So which coffee maker is right for you? And how should you even get started shopping for a coffee maker? According to coffee experts we consulted, the answer lies several steps ahead of brewing the coffee itself. A “good cup of coffee” from a home coffee brewer should be “flavorful, of the proper strength and non-astringent, or dry on the tongue,” says Scott Rao, a coffee consult and author of “The Coffee Roasters Companion,” as well as other books on coffee.
“You may be surprised, but I would recommend investing more in a quality grinder than a brewer,” he told NBC News. “A great brewer can’t fix a bad quality grind.” Rao argues there are four descending qualities that “impact the quality of the final cup.”
- The quality of the raw coffee beans
- Their roast quality
- The coffee beans’ grind quality
- And, finally, the coffee maker’s brew quality
Coffee makers and coffee beans
“As for coffee beans, like any food product, there is a range of quality out there,” says Jessica Easto, author of “Craft Coffee: A Manual,” adding that they directly impact your coffee, even from the best coffee maker. “Since coffee is only made of two ingredients (coffee and water), the ‘quality in’ is directly related to the ‘quality out.’” Even a skilled brewer can’t fix bad beans. Coffee is graded on a scale of 100. Specialty coffee beans, which she suggests you buy, must score an 80 or above on a quality scale set forth by the nonprofit Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCA).
Roasting is a complicated process but shopping for the best roast for you is not. Easto said that “the best roasters spend years perfecting their craft to learn how to evenly roast beans and unlock the flavors they want to unlock.” The level of roast comes down to personal preference. “With darker roasts, you are tasting more of the process of roasting coffee — those dark, smoky flavors associated with cooking,” she explains. But you may be trading strength of flavor for complexity.
Easto says that “lighter” roast profiles actually “allow the unique flavors of the bean itself to shine.” So choosing a lighter roast could open up your cup with a larger variety of flavors, which can range from “fruit flavors to nutty flavors to chocolate flavors, commonly served at craft coffee shops. “Don’t pigeonhole yourself,” Easto suggests, recommending you try new roasts and flavors. “After a while, you’ll get to know what you like.”
A coffee grinder might be just as important as your coffee maker
Rao considers the actual brewer, or coffee maker, last in his list of priorities when it comes to making the best coffee at home. The kind of grinder you opt for mostly depends on your price point and how much of the grinding work you want it to do for you. A burr grinder, for example, grinds a few beans at a time between two revolving abrasive surfaces and allows you to adjust your grind size. “I recommend a very coarse grind for French press, while a drip maker likely does better with a medium to medium-fine grind size,” says Easto.
Do whole coffee beans go bad? Yes, Easto says, but average coffee drinkers may not notice. “If you’re drinking a cup or two a day, you’ll go through the bag in a week,” she explains, “which isn’t long enough for an average palate to notice a big difference in quality.”
Rao and Easto both highly recommend investing in a coffee grinder. But if that’s out of your at-home coffee brewing budget, they argue store-ground coffee is typically better from local roasters, whom you can ask to grind the coffee for you.
Best coffee grinders to shop
Coffee grinders at a wide range of price points. More affordable options tend to ask more of you in terms of doing the job of grinding.
“It is a pricey purchase, but Baratza makes high-quality machines that last a long time,” Easto says of the brand that makes her favorite electric burr grinder. While it’s an entry level coffee grinder in the brand’s inventory, she says it’s still an excellent choice to level up your home coffee brewing.
Easto is also a fan of manual versions of burr grinders. “Yes, it takes some elbow grease but they are much cheaper and great for traveling,” she said. This mini will set you back less than $100, though it isn’t great for preparing large pots of coffee — unless you’re also looking for a workout.
If you’re looking for the best affordable buy for a grinder, it has to be something from the Hario line, Easto argues. These grinders are manual, like the one from Porlex, but are more affordable. It’s still not ideal for large batches of coffee but might very well suit a solo Saturday morning cup.