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Is Expensive Smart Coffee Tech Really Better?


Coffee beans in an AeroPress coffee maker.
Michaelvbg/Shutterstock.com

If you fancy yourself as a bit of a coffee geek, there’s a lot of emerging coffee tech to spend your money on. From portable brewers to smart scales that score your pour, you might be wondering if these features are worth it and where your money is best spent.

Smart Coffee Tech Is Everywhere

You can prefix just about any contraption with the word “smart” these days, and someone’s already probably made it. From smart refrigerators to smart doorbells, the idea that connectivity makes everything better is a pervasive (and seemingly profitable) one. Of course, the same is true of coffee.

Some of the biggest advancements in coffee have been thanks to these next-generation gadgets, like the Decent DE1 and successors like the DE1PRO. These multiple-thousand dollar machines allow the operator to define pressure, temperature, and flow rate while pulling a shot.

Decent Espresso DE1XL
Decent Espresso

This is the definition of “smart” espresso, providing granular control and real-time data bout each shot that is poured. The machine has a tablet computer mounted on it that controls pretty much every function. You can even update the firmware, pair it with a smartphone, and connect smart scales over Bluetooth.

Portable espresso is another area that seems to have taken off over the last decade or so. Though machines like the WACACO Picopresso and the Uniterra Nomad are wholly manual (non-electric) devices that explore the novel idea of being able to make espresso anywhere.

WACACO Picopresso

Smart scales like the entry-level Brewista Smart Scale II and more expensive Acaia Pearl Model S have also risen in popularity. These connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and provide real-time feedback about your pour and brew time. They operate on the basis that an even pour is most desired when making pour-over coffee using a brewer to improve your technique.

You can use this data to make changes like grinding coarser for a shorter brew time or pouring slower for a more even extraction. Ultimately, how the coffee tastes (and how you like it) should influence the changes you make.

If you’ve got a bigger budget, coffee robots or automatic brewers take the guesswork out of making your daily cup. Brewers like the Breville Precision give you granular control over many variables that affect the outcome of filter coffee like bloom time, brew temperature, and flow rate. You can program it to make your coffee in the morning, but you’ll need to grind the night before and leave the grounds in the brewer.

These machines are great for getting identical results every time, provided you use the same dose, beans, grind, and water.

Breville Precision

Standard Brewing Methods Yield Excellent Results

While smart scales and automatic brewers can help you get more consistent pour-over brews, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to get good coffee out of a cone and a filter. Pourover brewers are ideal for anyone who wants more control over their coffee, offering a simple way of changing variables like grind size and dose to influence the outcome.

You can start small with a plastic Hario V60, regular kettle, and cheap digital kitchen scales. For better results, you can upgrade to a pouring kettle like the Hario Buono to regulate the flow rate and dedicated coffee scales for better accuracy. Ultimately, the plastic V60 is one of the best brewers of its kind (and it retains heat better than the more expensive glass, metal, and ceramic models).

Hario V60

For a simpler brewing method, give a French press a go. There’s a good chance you have one in the cupboard already, and you can find them for sale everywhere (even second-hand in thrift shops). Nothing could be as simple as throwing coffee grounds in a pot, covering them with hot water, and pressing down a plunger a few minutes later.

Many of these brewers and techniques have seen a surge in popularity over the last few decades, but some have been around for generations. One of the most recent success stories is the AeroPress, an immersion brewer that even has its own world championship. It’s portable, durable, flexible, and very cheap.

AeroPress Classic

Everyone has their preferred way of making coffee in an AeroPress, with countless recipes available online. You can swap paper filters for metal or cloth to get different results and add attachments like the Fellow Prismo for something that’s meant to better imitate espresso. There are even add-ons like the Puck Puck, a cold brew attachment for making coffee the slow way.

Even good espresso can be more affordable with the right approach. Lever-action espresso machines like the Flare NEO offload the hard work of building pressure on you while providing better results than similarly-priced or cheap espresso machines with the right technique. They also take up much less room in your kitchen or office.

Spend Your Money on a Good Grinder

The grinder you choose will arguably make the biggest difference to the coffee you drink (though you’ll naturally want to use good, fresh coffee too.) This is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck in terms of return on investment, especially if you’re using a manual pour-over or immersion brewer, something basic like a Hario V60, AeroPress, or French press.

If you’re not already grinding your coffee fresh, you’ll notice a huge difference when you start to do so. Coffee oxidizes as it is exposed to air. The more surface area coffee has, the faster it will degrade. By grinding in advance, you’re speeding up the process that makes your coffee stale. Grinding fresh means better-tasting coffee and gives you control over the grind size for better brews.

A “good” grinder will grind coffee more evenly. Uneven grinding can produce a lot of fine particles, and these fine grounds extract much faster than coarser grounds. Fewer fines mean you have less chance of brewing over-extracted coffee. When people say coffee tastes too bitter or “burned” they are referring to coffee that has been over-extracted.

If you prefer immersion and pour-over techniques like the Aeropress and Hario V60, there are a world of cheaper grinders available to you. Hand grinders are cheaper than electric grinders since they don’t have a motor, but they grind slower and require effort. Something like the Porlex Mini or Timemore Chestnut C2 will do the trick for around a third of the price of a good entry-level electric grinder.

Electric grinders are faster, louder, and only require you to flick a button (they also have to stay plugged in). We love the Baratza Encore, which is often cited as one of the world’s best entry-level pour-over coffee grinders. You can even upgrade the burr set inside for even better results at a later date.

Baratza Encore

For a good electric espresso grinder, you’ll need to spend a lot more since grinding finely and evenly is a more difficult endeavor. You might be better off looking for second-hand kit if you’re on a tight budget, rather than springing for a brand new Fellow Ode or Niche Zero.

Level-Up Your Daily Cup

Let’s say you’ve got a good cheap setup and you’re grinding fresh, but you are unsatisfied with the coffee you’re drinking. If you want to be a nerd about coffee, buying more equipment isn’t necessarily the way to go.

The first thing to do is source good quality (ideally specialty) coffee that’s been roasted within the last 4 to 6 weeks. You probably want to use light to medium roasts if you’re making pour-over or immersion brews. Stay away from the strong espresso stuff unless you crave very dark coffee.

Understanding which variables to change when brewing and how they affect coffee can help you get a cup that’s better suited to your tastes. The finer you grind, the more extraction takes place. If you’re finding your cups are too bitter for your taste, grind coarser. If you find your coffee tastes tangy or is too acidic, grind finer. Remember that changing coffee may require a change in technique.

Higher temperatures will also extract more coffee, but unless you have a kettle that allows you to set the temperature, you probably shouldn’t worry about this. It’s a lot easier to just change the grind and stick with boiling water every time.

If you’re stuck, there are dozens of great recipes available for your brewer of choice. Check out the AeroPress cup winners’ recipes. For the Hario V60, there are three popular methods that stand out: James Hoffman’s ultimate recipe, the Tetsu Kasuya’s 4-6 method, and the “Rao Spin” by Scott Rao. Mix them up, change the grind, and come up with your own.

There Is No Perfect Cup

For many, coffee should be fast and made by someone else. For others, it’s something to get nerdy about. Wherever you stand, don’t fall into the trap of thinking paying more for coffee gadgets will necessarily yield immediately great coffee.

Be aware of gear acquisition syndrome if you fall down the rabbit hole. Coffee equipment is like camera gear in that, as soon as you’re taken by the hobby, you’ll be accumulating things you don’t necessarily need but desperately want. There’s nothing wrong with playing around with expensive coffee gadgets, as long as you know where your money is best spent to get the best results.





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