From growing regions to techniques, procedures and products that make the best brew, here's everything you need to know about your favorite caffeinated beverage.
Robusta vs. Arabica Beans
The coffee you drink everyday comes from one of these bean varieties. Robusta and Arabica beans are sourced from trees grown in a sub-tropical region that is known as the Coffee Belt. This area includes 4 continents and more than 50 countries. The Arabica tree grows at higher altitudes, can't survive frosts or extreme heat, is susceptible to pests, and has a lower bean yield than Robusta. Though it requires care and attention, the Arabica tree produces a bean that makes a high quality coffee with a superior flavor profile, mouthfeel, and drinkability. As its name suggests, the Robusta tree is hardier than the Arabica. It grows quite thickly and lushly at lower elevations and can withstand a wider variation in temperature. Because they're easier to harvest and produce a highly caffeinated, harsher drink, Robusta beans are much cheaper and are usually sold in flavored coffee blends. Arabica beans are generally reserved for quality coffee blends and even specific regional designations to highlight the special characteristics of the growing area.
When you find the right coffee beans for your taste, you've got to make sure you use the right amount each time you brew. If you're using a coffee spoon or teaspoon to measure your coffee and just estimating how much water you need, you're doing it wrong! If you want to make perfect coffee all the time, you've got to measure everything from brewing water to coffee beans to get all the levels and depths of coffee flavor. So go get a kitchen scale already! And then measure about 1 ounce of freshly ground coffee beans for every 6 ounces of water. This is the standard coffee to water ratio generally believed to produce the best tasting coffee. The important thing is that you measure these amounts accurately and correctly, then grind. When you measure, you create the possibility of an even extraction. What is even extraction exactly?
All About Extraction
Water and coffee grind size are key components in extraction. Very coarsely ground beans will give you an under extracted brew with a sour flavor because the grounds are so coarse that the water pulls too much acidity from them. Alternatively, very fine grinds will be over extracted because the water pulls too much of the volatile oils and compounds. This cup of coffee is bitter and astringent, overwhelming and unpleasant. Well extracted coffee has just the right amount of sweetness and acidity and a pleasant lingering finish. The key to this cup of coffee is a grind that's in between fine and coarse, and the perfect size for your particular brewing method. For more precise numbers, try to remember that extracting 18% to 20% of the flavor from the bean is ideal.
Now that you've selected, measured and ground your beans, it's time to brew your coffee. Here are the best brewing methods for every type of coffee maker so you can get the most of your machine!
Manual Drip Coffee Makers - Retro Ritual
Coffee connoisseurs prefer a manual drip coffee maker because it allows them to brew coffee tailored to their specifications. These low cost drip brewers require no electricity and feature a casually refined design inspired by the Chemex Coffee Maker. Invented in the mid 20th century, the Chemex is so celebrated for its classic design, there's even a brewer on display at the Museum of Modern Art. Manual drip coffee can also be prepared with a cone filter, or coffee dripper. Typically made of plastic, porcelain, or boroscilicate glass, cone filters can be used to brew directly into a cup, mug, or carafe. Brewing coffee with a drip brewer or cone filter can enhance and highlight the character of your coffee. Though this type of coffee making may seem uncomplicated, certain variables must be just right to brew a delicious cup.
There's something meditative about manual drip brewing because there's no technology to get between you and your brew. (Well, except for the burr grinder you'll use to grind the beans. If you don't have a burr grinder, buy one. Freshly ground beans make better coffee.) When you're ready to brew, grind the beans to a fine consistency like table salt. Place a filter in the top of your brewer, then spoon in a serving of ground coffee. Heat water between 200-205°F, then pour it over the coffee grounds in a careful, circular motion. Do this slowly, so the grounds are completely saturated, stopping occasionally to let them "bloom" and to give the coffee time to steep in the pot below. This pouring method is the reason manual drip coffee making is known as pour over brewing. We recommend that you use a gooseneck kettle because it provides more control over the amount and speed of the pouring, for perfect results cup after cup.
French Press Coffee Makers - Sophisticated Simplicity
Like the Manual Drip Coffee Maker, the French Press puts the coffee drinker at the center of coffee brewing. Invented in mid 19th century France and later patented by Milanese designer Attilio Calimani in 1929, the French Press produces a robust and intensely flavored coffee with rich aroma. The Bodum Chambord French Press , with its clear glass carafe and stainless steel frame is the design most people recognize. To brew with a French Press, add coffee grounds to the hot water in the carafe, then leave them to steep for a few minutes. When you've brewed it to your desired strength, you just depress the plunger- this traps the coffee grounds at the bottom of the beaker and releases more flavors. Then pour, keeping the lid pressed firmly to prevent any spent grounds from getting into your cup, and enjoy.
Because these coffee makers are inexpensive, you should use the money you save to buy a quality burr grinder. We can't stress this enough. With freshly ground beans, all the natural oils and heady aromas will have nowhere to go but into your cup. That's because the whole bean protects and preserves flavor, unlike pre-ground beans which absorb ambient odors and moisture and have gone stale before they've been bagged for sale. To brew a French Press coffee with the most exquisite flavor, you should grind your beans coarsely and to a uniform consistency that resembles heavy kosher salt and heat the water to just under boiling. That's it. Now it's time to pour and sip your delicious coffee.
What's great about both French Press and Manual Drip Coffee Makers is they require no electricity. They're eco-friendly and compact enough to take with you, so you can have coffee to your liking at work and on the go. But what if you're looking for a more substantial coffee maker with more features?
Auto Drip Coffee Makers - Caffeinated Convenience
Invented in 1972, the automated Mr. Coffee machine revolutionized coffee making. It was an instant success and, in short order, many more brands of auto drip coffee makers followed. These coffee brewers are so popular that everyone has probably had a cup or two of auto drip coffee. This is the coffee of diners and donut shops, the coffee that steadily drips into glass carafes all day long kept hot by a warming plate. The kind of coffee that doesn't have the best flavor, but is always ready for refills. But auto drip coffee doesn't have to be over brewed and over extracted. There are premium auto drip machines designed to help you brew a perfect cup of coffee at home. Tested for quality and recognized for their superiority by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, these auto drip brewers produce the perfect water temperature and brewing time for consistently delicious coffee.
When using an auto drip coffee maker, the coffee beans should be ground to medium fine so they appear to be a bit finer than sand. Then add the filter, pour in the grinds, and fill the reservoir with filtered water. When the cycle begins, water is heated to near boiling and showered over the ground coffee. The coffee then drips through the filter and falls into the carafe. Because the technology of the auto drip coffee maker allows it to brew very quickly, it produces coffee with a less intense and smoother flavor. And most of these machines can be set on a timer so your coffee will be ready for you in the morning. With that kind of convenience and consistent flavor quality, it's no wonder there's an auto drip coffee maker on most kitchen countertops.
Grind and Brew Coffee Makers - Fresh 'n Fast
Combining the function of an Auto Drip Coffee Maker with a built-in bean grinder, Grind and Brew Coffee Makers are ideal when you want convenience and fresh ground bean flavor. These easy-to-use machines provide bean to cup functionality. You just fill the reservoir with water, add whole beans to the grinding basket and press a button. That's it. The machine does the rest, from grinding to brewing to dispensing fresh, hot coffee into your cup or carafe. You don't have to worry about spills or messy coffee filters. Because the burr grinder is built-in, these coffee makers save you time, money and counterspace. Plus, some of these machines feature settings that let you adjust the grind size, brew time and brew amount so you can brew to order. And many Grind and Brew Coffee Makers come with built-in dials for espresso, cappuccino and more.
Percolator Coffee - Plainly Perked
The percolator was invented in the early 19th century by Sir Benjamin Thompson, an American-born British physicist and soldier. Though it's been updated and patented many times in the ensuing years, the percolator still functions with the same basic mechanism and design. Usually made of stainless steel and appearing somewhat like a tall teapot, percolators have a hollow, chambered interior with a vertical tube in the center. Coffee grounds are placed in the top chamber and the bottom chamber is filled with water. When the water is heated, it travels up the tube and is dispersed over the grounds. Once the grounds are saturated, the coffee-water is sent back again through the tube into the bottom chamber. This cycle is continued repeatedly, producing a bubbling and spurting sound as the coffee goes through this "perking" action, stopping only when the coffee approaches the boiling point and is ready to drink. Early stovetop percolators got too hot and ruined the flavor, but newer electric percolators should stop the continual cycling at the right point, preventing overheating. Nevertheless, percolator coffee is strong and intense and the old saying, "coffee boiled is coffee spoiled" can easily apply. To get a tolerable brew, it is best to select a very smooth coffee with low acidity, grind it even coarser than you would French press coffee beans and perk for no more than 3 minutes. Though auto drip coffee makers have made percolators something of a relic, yet there are still some percolator enthusiasts who enjoy this type of coffee.
Difference Between Blade Grinders and Burr Grinders
Though there are two types of bean grinders, the only grinder you should consider using is a burr grinder. Blade grinders are typically cheap and a bit clumsy because they use a spinning blade to dice up coffee beans and usually make a lot of noise while doing so. The result isn't so much as ground beans as a mish-mash of big coarse pieces and tiny fines which don't extract evenly- so you get an uneven tasting cup that can't decide if it's over or underextracted. Either way, it isn't good. A burr grinder, however, will always evenly grind coffee beans. Burr grinders use sharp cutting surfaces and precise adjustments to grind in a controlled and consistent way. Burrs can be flat or conical, or a combination of the two and are usually constructed of steel or ceramic. In a burr grinder, the burrs sit opposite each other and the coffee beans run in between the burrs and are processed from both sides. These burrs are very sharp and produce evenly and perfectly ground beans in ranges from coarse to fine. There are tons of burr grinders available so it can be hard to make the right selection. Expect the burr grinder to cost over $100... but delicious coffee is worth the investment. Baratza makes high quality burr grinders and Kitchen Kapers features a wide selection from entry level to professional grade.
EspressoContrary to popular belief, espresso is not any specific type of bean, blend, roast or grind; though these factors are important and will effect the flavor and character of any coffee beverage. Instead, espresso is defined by the process of quick, pressurized brewing performed by specialized espresso brewers. Good espresso is created when water of a certain temperature (think 200°F) is pushed under certain pressure (specifically 9 "bars" of pressure) through a precisely ground, dosed (measured) and firmly packed bed of coffee. What results is a concentrated coffee with a foamy crema that tastes just like freshly roasted and ground coffee smells. Fundamentally, there are only three methods for creating the pressure needed to make an espresso. And it's important to remember that, because at first glance, there seems to be an ocean of different, complicated and very pricey machines on the market; each trying to win your dollar with impressive-sounding features and esoteric barista-lingo. Making sense of it can be tough. That's why it's a good idea to boil all these options down to the basics. We hope this overview may go a long way in helping you narrow the field of machines that will fit your needs best.
Espresso Machines: A practical guide for the first time buyer
The first type uses steam to create the pressure required. Water is brought to a boil in a sealed tank, creating steam pressure; it's only escape is through a bed of grinds before being led into your cup or a reservoir until the brewing is finished. There are both stand-alone electric and stove-top versions of this design. In the strictest sense, it is fair to say that neither is capable of producing a great cup of espresso. The 1.5 bars of pressure created by steam falls well short of the 9 bars needed for a really good extraction and substantial crema. Also, the 212°F water required to produce steam is hotter than the ideal temperature range and can result in coffee with higher levels of acidity. But these brewers can make a very good and strong cup of coffee, similar to an Americano and suitable for making delicious cafe au lait and iced coffees. And this is easily the most affordable way into home-made espresso. Stove top models in particular, hold an historic (read "sentimental and beloved favorite") lock on sales for this type of steam pressure brewing. Espresso makers like the iconic Bialetti Moka Express have championed home-brewed espresso all over Europe and throughout the world since it's introduction in 1933. Just click the link, you'll recognize it! The Moka Express and similar makers have a bullet-proof design that's easy to use, fast and they come in a variety of sizes. Paired with a decent milk frother, you can go pretty far with a Moka pot for not a lot of money. Meanwhile, the electric steam versions have seen a diminishing presence in the market. Aside from a flurry of specially priced products released by larger manufacturers right around November and December (hmmm...can you guess why?), electric steam espresso machines mainly exist as low cost brewers of varying build quality.
Another type of espresso maker is the mysterious piston-driven, or "Lever" machine. This type has a lever, pulled by the barista, to pressurize hot water through the coffee grinds by a piston. The expression "pull a shot" originates from the use of this type of machine. They can produce excellent, clean-tasting espresso, but require a level of skill to operate; namely knowing how to properly apply the 9 bars of pressure (that's equal to 130 psi). There are also piston-driven espresso makers that are regulated by a heavy duty spring, the lever merely starts the process. But for the vast majority of home consumers, the venerable and often beautiful lever machine lacks ease of use and costs way too much. In today's market it is relegated to high-end professional use and deep-pocketed barista purists.
Pump Esresso Machines
The last type is the pump-driven espresso maker. They are the most relevant and popular type for both professional and home use and can range in cost from just over $100 and up to many thousands of dollars, particularly for commercial use. These machines use a pump (actually quite similar to a piston-drive mechanism) that is powered by a small motor and can handily produce the 9 bars (and more) of pressure to produce full-flavored extractions with thick, rich crema. Water is heated to precise temperatures by one or more boilers and/or thermoblock or thermocoil heating systems. Often pump-driven machines can deliver steam to heat and froth milk for cappuccinos and lattes, although the specific functionality depends on the number of heating systems. These differences along with different levels of overall build quality and features result in a wide variety of models with their own capabilities and a wide range of price points.
Pump-driven espresso makers are typically classified as being semi-automatic, automatic or super automatic. Semi-Automatics require some effort on the part of the operator to grind, measure out and tamp the coffee and control the volume of water. Basically the semi-automatic machine just heats the water and pumps it through. You have the control to tell it when to stop, either by a manual switch or through a programmable function that you have to set up. While many good semi automatic espresso makers, such as the Capresso Stainless Steel Espresso & Cappuccino Machine are more affordable examples of a pump machine, they can also reach quite expensive build qualities and are often preferred by hands-on enthusiasts because they allow the user more control over the process. With semi-automatic and automatic machines, you can use any coffee you like but the size of the grind and way that it is tamped will affect the quality of the shot. Espresso pods that fit standard size portafilters are available for purchase if you prefer not to bother with grinding, dosing and tamping.
Automatic Espresso Machines
These appliances require less interaction. The operator still has to grind, dose and tamp the coffee, but an internal sensor controls the volume of water and will stop pumping automatically once the correct volume is reached. Automatic machines may also include pre-programmed settings for longer or shorter extractions or the ability to program your own functions. In any case, it will stop the shot automatically. Most automatic machines will include a steam wand to heat and froth milk and can include a whole range of additional features, functions and settings. A very notable and increasingly popular segment of this type are brand-specific automatic pump machines that exclusively use proprietary coffee pods. Good examples of this type include Nespresso. The pods are specifically dosed and packed to make a variety of coffees or espresso, one cup at a time. The machines are supremely convenient and produce very good coffees with rich crema at the push of a button. And while they do require that you use the proprietary pods, they save you from needing a grinder, measuring and tamping for every cup and the clean up is as easy as tossing the spent pod. Since these streamlined machines typically aren't made with steam functions, a separate milk frother will be needed to make cappuccinos and lattes.
Super Automatic Espresso Machines
As you will have guessed, the Super Automatic Espresso Machines require the least effort from the user and will automatically measure, grind and tamp the coffee beans, extract the shot and stop when it's done. They usually self clean as well, and require only occasional attention to fill ingredients or empty spent grounds. Models range from compact designs like the Krups Falcon to full-blown Coffee Centers like the Jura-Capresso line. All you have to do is push a button. Many have programmable settings, giving you the option to tailor the coffee to your own tastes. This type generally carries the heaviest price tag, especially when feature-rich. But they allow you to use whatever coffees you like, they usually offer a high level of customization, and they provide a variety of excellent espresso and coffee drinks on demand at the push of a button. To use the most horribly over-used claim in the espresso machine trade: "It's just like having your very own barista!" But it really is kind of like that.
Each of the above pump-driven categories include machines that will range in build quality, features, and price point. To narrow the field, think about budget as well as the level of convenience you need, vs. the amount of skill you are willing to learn and apply. And what do you want your machine to make? Do you love lattes or do you just want straight-up shots? How important is steam or hot water on demand? If you like the idea of tapping into your inner barista, you may find that a stovetop espresso maker, a good grinder and frother are all you need. If you really want to learn the art with a machine that offers a lot of input, there are many semi-automatic and automatic makers to explore. Or if you just need convenience above all else, focus in on pod machines or super automatics.
Milk Frothers & Steamers
Many espresso machines don't come with the tools needed to make specialty espresso based drinks. If it's cappuccino, latte, or macchiato you're after, then warm steamed milk and thick, rich frothed milk is a must. There's a wide selection of milk frothers and steamers available to meet your needs, from classic manual versions to one-touch, fully automatic machines.
Feature a basic design made for use with traditional espresso machines with an integrated steam wand. Typically made from stainless steel, their squat, tulip shape is ideal for creating creamy, velvety steamed milk and milk froth. Skilled baristas can make amazing latte art with careful pouring from the pitcher's tapered spout. Check out the 20 and 32 oz versions we have available from RSVP International.
Plunger Type Frothers
These manual frothers consist of a glass beaker with stainless steel mesh plunger that you pump up and down to create froth. They look quite a bit like the classic French Press coffee maker. They work with cold milk, but you can remove the metal plunger and place the glass beaker in the microwave for hot froth. Bodum, the popular European kitchenware company makes a variety of plunger style frothers.
These immersion style, battery operated frothers produce great foam, but won't heat or steam your milk. They're a good choice if you heat your milk on the stove top or in the microwave. The top-rated Aerolatte with stand and Aerolatte with case are among the best known and popular wand frothers.
Fully Automatic Electric Milk Frothers
Machines like the Aeroccino from Nespresso are the one-button solution for frothing. They use a base similar to an electric kettle for the heat source and a small stainless whisk that stirs and froths the milk while it is heating. Not only do they make hot steamed milk in less than a minute, they also produce rich, thick barista quality froth.
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