The 2008 Festive Buyers Guide - Chapter Three

Chapter Three - Keeping it cheap for the steep!

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Stove top espresso this ChristmasIn the last chapter I stressed the importance of the coffee grinder. Repeating: The Coffee grinder is more important than the method of brewing.
Why is that you ask? Well. Consider this: In my kitchen there are probably ten ways for me to make coffee.

And only one coffee grinder.

Actually, I have lots of grinders... but I only use one at a time. Naturally.

Most days, when I am in the mood for a home prepared cup of mud, I do not actually decide what I am going to do until I actually cross into the kitchen - and ironically, the only thing in my kitchen that has anything to do with coffee is the grinder - everything else lives in the cupboards outside the kitchen. I have french presses (3), stove-top espresso (2), Melitta drip units (1), Aeropress units (usually 3 or 4 but only one that is open...), a percolator, a one cup drip brewer, a larger drip brewer, a pod machine and generally an espresso machine... oh yea, and one method or another for cupping or brewing cowboy coffee.

And more coffee glass ware than... well, lots of mugs, cups, demitasse, espresso cups and shot glasses.
...and one really good coffee grinder at the ready.

Important point again: The right coffee grinder gives you immense freedom... to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

Stating the obvious: The blade grinder was never intended to grind coffee. It does not grind coffee anyway. It SMASHES coffee into irregularly shaped and sized bits and pieces. Useless for serious use or actual coffee consumption.

As we stated in chapter one, the best way to a great cup of joe is by actually keeping it dead simple. Paper filters, filter holder and mug. Problem is, you still need a decent grinder and a good grinder is still going to set you back a hundred dollars. Small price to pay I suppose when you consider what you probably spend per month on take-out! Hope that helps.

If I was going to be giving some coffee themed gifts this Christmas (that is, gifts with a quirky twist...) here is what I would do:
I would buy everyone an Aeropress - arguably the most important coffee development of the 21st century - and very affordable and portable; home, office, camping, etc. Use your imagination. Price: 25 to 35$ depending on the vendor. The Aeropress is the brainchild of inventor Alan Adler of Aerobie industries. He created the beloved Aerobie flying disk. The Aeropress brews coffee with a kick and all you need is finely ground coffee (espresso grind) and a kettle to boil up some water. That is pretty much it.

At the next level I would suggest the Stove-top espresso maker or Moka pot. 100 million Italian nationals cannot be wrong. The Moka is generally made from Aluminum or Stainless steel. I prefer the steel models because coffee and aluminum do not mix - One of America's most beloved kitchen stores, Fantes.Com in Philadelphia.

Like the Aeropress, the Stovetop uses espresso coffee. The difference is, the water is heated inside a chamber in the coffee maker and the steam that is created as the water heats is used to push hot water through the ground coffee. Because there is some pressure involved, the coffee has a bit of a kick to it. It is not espresso, not even close (that takes upwards of 9-Bar to produce true espresso) - the Stovetop uses about 1.5 Atmosphere if that to push the water through the espresso - hence it tastes edgier than regular coffee - its an acquired taste - if you would, a nice intro to true espresso coffee without actually being real espresso. Price tag - $25 to $35 dollars.

Want to get or give a gift that is just as much at home in a museum as it would be on your kitchen counter? Consider the CHEMEX. If it sounds kind of chemistry set-like, well it is. It is little more than a hand and or machine-blown glass globe with a narrow waist. By some it is considered the ultimate in coffee brewing good taste and culture - that is because it is a very fancy drip brewer - and has been in use for over 50 years. Very reasonably priced at about 39 bucks. Also from Fantes.Com

If the standard electric drip brewer is the most popular method of coffee preparation in North America, then the French press is not far behind in the number two slot. And why is that? Little secret between friends... and this is NOT meant to encourage anyone to buy a BLADE grinder... but. If there is one barely respectable use for the BLADE grinder, it is with the Bodum or French Press or Press Pot... and just barely folks... just barely.
Thing is - The press pot uses the second coarsest grind of any brew method and it could well be slightly (and I mean very slightly more tolerant of poorly ground coffee.) And what grinder does a really poor job? That's right! The blade grinder. It sucks folks - but you can use it in a pinch with the press pot... if all hope is lost and there is no hope that you will buy a real grinder.

The real key to doing press pot right is in the steep time. Like tea, the coffee has to come in contact with the hot water for a specific period of time or it will taste thin and lifeless. Do not be impatient! Smaller pots require about 3 minutes of steeping (I tend to go a little long) and bigger pots require 4 minutes or more. Coffee master Mark Prince wrote a good piece on the art of pressing over here. Totally worth the time to read. Presses make a great gift because there are no consumables - like filters and such... just the coffee and the water. Price tag: Starting at $20 and going up to $50 depending on what you get.

If the Chemex was not mad science enough for you, there is a brewer that makes the average viewer squeal with delight. Yes. I guarantee the delight quotient of this next bean machine. It is the vacuum pot. It is the one coffee brewing method that requires a thinking cap and some care and attention. Ideally it is used with a gas stove or Bunsen burner - not always practical - but I did say chemistry set didn't I? The Vacuum by Bodum is made of glass and whenever you mix glass and high heat, there is always the risk of kerboom. So make a note of that! The Bodum vacuum pot from the wonderful site, Bodum-USA, is a work of art and makes fabulous coffee - arguably the cleanest (or clearest cup of) coffee you will ever drink.

Picture at left - If money is no object and you want to give the ultimate coffee gift, hire a professional coffee brewer like the author of this chapter - to visit you whereever you might be... for the cost of airfare. That's right folks. Coffee is rocket science. So why risk the embarassment of a bad cup. Impress your friends. Limited time offer!

The skinny on how the Vacuum brewer works: Two globes, a lower and an upper connected by a valve and a seal. Put water in lower globe and ground coffee in upper globe. Apply heat to lower globe. Water boils and is pushed by steam into upper globe. Remove heat. Water and coffee mix and steep. Vacuum now created in lower globe pulling brewed coffee back into lower globe. Get it? $69. Safety glasses and life insurance not included.

When you absolutely must spend the absolute minimum of coin on your friends (and they love coffee) - there is an answer. It is called the Vietnamese coffee brewer. It is a gravity brewer. It is small. It is made of steel apparently and if you pay more than $5 for it, you have been taken for a ride. Here is the process described on ineedcoffee.com - a good read. Usual price-tag: $3.99 for one and $20 by the case-lot.

In the next and final chapter on the 2008 seasonal gift giving guide we will jump back into the basics of espresso coffee and how you can make as gentle a transition as possible... into the World of espresso, cappuccino, etc. Stay tuned!


Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada. His website, CoffeeCrew.Com, has been on the air since about 1994 - an awful long time in the Internet World... how long can he keep doing this folks? How much more is there to say about coffee culture? Stay tuned and find out... and please, I beg of you - no wagering!




Chapter four anyone?