Low-tech coffee: it's the way to go

In the kitchen, the gadgets and objects that we use can be roughly divided into two categories: the ones that do something, and the ones that make something easier. It isn’t a judgment on their value, but a simple and fact-based division. A pan, of course, does something, as does a blender. But a Slap Chop or juicer: they don’t exactly have a purpose so much as they take something tedious or difficult and make it quicker and easier. Many people avoid the latter type, as they are often expensive, fragile, and limited in their applications.

One “make something easier” device that few people forgo is the coffee maker. The familiar drip machine is found in a huge amount of homes out there, and for many, that is the only coffee they’ll make at home. Outside of Starbucks, it’s strictly machine drip. It’s so familiar that a lot of people forget that coffee makers are relative newcomers to the coffee scene, and for a fraction of the price, you can buy beautiful, authentic gear that is not only dead simple, but makes fantastic coffee.

These three devices may be obvious to some, but they’re all so cheap and worth while that I think they’re worth mentioning anyway. The fact that none have any moving parts other than those you move yourself is, I think, a virtue I do not need to explain at length: Here they are, in order of simplicity:

Melitta pour-over

The thing I don’t understand is why people go for a drip machine when it’s just an automated version of this. Sure, there’s something to be said for convenience, but there’s something to be said for the coffee too! And by using a plain Melitta filter and decanter, it’s very nearly as simple but you get better coffee.

All you do is pop the filter in, put in a few scoops of fine-ground coffee, and pour in the hot water. Because the water doesn’t come down from a limited little spout like in a regular coffee maker, you can knock the accumulated coffee off the sides of the filter and get it back into the mix. This leads to stronger coffee and less waste.

The small pour-over pictured at right is actually a single-cup one I bought at Daiso Japan for $1.50. It’s just as high quality as any of my plates, and makes great coffee. You can get much larger ones, obviously.

Melitta 10-cup coffee cone

French press

French press has been gaining traction lately, especially here in Seattle, where drip coffee is looked down on. French press can offer a much richer coffee experience, though occasionally I find it too thick.

For French press you want to splurge a little bit. You can get a cheap one for $15, but you want as much glass and metal as possible, and this $30 Chambord, from French press masters Bodum, seems like the best way to go. It’s not for people in a hurry, or really for filling a lot of people with coffee, but there’s a nice ritual that goes along with it and you get to choose how long you steep the coffee for.

The result is a thick and very flavorful coffee, perhaps too flavorful for some. You also have to be careful how fine you grind your beans: too fine and you’ll have a lot of sludge at the bottom. I moved away from French press because of this, but lots of people swear by it, and it is of course very portable.

Bodum Chambord 8-cup French press

Stovetop espresso pot

This thing is my baby. If I had to pick one coffee method to use for the rest of my life, it’d be this. There aren’t very many places in Seattle that can fire up some espresso so good that I have to tell somebody about it, but a lot of times when I take a sip of the bittersweet nectar my stovetop puts out, I have to email someone, or put it on Facebook. It’s that good.

What happens is this: there are three parts, the reservoir, the basket, and the spout. You fill the reservoir with water, fill the basket with semi-fine-ground coffee, screw it together, and put it on your stove at medium heat. Somewhere between four and seven minutes later, the most delicious coffee substance you’ve ever had will come streaming out of the spout, and it’s worth every second of waiting — and every minute of cleaning later on (don’t use soap!).

The stovetop actually takes some skill to operate, which not everyone is into. It comes down to getting the grind and the heat right, and the timing as well, but since you’ll be standing over it smelling its amazing coffee fumes, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. You’ll mess up a bunch of times (I still do, being extremely absent-minded), but this chunk of metal has brewed me the best coffee of my life. The one I have is the $30 Bialetti 6-cup, which I recommend for one person, but they have bigger and smaller capacities if you find it’s not the right size.

Bialetti Moka Express stovetop espresso pot (image: Wikipedia)

There you go. It may seem old-fashioned to avoid what is so clearly a simple and convenient way to make coffee, but I really think that the quality, simplicity, and portability of these devices makes them a must-have for any individual or family. Try one out and see how you like it; you may find a new appreciation for everyone’s favorite morning pick-me-up.

There are other low-tech coffee accessories out there, too: hand-cranked burr grinders, weirdo vacuum-driven drip things, and variations on the stuff shown above. Spend a little time in your local kitchen store and you’ll probably find something really cool.