In the not-so-distant past, making coffee at home was simple – you used an automatic drip coffee machine and pre-ground beans. Simple, but not always the best-tasting result. Nowadays, there are a myriad of choices available for making coffee at home so it can be a little overwhelming when trying to make a decision.
One question I get fairly often is, “I want to get something better than my Mr. Coffee drip machine, but I don’t know what to get! Help me pick something!”
There ARE good quality automatic drip machines on the market, if you’re willing to pay for them. Models by Brazen, Bonavita and Technivorm come to mind, starting around $150-250. If that’s out of your price range, a manual coffee maker (between $20-40 in most cases) is a lot more budget-friendly and makes stellar coffee. But, which to choose?
Before we go any further in this conversation, I must stress the following: if you don’t have a grinder, I highly recommend that you get one; a burr grinder would be ideal. Check out my post on grinder suggestions for ideas in your budget. The most expensive coffee machines and gadgets won’t make great-tasting coffee if the beans are pre-ground and stale.
Got fresh beans and a grinder at home? Good. Now let’s discuss options!
How many cups of coffee do you want to brew at a time?
Keep in mind that we are talking about coffee cups, which for most manufacturers means a 4-6 oz cup of coffee (so in this world, a cup does not equal 8 oz!). If you want two full 12-oz mugs of coffee, that will really translate to 4-6 cups.
1-3 cups: AeroPress, Hario V60 (various sizes), Clever Dripper (various sizes), Kalita Wave, Bee House
3-12 cups: French press (various sizes), Chemex (various sizes)
Do you have a preference regarding material?
Plastic: AeroPress, Clever Dripper, Hario V60, Kalita Wave
Plastic manual coffee makers are cheap to purchase and are virtually indestructible with normal use. However, some people have concerns about using plastic to hold liquids, especially hot liquids. In addition, some people notice “off” flavors when brewing in plastic brewers.
Glass: Hario V60, French press, Chemex, Kalita Wave
Glass manual coffee makers are relatively expensive but are typically aesthetically pleasing and easy to keep clean. They do have a tendency to break if you aren’t careful, as the glass can be rather thin, and the thinness of the glass may cool your coffee off more quickly than other methods. Glass does not impart any “off” flavors.
Ceramic: Hario V60, Bee House, Kalita Wave, Bonmac
Ceramic drippers are durable, and may come in multiple colors. Compared to the other options, ceramic drippers can be heavy, and can have a tendency to stain over time. They do require pre-heating with hot water as the ceramic can leach heat from the water faster than with the glass and metal drippers. Ceramic does not impart any “off” flavors.
Metal: French press, Kalita Wave, Hario V60 (stainless steel, copper)
Metal manual coffee makers are great for those who want an unbreakable option but don’t want plastic. They retain heat well. Prices range from affordable to not-so-affordable (the Espro press comes to mind, as well as the solid-copper V60).
Do you want to use paper filters?
Paper filters catch a lot of the oils present in brewed coffee, which will make for a “cleaner” cup and can bring out different flavors in a coffee vs. the unfiltered methods. There is some research indicating that unfiltered coffee can raise LDL so those with high cholesterol are advised to use filtered methods. The mouthfeel of coffee made with paper filters will be more akin to skim or low-fat milk; coffee made with metal filters will retain more oils and be closer in feel to whole milk. They may also contain silt/grit that doesn’t get caught by the mesh filter.
Devices that use paper filters: AeroPress, Chemex, Hario V60, Bee House, Bonmac, Kalita Wave, Clever Dripper
(I note alternatives to paper filters in parentheses)
Devices that do not use paper filters: French press, AeroPress (Able Brewing Disk), Chemex (KONE), Hario V60 (cloth CoffeeSock)
Regular or gooseneck kettle?
While a gooseneck-style kettle may not be strictly necessary, it creates a much better result for certain brew methods due to the increased level of control over the water. It’s more important for pourover methods and less important for immersion methods.
Gooseneck highly suggested: Hario V60, Chemex, Kalita Wave, Bee House
Regular kettle is fine: French press, AeroPress, Clever Dripper, Bonmac
How much attention to you want to give to your coffee?
I get it – you can’t focus in the morning before coffee, but you can’t make coffee without focusing with a lot of these manual methods. Generally speaking, methods that benefit from the gooseneck kettle require more attention than those that do not.
My opinion – easiest to hardest:
French press: pour the grounds in, bloom, add the rest of the water and stir, steep, plunge.
Clever Dripper: Wet the filter, discard water, pour the grounds in, fill with water and stir, steep, place dripper on mug to RELEASE THE KRAKEN (uh, I mean release the coffee).
AeroPress: Wet the filter, discard any excess water, pour the grounds in, bloom, stir, throw more water in, steep, plunge. The plunging does take some effort; the AeroPress isn’t a great choice if you have arthritis or limited mobility in your hands.
Hario V60/Chemex/Kalita Wave/Bee House/Bonmac: These all operate similarly. Preheat and wet the filter, discard water, pour the grounds in, bloom, add the rest of the water in the center of the coffee bed slowly and periodically.
The drippers with wedge and flat-bottoms (Bee House, Bonmac, Kalita Wave) will have a slower and easier-to-manage extraction rate than the drippers with larger holes and cone-shaped bottoms (Hario V60, Chemex); the larger the hole at the bottom, the less room there is for error in things like grind size, water distribution, pour rate, etc. Basically, with the Hario V60 and Chemex, you really have to pay attention during the whole process… which can be hard to do first thing in the morning!
Do you have a kitchen scale (or are you willing to buy one)?
A small kitchen scale that weighs in grams is a pretty reasonably-priced tool (around $20) that has uses beyond coffee. Using a scale will make your coffee more consistent from cup to cup; I can’t live without my scale! However, I understand that not everyone wants to bother with this step and would prefer to brew by volume.
A scale will make your life so much easier: Hario V60, Chemex, Kalita Wave, Bee House, Bonmac
Scale not necessary: French press, AeroPress, Clever Dripper
Ease of cleaning?
Dishwasher safe: Anything ceramic, glass (top rack of dishwasher only), dishwasher-safe plastic, or stainless steel. This includes the Hario V60 (ceramic, stainless steel, and glass models; on the glass model, remove plastic base before placing in dishwasher), Kalita Wave, Bee House, Bonmac, AeroPress, French press (glass carafe).
Note: The only part of the AeroPress I am not comfortable putting in the dishwasher is the filter cap, because one time it fell against the heating element and came out like this:
NOT dishwasher safe: Clever Dripper, Hario V60 (plastic and copper), Chemex, French press plunger (this isn’t necessarily unsafe, but I just don’t find it gets fully clean without taking it apart).
I hope this helps you narrow down your manual brewing options! And remember, if you can’t choose between several methods, these manual brewers are typically pretty small. You can make room for more than one. 😉