When it comes to overbearing snobs, the coffee connoisseur ranks somewhere in between the prickly wine person and the dreaded obscure vinyl record collector. “Wait—you buy your beans from where?” he asks, incredulously, before recoiling at the word “Starbucks.” But on one score the snobs are actually right: If you’re still rocking your Mr. Coffee from college, it’s time to upgrade. In addition to better flavor, a higher-quality cup of joe (which is non-filtered and contains less oils) is shown to have healthful upsides, such as lowering cholesterol and risk of heart disease. At first it may seem intimidating, what with all the different beans and expensive equipment, which in today’s overly caffeinated age includes gravity-defying contraptions and machines with more parts than a combustion engine. But the journey to knowledgeable barista is surprisingly easy, just so long as you invest in these basic categories.
The cornerstone of all great coffee is the grinder. If you change nothing else, investing in a new bean-blitzer will transform every cup you drink. First off, grinding at home allows you to prep beans to order, so they’re fresh and more flavorful than when stored ready ground. More important, though, a good grinder guarantees consistency. Coffee is made by sluicing water through grounds to extract flavor; when those particles are even in size, the brew is more reliable and smoother. This is as true for the highest-grade African bean as it is for Sanka.
Cheaper grinders, which run anywhere from $15 to $50, use aluminum blades that attack the beans haphazardly. Quality grinders, meanwhile, deploy stainless-steel plates called burrs. Budget up to $250 for an entry-level grinder that will go the distance like Baratza’s Encore ($145, baratza.com), or spend a little more for the tank like durability of the Gaggia MDF ($249, gaggia-usa.com).
“Generally speaking, a good pound of coffee should cost $10–20,” says professional coffee buyer Chad Trewick. Roasted beans are categorized on a spectrum, ranging from a light roast like cinnamon to a dark one like French roast. Contrary to what many coffee snobs believe—that dark roasts are all inherently inferior (though Trewick warns that darker roasts can be “a great way to camouflage terrible beans”)—the roast itself has no bearing on quality. It merely indicates the color, flavor, and strength of the resulting brew. In other words, there are good light roasts and good dark roasts. “A skilled roaster will find the sweet spot at which each coffee best presents its flavor,” says Trewick. You can do some experimenting yourself; some machines come with settings, like Krups’ “aroma” mode, to tweak flavor.
Among the mass-market brands, Trewick singles out Allegro as an especially top-notch coffee. The Colorado-based company, he says, uses consistently high quality beans across the whole spectrum of roasts. Though French roast fans, he says, might prefer Peet’s, which has a similar emphasis on principled sourcing combined with decades of perfecting their darker roasts. Whichever roast you prefer, remember to crack the lid in-store and examine the contents yourself. Grade-A beans should shine like lacquered wood, their brown color a by-product of caramelizing sugar, the surface glistening with oils.
The two major regions of mass-market coffee production are Africa and South America. Broadly speaking, the latter’s coffee tends to be richer, with a chocolatey edge, while the former provides a fruity flavor and a tart, acidic kick. If you’re a middle-of-the-road guy, consider Colombian beans, which are widely regarded as the reliable Swiss Army knife of coffees—a decent, consistent brew, regardless of the preparation. Insiders agree that the best Colombian beans hail from the southern state of Nariño. So if you see that listed on the label, snap it up. And remember: Never store your coffee cold, as it allows the porous beans to soak up odors. Instead, buy an airtight jar and store in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
If you’re a drip coffee drinker and simply want a better morning cup, there’s no better option than a siphon, which resembles a giant hourglass with a grip handle attached to its waist. It uses vacuum power: Fill the bottom half with water and the top with coffee, then place over heat: the water evaporates into the upper chamber, condenses, and then trickles back down through the grounds to pool in the lower half. Traditionally, the best siphon is the Pebo from Bodum ($80, bodumusa.com), first introduced 60 years ago. It’s an idiotproof, dishwasher-safe workhorse. For slightly lighter coffee, try the Chemex ($38, chemexcoffeemaker.com). With its flowing, hourglass design, it resembles a siphon but is slightly higher maintenance, requiring water to be heated separately and manually poured through the grounds at intervals. The secret to the Chemex-brewed flavor is in the filter. “It’s between 20–30% heavier than a standard one, so it makes sure there’s less sediment,” says Brenna Ciummo, a specialist at the hardcore coffee seller Seattle Coffee Gear. “It’s a fun piece to pull out to show people, too.” (For both of these products, set your grinder to medium.) Another simple upgrade is the moka pot, a stovetop metal jug popular in Europe’s coffee mecca: Italy. These sturdy devices produce a thick, robust, and rich brew, with a lot of kick. When using a moka pot, be sure to grind the beans as coarsely as possible, and use the model offered by Bialetti ($25, bialetti.com).
If you’re an iced-coffee guy, invest in a Hario Cold Water Coffee Dripper ($208, amazon.com). As its name suggests, it exclusively makes cold coffee. Ironically, good iced coffee requires more patience: The water drips slowly over the beans for up to five hours to produce a flatter, smoother drink with less acidity.
Though they may charge more, most department stores with kitchen sections will carry this equipment, as will upscale retailers such as Sur La Table. Discerning drinkers, however, know to hit up Seattle Coffee Gear, which not only has an exhaustive haul of coffee gizmos but also a huge, caffeine-savvy customer-service staff at the end of the phone, ready to walk you through any major purchases or simply chat about the quality of certain beans. Their buying guides are comprehensive and can help you work through any machine-related snafus. Are they snobs? Of course. But they won’t judge you—they may even offer you a discount.
Mark Ellwood is the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World (Portfolio).
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