Coffee makers can be divided into a few different
categories: manual, automatic, and even integrated grinding automatic.
Automatic coffee makers are almost always "drip", in that
coffee soaked grounds drip the coffee into a waiting carafe. A manual
coffee maker is one in which the heating element for the water is not inside
the machine; that is to say, the heating element is external.
An automatic coffee maker is one that contains a heating element internally, and an
integrated grinding automatic coffee maker is one
that is automatic and that grinds the coffee.
Manual Coffee Makers
There are several types of these coffee makers, notably, French
presses, Single servers, Mokas, stovetop percolators, and Vacuum brewers.
Several of these types of coffee makers have evolved into automatic units as
First, let's investigate French presses.
A French press is a coffee maker which consists of a carafe and a plunging
device with a filter attached. The filter is usually a fine mesh
screen that mounts to a disk. Out of the end of the middle of the
disk, a metal rod extends up through the middle of a lid. Some sort of
handle is attached to the top of the protruding rod. The rod is
allowed to slid freely through the lid (this sliding, during brewing, is
referred to as "plunging").
For genuine French press coffee, coarse
coffee grounds should be put into the carafe prior to adding water.
After adding water, the rod/lid assembly is then fitted on top of the carafe.
Then, the rod is plunged up and down several times, agitating the coffee
grounds. With a properly fitting screen/disc assembly, the grounds
will remain below the disk. After a desired amount of steeping, the
plunger is placed in its lowest position within the carafe, and the coffee
is poured out.
French press coffee has been described as
the best tasting, least bitter, and least healthy type of coffee. This
is because the coarse grounds have maximal oil extraction from all surfaces
of the grounds. However, this is also one of the most caffeinated ways
to prepare coffee, which is why some folks regard it as the least healthy.
Single servers barely deserve recognition,
but many folks still use them. Simply, a cone-shaped plastic piece
with a hole at the bottom (much like the shape of the basket in many
electric drip coffee makers) is placed on top of a mug or carafe. A
filter with coffee grounds (ground for drip) is placed inside the plastic
cone, and water is poured over the grounds.
The trouble with this method is that small
batch coffee can be very inconsistent, and often less oils will get
extracted, despite their being fewer grounds, because the water does not
remain in the filter as long as it would for a full pot. The advantage
is that a single server is very convenient, and many folks prefer the flavor
of drip coffee to any other kind.
A Moka is a wonderful and simple device used primarily
for making "European" or crema coffee. This is also called a stove-top
espresso maker, and it is one of the oldest devices still in use for making
espresso. Here's how it works. There are two metal carafes, the
bottom which is wider on the bottom and gets smaller towards the top, and
the top, which is wider at the top and gets smaller towards the bottom.
Where the two carafes meet, there is a metal screen/filter between them.
The two carafes attach to one another with a threading. The top carafe
has an aperture at the bottom of it, which extends to a rod that reaches
almost the entire height of the carafe. The top of this rod has a hole in
it. That aperture will sit on the coffee, once the two pieces are
You see where this is going. Water is
filled in the bottom carafe, and the entire unit is placed on the stove.
As the water heats, pressure builds, forcing it up through the filter and
coffee, through the rod, out the hole and into the top carafe. When
all the water form the bottom goes to the top, voila, a carafe full of coffee.
This is the worst way to make espresso,
because the steam build up will only achieve about 1 bar of pressure. That's
a miserable number for espresso aficionados. However, for lovers
of strong coffee, this is an excellent way to brew, as it involves pressure
brewing (which aids in a more complete oil extraction). On a separate note,
the two carafes are screwed together along with a fitted gasket. This
gasket fits around the coffee/filter screen. The gasket will need
replacing, so make sure your specialty coffee shop has replacements.
Stovetop percolator coffee is very similar
to Moka coffee in that a stem is used to bring hot coffee up to the waiting grounds.
However, the rest of the process is quite different. A stovetop
percolator is a metal or glass carafe which has a stem that runs from bottom
to almost the very top. At the top of the carafe, a slotted basket
lets the stem run through it. The basket is filled with coffee, and as
the water boils, it shoots up stem and sprays out over the basket full of
coffee. As the coffee soaks the water, the coffee water starts to drip
back down into the boiling water. This goes on until all of the water
One disadvantage to stovetop percolators
made of metal is that it is often very hard to tell when to shut off the
heat source. But if you pull the lid up, you could get sprayed with
hot coffee! To compensate for this, a glass knob is sometimes placed
on top of the lid, which will allow you to see the color of the coffee, so
that you can judge when it's time to turn off the heat. Since
percolators still use a coarse grind, many prefer the taste of this coffee
to drip coffee.
The concept is very clever
(and pretty old). Two carafes are connected by a short tube.
Water is filled into the bottom carafe, and it is heated. As pressure
builds, the water is forced into the top carafe through a filter with coffee
on top of it. Once all of the water has passed through the tube, the
heat is removed, and the coffee flows back down into the bottom carafe.
The top carafe is removed and a lid is placed on top of the bottom carafe,
now filled with freshly brewed coffee, and it's ready to serve.
One of the nicest features of the vacuum
brewer is the potential lack of metal pieces, which can alter the taste of coffee.
However, a decided disadvantage is the clumsy design (removing the hot globe
on top and finding a place to put it can be difficult, if it has a tube
jutting out from the bottom). And, many moderately priced vacuum
coffee makers have the unfortunate consequence of not getting all of the
water up into the top globe before it all falls down again, and that can
mean weak coffee.
Automatic Coffee Makers
It's pretty clear what we mean here: your coffee maker. The
one you could program (but usually don't) to start brewing when you wake up in
the morning. It plugs in, you switch it on, and the world comes alive.
But, let's clear one thing up first; there are several other type of
automatic coffee makers.
There are automatic French presses.
These will automatically shut off when the water boils, and the heating
element is usually attached externally to a base which plugs into a wall,
making the unit similar to a cordless tea kettle. Also, there are automatic percolators which
either shut off when the water boiles, or have a
thermostat that shuts off the heating element after a certain amount of
time. And, too, there are automatic vacuum coffee makers which,
although they may have a warming pad, too utilize an internal electric
But, enough of those automatic mutants.
In the words of the great Hunter S. Thomson, "if something's worth do'n,
it's worth do'n right". You could go with an automatic French Press,
but then why not just buy yourself an automatic machine? After all,
true French press coffee is made by first putting the grounds in the
carafe, and then pouring hot water over them. An automatic one
must heat the water first, then you add the coffee to it. So, let's do
it up right, and get a glimpse of just how these things work.
Cold water is filled into a reservoir (these days, a water
filter is sometimes incorporated, and if it isn't, and if you care about the
taste of your coffee, filter your water). An opening in the reservoir
is connected to a hose which does a U turn up machine and dumps out into the
top drip area. Immediately below the drip area is a filter filled with JL Hufford Coffee ;) One thing I forgot to mention: the hose that made
the U turn detours through a heating element prior to getting up to the drip
area. When the power switch is turned on, the heating element is
activated. Then the water from the cold water reservoir that is
sitting in the heating element boils and this forces ambient pockets
of water through the hose to the drip area. Gravity happens... and the
boiling water falls into the filter basket. A hole at the bottom of
that basket lets glistening drops of caffeinated ambrosia spatter into the pot.
Then there're the bells and whistles: small
pot brew, single cup brew, auto on, auto off, timer brew, extra hot, etc,
etc. Some of them have messages on them wishing you a good morning,
others have stainless steel carafes which keep coffee hotter without boiling
it. The point is a switch makes the whole thing go.
Advantages? Everything. With
these units, its the bells and whistles I just mentioned above that make
them a smart buy. But even without extravagant add-ons, they are usually the quickest on
the market (although the non-automatic vacuum brewer is quite fast). Even if
you don't prefer drip coffee, just pressing a button is nice. However,
there still is filter clean up and you've still got to fill up the water
reservoir, and for the chronically lazy, this is death. The only real
serious disadvantages to electric coffee makers are two well-known
issues: first, many even of the newest automatic coffee makers cannot get
the coffee hot enough, and two, the life span of these things is usually
only two years, unless you religiously decalcify those hoses. A remedy
to the first problem is investing into a serious machine. Any Capresso
drip coffee maker will achieve the correct heat. Additionally, rinsing
out the carafe with hot tap water just prior to brewing will increase the
coffee temperature several degrees.
Integrated Grinding Automatic Coffee Makers
The integrated grinding automatic is the same as the
automatic, save for the following feature: it grinds the coffee for you.
Although this single feature may seem like a mere "bell or whistle", it is
really much more. The best feature in automatic machines is that when you push
a button, the process is done (no hand plunging, no fire starting, no
pressure building). The only step that requires a bit of time, assuming
you've already filled the unit with water, is measuring out the coffee into
But, wait a minute. Let's separate
the men from the boys here. You should always grind coffee just prior
to brewing. Otherwise, you
sacrifice so much of the aromatics that lend to a flavorful brew. Real coffee drinkers never buy
ground coffee. About once a year, and always at Christmas, we will
have a customer flashing big bucks at our whole bean coffee counter who buys a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain ground! AAAAAHHHH. Why bother? By the time the
recipient of this otherwise treasured gift gets to brew a
pot, upwards of eighty percent of all the aromatics will be gone! The
point here is that grinding just before you brew is the only way to
experience fresh coffee.
And now we get to the nut of this category.
An integrated grinding automatic coffee maker will automatically make the freshest coffee
available. You can literally leave the beans in the hopper, flip the
filter basket and zonk out into dream land, then wake up to freshly ground and freshly brewed java. Now, that's think'n.