The Technology Behind Good Coffee

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<img src=https://static01.nyt.com/images/2017/07/27/us/27askwire/27askwire-master768.jpg alt data-mediaviewer-src=https://static01.nyt.com/images/2017/07/27/us/27askwire/27askwire-superJumbo.jpg data-mediaviewer-caption="The Baratza Virtuoso, a $230 coffee grinder, delivered nearly identical results as a $2,700 grinder.

” data-mediaviewer-credit=” Michael Hession” itemprop=url itemid=https://static01.nyt.com/images/2017/07/27/us/27askwire/27askwire-master768.jpg>

The Baratza Virtuoso, a $230 coffee grinder, delivered nearly identical results as a $2,700 grinder.Credit Michael Hession

The staff at The Wirecutter and Sweethome, The New York Times product evaluation sites, seem just a little obsessed with coffee. They have evaluated a lot of brewing and grinding equipment, so I spoke with Michael Zhao, senior editor at The Wirecutter, about their findings.

Does the equipment make a difference to the coffee?

That depends on the type of coffee drinker you are. Running a $20 bag of freshly roasted single-origin coffee through a blade grinder and a $30 drip machine is like listening to a symphony through a cellphone speaker. If you’re just looking for a quick caffeine fix to get out the door in the morning, a cheaper coffee maker and a bag of preground Dunkin’ Donuts house blend tastes about the same regardless of how you brew it.

Your team takes coffee grinders very seriously. What did you do to determine the best one?

Grinders are serious business. Even the best coffee maker will produce bitter or sour results if you start with unevenly ground coffee. Unfortunately, most grinders aren’t consistent, so we borrowed a $2,700 Mahlkonig EK43 grinder and compared its grounds with that of some of the most popular coffee grinders designed for home use.

We started by dialing in the Mahlkonig to optimal drip machine settings according to the roasters at Lofted Coffee in Brooklyn. Then we adjusted our testing units to come as close to that grind as possible. We ground 25 grams with each machine and used a sediment analysis tool to determine how much of the sample fell in the ideal grind size range. The result was pretty shocking. We found a $230 coffee grinder, the Baratza Virtuoso, delivered nearly identical results as the $2,700 grinder.

That would perk me up. Not all the stuff you tested was for coffee nerds though, right? You did some testing for the average joe.

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We went a bit overboard testing the best cheap coffee maker. We brought in seven of the most popular and best-reviewed sub-$100 coffee machines and compared them with what our blind-tasting panel of coffee nerds liked: the $200 Oxo On 9-cup coffee maker.

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Cale Weissman, a freelance writer, testing the Mahlkonig.Credit Michael Hession

We started by tasting a single-origin coffee to determine which cheap machine was most acceptable to discerning coffee drinkers, then ran the panel a second time with preground Dunkin’ Donuts house blend from the corner store. The Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker (46201) swept both rounds of testing. It placed second to the Oxo in Round 1 and actually beat the Oxo during the Dunkin’ round.

I haven’t seen a Wirecutter or Sweethome evaluation of coffee machines that use pods. Is there a reason for that?

The truth is, K-Cup brewers are mostly the same. None of them make good coffee and the plastic pods aren’t easily recyclable. Something like our pick for cheap coffee maker will produce much better coffee and be way less expensive in the long run. Besides, it’s not hard to run a regular coffee maker.

Now making espresso at home takes a lot of practice to get right. We wouldn’t fault anyone for getting a Nespresso machine. It can match a drive-through barista for about $1 a pod. That’s still a lot more expensive than grinding your own coffee, but it beats paying $3 for a similar drink at Starbucks. And unlike Keurig, Nespresso has been running a free pod recycling program for years.

Do coffee drinkers have anything to gain from the smart kitchen trend?

Not really. Adding Wi-Fi and an app just moves the buttons off the machine and onto your phone screen. Most coffee makers can already be programmed on a timer. You just need to remember to add preground coffee the night before, which a smart machine still can’t do for you. In any case, the biggest problem when it comes to programmable coffee makers is that the coffee you put in the night before gets stale by the time it’s brewed. An app can’t fix that.

Slurp and spit, just like wine tasting. Though just like wine tasting, we did end up drinking a fair amount. It’s hard not to when it tastes this good.

Follow Damon Darlin on Twitter @darlin.

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