At some point in the last 18 months, you’ve likely had to learn to make your own cup of coffee at home. Perhaps you’ve dug out an old French press you haven’t used in years or signed up for a coffee subscription to get beans delivered to your doorstep. However, no matter how much you practice, chances are the coffee you’re sipping at home isn’t quite as good as what you’re used to getting at your favorite local cafe. Coffee shops are filled with specialized equipment that’s designed to brew excellent coffee.
While it’s easy to think that the key to a great cup is an expensive new espresso machine or a brewer with dozens of features and settings, there are actually a few small tools that can tremendously improve your at-home coffee game—that are all under $50. As the founder and co-host of Boss Barista, a coffee-focused podcast, and a coffee educator for over seven years, trust me, I know. Each of the tools featured here targets a specific need. You don’t need to go out at once and buy everything on this list, but each tool is sure to massively help improve your coffee brewing game for good.
Ask any barista and they’ll tell you that the best way to spruce up your home coffee brewing setup is to get your own grinder and grind your coffee fresh. Electric grinders usually cost hundred of dollars, but handheld grinders do the exact same job, albeit with a little more muscle. If you’re willing to put your triceps to work, look for a coffee grinder with a set of burrs versus blades, like the Hario “Skerton Plus” Ceramic Manual Coffee Grinder.
Burrs, which look like two gears stacked on top of one another, will evenly grind your coffee and are adjustable based on the brewer you’re using. A blade grinder, on the other hand, roughly chops coffee beans and leaves an uneven mess of grounds (you might see whole beans mixed in with finely chopped, powdery grounds). Evenly ground coffee means that the water will run through at the same rate, ensuring that your coffee tastes well-balanced. And more importantly, freshly ground coffee will preserve the aromas and natural flavors of the bean, instead of pre-ground coffee that can taste flat and boring.
Making coffee is like baking, relying on precise measurements to get predictable results. Any baker would tell you that even adding a few grams more of an ingredient to a recipe can change the final result. With coffee, there are only two ingredients—water and coffee beans—so precision is especially important.
Any scale that can measure to .1 gram accuracy will substantially improve your coffee brewing, like the Escali Primo Precision Kitchen Food Scale. Escali’s model is versatile and can be used to measure ounces or grams (if you prefer one over the other), and it’s heavy-duty enough to handle brewing on the scale so you can see how much water you’re pouring. Using a scale for brewing coffee isn’t necessarily about nailing an exact recipe, but rather knowing how much coffee and water you used and understanding how those numbers affect your final brew—and being able to repeat a recipe accurately.
Coffee is made up of 98% water, so water quality is especially important when brewing great coffee. Most coffee shops have complex systems to filter their water, but you don’t need anything quite as complex to achieve ideal brewing water. Third Wave Water is a blend of minerals that you can dissolve in a gallon of distilled water to get the perfect water for brewing coffee. Minerals in water like magnesium and calcium attach to components in coffee, pulling out desirable flavors while leaving behind harsh, bitter notes.
But it’s important for the balance of minerals to be just right. Hard water, which has a high level of minerals, will make your coffee taste acrid while soft water will make it taste flat and boring. A packet of Third Wave Water is an easy way to create an ideal solution for brewing.
It’s notoriously difficult to make great espresso at home. Most quality espresso machines cost hundreds of dollars because they combine pressure and temperature in precisely the right way to make a delicious and concentrated beverage.
If you’ve already got an Aeropress (a coffee maker that’s under $50 and is great for people who travel or need a portable brewer), Fellow makes an Aeropress attachment called the Prismo that helps mimic the pressure needed to make an espresso-like drink. The Prismo consists of a mesh filter and a valve that only opens after a certain amount of pressure has been achieved. That build-up of pressure helps to create a drink that is similar in taste and mouthfeel to a proper espresso. And the mesh filter is reusable so you don’t need any paper filters.
Have you ever sipped a mug of coffee and seen a ring around the inside of the cup? Coffee is full of insoluble oils—that’s what contributes to the mouthfeel of the brew and makes it taste rich and pleasant on your tongue. Over time, oils will build up and stick to surfaces, and they won’t always come out with just soap and elbow grease. Oil also eventually goes rancid, so letting those coffee oils stick to the surfaces of your brewer will result in a stale, off-putting cup with an unpleasantly slick finish at the end.
Urnex is the leading coffee supply cleaner (most coffee shops have some of their products behind the bar), and they make dozens of at-home cleaning supplies that keep your coffee equipment in tip-top shape. Running a brew cycle with Urnex’s specially-designed coffee machine cleaning powder will remove all the oils that get stuck on the inside of the brewer, ensuring delicious tasting coffee every time you brew a cup.
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