Gourmet Coffee on the Cheap– The Ultimate Guide
Don’t listen to what people tell you– gourmet coffee isn’t something shot out a cat’s ass. And it most certainly isn’t a sugar-stuffed Frappuccino (why not get a McFlurry?) or the $12 cinnamon-vanilla premium blend at the grocery store. Gourmet coffee is coffee done right. Contrary to what the big chains may tell you, you don’t have to pay the price of a meal to get a good cup of coffee. This guide shows you how to brew outstanding coffee at home that rivals most cafes for a fraction of the cost.
Photo: Stephen John Bryde
Step 1: Pick a Grinder
The importance of a high-quality coffee grinder can’t be emphasized enough. For the best-tasting coffee, you absolutely must have a consistent grind. This isn’t something you can skimp on. A $20 blade grinder simply won’t cut it. Ideally, you should invest at least $100 on a worthy burr grinder– it’ll pay off. Ultimately, the quality of the grind– not the coffee maker– determines how good your cup of coffee will be. I’d take a decent grinder and a French press any day over a commercial espresso machine and a third-rate blade grinder.
Option 1: The Hario Mini Mill Manual Grinder
There really is no substitute for a high-grade burr grinder. Then again, $100- $300 for a decent grinder isn’t an option for everyone. If other obligations make one of the burr grinders below unaffordable, a quality manual grinder like the Hario Mini Mill is the way to go. Manual grinders are great for travel (especially when combined with a coffee press) and provide consistent results. But be warned, what you save in money you have to make up for with elbow grease.
It will take you several minutes to produce a fine grind, by which time the coffee will have already deteriorated somewhat. You should always brew within a minute or two of grinding for the best coffee. Remember that your time is also worth money– 5 minutes of grinding per day comes out to 30 hours per year! Buying a burr grinder is a much more efficient use of your time, especially seeing as you can spread out the investment over many years. Then again, the frugal lifestyle isn’t about being glamorous.
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Option 2: The Baratza Maestro / Maestro Plus
Baratza is a leader in the budget coffee grinder segment. The original Maestro (or the newer Maestro Plus) is a simple, no-nonsense solution for grinding on the cheap. You can pick up a brand new one for around $130- $150, or a used or refurbished model for $100 or less. Older models were sold under the Solis name. The Baratza Maestro isn’t rugged enough for coffee shop duty, but has more than enough power for the frugal-minded consumer. It’s a preferable alternative to any manual grinder for daily use. The Baratza Maestro has 40 grind settings and a 240-watt DC motor.
Note: Baratza no longer produces the Maestro series. Check out the very similar Baratza Encore.
Option 3: Capresso Infinity Conical Burr Grinder
The Capresso Infinity burr grinder is another solid choice for budget gourmet coffee brewing. Available brand new for under $90, it’s the cheapest electric grinder Coffee Krave recommends. This grinder may be a little slow compared to more expensive models (the motor is 100 watts), but has a setting for 16 different types of coffee (French press, drip, espresso, etc.). If $100+ is too much to pony up for a Maestro, the Infinity should be your go-to.
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Step 2: Pick a Brewer
The frugal coffee snob can’t drop four figures on a commercial-grade coffee machine, especially after investing in a solid grinder. The good thing is, there’s really no need to. The following four budget coffee makers can all be had for under $30 (maybe not the Chemex) and when used properly, brew coffee so good you’ll throw the sugar and creamer away.
Option 1: The Classic Pour Over
The pour over is as simple as it gets– it’s just a cone with a filter on top. Yet it produces a rich and flavorful cup without much fuss. Simply add properly heated water (192F to 204F) to freshly ground coffee (1 tbsp per 4 ounces of water) and stir.The coffee will flow down into the cup, providing a deep and rich taste much better than any conventional coffee maker at William Sonoma could provide.
For best results, grind the coffee within one minute of brewing and use a clothe or gold filter. CoffeeGeek has a guide covering the essentials of brewing with pourover coffee makers. If you end up with a few bad cups, don’t sweat it– the pour over has a slight learning curve. Plastic versions such as the Melitta Ready Set Joe are available for $5 or less. Ceramic or porcelain pour overs such as the Hario V60 start at around $20.
Option 2: The French Press
The French press has always been a favorite for its functionality and affordability. Press pots have a plunger you press down to extract the coffee. A metal filter keeps sediment out of the final cup but allows flavorful acids to pass through. You can also use a French press to brew loose leaf tea. Regardless of what you’re brewing, though, be sure to pour after brewing. You don’t want coffee sitting with extracted grounds for too long.
My favorite French press is the Bodum Brazil, which you can find online for under $20. Our best French press guide details several top French press coffee makers for any budget.
Essential reading: Choosing the best French press
Option 3: The Aeropress
The Aeropress is a variation of the French press that uses paper filters. It brews coffee at a lower temperature (around 165F) and with a shorter brew time than the French press, which a low-acid method good for those with sensitive stomachs. It’s also more portable and easier to clean. Unlike a traditional press, the Aeropress brews coffee concentrate. Add hot water to get a regular cup of coffee.
Contrary to the manufacturer’s claims, the Aeropress does NOT make espresso. It is very versatile, however. BrewMethods.com has a good overview of almost every Aeropress brew technique under the sun. At $20- $30, this press is an essential component in the brew kits of many casual and professional baristas. A metal filter is also available to replace the standard paper discs. This permits flavorful acids to pass through, but our analysis shows that this permanent option isn’t always the most frugal. Keep in mind you can rinse off and reuse the paper filters to save money.
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Photo: Rommy Ghaly
Option 4: The Chemex Coffee Maker
Like the pour over, Chemex coffee makers involve a bit of trial and error. But many coffee addicts feel the final product justifies the extra effort. This hourglass-shaped brewer encroaches a little past frugal territory at close to $40 in price. On the other hand, who doesn’t want to look like a chemist in the kitchen? OQ Coffee has a good guide detailing how to use a Chemex.
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Step 3: It’s Time for the Coffee
With the two most essential pieces of equipment in hand (an electric scale might not hurt either), the next challenge is to find great-tasting gourmet coffee on the cheap. If the previous two sections are any indication, you won’t be rolling into Sams Club or Costco for bulk packs of Folgers any time soon. Regardless of where you obtain your coffee, you won’t get the most of your investment unless you buy whole bean coffee roasted in the last week. Always brew immediately after grinding– never grind more than what you plan to use immediately.
Option 1: The Local Roaster
Connect with a local roaster and discuss your needs. Chances are good there’s at least one coffee shop in your area that roasts in-house, and the price won’t be any higher than so-called “gourmet” brands at the grocery store. You’ll get fresh, expert-roasted coffee and support a local business in the process.
Pro tip: If the local roaster’s prices are too high for your budget, see if you can work out a deal. It’s unlikely you will be able to buy recently roasted coffee at a clearance discount, but perhaps you can work out a special discount in return for long-term business.
Option 2: Roast at Home
Roasting at home has two main benefits: it’s less expensive and you have total control over the roasting process. Stovetop and counter-top roasters are available for smaller quantities, but you can also roast in bulk with your oven. The caveat here is you must ideally use everything you brew within one week, and for the freshest coffee you must set aside time to roast every week. Make sure your roommates or family are willing to put up with the smell.
A variety of online outlets such as Sweet Maria’s and Coffee Bean Corral offer green coffee beans ready for roasting. It’s best to get started roasting a small amount in case you screw up the first few times. Brew Organic has a very detailed guide covering the ins-and-outs of DIY roasting. It’s certainly rewarding, but if something goes wrong you have no one to blame but yourself!
Essential reading: Coffee Krave’s primer on roasting at home
Option 3: Off-the-Shelf Brands
As previously mentioned, there is no equally good alternative to buying freshly roasted beans. This may not be realistic if you live in a rural area or are constantly traveling. Newman’s Own and Eight O’Clock Coffee are two solid bets for reasonably-priced whole bean coffee at grocery stores. More expensive such as Starbucks will break the bank without providing any additional quality.
On a Final Note
Have any ideas or suggestions? Sound off in the comments. We’d love to hear your tricks for squeezing more out of every coffee dollar.