Wednesday, September 29, 2010

National Coffee Day and the Quest for the Perfect Cup

Most kickass espresso machine:
Saeco Etienne Louis Espresso maker
There's no better way to celebrate National Coffee Day (today's the day!) than with a new coffee machine.

So I bought a new coffee machine. It was actually an involuntary purchase, but that's okay because there's no such thing as too many ways to make coffee in the morning.

I'd been faithful to my Keurig single cup coffee machine and I didn't intend to stray.  But these things happen, and when you hear my tale perhaps you'll feel some sympathy for me. I went to order some new coffee pods on Amazon for the Keurig and spied Kona coffee, so I ordered it. When the coffee arrived two days later, I realized that I had ordered pods that fit another kind of machine.

(Before you feel superior, ask yourself this: Have you ever bought the wrong kind of paper towels, perhaps the dreaded Select-a-Size, or the wrong kind of some other product? These other coffee pods came up in the search for Keurig K-cup coffee, so it's only partially my fault.)

I had three choices: Pack up and return the wrong coffee to Amazon, sell it on eBay, or buy a machine that's designed for the kind of pod coffee that I bought. I chose door number three and in two more days a shiny, new Senseo single cup coffee maker arrived.

And you know what? The Senseo makes delicious dark roast Kona coffee.  I now look forward to hearing my alarm go off in the morning. Well almost.

Over the years I've used five different methods to make my morning coffee.  A long time ago, I used to make coffee using a manual single cup drip filter cone, the kind that you put over a mug, fill with ground coffee, and pour hot water into.  There were a few negatives to making coffee this way.  First, until I switched to using a clear mug, I could never tell how filled the mug was, especially with morning groggy eyes.  I always needed to have a rag in standby mode.  Second, I either had to grind my own coffee or buy pre-ground coffee.  Pre-ground coffee loses its flavor after a few days. Grinding coffee is messy and loud.  Third, I had to wait for the water to get hot before I could start making the coffee.  And wait.  And wait.  And wait.

For a time, I gave a French press a whirl.  The coffee tasted pretty good.  Pressing that plunger in gave me a feeling of being involved with my coffee, being part of the coffee process, whatever that means.  I ordered coarse ground coffee from some magical coffee store in Wisconsin.  But the French press suffered from the same problem that the drip coffee had: waiting for water to get hot. The magic of pressing the press lost its charm after a while.

It was then that I tried the Cuisinart Automatic Grind and Brew, a $200 programmable machine that grinds and brews 10 cups of coffee.  Wow! I could wake up to fresh ground, fresh brewed coffee every morning.  And with an automatic coffee grinder, I didn't need an alarm clock either, because the sound of coffee grinding is intense.  The was great.  Except if you forget to put the top on the grinder part.  You can imagine what that looked like.  And cleaning the machine was a laborious task. The Cuisinart Automatic Grind and Brew served us well for a while, but I got tired of sponging off coffee grinds from the wall.

My next stop on the road to coffee bliss was the Keurig single cup coffee maker .  It's a great machine that brews a cup at a time.  Just pop in a K-cup pod, press start, and in 13 seconds the coffee is ready.  Thirteen seconds: The Keurig holds the speed record for brewing a cup of coffee and that's not a bad thing.  The Keurig machine is quiet, and can make 8 cups of coffee before you have to refill it with water.  K-cup coffees come in a variety of flavors and brands, including some with inviting names like "Jet Fuel," "Extra Bold Espresso," "Black Tiger," "Wake Up Call," and "Revv." K-cups also come in flavors that are a little calmer, too, more like what you're likely to have at a bed and breakfast in New Hampshire.  The machine can be programed to pre-heat the water for you every morning, and can brew a variety of sizes of cups.  (Some K-cups taste weak if you brew too large a cup; you need to note what size cup is optimal for each brand of K-cup coffee.) The Keurig machine heats the water to exactly 192 degrees, the optimal coffee brewing temperature.  The main downside to the Keurig machine is that leftover coffee gets into the brewing mechanism, and you have to run several empty cups of water to clear out these grinds.  Keurigs cost between $90 - $200, depending on which model you get.  K-cup coffees cost about 40 cents a cup; the price varies depending on the brand you buy.

It's the Senseo machine, and the coffee pods that hold my attention now. My Senseo doesn't brew as quickly as the Keurig, taking about 90 seconds to heat the water, compared to the Keurig, which has already heated by the time you get downstairs. Senseo machines cost between $50 - $170. The dark roasts that I've had, especially the Aloha Kona coffees, are delicious.  As good a cup of coffee as I've ever brought to my lips.  The Senseo coffee maker produces a cup of coffee with a foam layer on top.  Maybe you like that foam layer, maybe you don't, but a quick stir with a spoon and it's mostly gone.  One interesting difference between the single cup Keurig and Senseo is that to brew an 8 oz cup of coffee with the Senseo requires two pods.  A 4 oz cup needs just one pod. The Keurig always uses a single K-cup, regardless of how much or how little water you use, and that can result in coffee being too weak or strong, depending on the kind of K-cup you're using.  Because you need two pods to make a full cup of coffee, Senseo coffee costs from about 60 cents a cup for run-of-the mill coffee to $2 a cup for 100 percent Kona.

These aren't the only ways to make coffee at home, of course. As with many things, coffee is both a destination and journey. What is your coffee pleasure?

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