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Paper filter vs. metal filter: Which makes the best cup of coffee?

The type of filter you use when brewing coffee does matter. Learn whether you should be using reusable or disposable filters to make your daily cup of coffee.

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Should you use a metal or paper filter when brewing coffee?

While the answer mostly hinges on personal preference, there are some important things to note about the differences in paper and metal filters.

Learn how different filters can alter the appearance, taste and cost of your morning cup.

Taste & appearance

To some, the difference in taste may be rather subtle, but the visual difference is more obvious.

Metal filters

Reusable metal filters simply are not fine enough to catch everything that is poured into them, meaning they let important elements through the filter and into the cup, such as oils and micro-fines.

Coffee has also been accused of raising cholesterol. Specifically, it's said to raise LDL, "the harmful type of cholesterol," says NBC News' Merritt McKinney. However, it's the oils that sneak through metal filters that are truly to blame. These oils carry a ton of flavor which can alter the taste of the cup, but they also oxidize rather easily, meaning the taste can change significantly over the course of drinking it.

Micro-fines are tiny granules of coffee that are small enough to slip through the holes of the filter, which give the cup a darker, more cloudy appearance. They also make the flavor of the cup more rich and bold, like coffee brewed in a French press, and settle at the bottom of the cup, leaving a bit of sediment (also like French press coffee).

Paper filters

Paper filters are much finer, meaning they trap the micro-fines and usually capture most of the oils. The result is a much brighter cup, both in appearance and flavor. Coffee brewed through a paper filter can often be described as more sweet and fruity, and it's generally more translucent than metal-filtered coffees.

Cleanup

As far as cleanup goes, paper filters are the easy way out, hands down.

paper-coffee-filter.jpg
Taylor Martin/CNET

Metal filters

Metal filters are messy when it comes to cleanup. First, you must remove the filter from the brewer and dump the grounds into the waste bin. You want to get as many grounds as possible out of the filter before rinsing, as you don't want to wash a bunch of coffee grounds down the drain. Coffee can accumulate and clog drains over time.

Paper filters

A select few actually rinse their paper filters and reuse them several times before throwing them away. In most cases, however, paper filters are one-time use and entirely disposable. To clean up after brewing, simply lift the filter out of the brewer and toss it and the grounds into the trash in one fell swoop.

With a manual brewer like the AeroPress, to remove the grounds from the brewer, simply unscrew the cap and plunge the filter and spent grounds directly into the trash can.

Some people even opt to put their used coffee in their compost, as used coffee grounds are high in nutrients and the paper is generally biodegradable.

Cost

Over time, there is a significant difference in cost of using paper filters over metal filters.

Metal filters

A reusable metal filter can last for up to seven years or more and cost between $5 and $60. If, for instance, a higher-end filter like the $60 Able Brewing Kone Filter for Chemex lasts for seven years, the per-year cost would be $8.57. Over the course of a single year, however, most metal filters can pay for themselves, offsetting what you would have spent on paper filters and reducing your carbon footprint.

Paper filters

Paper filters typically cost several cents each, between $0.01 and $0.10. Being single-use and assuming you brew one cup of coffee per day, paper filters can cost between $18.25 and $36.50 per year. Those numbers can easily double if you brew more than once per day.

Most important takeaways

  • Metal filters can save you money in the long run, but are a bit more difficult to clean.
  • Paper filters cost more over time, but are practically mess-free.
  • Metal filters produce a more robust and visually darker cup of coffee, which contains more oils and sometimes small amounts of sediment.
  • Paper filters produce a brighter, sweeter cup of coffee with little or no sediment or oils, helping cut out the bad cholesterol found in coffee.