‘Tis the time of year for coffee. Well, every time of year is the time for coffee, but it’s the time to treat yourself to more coffee gear, for sure. Ever wanted to try something different than espresso? Or want to expand your collection of coffee accessories? Or just looking for a simple way to get a taste of really good coffee?
This guide is for you! I get asked quite a few times where and how to start with filter coffee, so here it is, my non-authoritative, but mostly complete coffee geek shopping list. It starts with the simplest gear possible and works its way up to coffee geekdom. I’m not saying you should start with the simplest and work your way up, but it’s a start for sure. In any way, this list is about getting great coffee in the
Brewing coffee looks more complicated to a beginner than it actually is. It certainly is a craft that involves care and striving for consistency. But that doesn’t mean you have to start out with a full set of accessories to enjoy great coffee. Speaking of brewing, if you’re wondering how to brew with all the tools below, there’s a handy list of different brewing methods available on Brew Methods. I include mine where it makes sense, but they’re not that different.
Most of the links below are Amazon affiliate links, just so you know. It’s the digital way of buying me a tiny cup of coffee to cultivate my coffee addiction. Thank you.
A grinder is the most essential tool for everyone whose goal in life is to drink good coffee. Buying your coffee pre-ground is like buying a bottle of wine that’s already been opened. You’re missing out on a lot buy not grinding yourself.
I use the Hario Skerton hand grinder, but really, anything will do. Hario also has a mini grinder, which has the advantage of being fully closed, not spilling any beans (literally), and a more fancy one, the Canister, that sports an old-school look. For added style, a Zassenhaus is a nice option.
If you’re looking for an electric grinder, the Bodum Bistro is certainly a good start. Way higher up is the Vario Mahlkoenig. I’m a big fan of hand-grinding myself, it’s a nice part of the whole coffee making ritual and good workout too.
Either way, it takes a while to figure out the right grind. For most of the brewing tools below, something finer works best, not as fine as espresso, but way finer as the coarse grinds you know from a french press.
The AeroPress is certainly the best way to start out. Don’t be fooled by the cheap looking packaging. I can’t think of an easier way to get great coffee, and no shorter way either. It’s great to get started, because you simply don’t need anything else. You may be confused, because it’s advertised as a tool to make espresso, but actually, it’s much better at making incredible filter coffee.
Instead of using one spoon of beans (spoon comes with the AeroPress), one spoon for the whole AeroPress, filling it up complete with water, gives you the best coffee you never expected to have with something odd-looking as the AeroPress. It’s a neat little coffee maker, and easy to take with you, when you’re on the road. It also makes for great iced coffee if you press the coffee directly on ice, all the while compensating for the added water of the ice cubers by adding a spoon or so more coffee beans.
My brewing method in short: invert AeroPress so that it’s bottoms up, put in 16 grams of coffee grounds, start timer and start pouring water. Pour water all the way (almost) to the top, stir three or four times. Pour some hot water of a paper filter to clean it, put it in cap, put the cap on. After ~60 seconds, flip the AeroPress and start pressing. Boom. Doesn’t take more than two minutes.
But what about a french press? To tell you the truth, I’m not a big fan of the french press, but given the right beans and a fresh grind, it can certainly make for a welcome distraction every now and then. I prefer to let it steep for three minutes instead of the recommended four, so the result is less dark and brings out the taste of the bean more. I’m a big fan of Bodum’s Columbia series myself, but really, any french press will do.
If you don’t want to keep paper filters around, or in general want to try something new with the AeroPress, check out Coava’s Disk, a reusable metal disc which you can use as a filter for the AeroPress. It makes for an interesting variance in the brew, giving it a more french press like, full body experience. I’m not a huge fan of it, but I also haven’t tried it too often yet, definitely have to keep trying new coffees and brew variations with it.
The Chemex is my second favorite tool when it comes to making great coffee, especially when I need to make several cups at once. Its thicker paper filters make for an incredibly smooth coffee, and it pretty much works with any coffee. It’s also a thing of beauty to have standing around in your kitchen. It wasn’t included in the MoMA collection for nothing. As its inventor, Dr. Schlumbohm, said: “With this, even a moron can make good coffee.” My favorite coffee blog “Dear Coffee, I Love You” wrote a nice and short retrospective on him, which should be well worth your while.
It comes in varying sizes, but if you plan on making more than one cup at once, get the 6-cup version. There’s also one with a glass handle, which is easier to clean, but looks almost just as good. You need some special filters to go along, and I prefer the square ones over the round ones. They just make it easier to pour the water directly in the middle. There’s a 3-cup version available too, which comes in handy if you intend on brewing smaller amounts. The bigger Chemexes don’t do that well for anything less than half a liter of water in my experience.
Speaking of pouring, I use 60 grams of coffee beans per liter with the Chemex. After the initial bloom, where you put some 50-70 ml of water on the grounds, I keep pouring right into the center constantly, so that the water level is always steady. But all that said, the Chemex is certainly the most forgiving when it comes to varying the amounts of water and coffee, so it really is true, even a moron can make great coffee with it.
To take the Chemex up a notch, once again Coava Coffee stepped up, and built the Kone, a reusable metal filter. I’ve not tried the new model yet, so I can’t speak for that. The older model was just too finicky in my experience. Others’ varied, so there you go. It’s a nice add-on to have for sure, but I prefer paper filters.
Level Up: Scale
A scale comes in handy pretty quickly, I can hardly live without one these days. It’s the secret to getting consistent brewing results. That might sound geeky, but if you want to explore the uniqueness of specialty coffee (which is the fancy word for small micro-roasteries, and even bigger ones, but who focus on quality rather than quantity).
I use the scale for two things. For one I measure the coffee beans before I grind. My gold standard is 60 grams for a liter, just like with the Chemex, and it pretty much works for any tool I talk about in this exhaustive list. It’s the perfect ratio of beans and water to get a great tasting coffee. You can certainly use a spoon to measure your coffee beans, but different beans have different sizes, so spoons aren’t very precise.
The other use is to measure the water precisely. I usually put my brewing device directly on the scale and measure as I pour the water in, but you can certainly measure the water beforehand and pour it all in instead. The important part is to measure.
If you want to measure water too, make sure to get one that’s large enough for a server or the Chemex to stand on, and one that measures to the 100th of a gram at least. Digital is also much better than an analog scale, as it allows to measure with more precision. This Ozeri scale is a good example.
The Hario V60 was the first filter coffee brewer I got. It looks simple, but in my experience doesn’t go with every single origin coffee, but is still among my favorite ways to brew. It’s as simple as can be. A ceramic cone with a paper filter, just like grandma used to have. Which is exactly what people tell me when I brew a coffee with it, and they’re right. It’s very similar to what grandma used to make, the only problem is, grandma had the tools, but she didn’t have the really good beans.
There’s a one-cup and a two-cup size of the V60, where the red one-cup size certainly wins the prize for the cutest coffee accessory. Don’t forget to get filters too, both one-cup and two-cup size are ready to be bought.
It doesn’t have to be the Hario V60, there’s also the BeeHouse coffee dripper, which certainly wins in terms of being incredibly good looking. For a pour over coffee brewer, anything goes really. Ceramic is certainly the way to go, so even the good old Melitta drippers are a nice addition to any coffee aficionados collection, though they seem to be more readily available on ebay these days. Plus, filters for these are readily available. If you can’t find a Melitta cone, there’s other (and cheaper) drippers that work with Melitta filters. There’s also the Clever Dripper, which I’m personally not convinced of, there’s nothing special in the brew, I’ve yet to have a convincing one, and it looks pretty ugly. Prefer any of the above or the AeroPress over it anytime.
I’m also rather fond of the Kalita drippers, I may just have to get one some day. In terms of style though, the Donut dripper wins, hands down. It’s a thing of simple beauty.
All of them have one or more holes for the coffee to go through. Believe it or not, it makes a difference if it’s one bigger (like with the V60 or the Donut Dripper) or three smaller holes (like the Kalita or the Melitta drippers). The latter let the coffee steep just slightly longer than the V60, for example. It makes a difference in the resulting brew, but that’s something to look for when you want to expand your coffee horizon.
A word on the V60 though, I find it’s not suitable for all coffees. It makes for a particularly light brew, which doesn’t bode well with some of them, and it requires good care to get consistent results. But that shouldn’t hold you back. It’s pure simplicity when it comes to brewing great coffee, plus, it’s pretty cheap too. I love it. Same brewing parameters as for the Chemex apply.
Level Up: Kettle
I started out pouring water into my coffee tools using grandma’s good old coffee pot, one with a nozzle attached close to the bottom, allowing a consistent water flow. Other people start out simply by using their electric or stove top kettle, but they allow even less control over water. They all become a burden at some point because of that. To get consistent coffee brews, control is important.
So you end up adding something new to your collection, a kettle specifically for pouring water, with a narrow nozzle, allowing for slow pours with consistent water levels. I use the Hario Buono. There’s a kettle available from Kalita, too
I also use my kettle for making coffee with the AeroPress, pressing the coffee directly into the kettle. The AeroPress fits neatly on top of it.
Level Up: Coffee Server
Okay, this is ridiculous, a server specifically for coffee? Granted, it’s only a nice-to-have accessory. It’s just handy because you can put something like the V60 on top and drip the coffee directly into the server. It allows the coffee to breathe and to cool. The latter is important because hot coffee doesn’t bring out the taste of the bean. I prefer to let my coffee sit for a while so it can cool down. A server is great for that purpose, even for the AeroPress, because compared to the others, the coffee it brews is hotter than average.
It doesn’t need to be too fancy, and again, Hario, the Japanese coffee and tea tools, is up to the task, with at least three more servers (that I know of). Add that to the range server pictured above. There’s one that comes disguised as a decanter too, it’s a thing of beauty.
Woodneck Drip Pot
I couldn’t resist buying this one, because it’s simply beautiful. Also, the fact that it’s a cloth filter makes it all the more special and interesting. The brew is very different from the a paper filter cone and even from the Chemex. With the cloth filter it makes for a full-bodied brew, which brings some South/Central-American and African coffees out very nicely.
The cloth filter makes it a bit more painful to handle though, as it has to be kept moist all the time. I store mine in a glass of water in the fridge, so that the water doesn’t evaporate too quickly. Every couple of brews I boil it in water for a couple of minutes, which also works if you accidentally let the filter to dry completely.
The woodneck drip pot is an interesting brew tool, and something to add to a collection when you want to go beyond paper filter brews. I don’t pull it out a lot, but from time to time, and with the right coffee, it makes for a pleasant distraction.
The syphon is holy grail of brewing coffee, it even looks like it, but gives the smoothest coffee experience over all. A well done syphon brew is like nothing else out there. It’s insanely deliciously, brings out the fruitier flavors from the bean, and is just very very smooth. It’s my favorite brewing technique yet I don’t have one at home.
Why? Because it’s also the most finicky brewing method. It takes very long to master, and you have to figure out the right technique for each different coffee bean. If you own everything else though, there’s nothing that should keep you from buying a syphon, as they’re not particularly expensive either. Plus, they have that maniacal look of being part of a meth lab. Every time they do a brew at The Barn in Berlin, people look curiously and ask what it is. They do however, require and open flame of sorts to heat up the water, or a halogen heater plate, which costs a fortune.
The syphon uses a cloth filter too, which also needs to be kept moist all the time, same rules as for the woodneck apply. Just like the woodneck, the syphon works best with naturally processed coffees and African beans, at least that’s my experience.
There’s an abundance of them available, a classic version as you see in coffee shops, via simple versions that work on the stove top, not requiring an open flame, to Bodum’s Santos, which has been around for ages and is also a stove top syphon, to the luxurious and rather high-priced Cona Coffee Maker.
Where Do I Get My Coffee?
In short: not at Starbucks, not at Dunkin Donuts, not at McDonald’s. Those are mass-produced coffees, and you can taste it. The beans are stale and they were roasted months ago. Beans need to be fresh. They taste the best somewhere between the 5th to the 20th day after roasting. After that, a good coffee bean is still better than any Starbucks coffee, but when you start noticing the difference, it’s even harder to go back.
Get your coffee at micro-roasteries, or roasters that specialize in specialty and single-origin coffees. Single origin is much better than blends, because it allows you to fully appreciate the taste of the bean, instead of just tasting a combination of different beans. That said, a blend is a nice distraction every now and then.
More well-known roasters in the North America: Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, Stumptown, Blue Bottle. Smaller roasters: Coava Coffee, Heart, Four Barrel, Ritual, 49th Parallel, Sightglass, and many more. In Europe: Square Mile, Has Bean, Tim Wendelboe, Coffee Collective, Phoenix, Five Elephant. Most if not all of them ship their coffee fresh from the roaster, a lot of them do coffee subscriptions too, delivering coffee every week or month. Now there’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Note that the list of roasters is to the best of my knowledge, and by no means complete.
This, by far, isn’t everything there is to brewing filter coffee, but it’s a good start. All of the above tools don’t involve electricity except for the water, but even that you can heat over gas. I have yet to expand my horizon too, but I’ll keep you posted. Until then, this guide will do.
Photos courtesy of nickcho, confusedbee, and dennis.tang.