How to Buy a Coffee Brewer
When you walk into a store that sells coffee brewers what do you look for? How can you spot one that will give you the best tasting coffee? Are there really differences between different brewers or is it simply which brewer fits your kitchen’s color and style?
Yes, there are some simple ways to choose a brewer. You can spot some of the best in the store. Other important qualities are harder to know, but at least you can start asking the right questions. You’re already on the internet so research is at hand. And, yes, there are some real differences between brewers beyond style and color, differences you’ll taste each time you brew.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having extra features, but keep in mind most of them do almost nothing to contribute to making the coffee taste better and many actually are harmful to the taste.
A clock is okay, but don’t you already have one? If you’re using it as a timer to make coffee the night before, you are likely reducing your coffee’s taste just slightly, but noticeably. Besides, there are brewers that brew so fast, you really don’t need to set things up in advance, and, paradoxically, they are some of the best models.
An onboard grinder is potentially a good feature, but make sure it’s a disc or burr grinder, one that crushes the beans rather than a spinning blade.
1-4 cup settings or half-batch settings are often nothing more than flow restrictor valves that slow down the water drip rate over your grounds. They don’t really accomplish that much. If you mostly brew small batches you’re better off buying a smaller brewer, even if it means brewing twice when company comes over or buying a second machine for guests.
Permanent filters promise to let more oils through, but they are controversial among coffee experts. Do you prefer filtered or unfiltered wine? Some people see grounds in their cup as a sign or quality. Others prefer a super clean cup, one with just the flavors. Permanent filters require an extra cleaning step and are seldom dishwasher approved. Cleaning them can take time and as much or more cost and energy than renewable paper filters.
Do you want a warming plate keeping your coffee hot, or a thermal carafe? I suggest choosing by preference, but I have conducted extensive taste tests and thermal carafes keep coffee hot longer, but the myth that they maintain coffee taste longer is, well, a myth. It might help slightly as a warming plate exerts specific heat at the bottom that might cause flavor degradation in, say 30 to 40 minutes, but a thermos still heats coffee and the flavor might last another ten minutes before it is, to my taste, undrinkable.
Unfortunately, the most important features, you can’t see on the box, except in rare cases.
Brewing Temperature – Coffee takes very hot water to extract its best flavors, the very flavors that high-end bean coffees contain. A coffee brewer’s water temperature should be between 195 and 205 Fahrenheit during the entire brewing cycle. Many coffee brewers deliver much lower temperature water to your grounds. (See www.coffeecompanion.com for various machines tested water temperature).
Contact Time – The only reason I don't call it brewing time is that some coffee brewers don't brew all at once. What counts is how long the grounds are exposed to the hot water. Period. Drip grind coffee delivers its best flavors at between four and six minutes’ exposure to proper temperature water. Many automatic drip brewers advertise their ability to make a “cup a minute”. If they are 4-6 cup machines, that’s good. Most are twelve cup machines and that’s much too long. Often they compensate by using lower-than-ideal temperature water for longer times as if the end result will match higher temperatures at less time, but it won’t. If I got an automatic drip machine home and it took longer than eight minutes to brew a full batch, I’d return it.
Grounds saturation – Believe it or not, the ability to shower the grounds with hot water is a significant factor in how well they brew. I’ve tested brewers that left dry grounds they had such “bad aim” and others just did an excellent job making sure all of your grounds are equally saturated. Given the choice of a machine that brewed at 190 but got the grounds well saturated and one that brewed at 200 but didn’t, I’d take the lower temperature performance – that’s how strongly I consider this issue. One reason French press coffee brewers have such a good reputation is they never fail to get all the grounds fully saturated for the full duration of the brewing cycle.
Conclusion: Do your research
Good bean coffee is now selling for $10 per pound or more. A good brewer will pay for itself by delivering all the flavors you want. A poor performing coffee brewer will not, and the really bad ones will add bitter flavor notes. I honestly believe that most consumers have never ever had a properly brewed cup of coffee at home and most of the problem is their machine.