Manual coffee makers don’t just win on looks—they also yield superior joe.
My barista knows how I like my coffee, but I’ve never been able to match her skills at home. Apparently, electric coffee makers either overheat or underheat the water, producing mediocre tones. Could manual brewers produce a superior java? I tested five models in search of the perfect, not-too-much-fuss cup.
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
The Bialetti Moka Express, an Italian stovetop espresso maker, has instructions that may have lost something in translation. “Screw the coffee maker,” it reads. “Don’t prize on the handle.”
Fortunately, the brewing process for this two-chambered, stainless steel–spouted pot is relatively easy to figure out. (I’m testing a model that yields four shots of espresso, but Bialetti offers Moka pots that brew up to 18 cups.) Cold water fills the bottom chamber, and ground espresso sits inside a stainless filter in the top chamber. As the water boils, it funnels through the coffee grounds and into the upper chamber.
I listen for the spurting to stop, remove the Moka from the stove, and pour myself a shot, almost burning my pinkie on the side of the pot. Another problem: It’ll be a good half hour before the Moka is cool enough to unscrew and clean.
My friend takes a sip and says, “It tastes like Navy coffee.” $25, KitchenArts, 161 Newbury St., Boston, 617-266-8701. * *
Tuesday, 7 a.m.
Compared to the Moka, the Bodum Chambord French press is charmingly easy to use. It comprises a glass pot on metal legs and a plunger with a mesh filter. For two cups, I dump four scoops of coarse coffee into the pot and cover it with boiling water. After stirring a couple of times, I wait a frustrating but recommended four minutes before plunging the brew.
“WARNING,” reads the instruction booklet, “Using excessive force can cause scalding liquid to shoot out of the pot!” Yikes. I push the plunger slowly, trapping the grounds at the bottom of the pot under the filter. The coffee is strong and the flavor is good, but it lacks complexity. I consult coffee expert George Howell, CEO of the George Howell Coffee Company in Acton and founder of the Coffee Connection, who says, “Just like with poorly separated wine, sediment—produced by pressure through open screens—fundamentally muddies flavor.”
Furthermore, my second cup of coffee is lukewarm: The thin glass pot isn’t a good insulator. At least the Chambord is dishwasher-safe. $25, Tags Ace Hardware, 29 White St., Cambridge, 617-868-7711, tagshardware.com. * * *
Wednesday, 7:30 a.m.
Aerobie is known for foam footballs, flying discs, and dog toys, not coffee makers, but the Aerobie Aeropress promises a 30-second perfect brew (not counting the time it takes to boil water). Unlike the Chambord, the Aeropress features an airtight rubber plunger and a paper “microfilter” that traps sediment, so I can use finely ground coffee.
I plunk a filter into the cap and attach it to the chamber, which perches nicely on any coffee mug. I add a single scoop of coffee for one cup of espresso. The chamber is clearly marked for serving size (four, max) and desired richness, so I know exactly how much water to use. After stirring for 10 seconds, I plunge slowly.
I get a passable shot of espresso. Adding four ounces of hot water yields a very nice Americano—hot, sweet, and sediment-free.
The instructions say, “You needn’t feel guilty about discarding filters” because 2,000 of them “use as much paper as a single city newspaper.” Okay, now I just feel guilty about buying the newspaper.
Cleanup is the best part: I unscrew the cap, hold the Aeropress over my garbage disposal, and press the plunger to eject a solid puck of used grounds. Score! $32, the Concord Shop, 13 Walden St., Concord, 978-371-2286, concordshop.com. * * * *
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Thursday, 8:30 a.m.
Sporting a smart black neoprene zipper vest, the Eva Solo CaféSolo uses the stir-and-sit method of immersion brewing with any grind of coffee. I spoon about 60 grams (about 2 ounces) of espresso grind into the carafe, followed by one liter of boiling water. I stir, place the conical filter into the carafe, and, antsy for caffeine, let her brew for four minutes.
A flip-top lid and rubber stopper prevent spills, so I pour a splashless cup that’s good until I hit the last sip, and then: ptooey. The dregs are significant. I try again with a coarser grind; it’s better. The instructions recommend sticking Eva in the dishwasher to avoid soap residue. If hand washing is the only option, “use unperfumed washing-up liquid, as the perfume can impart a disagreeable taste.” (This rule generally applies to people, too.) $99, The Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave., Boston, 617-478-3100, icaboston.org. * * *
Friday, 7 p.m.
With its intersecting glass globes and tiny spirit lamp, the Cona Vacuum Coffee Maker looks like it came from a science museum—or a meth lab. And it runs on denatured alcohol, a highly flammable fuel.
Nevertheless, coffee experts insist that this one is the ne plus ultra of non-electric coffee makers because, Howell explains, “It’s glass from start to finish, so there’s no foreign metallic or paper taste. If done right, it produces a fantastically smooth cup of coffee. Besides,” he continues, “it’s probably the most beautiful coffee maker that you can put on your table.”
It takes a few tries, but preparing coffee in the Cona is the coolest thing I do all week. I fill the bottom bowl with hot water (this model holds nearly 30 ounces) and insert its narrow neck into a curved stand suspending the globe over the fuel lamp. Then I scoop 10 tablespoons of coarse-ground coffee into the other globe, which is attached to a glass funnel. I light the lamp, reheating the water. Still with me? When the water starts to boil, I twist the coffee-filled glass funnel into the bowl, ensuring an air-tight fit. And here comes the science! The water rises through the funnel and into the top globe. After two minutes, I extinguish the flame, creating a vacuum that sucks perfect coffee back into the bottom bowl. Whoosh! I can’t wait for my next dinner party to show off my new tricks! $185, available from espressozone.com. * * * *
* * * * Okay, I’m awake!
* * * Just like Starbucks used to make
* * Worth a shot
* At least it’s brown