This week we’re looking at all the different methods of brewing coffee, and helping you pick which is right for you!
Given that coffee is basically just water pushed through ground coffee beans, there are a surprising number of ways this can happen, and all of them result in different tastes, strengths and amount of coffee produced. Therefore your choice of coffee maker will depend on what you prefer - the small strong punch of an espresso? Maybe a comfortable pot of weaker coffee from a French Press, or a bitter filter coffee. It’s good to experiment and try different things, but the range of terminology can be confusing. So let’s dive in and do some explaining!
Espresso Coffee Makers
Espresso machines are the quintessential coffee maker - historically they were responsible for the best Italian coffee, looked beautiful, and were intimidating to use. They were pressure gauges and multiple steps of preparation. They could go wrong and leave you with a cup full of nasty grounds or vaguely brown water. Oh, but the coffee they made - utterly wonderful!
Thankfully modern espresso makers are significantly easier to use - and the quality of coffee they produce is still sublime. Espresso makers work by pushing a small amount of hot water through finely ground coffee at extremely high pressure - this pressure allows it to quickly absorb a lot from the coffee grounds, creating a small ‘shot’ of extremely potent coffee. This can then be drunk by itself (either straight, or with a ‘stain’ of milk - a macchiato) or used to create any number of popular milk-based drinks, such as lattes and cappuccinos,
Espresso machines can require some training to work properly, and can be fiddly, but with practice you can produce top-quality coffee easily. However they only really make a single ‘shot’ at a time, so are best for one or two people - try to make espressos for a group and your coffee will be cold before you’re finished! A good quality espresso machine can also be quite expensive, meaning unless you’re serious about coffee, you might not get your money’s worth.
Good for the solo coffee enthusiast who wants to learn to make proper Italian espresso
Pod Coffee Maker
On the opposite end of the scale from espresso machines, pod coffee makers are all about ease and convenience. Pod coffee makers get their name from the ‘pods’ of pre-ground coffee that the machines use. Each pod is measured with a single serving of coffee, taking much of the annoyance out of coffee making. There is no need to grind, measure or prepare the coffee - many just require you to put the pod into the machine and hit a button to brew a cup of coffee!
While they are easy to use, pod coffee makers often lack any way of modifying the drink you’re making - you can’t easily make it stronger or weaker, and some pod machines are tied to a specific brand of pods. Many brands of coffee pod also aren’t recyclable, making them bad for the environment over a long period of use.
However, is the coffee any good? Mostly: yes! Coffee pods have drastically improved in quality over the last few years, and many of the high end pod makers can create drinks almost indistinguishable from high street coffee shops. This is a real positive - the ability to have a Starbucks-quality coffee at the press of a button. Pod coffee makers are also cheaper than either espresso or automatic machines, though you do have the extra expenditure of the pods to consider.
In the end the pod coffee makers are best for people who just want coffee quickly - if you don’t want to faff around with grinding your own beans or getting the right PSI for a perfect espresso, then a pod coffee maker delivers quickly and easily! They are also good if you are wanting to dabble in different types of coffee, since they are cheaper to buy, and there are lots of different types of pods available. Finally the machines themselves are also normally smaller than espresso makers, making them good for small kitchens without much surface space.
Good for people who want a good coffee quickly and easily first thing in the morning, or neophytes looking to explore more about coffee.
Automatic (‘bean-to-cup’) Coffee Machines
Now we’re getting close to the professional level of coffee brewing. Automatic coffee machines are the big hitters of the coffee world - these are large machines designed to make a proper high-quality coffee from scratch at the press of a button. This means they grind the beans specifically for your order, brew up the coffee, add milk and build the drink all in one go - hence the name ‘bean-to-cup’.
In many ways they are like pod coffee makers - they aim to make coffee making as easy and convenient as possible. However automatic coffee machines are far higher quality - because they use freshly-ground beans and have special facilities for milk frothing and the like. Effectively they are trying to be a robot barista, creating a large amount of top-notch coffees without any fuss! Though they aren't nearly as cool as some actual coffee-making robots people are building!
Because of this, automatic coffee machines are large - they are the bulkiest of the machines we’ve looked at today, and definitely the most expensive. This means they are best for companies - you may well have used an automatic coffee machine in an office break room or cafeteria.
The cost makes them less useful for family or individual use, though there are some smaller models that come at a less eye-watering price point! If you and your family drink an awful lot of coffee, then an automatic coffee maker may be the way to go - they offer the taste and quality of an espresso machine, with the ease of a pod machine!
Able to make lots a lot of drinks in a short amount of time
Will be overkill for most people
Good for companies, or rich families who drink a lot of coffee!
Filter Coffee Makers
Filter coffee is the essence of every stereotypical American diner and run-down greasy spoon cafe - a big glass carafe of black-as-night coffee that has been brewing since approximately the dawn of time. That doesn’t make it bad at all, and indeed if you want to drink coffee over a long period or you’re making coffee for lots of people, a filter coffee maker is ideal!
At its simplest, filter (AKA ‘drip’) coffee machines are similar to espresso machines - except instead of pushing the water through at great pressure for a very short time, they let the water trickle through the coffee grounds naturally. This lets the water slowly pick up as many of the coffee particles as it can, providing a large amount of bitter coffee. The coffee produced is weaker than espresso - both in taste and punch - but it’s very easy to drink and entire pot over the course of an hour or two!
Filter coffee makers therefore excel at providing coffee for groups, or in situations where people will grab cups at irregular intervals over the course of a long time. They are often found in small companies and the aforementioned cafe and diners, but do great for a family too - set a batch of filter coffee brewing on a sunday morning and you’ll have coffee to enjoy while relaxing all morning.
Because of the slow nature of the brewing, filter coffee makers aren’t particularly good for people in a rush, or for a quick pick-me-up of caffeine. Drip coffee makers need some time to create a perfect cup - you are also limited in the type of coffee you make. The machines don’t provide the pressure needed to brew espresso, meaning you won’t be able to use them to make milk-based drinks such as lattes or cappuccinos - this is for large amounts of filter coffee and that alone. They are also usually very cheap to buy and run - making them an economic way of providing coffee for a whole family at once
Good for families or couples who want a big pot while they enjoy lazy sundays.
Stovepot Coffee Makers & Cafetières
Finally, let’s look at some low-tech alternatives. There are a massive amount of ways to brew and enjoy coffee, and not all of them need big fancy machines and a lot of money. Sometimes all you need is a pot and some hot water.
Stovepot coffee makers are exactly what they sound like - coffee pots that are placed directly onto the heat of a hob or burner. This heats up the water inside, bubbling it up through the grounds, resulting in a nice pot of hot coffee.
Cafetières on the other hand are basically little more than a jug filled with hot water and coffee grounds - this is left to brew for a few minutes, then you push down a plunger on the top of the jug, trapping all the grounds at the bottom, leaving you to enjoy your brew.
Both these options produce some delicious coffee - closer to the kind of black powerful brew you’ll get from drip coffee makers. However they are as low-fi as it’s possible to get, which means they are lacking any kind of smart features you might find in the newest espresso or automatic coffee machines. No displays, bluetooth facilities, apps or anything like that.
Sometimes you don’t need any smart features with your brew - there is a real old-world romance with these methods of brewing, and the nostalgia factor is a powerful reason to start using one over an espresso machine. They also come in a variety of different sizes. Cafetières especially can come in all sizes from small 1-person pots all the way up to enormous jugs that can make coffee for 15 people at once.
Unfortunately much like drip coffee makers, they lack any kind of pressure to them, so you won’t be able to brew espressos or lattes using them. They also can frequently take a bit of fiddling to get right. This is especially true of stovepot coffee makers - I’ve splattered coffee all over my cooker and kitchen more than once trying to make stove-top coffee!
However, even with those disadvantages, there is a real romance to these manual coffee makers. It’s a nice thing to make up for yourself on a lazy sunday, and they are also the only methods reviewed here that can be used while camping or anywhere away from electricity. Well, usually... although someone has made a handheld espresso maker!