Coffee making is a process that has been around for centuries, but the methods used have changed quite a bit throughout that time. Originally, coffee grounds were simply mixed with boiling water, producing what is commonly called Turkish coffee. The result was a burnt, muddy, and grainy drink that left a bad taste (literally and figuratively) in most coffee drinker’s mouths. Many people started pouring their coffee through linen and other fabrics to try to filter out the grit, but cloth proved to be too porous. The 19th century brought us both the French press and the vacuum pot. Both made a significant improvement in the quality and consistency of coffee, but at that time they still lacked an effective filtering method. In 1908, a German housewife named Melitta Bentz had the bright idea to use paper in an effort to remove the loose grounds, and drip coffee was born.
The invention of the automated drip process is a little harder to pin down. A few different manufacturers take credit for the first automatic drip coffee maker, but it is clear that the process was invented in the early 1970’s. Since then, this basic method of brewing has stayed relatively the same, and the number of die-hard drip coffee drinkers has continued to increase. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), roughly 50% of Americans drink coffee on a daily basis. Although the consumption of specialty coffee (espresso, cappuccino, etc.) has been on the rise, it only comprises about 12% of the total amount of coffee that is drunk. The large majority of the coffee that is consumed is brewed using the drip method.
Even though a lot of people drink drip coffee, most people have the idea that coffee is coffee and that there’s not much they can do to improve its quality. However, you can significantly alter the taste quality of your coffee based on a combination of three things: what you put into the machine, how these elements are fused, and how the coffee is kept after it is brewed.
Anyone who has owned a drip coffee maker can tell you that there isn’t much mystery to setting it up. The best thing you can do when you pull the machine out of the box is to run water through it. A lot of dust from the packing materials can get into the machine, so it’s best to make sure any particles that may be in the system get flushed out before you brew for the first time.
There is no basic priming or preparation needed in order to brew with a standard drip coffee maker because they simply pull water through a small heating unit when the brewing process begins. However, there are a few drip coffee makers that use a pour over system for brewing. This type of brewer will require a little bit of set up before you can brew your first pot. Pour over systems function like a water heater in that they hold a full tank of hot water at all times. Initially, the tank will need to be filled with a full pot of water and left to heat up. This process usually takes around 15 minutes, but once it is complete, you can brew a full pot of coffee in 3 minutes. One thing that can cause people to shy away from this type of machine is that it needs to be on all the time to maintain the proper brewing temperature. However, these machines are meant to be used this way, and it is perfectly safe to do so. Of the drip coffee makers we sell, Bunn machines are the only units that function using the pour over system.
The Brewing Process
Types of Input
Obviously, the two ingredients that go into a drip machine are coffee and water. This is pretty common knowledge, but what people don’t realize is how much the quality of these two elements affects the final product.
For the best tasting results, nothing beats fresh-ground coffee. Most people who brew using the drip method use the canned, pre-ground coffee that you can get at the supermarket. It’s probably no big surprise that these aren’t the best-quality coffees you can buy, but it is true that they are inexpensive and carry a consistent quality. However, coffee begins to gradually lose its flavor after it’s been ground, so the most robust and full-flavored coffee will come from freshly ground beans. Compared to the canned coffee, whole bean can be a little more expensive depending on several variables, including where you’re getting it and how rare the beans are. But the difference in quality can far outweigh the slightly higher cost. Java Joe, one of our local roasters, produces high-quality, small batch, hand roasted beans that are an excellent starting point.
Purchasing whole bean coffee also requires that it be ground. Adding a grinder onto the grand total of your machine purchase may seem like overkill, but you should remember that it is a one-time purchase that will truly improve the taste of the final product.
Some drip machine manufacturers have responded to this by adding built in grinders to their coffee makers. And, depending on the machine, this does not create a drastic price difference from purchasing separate components. Combining these functions is a very easy way to get top quality coffee and prevent a lot of the mess that can be associated with external grinders, but it does create the necessity for more frequent cleaning and maintenance of the internal portions of the unit. The units with built in grinders do give you the option to use pre-ground coffee instead of whole beans if you desire. If a home grinder or combination machine isn’t in the cards, you can always have your beans freshly ground at the local coffee shop or other establishment.
Drip coffee is generally ground to a medium or coarse setting similar to the texture of unrefined sugar. Just like espresso, the outcome is dependent on an appropriate grind. If the grind is too coarse, water will flow through the grounds too quickly and produce an under-extracted, watery coffee. On the opposite end of the spectrum, coffee that is too fine can seep into the pot and result in a muddy, over-extracted coffee, or even prevent water from flowing through at the correct rate, resulting in overflow. Balancing the right grind with the freshest coffee available is what will result in the best cup.
Water has a dramatic influence on the outcome of your coffee as well as the life of your drip machine. Tap and well waters are often found to be hard, meaning that they have a high concentration of minerals such as calcium and magnesium. These elements are particularly harmful to the inside of any coffee machine because they build up and alter the flowing rate of water. High quality carbon filters are the best way to remove enough of these elements so as to not harm the machine without eliminating the trace amounts that have a positive affect on the taste of the coffee. Many machines now include filtrations systems that will do this for you.
Systems that filter water using the reverse osmosis or deionization process eliminate all trace minerals, resulting in a flat tasting coffee. Removing ions can also be harmful to the machine because the water molecules look for external ions to connect with. The water molecules will attach to, and drag away, whatever ions they desire, and those they come in contact with are the metal ions that comprise the heating elements. To put it simply, using deionized water will eventually cause pitting of the metal components the water comes in contact with. Distilled water produces similar results, so it is not recommended to use either type of water. However, you can bypass these effects by pouring a cup of regular tap water into the mix.
How the water is applied to the coffee influences the final result as well. Drip coffee machines either have a single hole or a showerhead design to dispense hot water onto coffee grounds. The single hole will result in a very concentrated area of extracted grounds in the center of the filter. A look at the coffee that was brewed using a showerhead design will show that water has been more evenly distributed over the grounds. This provides an even extraction and results in a more flavorful, balanced cup of coffee. All of the Bunn models have this feature, as well as a handful of Cuisinart’s machines, including the Brew Central and the Programmable Filter Brew.
Brewing with a drip coffee machine is a relatively simple process, but many developments have made it much more than just putting coffee and water in and pressing the brew button.
The first decision you need to make is how much coffee you want to brew. This will obviously alter the amount of water and coffee that you want to put into the machine. The SCAA states the correct proportion of these elements is 10 grams of coffee for every 6oz of water. This formula does work for every sized pot, however you will notice that there will be some flavor difference when you’re brewing smaller pots. This is because you are using fewer grounds but the water is flowing at the same rate of speed as it would over more grounds, so it doesn’t allow for the same extraction time that you have with larger batches. If the first half of a pot of coffee were separated from the second half, they would have some different flavor characteristics because these different traits are extracted from the grounds at varying times during the brewing process. When you’re brewing a full pot, this is not as noticeable because everything mixes together in the carafe and provides a balanced flavor. Many machines now come with settings that alter the speed at which water is applied to the coffee to produce a fuller cup when brewing 1-4 cup batches. People also adjust the amounts of coffee and water they add based on the strength that they prefer. To alleviate some of the guesswork, a few machines also have strength options that alter the amount of water that flows over the grounds, saving you some coffee if you’re looking for a stronger pot.
As you’re probably aware, ground coffee is placed into a filter that sits in the machine. The paper filters used today are pretty much the same as the one Melitta Bentz invented so many years ago, so it can be a puzzle as to why different machines use different sized filters. For the most part, it is because different machines have different brewing capacities. Using a 4-cup filter to brew in a 12-cup machine will not yield the best results and vice versa, so it is important to read your users manual to make sure you’re getting the right size. Permanent filters are also fairly common. These filters create much less waste because you reuse them, however they do require cleaning after every use. If you ever lose or damage your permanent filter you can easily find replacements, but most machines that use them will also accept appropriately sized paper filters if you desire.
Once you’ve placed the ground coffee and water into the machine, you’re ready to brew. Brewing is a fairly simple process, usually just requiring that you hit the brew button to make your coffee immediately. Several machines also offer the option to set a brew time up to 24 hours in advance. This is a great feature for those of us who are a little groggy in the morning and need a cup of coffee before we can think about doing anything else. LCD and LED displays are found quite frequently on coffee makers to make programming a little easier and to provide an additional clock wherever you place the machine. Brewing will usually average between 8 and 10 minutes, but if it’s already begun and you just can’t wait for that first cup, most machines also include a brewing pause option so you can sneak a cup before the pot is done. This feature will either provide you with a certain amount of time before brewing will resume (typically around 20 seconds) or will have a trigger that is hit when the carafe is put back into place. With the latter of these two options, you still shouldn’t have the carafe out of the brewing position for more than about 20 seconds because water still flows into the filter basket during this time. If the carafe is removed for too long, water and grounds will begin to overflow from the filter basket and create quite a mess.
If you’ve ever had coffee that’s been sitting in the pot for hours, you know that it is not coffee at it’s best. Most people think that this is just the natural progression of coffee, but that isn’t necessarily true. What makes the coffee flavor break down and taste burnt is constant exposure to high levels of heat. Some machines come with hot plate temperature adjustments, but the best way to avoid this break down is to pour coffee into a separate thermal carafe, or even better, brew directly into one. Preheating this carafe, by running hot water through it prior to brewing, will help to maximize the retention of heat and flavor. Coffee drinkers still have split opinions on thermal carafes and traditional hotplates, but no matter how it’s kept warm, coffee will taste it’s best within the first hour after brewing.
Hotplates can also be a source of contention because the auto shut off mechanisms in some machines may take a while to kick in and others don’t have an auto shut off at all. Without this option, the hot plate will continue to heat indefinitely if you forget to turn it off. Even if you have the auto shut off option, the heat source could still be running up to 4 hours depending upon the machine, so it’s no wonder that it can make some consumers nervous. To curb this problem, machines are now coming out with programmable shut-off options so you can tailor the machine to your schedule and habits.
The day-to-day maintenance of drip coffee machines is fairly easy. If you’re using paper filters, the filter and its contents need to be removed and disposed of. Permanent filters simply need to be emptied and rinsed out. The filter holder should also be removed and rinsed regularly, because grounds sometimes settle there. The carafe will need to be cleaned after every use. Coffee has a tendency to stain and stick to carafes, especially if it’s been sitting on a hotplate for any amount of time, but you can easily clean it with warm, soapy water. When it is not on, you may also want to run a wet sponge over the hotplate to clean up any drips that may have fallen there.
If you’re using the drip maker every day, you will want to decalcify it at least every 3 months. This involves mixing a decalcifying agent with a full pot of water and running it through the machine. After decalcifying, you will need to run one or two more pots of clean water through to make sure that the cleaner has been fully removed. Some manufacturers recommend that instead of a decalcifying agent, this process be completed with a mixture of white vinegar and water. This is perfectly fine to do if it’s in your user manual, however we’ve found that using a decalcifier is a great way to complete the process, no matter the machine.
Making coffee with a drip machine is a pretty straightforward process, so the results are dramatically influenced by the quality of the coffee and water. The features that are now available to control various portions of the brewing process do help to increase the output quality as well, but are not necessarily for every user. To narrow your choices, you’ll want to consider three main factors. First, you want to keep in mind how many cups you normally brew at a time. The flavor enhancing features that we discussed above can noticeably change the quality of your coffee, so if you brew small batches, they are something worth considering. The second thing you need to ask yourself is what kind of coffee you’ll be using. Purchasing a machine with a grinder doesn’t make much sense if you’re always going to brew with pre-ground coffee, but the built-in grinders can provide you with the freshest flavor possible from a single unit. Finally, you need to think about programmability. If you love to have your coffee ready for you when you wake up, buying a drip machine without this feature will make you unhappy from day one. Thinking realistically about which features will benefit you and the way you use your machine is the single path to finding your perfect match.
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