Press Pots and Filter Drip Coffee
People think because I am so focused at times on espresso that I don't like press pot or filter drip coffee. Not true: I like them almost a much. In fact, it was the press pot that gave me my introduction into the world of quality coffee in my own country. Espresso is so technologically and artistically challenging to me, I do tend to talk about it more, but at the end of the day, when I want all my worries to go away, many times I go to my favourite press pot or drip brewer for a nice, easy cuppa to relax with.
In this segment of the newbie guide, I will give you what is hopefully some useful information on what is out there in the press pot and filter drip coffee world. Take almost everything with a grain of salt - most of what you read on this entire website is my opinion interspersed with some facts, and as the saying goes, your mileage may vary.
Press pots (or French presses) are almost always inexpensive (Bodum Chambords and Harios are expensive) and when they do cost more, you're usually paying the additional dollars for decoration. One slight exception is the Bodum Chambord line, which uses borosilicate glass - it supposedly retains heat better and is more durable.
There are also insulated press pots, by companies like Thermos Nissan and Bodum (they have just released a new clear insulated press pot). The insulated ones seem like a good idea but it would be better to pour the prepared coffee away from the grounds into an insulated cup. The Bodum all-metal filters are longer lasting than those with plastic scrapers on the plunger.
I don't recommend any specific press pot more than any other specific one because they are pretty much all the same performance. Small details like the shape of the pour spout, handle feel, and the feel of the plunger are all personal preferences and should be tested by you before buying. That said, almost every press pot on the market will deliver the same performance, under the same operating conditions (and materials).
Ahh filter coffee. The big problem with filter drip coffee is that the vast majority of consumer machines in North America do not brew at the proper brewing temperatures. Why? Read the sidebar for detailed reasons, but in short the lack of a quality heating system, one that is separate from the heating plate is one big cause. Poor quality controls is another. And litigation concerns is a third.
Because of this, I have found it difficult to find machines to recommend in this Newbie Guide. But I tried my hardest, and these are the ones I felt were up to the job.
Budget Drip Coffee
Please note: with one exception, the only budget choices I can recommend are manual devices requiring you to boil water in a kettle or other device first. I have not found any auto drip brewer under $40 that can brew at proper brewing temperatures, except for one - the KitchenAid model.
Melitta Manual Pour ($20 or less)
Melita makes a wide range of manual filter devices that they call gourmet brewers. They include single cup brewers to Euro models that can do 6, 8 or even 10 cups. You boil your own water, measure out your coffee, and pour your "off the boil" water into the filter slowly, covering all the grounds. Repeat until the proper volume of coffee has been brewed.
Chemex Brewers, 2, 3, 5, 8 cup models ($25-$40+)
Chemex brewers operate the same as the Melittas in that you use a paper filter and pour just boiled water over the grounds slowly and steadily until you have brewed your proper volume of coffee. The look like science experiments and use special paper filters that seem to make a better brew than normal paper filters can.
KitchenAid Ultra 4 Cup ($30)
I have now used this brewer, and while it does produce a good cup of coffee, it still doesn't hit that magical number of 192F or higher in the brewing basket. It's around 185F. The larger 10 or 12 cup model ($60 and $80) features a double heating system - one for the water, one for the hotplate, and does brew at better temps. This 4 cupper has a single heating unit. Barely recommended.
Hario Drip Coffee Pot ($28)
Looks a bit like the Chemex, but uses a muslin cloth bag as the filter. I own one and love the rich, full and flavourful cup of coffee it makes. Problem is, it only brews about 12 ounces (340ml). I wish it was available in a 5 cup (20oz) size. Great little brewer.
Mid Range Drip
This is a tough section to deal with, so I'm not going to feature specific machines here, but give you a refresher on what to look for in those machines that are in the $40 to $90 price ranges.
First, if the machine has a single heating element for both the hot plate and brewing water, chances are it won't heat the water hot enough. I'm not saying all of them do this - I own a Saeco Latte coffee brewer, one made the first year this product came to market, and it has a single heating element for water and hotplate, and is quite capable of a 194F brew. Saeco changed the machines for some time (or had quality control issues) and machines were rolling out of their assembly plant with anemic 175F or lower brewing temperatures. Recently, a vendor I trust says that the new crop does indeed brew hot again. If this is true, at $70 or so, this is a great coffee brewer with an added bonus of a milk frother built in.
Dual heating systems like the KitchenAid Ultra brewers are a good bet, but make sure you can test it at home and return it if you're unhappy.
Other things to look at are the dispersion pattern of the brew water (look to see if the place where the brew water pours into the filter area has lots of perforations, and spreads the hot water around). Better dispersion patterns equal better coffee brewed.
Also see if you can test the machine's heat ability in store (or if the store has a good return policy, take it home to try out). You can do this by sticking a needle therm in the brew basket as it fills with hot water (grounds will slow down the flow), but that isn't a very accurate way of telling. Take a calibrated digital thermal reader measuring device (or find some engineering geek who will lend you one) and do proper temperature tests.
Don't be sold by good looks and gee whiz digital interfaces and buttons, unless your only concern is how good the brewer looks. If taste is what you're after, test. Coffee must be brewed at 190F or above in auto drip brewers to ensure a full, flavorful, and tasty cup.
Upper Tier Drip
By the time you get to this tier, you start to run into machines that can look good (well, almost always) but do the job well too. You also start approaching the commercial grade of drip brewers.
Philips Cafe Gourmet / Capresso Aroma Classic ($90-$140)
These are getting harder and harder to find. Philips does sell them still, but as far as I know, this is one of their machines they do not import into America. Capresso no longer regularly sells them but they did have them in the refurbished store. Nice looker, definitely hot enough - you can see it.
Technovorm Clubline ($170 and more)
Very hard to find, but these machines are specifically engineered to brew at perfect temperatures. Kind of ugly, but they work like magic. Or technology. Or technological magic.
Any Bunn machine (start at $100)
Any Bunn machine will brew at hot enough temperatures, but with a caveat - Bunns brew quick, and thus need more coffee grounds for the same kind of full cup a 6-9 minute brewer does.
There are, of course other brewers out there that can brew a great cup of coffee. I've limited this list to ones I've actually used, or have been proven to be good coffee makers. If you follow the rules listed in the "mid range" machines, you'll have good success in finding a brewer that is right for you. Drip coffee can be great, if you have the right tools.