We are lazy people here at the offices of Willamette Week, and we are tightwads. We're way too skint for a $4,000 coffeemaker even if, as we're informed, the purchase of one would prop up an equally lazy economy. But we like a nice homebrewed cup of coffee nonetheless, and are convinced that much simpler gadgets (all between $20 and $160) do as well as or better than the crazy machines, with the addition of a little elbow grease. So we conducted a test of the various low-tech coffee devices currently on the market, using tools either made locally or available at nearby Kobos Coffee, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a microroaster. Our goals? Low effort, good cup. Accordingly, we used what you'll probably use, which is whatever beans were sitting around—in this case medium-ground Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto. Here are the results:
The Bare-Bones Pourover
Chemex flask and filter, $38.95 at Kobos Coffee.
Science! The once-futuristic-seeming Erlenmeyer flask is now a downright classic among the coffee set, like shaving with a straight razor after sharpening it on a whetting stone. Overall time for a cuppa is about three minutes of constant attention, from pre-wetting the filter to pre-wetting the coffee to embarking on a two-minute circular pour of water from a swan-necked kettle (not included). It's an oddly satisfying, if somewhat cumbersome ritual.
The result: It's a nice cup of coffee, bringing out sweet, caramelly notes in a roast that can easily tip to pungently bitter.
The drawbacks: The opening on the Chemex is broad, which means you need thick filters that might impart a paper taste unless you wet them first. And there's a learning curve. A bit of trial and error is necessary before you dial in a passable pourover because patience, my friend, must be learned.
The benefits: You get a head start on becoming totally Zen, man.
The Pourover System
Able, $160 at ablebrewing.com.
A deeply domesticated version of Chemex—pourover for cactus owners and people who wear scarves indoors—with a pleasantly Pier 1 shape. It's a cute, modular matching set, with a convenient coffeepot bottom that'll house 32 ounces and a reusable metallic "Kone" filter that obviates the need for icky paper.
The result: Somewhere between paper pourover and French press.
The drawbacks: Gotta clean the cone filter. Know what it's like to clean a pasta strainer? It's like that.
The benefits: Ecology—you ain't wastin' paper. Plus, Able is Portland-founded, made by a defector from Coava Coffee who has since defected to California.
Travel French Press
Bucket Portland Press, $119 at Mr. Green Beans.
This is one of the easiest around. You dump in the coffee, you dump in the hot water, you wait about four minutes, then you come back and slowly press the lid down and pour off the liquid.
The result: Unfiltered, immersion-brewed coffee. Tastes like the beans taste.
The drawbacks: As with all French presses, the bottom of your cup will be muddy with particulates. Also, there's cleanup. Also, French press gives you high cholesterol. Look it up on the Internet!
The benefits: This wood-topped, local, crowd-sourced version of a press pot setup can affix itself to the top of any Mason jar, making it kick-ass for camping.
Aerobie Aeropress, $25.95 at Kobos Coffee.
Super-easy. Scoop in the coffee, pour in hot water and plunge the tube. It's like a caffeine syringe. When you've squeezed out the coffee, you pop out a hockey puck of used grounds, and you're on your way.
The result: Aeropress is terrifically intense in flavor but not always as complex as slower brewing techniques, leading to a characteristic sharpness.
The drawbacks: In terms of method? None. It's easier even than a crappy drip-coffee machine, and easier than throwing the flying discs that Aerobie usually makes.
The benefits: It's a beautiful home approximation of espresso without the need of anything fancier than hot water.
Bodum Pebo, $80 at Kobos Coffee.
The dual-bulbed siphon looks fearsome, as if a wrong move would burn off your eyebrows or create mustard gas. But it's a pussycat. The coffee goes on the top, the water on the bottom. Then you boil it on a burner. When all the water siphons up to the top bulb through the power of Satanic witchcraft, you take it off the burner and let the coffee wander back down into the pot. Easy peasy.
The result: Similar to a French press with no coffee grounds.
The drawbacks: No matter how scientific it all looks, you lack control over brewing times unless you've got the temperature seriously dialed in on your burner. You have to wait until the coffee boils, and if it comes up slowly, you might get some bitter brew.
The benefits: It is, by far, the coolest-looking brewing technique. When done right, it also produces some of the best results.
The Two Favorites:
The Cold Brew
Toddy, $39.50 at Kobos Coffee.
Low tech. Dump the coffee and water in the tub. Put the tub in the fridge and wait 12 hours. Then, pull out the stopper on the bottom and filter the cool coffee into a carafe—which might take up to a half-hour—either as ready-to-go cold coffee or just-add-water coffee concentrate.
The result: My goodness, it's refreshing. Smooth, sweet and lovely, with less of the stomach-upsetting acid of hot brews.
The drawbacks: I mean, waiting 12 hours for some coffee is a lot.
The benefits: On the bright side, if you brew a carafe of concentrate, it might be a week's worth of coffee. Just add hot or cold water, and bam! Coffee. Plus the brewing is effort-free and requires no supervision.
Bonavita Immersion Dripper with Melitta filter, $39.99.
As with a similar device made by Clever Coffee (available at Case Study Coffee), the Bonavita lets you keep your coffee sitting in a paper-filtered cone without the long pouring process. Just a two-minute timer, and when it's done flip a dial and let the coffee trickle into your cup.
The result: A lovely brew over which you have total control. You can set your clock to different times, and adjust the flow rate of the water from the filtered cone until you find your perfect cup.
The drawbacks: It's a single-serve brewing technique.
The benefits: Oh, it's a nice cup. It's a really nice cup.