCAL) by Elektra or Olympia Cremina, both ~$1200
Substitute: Pavoni Europiccola $800 [Amazon]
DON’T GET: Handpresso, Just Okay: Mypressi, Rok (formerly Presso, possibly unreliable) $200
Best Grinder for Espresso:
Best for versatility Baratza Vario $450 [Amazon] – Ceramic is better for espresso, steel for drip – so go for Ceramic (substitute if you must save a little money: Rancilio Rocky $340 [Amazon], but the Vario is definitely worth it for reliability and quality). Don’t get – Baratza Virtuoso Preciso $285 (can work for espresso, but it’s the cheapest ‘real’ espresso grinder – designed for mixed usage, isn’t super uniform), $80 Capresso Infinity is not precise at all, HG One ($1k) is probably not worth that much money
Secondary: Pharos Hand Grinder $245 [OrphanEspresso] If you’d prefer manual go with Pharos, better than the Knock by hausgrind. Automatic electric grinders are better for this purpose to grind faster.
Serving an Espresso Drink
Steamed milk refers to heated milk, while Foam (frothed milk) is steamed milk also injected with air for it to expand (less dense and more aerated).
- Espresso by itself is the shortest drink
- Cappuccinos have a higher ratio of foam floating on the top than steamed milk mixed in
- Italian cappuccinos also have cinnamon sprinkled on top
- Lattes are the opposite (more steamed milk and just a tiny layer of foam on top)
- Macchiatos have absolutely no steamed milk (only foam), so is a shorter drink than the Cappuccino or Latte
- Don’t bother with: the less authentic flat white (only steamed milk — too milky), Mocha (chocolate syrup and whipped cream), and flavor-killing Americano (espresso with water).
Essentially, Americans like their coffee with more milk (Lattes) and tends to be made sweeter, while Europeans like a stronger espresso flavor (foam is moreso air than milk). Our personal favorite is the Cappuccino, as it has a good balance of milk and foam to coffee.
Picture / Diagram – Types of Coffee Drinks: link
How-To Foam Milk: Professional baristas utilize a steam wand (attached to the espresso machine) on milk in a frothing pitcher. Ideally you’d use this steam wand on your fancy espresso machine, but if you don’t have one (such as making coffee not espresso), there are a few options. We recommended against the cheap battery-powered hand-held frother wands.
Best electric option:
1) The best automatic electric frother is the Instant Brands Milk Frother $30 [Walmart] – same brand that makes the super reliable Instant Pots. It’s not worth it to get the more expensive stainless steel ones ($100+) – Breville BMF600XL $130, SMEG Frother $200, Nespresso Aeroccino 4 $120. All options above are better than Epica. We recommend to use Oatly Oat Milk to which is extra creamy and tastey.
2) Heat the milk (ie in the microwave), then in a French Press, quickly press the milk a bunch of times to turn the milk into foam. Note:
3) Shake the milk in a lidded mason jar for 30 seconds, then heat the milk.
Notes: For the perfect level of frothiness, you want to aim to double the volume of the milk. Also, when heating in the microwave, don’t heat higher than 150 degrees Fahrenheit, otherwise it will burn the milk. A good method is to first microwave it for 30 seconds, then in 10 second intervals until warm.
Best Coffee/Espresso Brands
Note: It is important to grind your beans yourself before you brew (preferably right before). Valved paper coffee bags help the coffee stay fresh longer (release gases but not let air in). Don’t store coffee in fridge, because of moisture. Look at the roasting date because it will hold its flavor closer to the roasting date. Light roasted coffee has more caffeine and keeps fresh longer. If you have a simple drip coffee maker, boil water before putting it in the coffee maker for the best cup possible (it may not get hot enough otherwise).
For fresh storage of coffee beans or grinds, you may get this: Planetary Design Airscape $25 [Amazon]
Best Coffee You Can Buy From Grocery Store:
We recommend your favorite locally roasted beans. We use Rise Up beans in the Washington DC area. Some shipped brands include Stumptown (Portland Oregon), Lavazza (Italy), Blue Bottle (California, bluebottlecoffee.net), Allegro [ConsumerReports]. Whole Foods tends to carry high quality options such as these.
Best Chicory Coffee (New Orleans Style) – Union Coffee and Chicory [Amazon] (better than brands French Market and Cafe du Monde, Community Coffee New Orleans blend is weak)
Don’t get: Illy (for coffee too expensive for the quality even though it’s good, better for espresso), Poor cheap quality – Cafe Bustelo (very bitter unless using lots of milk/sugar), Chock Full o’Nuts, Folgers, Yuban, Maxwell House
Miscellaneous Coffee Products
Best Coffee Thermos
Tightly locked for bags – Zojirushi 16-Oz Stainless Steel Mug [Amazon SM-SA60, new series Amazon SM-SC60]. The Zojirushi is better than the Contigo Auto Seal West Loop Stainless Steel 20 ounce Travel Mug. And regarding models, the newer SA version is better than the older KHE – better cap, better higher mouthpiece, and easier to clean (although non stick coating inside instead of just stainless), and the SC series is the newest (has a cool turquoise color). The YAE may be better since it’s newer and has a wider top, however, this means it loses temperature faster.
Versatility & Size for the Home / Car – YETI Rambler 30 oz. Insulated Tumbler Graphite $40 [Amazon SM-SA60] For both coffee and large cold drinks (to fit a whole drink + ice). Fits in car cupholder and great for home usage also because the ice doesn’t melt for hours and doesn’t water down your drink.
Roasting your own beans is not recommended purely for taste or savings, as 30mins is a hassle to do every week or two (or however often you roast). You’ll be saving some money (since unroasted beans are cheaper and store longer) but not a significant amount. This process is more for coffee-making hobbyists than pragmatists.
Roast on your stove (under your fume hood) or even outside because of the smell/smoke is potent and unappetizing. A cheap option is to go to a thrift store or eBay and get a 1400w Popcorn Pumper (a popper) to roast at most 1/3 lb, but it’s only recommended in order to first figure out if you’ll be getting into this hobby. If you’re sure, get your Green (unroasted) Coffee Beans and a thermometer from Sweet Marias, and one of these roasters:
Fresh Roast SR500 $180 [Amazon]
Behmor 1600 (more odor and more cleaning but can roast more and more practical) $370 [Amazon]
Don’t get: Imex Air Roaster, FreshRoast+8