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My Quest To Make The Best Coffee As Lazily As Possible

The coffeemaker industry, once dominated by Keurig and Mr. Coffee, is seeing a new wave of automated innovations. Can they please a snob?

My Quest To Make The Best Coffee As Lazily As Possible

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

Over the past five years, I’ve probably spent nearly 10,000 minutes making pour-over coffee. And don’t get me wrong, I like making pour-over, pretending that I’m some Brooklyn barista studying $6 cups of coffee behind $500-frame glasses, while producing a cup of coffee that catches a level of aromatic nuance automatic machines leave behind. But some days, I just want coffee. Now. In a big-ole pot. Without brown dust spilled across my countertops. Without zeroing out scales and weighing beans. Without, you know, working for it in any way (but, most of all, without selling out to the pollutant-filled cups of nasty known as Keurig).

After all, that cup of pour-over I make each day is pretty much just boiling water, slowly dumped over some beans and passed through a paper filter. Don’t tell me that, in an era when I can hit one button and have a pizza delivered to my door 20 minutes later, there’s not some slightly improved version of Mr. Coffee that can automate whatever the post-hipsters of Williamsburg are brewing up behind reclaimed wood countertops.

In the past few years—empowered by the third wave of coffee, or the U.S.'s $30 billion post-Starbucks coffee world where newcomers like Blue Bottle and Stumptown champion regional-specific beans like wineries do their grapes—a slew of more thoughtful coffeemakers and products have hit the market, all with the intent of automating snobbery, of brewing a great cup of coffee without the work. From artisanal instant coffee, to caffeinated Soylent, to sculpturesque coffeemakers that drizzle water over grounds at degree-precise temperatures certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the snobbiest coffee organization of them all, the lazy, demanding coffee drinker has never had better alternatives to the go-to Baratza burr grinders and gooseneck kettles of yore.

So I called in half a dozen new coffee products to try them out. And if it’s not clear, I am typing this very, very fast.

Oxo On Barista Brain

[Photo: Photo: via OXO]

I couldn’t review the latest in coffee gadgets without calling in Oxo’s best swing. Oxo is the ultimate houseware design brand—the same company behind Good Grips kitchen tools, and a can opener that opens a can but leaves no sharp edges.

Their Barista Brain gear would do the trick—a $200 pour-over-simulating coffeemaker, coupled with an $200 auto-weighing coffee grinder. I’d grind the beans, dump them into the coffeemaker with some water, and hopefully, I’d have amazing, simple, coffee.

As I unpacked the boxes, admiring the piano-black finishes, I assumed the battle for best coffeemakers would be a one-round knockout. The nine-cup coffeemaker I was testing had been certified by the SCAA—the respected, independent coffee organization that’s been notoriously reserved in giving its blessing to automated coffee gear (only anointing eight coffeemakers on the market today). I already knew how the story would end. Why would I bother testing anything else?

But I didn’t.

As much as I admired the seamless, backlit LED displays, as much as I liked the smooth knobs to adjust cups and grind settings, as much as I appreciated the perfectly proportioned insulated steel pot, as much as I enjoyed the mad scientist vibe of the integrated bubbling water boiler, as much as I loved putting away my scale, choosing the exact amount of grams I wanted, and just having the burr grinder figure out the rest for me, I couldn’t make a decent cup of coffee with the thing. It was persistently watery yet burned, with the bitter notes notorious for over-extraction, or when too much of the coffee bean is absorbed into the water.

My third day into testing, I placed the pot onto my kitchen table. (The best part of an insulated pot is that you can carry it and set it down anywhere, without worrying about burning yourself.) My wife made a face and offered to make us pour-over.

So what went wrong? I’d find out when I tried my next coffeemaker.

The Ratio

[Photo: via Ratio]

I never thought I would like the Ratio Eight, to be perfectly honest. Sure, it looks great online. The die-cast aluminum construction shamelessly admits to copying Apple aesthetics as closely as possible, and wood trim options, like walnut, warm up the device for domestic use. The glass carafe holds a Chemex filter (paper, or a reusable metal one, if you’ve got it).

But to my jaded, over-caffeinated heart, the Ratio was too beautiful. Its design stunk of a Kickstarter-style overpromise and its $595 price tag, Silicon Valley hubris. There was just no way a startup could make a better cup of coffee, more beautifully, than an Oxo, right?

Wrong!

The first cup I made was decent. Good, even. Not bitter. Not sour. With hints of lemon from the Ugandan beans I’d used. And I could make up to eight cups at once, which poured out of the carafe’s perfectly shaped spout without a single lost drip.

And surprisingly, it looks just as good in person as it does in all the online photos.

That’s when I wrote Ratio’s founder, Mark Hellweg, asking how his product could be making such a better cup of coffee than Oxo’s. "I’ve used the Oxo before and what I remember is we also thought it brewed a little too hot," Hellweg told me via email. SCAA standards allow machines to brew as high as 205 degrees. But 205 can actually be too hot, so Ratio keeps their brewing temperature between 200 and 202 degrees. The difference of three degrees in your cup determines if it's tragic or transcendent, which is a big reason that automated coffee machines are so difficult to perfect.

Indeed, I was shocked at how steamy the Oxo water was that rained over the grounds (as I stuck my head into the machine for a look). But as much as I liked the Ratio, I still wonder if it’s what I’d dare to call "the perfect coffeemaker." After all, it still doesn’t weigh or grind your beans. It doesn’t measure your water. It doesn’t prepare the filter. You have to take all of these same steps you would in brewing Chemex yourself—minus heating or pouring the water. That’s saved time, but not the mindless godsend I was looking for.

The DeLonghi Eletta

[Photo: via DeLonghi]

I want to tell you about a magical place. A magical place where, with the press of a single button, beans will be ground, smashed into a perfect puck, brewed under high pressure, and squirted into your cup with enough care to float a generous layer of crema on top.

This place can be your kitchen, if you have $1,950 to drop on DeLonghi’s newest, one-button espresso maker.

Don’t get me wrong, the sharp-edged build looks like some 1980s fever dream, the random panels that pull out like you’re doing open heart surgery on a Transformer. The LCD menu system feels like a holdover from VCR systems of yore, when you’d be lost amidst esoteric controls, unsure how to set the clock.

But as your finger hovers over the espresso button—your skin barely making contact as you consider if it’s really time for your fourth of the day—the system springs to life on a hair trigger, grinding and pistoning and grunting your next fix to fruition.

"This is the greatest thing you have ever reviewed," my wife said to me, wide-eyed, the first morning I set it up. She was right. The Eletta even cleans itself.

How is the espresso, though? Perfectly respectable. It’s the sort of quality espresso you can get from a decent cafe, though a bit short of the best third-wave espresso you’ve ever had.

The machine also features an auto-frothing system for one-touch lattes, macchiatos, and the like, along with a steamer to hand-froth milk. These features work just fine, but it’s really about the espresso. One-button espresso. Unlimited. Until you have to top off the water and fill that big old hopper with another bag of beans—which I’ve done—several times.

Sudden Coffee

[Photo: via Sudden]

For all this talk about craft coffee, it’s worth noting that much of the world still drinks the instant stuff. And as judgy as we can all be about that, it was on a backpacking trip in Wyoming when I learned to love the convenience of Starbucks Via packets—a hot cup of creature comfort without an ounce of energy.

Sudden Coffee was founded by Kalle Freese, ninth place winner in the 2015 World Barista Championship, who had the idea of giving prized single origin beans the freeze-drying process, so like instant Folgers, you could pour a packet into your cup along with some hot water, and presto, decent coffee.

I received four test-tube-looking-things in the mail. I have no idea what country the beans came from, but I dumped them into a cup along with eight ounces of hot water, and it was pretty good!

Honestly, it could almost be mistaken for whatever drip-of-the-day is sold from your local decent coffee shop (though I’d recommend using less water than directed—I bet six to seven would be perfecto).

Though I came across an interesting tip on Sudden’s site. You can mix it with cold milk. COLD MILK. And indeed, it came out like some sort of magical adult Nesquick. Like a less carbonated version of La Colombe nitro coffee, it was refreshing, toasty, and perfectly sweetened by the dairy—even if the mix didn’t dissolve perfectly in the cup, which only mattered for aesthetics, as there’s no grit in the texture.

I liked Sudden coffee, but it’s $3/serving, and I’d still place the quality a tier below what you can make by hand. For that much, you could be drinking pretty much any coffee you like. So I’m thinking I’d keep Sudden around for my next backpacking trip.

Soylent Coffiest

[Photo: via Soylent]

We’ve all heard of the Silicon Valley meal replacement product Soylent, with its appropriately hyperbolic motto "free your body." This month, the company released a new product called Coffiest. And it’s the same 400-calorie soy-based drink you know, but with added coffee extract and powder. The result is a meal-in-a-bottle, plus as much caffeine as you’d find in "a strong cup of coffee."

I’d never had Soylent before the company mailed me their latest product, and as many jokes as I’ve made at the company’s expense—as many jokes as I made as I downed what tasted like a thick, unsweetened Starbucks Frappuccino (though it should be noted, Soylent technically contains sucralose)—I’ve watched my 12-pack slowly diminish over the course of two weeks.

Coffeist is actually perfectly decent if you want some quick protein and caffeine, and you don’t have a sweet tooth. The added fat, maltodextrin, and micro-ground oats creates a drink with a satisfying mouthfeel just shy of milkshake territory.

It’s just so easy to free your body when a ready supply is sitting right there. The only catch was—and maybe this is the coffee machine testing talking—but I still wanted another coffee after drinking it. Taste-wise, Coffeist was fine! But there’s no replacement for a hot cup of joe.

Wish I Could Have Tried

[Photo: via La Marzocco]

Of everything I was able to acquire, there are two coffee-making systems that I wish I could have tried. The first is the Blossom One, which promises MIT-designed big data learning in coffee, Wi-Fi recipes, yada yada, the future, etc. Unfortunately, I couldn't secure a loaner unit to review, because the boutique company only allows their sales team to give presentations (which begs the questions, who is their $5,000 product actually built for, and how many people are actually buying it?)

The other is the the La Marzocco Linea Mini. It’s a striking, small-scale reproduction of La Marzocco’s most famous espresso machine, the Linea Classic. I longed to see the $4,500 machine on my counter, even for a few weeks of ignoring PR representatives asking for their review unit back, and yet, it didn’t meet the minimum requirements of this whole testing process: It’s a full-blown espresso maker that requires a deft barista to push it to its delicious limits. As much as I long to drive a Lamborghini, I know I’d put one into a wall on my first lap around the track. Especially before I had my first cup of coffee for the day.

Indeed, if I learned anything from a few weeks of lazier coffee consumption, it was how quickly an old ritual could be broken. My muscle memory of weighing beans and swirling pour-over is already being lost, as is the urge of putting forth the extra effort of making great coffee when decent alternatives are so easily within reach. I don’t think the perfect coffeemaker exists yet—and if it does, it’s nothing most of us can afford—but when the day comes, I could imagine all this third-wave DIY coffee gear going bye-bye.

Frankly, if you want to make great coffee, I’d still recommend that you invest in a good Baratza grinder, a boiler/kettle, and whichever pour-over system catches your eye (an Aeropress is also fun!). For the price of a high-end coffeemaker, you’ll still brew better stuff by hand. The Ratio is certainly a tempting compromise to make big batches of coffee decently, if you can justify the cost. And if your inner-enthusiast demands even more spending on gear? Get into home espresso machines, one-touch or manual, where the sky’s the limit.

Or, you know, maybe just leave your house once in a while instead.

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