I tested a lot of tools and drank a lot of cups. HERE'S EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW, OK!!!
What kind of self-proclaimed cheapskate buys pricey Keurig K-cups and Nespresso pods? Until recently, this kind. I let convenience get in the way of my good sense -- and my good taste. Keurig machines are convenient, sure, but the coffee's just OK. Nespresso tastes better, but, wow, the cost (about $1 per cup). And both systems generate a crazy amount of plastic waste.
Time for a change. I set out to find not just cheaper ways to brew coffee, but also tastier and less wasteful. Spoiler alert: With a kettle to make hot water and a $16 pour-over gadget, you can raise your java game considerably. A few bucks more gets you awesome homemade espresso.
The caveat, of course, is that coffee is as subjective a beverage as wine. What I like may not be what you like. But the three coffee drinkers in my house all agreed that a little extra effort produces way better results than any instant-brew machines we've tried -- and for a lot less money.
Every single person I consulted about this endeavor -- friends, baristas, people of the interwebs -- insisted that freshly ground beans were the key to coffee excellence. To me that sounded like added hassle, plus I'd have to buy a pricey grinder, but I agreed to make that my starting, er, ground.
I bought three kinds of beans:
Then I did the math: My typical 12-ounce morning coffee uses around 0.7-ounce of ground beans. (That's actually on the high side for a single cup; it's because of the pour-over method. A drip coffee-maker would use less.) That means I should get roughly 45 cups from one of those big bags. Price per cup, assuming I stick with Kirkland: about 33 cents.
On average, Keurig K-cups run closer to 65 cents per pod, though buying them in bulk can often yield prices that are as little as half that -- the same as my ground beans.
The two key differences: The ground beans taste amazing (I absolutely loved all three) and produce only compostable waste. All else being equal, I'd choose the fresh-grind option every time.
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Here's where a bit of expense comes into the equation. Although you could buy a blade grinder for as little as $10 to $15, they just don't work well. They smash the beans, blender-like, instead of actually grinding them, and it's all but impossible to get a consistent grind at the proper coarseness. Burr grinders solve those issues -- but they're not cheap.
Indeed, the three burr grinders CNET testedrange in price from $100 to $200. I decided to look for a cheaper option, and found one in the Sboly Conical Burr Coffee Grinder. It typically sells for $75; at this writing, it's been marked up to $84.45, but an on-page coupon knocks $22 off. (Prior to that, I secured an exclusive discounted price of $46, but that deal has since expired.)
In my tests the Sboly worked pretty well, producing a very consistent grind at all settings. It's loud, though, and I often had to give it a little shake to nudge the last of the beans from the hopper into the grinder. Still, if you're able to snag one the next time that $46 deal rolls around, I have no qualms about recommending it.
The $100 Oxo Brew Conical Burr Grinder, widely regarded as one of the best on the market, also worked well. It's not quite as loud and doesn't have the Sboly's hopper problem. In fact, you can remove the hopper without beans going all over the place, something you can't do with the Sboly. I'm not sure those small benefits justify the higher price, though.
Read more: The best coffee grinder for 2020
Pour-over coffee requires a kettle of some sort, as you need water that's just shy of boiling. You can absolutely use the stovetop pot you already own, but I'm a big fan of electric models (which, incidentally, are all but ubiquitous in Europe). They're not only much faster, but also safer and more energy-efficient.
There are several billion electric kettles available from Amazon, with prices ranging from around $16 on up to $70. Why the disparity? If you want one with a gooseneck spout, which purists will tell you is essential for pour-over coffee (as it affords more precise water distribution over the grounds), those cost a little more.
You can also get a kettle that has digital controls, meaning you can set it for a precise temperature -- and those are the most expensive. Again, purists will tell you there's an optimal water temp for pour-over coffee (the general consensus: 200 degrees), and pricier kettles can deliver exactly that. My take: Not worth the extra cash. Once any standard kettle hits the boiling point, you can simply wait 30 to 45 seconds for it to cool down to 200.
Read more: The best electric kettles of 2020
Based on recommendations, I tested two pour-over products: The Bodum Pour Over Coffee Maker with Permanent Filter (currently $18) and Oxo Brew Single Serve Dripper ($16). The former is good for up to 32 ounces of coffee -- about a cup each for the three of us -- while the latter makes just one cup at a time.
I didn't like the all-glass Bodum. For starters, I'm a klutz. Also, the packaging and instructions differ regarding the kind of grind to use: One says medium, one says coarse. But the real issue is, there's no way to know how much water you're pouring in unless you first measure it into your kettle. That's too much hassle for me, especially considering that I first have to run my water through a Brita filter.
Also, although the permanent mesh filter saves me having to buy and dispose of paper filters, it leaves "silt" in the bottom of my coffee cup -- even if I go with a coarser grind. And if I do that, the resulting coffee is too weak for my tastes. Also: not super-hot by the time I'm done brewing a full carafe -- which requires pouring, waiting, pouring again and so on.
Again, this is a matter of personal preference. The Bodum has a 4.6-star user rating from nearly 10,000 buyers, so my dislike definitely puts me in the minority.
As for the Oxo Brew: loved it. In fact, I'm now using it daily. It's incredibly simple and yields great results. It's all plastic, so I don't have to worry about a breakable glass carafe. And its water tank is marked on the side so you know exactly how much to pour in.
In the end, freshly ground or preground coffee, a kettle of hot water and the Oxo Brew combine to give me superb coffee, for a much lower price per cup and with only compostable waste.
Read more: The best coffee maker for 2020
When afternoon rolls around, I'll often reach for an espresso pick-me-up. To take the place of the aforementioned Nespresso Vertuo machine, I looked at two options: The widely loved AeroPress (usually about $30) and the new De'Longhi Stilosa EC260BK ($100). They're about as different as can be.
The AeroPress is a compact plastic gadget that's kind of like a French press, except that instead of letting the water steep in the grounds and then pushing the grounds down, you press the water through the grounds into your mug. It's faster than a French press and doesn't produce the bitterness those tools are known for.
I'll admit, I didn't see the appeal at first. There are literally six separate parts to this contraption, not including the proprietary filters, and the brewing process seemed a little intimidating. After a few tries, however, it revealed itself to be quick and easy (fast, too), and the resulting shot of espresso is truly great. You can add some hot water to your cup to create an Americano, or milk for a latte.
As for the Stilosa, I'm including it here because it's a pump-style espresso maker for $100, which is unusual: There are a few machines in the $150-to-$200 range, but many cost hundreds more. (CNET's picks for the best espresso machines range from $200 to $600!) This one comes with single- and double-shot filters and has a steaming wand for heating and frothing milk. Plus, it's admirably compact, consuming precious little counter space.
It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of it, but the results are splendid.
Thus ends my journey of pod-free coffee discovery. As always, I'd love to hear what you're doing at home to achieve coffee excellence. Have you found different, better ways to brew, without the waste and expense? Share your tips and recommendations in the comments!
In the meantime, here's a recap of my preferred coffee-making tools:
Routinely on sale for around $62 (sometimes less), Sboly's grinder isn't perfect -- but it definitely gets the job done, and for less than many other popular grinders. (My next pick, from Oxo, sells for $100.)
Available in a variety of colors (several in the $19 range), this 1.5-liter kettle includes a removable filter designed to help reduce limescale deposits. And just for fun, it's made of tempered glass, so you can literally watch this pot boil.
Brewing for one? This is a fast, easy, super-affordable option. It's utterly idiotproof (perfect for me) and a snap to clean.
I'm not sure I understand the rabid fandom behind this thing, but I will say it produces an excellent shot of espresso without a lot of fuss. Plus, it's only $30 at most stores, and you can easily pack it for road trips.
You might need to mock up a name badge, because you'll feel like a barista using this thing. It works incredibly well for the price, pumping out single or double shots and steaming your milk on the side.
I'm a huge fan of Ember's self-heating coffee mugs. They're outrageously expensive -- quite at odds with this whole money-saving thing -- but without question the best coffee accessory I've ever owned.
Why? Because the mug keeps my java at the same precise (and custom-controlled) temperature, from first sip to last. So here's my advice: Take your coffee-bean savings and splurge on an Ember.
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