If you consider yourself a coffee enthusiast, there are plenty of emerging coffee technologies you can spend your money on. From portable coffee makers to smart scales that log your pour, you might be wondering if these features are worth it and where you should spend your money.
Smart coffee technologies are everywhere
These days, you can prefix just about any contraption with the word “smart”, and someone has probably already made it. From smart fridges to smart doorbells, the idea that connectivity makes everything better is ubiquitous (and seemingly profitable). Of course, the same goes for coffee.
Some of the biggest advancements in coffee have come with these next-gen gadgets, like the Decent DE1 and its successors like the DE1PRO. These multi-thousand dollar machines allow the operator to set the pressure, temperature and flow rate while brewing a coffee.
It’s the definition of ‘smart’ espresso, offering granular control and real-time data for every poured shot. The machine is equipped with a computer tablet that controls virtually all functions. You can even update firmware, pair it with a smartphone, and connect smart scales via Bluetooth.
Portable espresso is another area that seems to have taken off in the last decade or so. Machines like the WACACO Picopresso and Uniterra Nomad are fully manual (non-electric) devices that explore the novel idea of being able to make espresso anywhere.
Smart scales like the entry-level Brewista Smart Scale II and the more expensive Acaia Pearl Model S have also grown in popularity. They connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and provide real-time feedback on flow and brew times. They work on the basis that a steady pour is most desired when brewing pour-over coffee using an infuser to improve your technique.
You can use this data to make changes, like grind coarser for a shorter brew time or pour slower for a more even extraction. Ultimately, how the coffee tastes (and how you like it) should influence the changes you make.
If you have a larger budget, coffee robots or automatic coffee makers allow you to prepare your daily cup with complete peace of mind. Coffee makers like the Breville Precision give you granular control over the many variables that affect the outcome of drip coffee, such as bloom time, brew temperature, and flow rate. You can program it to brew your coffee in the morning, but you’ll need to grind the coffee the night before and leave the grounds in the brewer.
These machines are perfect for getting the same results every time, as long as you use the same dose, the same beans, the same grind and the same water.
Standard infusion methods yield excellent results
While smart scales and automatic coffee makers can help you get more consistent coffees, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get great coffee with a cone and filter. Pour-over coffee makers are great for anyone who wants more control over their coffee, as they offer an easy way to change variables like grind size and dose to influence the outcome.
You can start small with a plastic Hario V60, a regular kettle and a cheap digital kitchen scale. For best results, you can equip yourself with a pour-over kettle like the Hario Buono to regulate the flow and a dedicated coffee scale for better accuracy. Ultimately, the plastic V60 is one of the best coffee makers of its kind (and it retains heat better than more expensive glass, metal, and ceramic models).
For an easier brew method, try the French press. Chances are you already have one in your closet, and you can find it for sale everywhere (even second-hand at thrift stores). Nothing is easier than throwing coffee grounds into a saucepan, covering it with hot water and pressing a plunger a few minutes later.
Many of these coffee makers and techniques have seen a resurgence in popularity over the past few decades, but some have been around for generations. One of the most recent successes is the AeroPress, an immersion brewer that even has its own world championship. It is portable, durable, flexible and very inexpensive.
Everyone has their favorite way to brew coffee in an AeroPress, with countless recipes available online. You can swap out paper filters for metal or fabric filters to get different results, and add accessories like the Fellow Prismo to mimic espresso better. There are even accessories such as the Puck Puck, a cold brew accessory to brew coffee in a slow way.
Even a good espresso can be more affordable with the right approach. Lever espresso machines, like the Flare NEO, take the hard work of pressure off your hands while delivering better results than similarly priced or inexpensive espresso machines with the right technique. They also take up much less space in your kitchen or office.
Spend your money on a good grinder
It’s arguably the grinder you choose that will make the biggest difference to the coffee you drink (although you’ll naturally want to use good, fresh coffee). This is where you’ll get the most ROI, especially if you’re using a manual carafe or immersion coffee maker, something basic like a Hario V60, AeroPress, or French press.
If you’re not already grinding your coffee fresh, you’ll notice a huge difference when you start to. Coffee oxidizes when exposed to air. The larger the surface area of the coffee, the faster it degrades. By grinding ahead, you speed up the process that makes your coffee stale. A fresh grind makes coffee taste better and lets you control the grind size for better brews.
A “good” coffee grinder will grind the coffee more evenly. An uneven grind can produce a lot of fine particles, and these fine particles extract much faster than larger particles. Fewer fine particles means you’re less likely to brew over-extracted coffee. When people say coffee tastes too bitter or “burnt,” they are referring to coffee that has been over-extracted.
If you prefer dipping and pouring techniques like the Aeropress and Hario V60, there is a world of cheaper grinders available to you. Hand grinders are less expensive than electric grinders because they don’t have a motor, but they grind slower and require effort. Something like the Porlex Mini or the Timemore Chestnut C2 will do for about a third of the cost of a good entry-level electric grinder.
Electric grinders are faster, noisier, and only require the push of a button (they also have to stay plugged in). We love the Baratza Encore, which is often cited as one of the best entry-level coffee grinders. You can even upgrade the cutter set inside for even better results later.
For a good electric espresso grinder, you will have to spend a lot more, as it is more difficult to grind finely and evenly. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s best to look for a used kit rather than buying a brand new Fellow Ode or Niche Zero.
Upgrade your daily cup
Let’s say you have a good, cheap setup and you’ll be grinding fresh coffee, but you’re unhappy with the coffee you’re drinking. If you want to be a coffee enthusiast, buying more equipment isn’t necessarily the answer.
The first thing to do is get a good quality coffee (ideally a specialty coffee) that has been roasted within the last 4-6 weeks. It’s best to use light to medium roasts if you’re making pour-over or dip coffees. Stay away from strong espressos unless you crave a very dark coffee.
Understanding what variables need to be changed during brewing and how they affect the coffee can help you achieve a cup that better suits your tastes. The finer the grind, the greater the extraction. If you find your cups too bitter for your taste, grind coarser. If you find your coffee tastes tangy or too acidic, grind it more finely. Remember that a change in coffee may require a change in technique.
Higher temperatures will also extract more coffee, but unless you have a kettle that lets you adjust the temperature, you probably shouldn’t worry about that. It’s much easier to change the grind and stick with boiling water every time.
If you get stuck, there are dozens of great recipes available for the brewer of your choice. Check out recipes from AeroPress Cup winners. For the Hario V60, there are three popular methods that stand out: James Hoffman’s Ultimate Recipe, Tetsu Kasuya’s 4-6 Method, and Scott Rao’s “Rao Spin”. Mix them, change the grind and create your own.
There is no perfect cup
For many, coffee has to be quick and made by someone else. For others, it is a favorite subject. Whatever your point of view, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that paying more for coffee gadgets will get you great coffee right away.
Watch out for hardware acquisition syndrome if you fall into the trap. Coffee equipment is like photographic equipment: as soon as you get involved in the hobby, you accumulate items that you don’t necessarily need but desperately want. There’s nothing wrong with fiddling with expensive coffee gadgets, as long as you know where to spend your money for the best results.