Serious Eats: Drinks
5 Coffee Splurges that Aren't Worth the Money
Every once in a while, it's good to splurge on yourself, and you know I'm a huge advocate of those self-gifts coming in the area of coffee brewing and drinking. However, while the word splurge itself even sounds a little espresso onomatopoeic, there are a few big-ticket buys out there I must recommend that you coffee lovers resist.
Here are five purchases not worth percolating over, and suggestions of what to get yourself instead.
Sure it's "exotic," this Pacific Island coffee that's processed by being digested and, ahem, excreted by a cat-like cutie called a civet (which is what the luwak means, kopi being "coffee"). The beans are harvested from the feces, washed (obviously), and, typically, roasted before leaving its country or source of origin, usually in fancy-seeming vacuum-sealed packs or encased in some other elaborate packaging that just reeks of "fancy coffee."
That's not all that reeks, however: Many of the civet coffee on the market is from farms where the animals are force-fed coffee cherry and kept in cages too small for them to turn around. Beyond that, regardless of their animal instinct to eat ripe fruit, the cat-like creatures can't always be counted on to eat the highest quality of coffee, and the animals' and plants' health, environmental conditions, and other myriad dubious factors pretty much guarantee that the only sure thing you'll get with an order of kopi luwak is a crock of, well...
Try this instead: You want to try expensive coffee? There are plenty out there, and while other beans might not come from the business end of a wild (or faux-wild) animal... well, that might be enough to recommend them. I've recommended Gesha variety coffees before, and will say again here that those beans really do amount to more than a hill of beans; you can also try an exclusive coffee like Aida's Grand Reserve, which is a selection of the cream of the crop from legendary coffee farmer Aida Batlle's four farms in El Salvador.
Combination Coffee Brewers
Just about anyone who's ever had to set up a gift registry has probably hovered their mouse over one of these things while trolling the virtual aisles of Bed Bath & Beyond: After all, they look like the perfect compromise, making coffee one minute and fresh espresso the next.
I hate to burst your cappuccino bubble, buddy, but just like people, machines can spread themselves too thin. Try to do too much at once, and you'll likely find that even if you manage to finish, your work won't be nearly as good as if you'd specialized and focused. Same with these dual-purpose brewers—considering that don't they regulate temperature or brewing time well enough to make a truly stunning pot of brewed coffee, can you really expect them to handle the pressure and heat requirements asked of a delicious shot of espresso? It's like trying to make a soufflé in an Easy Bake Oven, people.
Try this instead: Invest in one unitasking coffee brewer for home that is convenient, reliable, and makes batches you can enjoy on most days: A high-quality electric brewer like a Technivorm Moccamaster, for instance, or an inexpensive pour-over set-up. When you're craving espresso, go out for it: Make that your splurge, and insist on the good stuff—don't settle for the swill that squirts out of that pathetic Krups you bought on a whim for your apartment. You and I both know you deserve better.
Lured by the convenience of having "coffee," "espresso," or "green tea" at your fingertips without any grinding or effort beyond the push of a button? Know that the little plastic cups in the lazy Susan are but a pale comparison to their fresh counterparts, since you have very little control over when the coffee (or "cappuccino") was harvested, roasted, or even ground. Coffee can taste much better than this, especially when you don't need to feel guilty about all those plastic K-Cups you're tossing into landfills.
To my mind, these types of convenience caffeine dispensers are little more than an update on the rest-stop coffee vending machine: Sure, the liquid spewed out is "coffee" by the strictest definition, but is it truly good for anything except preventing highway hypnosis?
Try this instead: Because the majority of single-serving pod machines are used in offices and waiting rooms, what you might actually be in the market for is a desk-side coffee option. When I was a cube jockey, I was the envy of all my colleagues at least once a day, as my tiny (and remarkably quiet) hand-cranked coffee grinder filled the room with aroma, my cheap electric kettle perking away in a nook on my shelf, and the fresh French pressed coffee I brewed in four minutes while not even leaving my desk made all the free coffee that passed as an employee benefit in the communal lunch room seem like caffeinated backwash. Low impact, high returns: Plus, it's a great way to make friends across the partitions, if that's your sort of thing.
A Home Espresso Machine
Don't throw things! Hear me out!
Some people are espresso junkies: I get that. Some people buy great home equipment and use it multiple times a day, cleaning it regularly, buying freshly roasted beans, learning about how to wrangle steam pressure or pump pressure to brew consistently delicious stuff. That's great: I want those people to invite me over for espresso.
But the fact is, most of us aren't those people. Most of us can barely rub enough sleep out of our eyes to properly soak and scrub our French presses, or to even pre-rinse our pour-over filters, let alone back flush an espresso machine after every use (yes, every use) and take the time to change the grind size and adjust our technique to make the espresso come out just so.
My theory about home espresso machines is this: Go big or go out...for coffee. If you really like espresso but don't think you'd make more than one or even two shots of the stuff a day, I personally don't think a machine is worth the investment. Find a great local cafe, make nice with the baristas, and enjoy espresso made by someone who does have the time and energy to take care of all the variables (and the mess).
Try this instead: If you're a gear-head and you just want to geek out about coffee, there are plenty of other brewers that are less trouble but just as show-stopping or tinkerer-friendly: Even Japanese-style siphon brewers, heated with a halogen lamp and looking like a science project, are more realistic for the home barista to tame. Consider brewing other methods of coffee at home and making espresso your going-out-for-coffee treat.
If you like the concentrated flavor of espresso, however, maybe an AeroPress, or even a Moka pot, is for you. Using them, you're able to brew either an espresso-ish concentrate that can be used to make a sorta-Americano, and an AeroPress can also be hacked for one-cup coffee brewing, too. Then, as above, take yourself out for espresso-espresso, and insist on the good stuff when you do.
That all said, if you're dead set on getting an espresso machine, don't cut corners (which, sadly, often also means you shouldn't cut costs). Plenty has been written on this little World Wide Web of ours about good models and bad ones, geek-worthy machines and those that are better for dilettantes. It's certainly not impossible to make really good—like, really good—espresso at home, but it sure ain't easy, so be sure to ask yourself whether or not you think it's worth it.
Any Expensive Brewing Equipment If You Don't Have a Decent Grinder
You might be the most experienced and sophisticated cook in the world, but that counts for woefully little if your knives are dull and you can't cut a tomato without crushing through the flesh. Same thing goes for your home coffee set-up: You might have an arsenal of brewing gadgets, buy the best beans from roasters all over the world, and be able to detect innumerable nuanced flavor notes in your cup, but when it comes down to brass tacks, your coffee is only ever going to be as good as your grinder is.
Cheap grinders (whirly ones, for instance, which are better suited to spices than beans) generate bitterness-creating heat while they work, and also crush beans unevenly, as they are incredibly difficult to control; low-end or badly maintained burr grinders, such as those often found in the coffee aisle of most big-box grocery stores, suffer from dull or dirty burrs, which will also give you uneven or off-tasting coffee grounds.
Think of the mishmash of sizes those grinders produce as being like vegetables chopped up to go in a soup: If you toss a bunch of huge pieces of carrot into the broth along with those which have been finely minced, you know that the small chunks will cook way faster than the big ones, right? Just so with coffee. For a better brew, you need a better grind, with a more consistent—and, preferably, adjustable!—profile.
Try this instead: Buy a grinder! Seriously, if you do one nice thing for your coffee-loving self, this is it. A good burr grinder is your best weapon in the fight against mediocre coffee. I always recommend small, portable hand-powered grinders for small spaces and small budgets (my favorite is a Porlex, from Japan), though if you have the room and the money, several electric models will also serve you nicely, and for a reliably long time. Baratza is a reputable manufacturer, and their machines can handle anything from French press to espresso, depending on the model.
Any other steer-clear advice, coffee lovers? Help your favorite aficionados save their green for the right stuff.
Wondering what purchases actually are worth the money? Check out Tuesday's post here.
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.