One of the most daunting things about deciding to explore making better coffee at home is the cost. After all, most people, whether they realize it or not, think of coffee in terms of convenience first, taste second. Which drive-thru is closest? Will getting a Keurig save me more time or convenience in the morning compared to my coffee pot?
So naturally, when people begin searching for ways to make coffee at home, they’re overcome with sticker shock. Often, they’ll end up sticking with what they’ve always done.
It’s true that coffee, just like any hobby or endeavor, does come with some upfront investment. But in order to see a substantial increase, you really don’t need to break the bank and you definitely don’t always need the latest and greatest gear.
Instead, focusing on nailing the basics and getting the right tools to help you learn the craft. With just a few simple upgrades, you will quickly see a noticeable difference.
1. Fresh Coffee
Use fresh coffee. It’s that simple. Coffee isn’t all that different than other food products. Once it’s roasted, the oxidation process begins, sending it on a path to staleness. Coffee generally lasts about a week from purchase before the optimal time to drink it has passed. There are a lot of factors that can impact a coffee’s shelf life. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on the most important one: time.
As a rule of thumb, I recommend buying only enough coffee that you’ll use in about a week. But this is an article about simple, incremental changes. So don’t feel obligated to buy your local roaster’s freshest batch. Just buy coffee that was roasted recently and be sure to keep it whole until you’re ready to drink it. Freshly ground coffee is always best. Pre-grinding coffee speeds up the process of oxidation, leading to staleness. So if old, mass produced coffee isn’t fresh enough, think of what that means for pre-ground coffee.
Find a local roaster that you like and purchase from them. If you don’t have a local roaster, many roasters sell their beans online and ship freshly roasted batches right to your door. Some even do subscription plans so you never have to worry about buying too much or not enough at once.
2. A Burr Grinder
Following up on the first point, a grinder is probably the tool that can provide the biggest upgrade to the coffee that you brew at home. If you’re like most people, you probably use a blade grinder at home. Blade grinders have, as their name suggests, 2 spinning blades to break apart the coffee. The problem is that these grinders don’t grind the coffee as much as they do chop the coffee. This means that the grinders lack consistency in grind size, which is very important when brewing good coffee.
This is why you’ll want to spring for a burr grinder. These grinders use conical burrs to actually grind the coffee to a uniform size. When you adjust your grind size on a burr grinder, the burrs simply move closer together or further apart.
There’s a large gap in quality between a burr grinder and a blade grinder. The problem for most new coffee enthusiasts is that there’s also usually a large gap in price between the two. A good entry-level electric burr grinder will usually cost you about $140. If you’re using it daily, this is an investment that you can certainly expect to get your money’s worth from. But for those who are a bit more hesitant to spend that much up front, I recommend getting a hand grinder. There are some excellent hand burr grinders on the market and they can usually be had for a fraction of the cost. As a bonus, they’re also great for traveling. We like the Hario Skerton Hand Grinder and we have an in-depth review here.
3. Gooseneck Kettle
This is simple. Because you’ll be brewing your coffee manually, you’ll need the right kettle. Executing a good pour over requires a pouring spout to create a precise pour. Kettles with pouring spouts are often called gooseneck kettles.
Gooseneck kettles provide control over the rate and location of your pours. We want this control because the goal of brewing coffee is to control as many factors as we can. That way, we can easily eliminate variables that negatively affect our brew.
As for whether to buy a stovetop or electric gooseneck kettle, it’s really just a matter of preference. I personally prefer electric and use the Bonavita variable temperature kettle at home. But you really can’t go wrong with either an electric or stovetop kettle.
The other choice to make is whether or not to get a variable temperature kettle. Variable temperature kettles (obviously only available in electric) allow you to set your desired brewing temperature. The kettle will bring the water to that temperature and hold it there until you’re ready. I really love my variable temperature kettle because it allows me to control another variable. However, it’s definitely not a must-have feature in a kettle if it’s going to bust your budget.
Now for the fun part: selecting your coffee weapon of choice. Of course, this is almost purely a matter of preference. After the taste of the coffee it produces, budget, convenience, and ease of use should be your first considerations when choosing a brew method. I would choose something that you won’t get sick of using daily and that can fit into your routine with relative ease.
Created in 2005, the Aeropress is relatively young compared to most traditional coffee brewers. That hasn’t stopped it from amassing a large, almost cult-like following in the coffee world — there’s even a World Aeropress Championship!
The scientific looking brewer is incredibly forgiving, making it great for beginners. For adventurous brewers, brewing using the inverted method adds a level of versatility. Add in the facts that the learning curve with the Aeropress is not very steep and clean up is a breeze and it’s easy to see why this is a favorite of both coffee newbies and longtime professionals.
While the Hario V60, Kalita Wave, or Chemex get a lot of (well deserved) love as the premier pour over brewers, I recommend newcomers to the game check out the Bee House Dripper. Some of the premier pour over brewers are notorious for giving new users fits because of their fickle nature. The Bee House is a different story.
The Bee House is one of the most forgiving pour over cones I’ve ever used. It has sloped walls create a wedge shape to help create an even extraction. The two holes in the flat bottom of the brewer restrict water flow instead of allowing water to flow right through. This alleviates a lot of pressure on your pouring technique. The Bee House may not as versatile as some of its competitors but it can be counted on to produce a consistent cup of coffee. Plus, I also love the design of the dripper, which makes me want to leave it out and show off to guests.
This is probably the most widely recognized brewer on this list. And for good reason. The French press is simple to use and produces a great, full-bodied cup of coffee. My hesitation with recommending the French press for beginners is the fact that it requires a much coarser grind. Beginners are usually working with budget grinders, which often have difficulties with consistency when grinding coarser. This is by no means a deal breaker but is something to consider before making the French press your go-to brewer.
PRO TIP: Don’t forget to decant the French press as soon as your brew is finished. If you don’t your coffee will continue to brew and become over-extracted and bitter.
The Clever dripper is interesting because it’s a sort of hybrid brewer. The Clever combines elements of an immersion brewer, like the French press, and the paper filter of a pour over cone. It utilizes a release valve to completely stop the flow of water, keeping it in contact with the coffee until you’re ready. This is a great entry level brewer because you can even place it on a mug to turn it into a pour over cone, essentially giving you two brewers in one.
Remember when we said the goal of coffee brewing was to control as many factors as we can? Well, that also means weighing both your coffee and your water. Measuring these by weight — using grams as your unit of measurement — is by far the most accurate way to do this. Measuring by scoop doesn’t provide an accurate measurement because coffee beans have different densities based on a number of factors, including roast or origin.
Now as a beginner, you almost certainly don’t need that super awesome scale your cafe has. You just need something accurate that has a tare function and can maybe take a bit of a beating. I’ve personally always used American Weigh Scales and have been very happy with them. My first scale was an AWS SC-2KG. It survived for years while I traveled with it, dropped it, and spilled coffee all over it. Only recently, after 5 years, did the display finally crack after a very high drop.
American Weigh Scale SC-2KG Digital Pocket Scale
Hario V60 Drip Coffee Scale and Timer
As you become more familiar with coffee, you’ll find that there are countless pieces of gear that will allow you to explore and experiment with different ways of brewing. For now, I say grab some of the basics, practice your technique, and experiment with some recipes. You can find plenty of brew guides from people online or ask your local barista. Practice with some of those and find out what you like before you drop hundreds of dollars on gear. If you’re finding value in these pieces and still loving it in 6 months or so, there’s plenty of options out there to help keep you growing and learning.