The other day, the unfathomable happened: I ran out of coffee in my house. Usually I have this or that half-opened bag laying around, but somehow I let things get away from me. (Read: I've been drinking an unconscionable amount of coffee lately.) Finding myself a bit desperate, I stopped by my favorite local café to pick up a fresh batch—and like many of you, probably would've done a (painful) spit take if I were drinking an espresso when the barista told me the price: $20 for 12 ounces.
Would it just be cheaper to get each day's coffee at a café? Is home coffee-making—at the highest quality level—saving us anything? Today we'll take a look at the costs of making high-quality coffee at home, and figure out whether it's reasonable to buy that bag of beans.
First, let's consider why coffee seems so expensive to us when we often have no problem forking over that kind of money for, say, a single nice lunch or a bottle of passable wine: The sheer ubiquity of the cheap stuff has conditioned us to feel like we're somehow getting ripped off by paying more than $5 for a week's worth of coffee beans, so used to the swill our parents stocked the cupboards with, or what got us through those long nights in college. (Remember, you can buy plenty of terrible wine for $5, too, and a case of cheap beer will run you considerably less than a few bottles of the good stuff.)
We also live in a world where the café—unlike the wine bar that can command $9 to $14 for a glass from a bottle—is almost exclusively a fast-food environment, and we expect fast-food service and fast-food prices when we go there. Even if the baristas are highly trained professionals whose skill and passion for the craft is evident in every sip, we are fighting up against a cultural current that's eroded our sense of coffee's worth for ages.
I've already talked about some of the costs a café considers when setting prices on the coffee you buy there; today we'll ring you up an at-home coffee budget, and justify your new morning "splurge."
Nota bene: I'm not advocating that you completely abandon your local coffee shop and go all survivalist hermit on us. We in the retail and wholesale sides of the coffee business still need you to survive. All I'm trying to do here is to help you rationalize and budgetize your morning routine, and to show you how affordable great coffee can be no matter where you decide to make your time-and-money investments. Okay. Carry on.
Let's say you buy a cup of coffee every morning on your way to work. It's probably safe to assume that you're a discerning enough customer to seek out the best coffee you can, which means you're not walking out of there without plunking down at least $3 per, probably for a 12- to 16-ounce cup. (That's setting a conservative base price of $2 for the coffee and $1 for tip, but it's entirely possible the daily bill comes out to something closer to $4 or $5. I refuse to entertain the notion that you might not be tipping, because I like you too much.)
Because it's probably rush hour, you're also likely to spend five minutes waiting in line to order, and then a bit longer while your coffee is prepared. (We'll call it a minute if you're a simple drip-coffee customer, but upwards of five isn't unusual for espresso-based drinks during a busy morning at any serviceable café.)
So far we've got a single morning's single cup of coffee topping off at a conservative $3 and ten minutes or so. We can shave off "convenience" points for the fact that there's no clean-up, no physical effort on your part other than walking in the door, and no equipment you need to invest in.
For the sake of argument, let's say that brings the estimate of worth down to $2 and six minutes per day, Monday through Friday.
Taking all of that together, your monthly trips to the coffee shop would you $60 and 120 minutes on the absolute low end, and probably something closer to $100 and 200 minutes or more in reality. (I'm not counting weekends here. Weekends follow different space-time continuum rules.)
Now, let's use this to calculate a reasonable at-home coffee budget.
Here's where a lot of the up-front costs come in when trying to determine your at-home coffee budget: If you don't already have quality tools, you'll want to invest in some. Remember that you're trying to offset some of the expense of the coffeehouse without completely sacrificing quality, so don't go cheapo on yourself.
As a good guideline, I suggest setting yourself an equipment budget that is the rough equivalent of one month's café expenses. From our earlier calculations, we can put the low end at $60 and the higher at $100. This isn't J.P. Morgan's coffee budget, but it'll do: For $60 you can easily snag a Hario Slim coffee mill, a $20 ceramic pour-over cone, and a box of filters. (I assume you've got some way to heat water already, and that you've at least got a measuring cup for water and a tablespoon for beans.)
If you're looking at $100, you've got even more options: As my compadre Liz Clayton has illustrated time and time again, it's totally possible to outfit your kitchen with solid, reliable coffee-brewing stuff without breaking the bank.
Not only that, but this stuff will essentially pay for itself within weeks.
The actual coffee is where most people start to balk. (Hey, even I admitted guilt here.) A bag of top-notch beans will likely set you back anywhere from $12 to $25, depending on any number of factors (such as what the coffee's origin is, what roaster it's from, where you buy it, and how "special" the beans themselves are), and assuming you're not trolling the bottom shelves at your local bodega.
How much does that come out to per cup? A typical coffee bag contains 12 ounces, or about 340 grams of whole-bean coffee, and let's say you're brewing batches to the equivalent of your morning "medium"—probably a 16-ouncer. To brew 16 ounces of coffee, you'll need anywhere from 24 to 32 grams of beans, which we can average out to 28 grams for calculation purposes.
So your bag of beans should yield about 12 brewed coffees at 16 ounces each. Even if you coughed up $20 for that bag, you're getting a pretty sweet deal at $1.67 daily, for two workweeks a bag. In your pajamas, no less!
Although time is certainly money to a degree, it's practically impossible to truly value it monetarily, unless you operate your life in six-minute billing cycles. What we can do, however, is see whether the time investment to make coffee at home is worthwhile compared with the duration of line-waiting that goes on at practically every café on earth.
Again, looking back to our rough estimates from earlier, you're probably spending anywhere from six to ten minutes of your life—and likely more—in the coffee shop every day, including standing in line to order, ordering, and receiving or waiting to receive the finished product. (I'm not taking into consideration how long it takes you to sugar, milk, and lid the thing because let's face it, we don't have all day, people.)
I recently timed myself grinding 30 grams of whole-bean coffee in my hand grinder, and found that within 10 seconds from batch to batch, I spend about a minute at the task. It takes my electric kettle about two minutes to come to a boil; I typically start it when I begin grinding, and let it cool to the ideal brewing temperature of 195–205°F while I finish with the grounds. Using my home pour-over setup, I then brew a little less than 18 ounces of coffee in about three and a half minutes. When all goes well, that brings me to a Total Coffee Time (TCT) of less than five and under $2, and I didn't even have to make small talk.
Now do you feel a little more frugal dropping a Jackson for a week's caffeine? Me too. You're welcome.
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.