Coffee and geeks go together. Yet, given geeks can be the most obsessive about getting the very best user-experience, it's surprising how many are content to drink bad coffee. I'm talking about pods, pads and K-Cups, and the shiny, alluring machines that fire hot water through them. Like many people, my morning wouldn't be complete without at least one cup of coffee, but what really frustrates me is when people who I know love coffee just as much talk in hushed and reverent tones about their latest "heavenly" pod experience. Those super-convenient little Senseo pads, or the Keureg K-Cups? They're selling you stale coffee.
[Image credit: Steve Jacobsen]
I'm all for convenience. I don't wash my clothes by hand, or perform my own complicated single-set plays for evening entertainment instead of turning on the TV. If I need to travel the country, I'll use a train or a car instead of channeling my inner Taylor Lautner and loping across great distances like a wolf. The common factor across each of those devices is that they can do their tasks better than I can in other, more manual ways.
That's not the case with pod coffee: they're selling you convenience, yes, but you're also agreeing to a compromise on taste. Sure, they're probably better than a spoonful of instant dunked into boiling water, certainly less stomach-churning than those cappuccino-in-a-sachet where the foam is made by bicarb. But, for all the hyperbole and George Clooney, they're not great coffee.
[aquote]Once you grind beans, you've got fifteen minutes to use them[/aquote]
Hang around any of the coffee boards online and you'll soon come across the rule of fifteens. Green, unfrosted coffee beans stay good for about fifteen months. Roasted, whole beans are probably good for about fifteen days. Once you grind them, you've got fifteen minutes before the all-important oils - the things that give you the true taste, the real crema, the complexity of properly prepared coffee - are evaporated and wasted. The guy in the cafe who scoops you out a couple of spoonfuls of preground coffee when you ask for decaf? He's serving you stale coffee.
When was the coffee in your Senseo pad, or your Nespresso capsule, or your Keurig K-Cup roasted and ground? There's a best-before date on the packet, yes, but that's going to give the manufacturer the broadest possible window to sell each pod. Figure on 15 minutes, and the pods would be out of date before they'd even reached their packaging.
Here's the thing: it really takes very little effort to get a better cup of coffee than a pod machine. You don't even have to spend $2,000 on a huge, shiny Italian espresso machine. Here are my top three alternatives to pod coffee, each cheaper and practically as easy the machine you might covet for your counter.
Clever Coffee Dripper
Drip coffee has been around for a long time, and the plastic cones that sit on top of a cup can be picked up for a couple of dollars. Spend $15, however, and you can get a whole lot more control over the flavor of your morning brew. Shaped like an oversized cone, the Clever Coffee Dripper takes a standard paper filter (I like to rinse it at least once, preferably in the cone and with boiling water, to wash away any lingering "papery" taste) but holds the brew until you sit the whole thing on top of your mug.
A nifty little valve in the base is opened by the mug and lets the coffee run out. If you've ever dismissed drip coffee because it's not sufficiently potent for your tastes, the Clever Coffee Dripper allows you to leave the brew sitting for as long as you like, getting stronger all the time. Plus clean-up is simple: dump the filter into the trash, give the cone a rinse and you're done.
Not quite filter, not quite espresso, but special in its own way: the AeroPress looks like a bovine-scale syringe but actually lets you create concentrated - and delicious - coffee for $25. Screw in an (included) paper filter at one end, pour coffee and boiling water into the other, stir, and then push through the inner tube, forcing the brew into your cup.
The end result can be diluted with more water, used as a concentrate for cooking, chilled for iced coffee or just enjoyed as a pseudo-espresso. The sturdy plastic means you can drop the AeroPress into a suitcase when you're traveling, too. When you're finished, ditch the old coffee and the filter into the trash, rinse the tube through with water and that's it.
Pod coffee makes plenty of speed boasts, but if you're making drinks for a few people the one-at-a-time process can make serving staggered. A French Press (aka press pot or cafetiere) serves multiple people at the same time, and like the Clever Coffee Dripper you can experiment with how long you leave the coffee in contact with the water (and thus the final taste and strength).
Preparation is easy: drop in the coffee, pour over water, give a quick stir and then wait four minutes or so before plunging. Clean-up can be a little more fiddly than with either of the other two methods, though it's easier if you pick a dishwasher-safe model.
The important thing with all three of these methods is to use fresh beans. You might get lucky and find a roaster nearby - remember, the "best before" date on that coffee in huge hoppers in the supermarket doesn't tell you anything; what you really want to know is when the beans were roasted - but if not there are plenty of good places online to order coffee and have it shipped just a day or two after it comes out the roaster.
If you're in the US, Intelligentsia is a good place to start, while Hasbean in the UK has some great choices. They're certainly not the only options; feel free to speak up in the comments if you have a favorite roaster or vendor.
When you've got your beans, then you need to grind them. A proper espresso machine demands a burr grinder - crunching beans between carefully balanced burrs makes sure they're suitably fine and consistent - but any of the three methods above can be paired with a simple blade grinder. You can grab one of those for under $20.
[aquote]You want more flavor? Throw in some syrup[/aquote]
Rather than forcing you to pick from vaguely-titled "Colombian" or "Italian Roast" pods, any decent roaster will be able to tell you not only about the various flavors but where their coffee comes from, the growing and drying process, how they decided to roast the raw beans in order to bring out the best of them. You want more flavor? Throw in some syrup. Unlike with pods, where you're basically limited to whatever taste options the manufacturer decides will suit the mass market, going straight to beans gives a far broader range to choose from.
I know the appeal of a shiny new gadget for the kitchen. The choice of Tassimo, Keurig, Senseo and other machines is huge, and the manufacturers have certainly been quick to make them glossy and attractive. My geek-lust can certainly kick in over them, even though I know the actual coffee they produce is underwhelming.
If you can resist, though; if you can channel your fetish for buttons and automation into something else - something where automation actually adds an advantage - then your taste buds will thank you. Your wallet may thank you as well: those pods, many of which are proprietary, add up too. Convenience has its place, but sometimes you lose much more than you gain.