Why does Starbucks coffee taste different when we make it ourselves than it does in the store? It’s still the same over-roasted stale beans, but some how it tastes even worse at home. It’s because Starbucks coffee shops have some of the most kickass brewing equipment around.  (There are other factors we’ve already covered, too.) But you can still get close yourself without spending thousands.

The easiest step you can take towards becoming a coffee snob is to throw out that automatic drip machine you bought for $5 at a garage sale. You can save the glass carafe and use it for cereal when you run out of bowls.

There are other brewing options that are cheaper, better and faster.

Why the auto-drip blows

Brewing coffee is all about how your hot water reaches the ground coffee. Consumer-grade drip machines ignore that delicate balance in exchange for automatic-ness (as in: “Automatically breaks every 12 months.”)

Your auto-drip machine boils water until it rises up a tube and then falls on to the grounds. First of all, that hot water is hitting the coffee at a random rate. The contact time between the water and the grounds is predicated on how long it takes your machine to boil water and push it up that pipe – it’s easy to get over- or under-saturated coffee (like leaving your tea out to steep for too long or too short). Secondly, the way that the water is sprinkled on to the grounds is haphazard. There’s not a little gnome in there stirring up the grinds with the coffee – a lot of your coffee isn’t getting thoroughly soaked.

Welcome to a land of better brewing… I’ll give you two options, depending on if you like intense, oily coffee or a light, balanced cup.

Manual drip

Manual drip has quickly become my favorite way to make coffee every day – it’s really fast, the coffee is balanced and solid, and the actual tools cost less than $5. The speed comes from the fact that you brew cups one-at-a-time – no need to wait for a whole pot to brew before taking that first sip. Also, since you’re pouring a ton of water through the unit, it’ll spill through much faster than the painful drip, drip, drip of your “Mr. CoffeeMate” (or whatever they’re called).

All you need is a manual drip cone sometimes known as a “Melitta” (even though many brands exist). You can find these things anywhere – even in the coffee aisle at the grocery store. A plastic one is fine but if I had the money, I’d upgrade to porcelain. You also need coffee filters which match it. Since we’re using paper filters, even if you have a crappy coffee grinder, it’ll keep powder and oils out of your cup.

This is a lot like your automatic machine only you’re doing the “automatic” part yourself – hence, “manual drip.” Use your stove (or your bought-from-Target-Ramen-water-boiler-unit) to boil some water. Put the ground beans into the filter, the filter into the cone, and the cone on to a cup (or a carafe). When the water’s boiled, let it relax off the heat for a few moments, then pour it right over the grounds, right up to the top of the filter. With a spoon in your other hand, stir the water and coffee together like you’ve just added the vodka to your jungle juice. Let it empty entirely into the cup then do the same thing again and again until you have enough coffee to stay awake during a 3-hour European film studies class. 

The French press

I keep a French press on hand so that I can French im-press (!) girls in the morning. It’s a pretty sophisticated unit that’ll run you about as much as a new auto-drip machine (about $15-20). If you’re going to be serious about using a French press, you should invest in a really nice burr grinder (Christmas wishlist) which goes for about $100. But you’ll be fine without one.

This is another method where the water gets to chill happily with the grinds. Since the filter is metal, it’ll let more oils into your cup which is good for clogging your veins and making the martini of coffee – it’s not for the faint-of-heart.

First, just like with the manu-drip, boil your own water. Combine the right water-coffee-ratio, give it a stir and then cover the pot with the plunger. Set a timer for 2-4 minutes, depending on how much hair you want to grow on your chest. That 2-4 minutes is shorter than the 10 minutes that your old drip CoffeeMeister (still not sure what to call it) used to take.

Cheaper, Better, Faster

Get it? You could spend as much as $50 on an automatic drip machine, the damn thing takes 15 minutes if you’re lucky and it makes coffee that tastes like fire.

The good, fast, cheap triangle is an engineering principle – usually you can only pick two of those items. In coffee brewing, the French press and the manual drip device let you put all three into every cup.

[images via stephencarlile and jakeliefer]