Making Affordable Gourmet Coffee at Home
One of my favorite parts of being remote is working from cafes when the mood strikes me. Unfortunately, these trips often cost $20 by day’s end. It’s already hard enough to find great prices on groceries, so these costly cafe trips only make matters worse.
Fortunately, I’ve learned to love the home cafe experience as well. My love for cafes and thriftiness have helped me determine exactly how to make gourmet coffee at home—and on the cheap, too!
To help you get started on your own gourmet coffee journey, let’s tackle everything there is to know about the elements that go into a gourmet coffee experience. And of course, we’ll talk what it takes to make a good drink!
Isn’t All Coffee the Same?
To the casual coffee drinker, most coffee probably is the same. It’s dark, you put sugar and milk in it, and that’s the end of it. This is selling coffee short, though!
There are two main species of coffee in the world: Arabica, and Robusta. With more than 75% of the beans in the world being Arabica, you’re probably drinking Arabica whenever you pick up a mug of coffee.
If it weren’t for the roasting process, all coffee would be the same. We’d all be drinking Arabica, it would taste like Arabica, and that would be that. The good news is the roasting process is the thing that truly sets beans apart.
Picking the Right Roast
The next time you walk down the coffee aisle at the grocery store, take a look at the number of coffees on the shelf. There are likely quite a few. Starbucks alone can take up a few rows with their coffee.
Many of these coffees will offer a similar taste depending on the type of roast or blend you get:
- Breakfast Blend: This is the cornerstone coffee. It’s light, it’s generally more caffeinated than the dark roasts, and it’s easy to drink.
- Light Roast: The lightest in roasting time, often the highest in caffeine, and usually the least bitter, the light roast is a great starter coffee. Breakfast blends are often made from a light roast, so if you like one, you’ll generally like the other.
- Medium Roast: This coffee has been roasted slightly longer than breakfast blend, giving it a bolder flavor and slightly less caffeine. If you’re not prone to liking slightly bitter flavors, you’ll want to consider a milk or sugar for this one.
- Dark Roast: Roasted even longer than the medium roast, this coffee is as black as midnight, lowest in caffeine, and very strong in the flavor department. Like the dark chocolate of the candy world, this is an acquired taste that not everyone will enjoy.
Once you know which kind of roast you like the most, you can start looking at variations of that roast. For example, many companies offer a light or medium roast that’s’ been flavored with natural or artificial ingredients. One of my favorites during the fall and winter is a Mexican Chocolate variety, as it has a smooth chocolatey taste with a bit of a kick at the end.
Brewing Coffee on the Cheap
With bulk coffee beans almost always being a better buy than purchasing a brewed cup from a cafe, consider yourself already ahead!
Now, it’s time to brew some killer coffee at home, on the cheap. You can simply buy the cheapest drip coffee maker you find, but you’d also be missing out on something that suits your needs better. Here are some of the major types of coffee makers, and the more popular models and brands in each category.
Automatic Drip Coffee Makers
These are one of the most popular coffee makers, and for good reason: they’re easy to use, often affordable, and they make good coffee. There are a variety of types to choose from, however, so you’ll want to do some heavy research to find the brand that suits you.
Most automatic drip coffee makers work similarly, using a basket and filter system, water reservoir, and carafe. Where things start to differ heavily by brand is the advanced functionality various models bring to the table.
A basic Mr. Coffee will make good coffee, generally offer a timer function, and little else. It will also run you anywhere from $20-30. I had one of the most basic Mr. Coffee drip makers around, and it lasted me several years and made great coffee.
Something like a Ninja coffee maker will allow you to customize the size of the brew, include a steaming wand and reusable basket, and allow you to brew different strengths of coffee. You’ll also end up spending roughly $160-200. My wife and I were given one as a wedding gift, and I will say it makes incredible coffee and the various features are really handy. That being said, it would be really tough for me to spend that much out of pocket on one.
There are numerous additional brands and models of automatic drip coffee makers, each bringing something different to the table. Ultimately it comes down to what you want out of your coffee maker. I love my Ninja, but I also wouldn’t have it had it not been a gift. I love coffee, plain and simple. The bells and whistles are nice, but they’re still just bells and whistles.
Manual Coffee Makers
As the name implies, these are coffee makers that require a little elbow grease. Unlike their automatic cousins, manual coffee makers generally don’t use any kind of power. They can also make some of the best coffee you’ll ever drink. Not only this, there are quite a few varieties to choose from.
The French Press
A French Press is an older method for making coffee that’s had somewhat of a comeback in recent years. With a French Press, you simply fill the pot (usually glass) with coarse grounds and hot water. You then wait for a few minuets, at which point you press the plunger down, slowly. If the coffee is ground properly, you’ll wind up with a rich cup of coffee that tastes incredible.
Mastering a French Press is a bit of a science and an artform, so it’s not ideal for beginners. Still, they’re very affordable and they require no power, which is a huge plus. If you tend to entertain and need a lot of coffee at once, you may want to look at other options. French Presses are usually only suitable for a few mugs at once, making them a poor choice for those needing a lot of coffee at once.
That being said, if you want to make the ultimate gourmet coffee at home, a French Press is a great choice.
Pourover coffee is a little more hands off than a French press, but still more time consuming than pressing a button.
When making pourover coffee, you place ground coffee in a filter, which is then set inside the dripper. You then pour hot water over the grounds, making sure not to flood the holder. This requires a small pour, some waiting, and then another pour, and waiting, and so on. You can of course get incredibly scientific, which I’ll leave to the fanatics at Serious Eats.
The end result of pourover coffee is a coffee that’s evenly-brewed and bold in taste. I personally don’t make pourover coffee at home, but there are a number of pourover coffee makers you can try out if you’re interested. This definitely isn’t the ideal coffee making style for parents on the go, but if you’ve got a few minutes to spare in the morning, the end result can be great!
Making Affordable Espresso
With your coffee maker of choice on your counter, it’s time to learn the next ingredient of any quality cafe beverage: espresso.
What is espresso?
Espresso is a type of coffee, brewed by forcing a stream of incredibly hot water through a concentrated block of coffee grounds. Unlike traditional coffee brewing that takes minutes, espresso is made in under 30 seconds.
There are espresso roasted beans available in most stores, but espresso itself can be brewed using any type of coffee. That being said, you generally want a coffee that’s been ground much finer than the kind you put in your regular coffee maker. The finer ground allows for a cleaner brew as the pressurized water goes through the beans.
Brewing Your Own Espresso
Unlike traditional coffee and its countless devices, espresso is usually made using one of a few makers. Some espresso machines can cost you an arm and a leg, while others can be very cheap.
Stovetop Espresso Maker
Arguably the cheapest way to make espresso, a stovetop espresso maker is a fairly quick and easy way to get your caffeine fix.
With a stovetop espresso maker, you fill the bottom canister with water, pack coffee grounds into the holder, and screw on the top. Then, you place the entire thing on your stovetop. (Clever name, eh?)
Usually within a few minutes of being over the flame, you’ll hear the water bubbling away. Soon after you’ll smell the coffee and see steam coming out of the top of the maker. To check if the espresso is done, carefully lift the lid of the espresso maker. You should see some scalding hot coffee hanging out in the top.
This method takes only a few minutes to put together, and gives you enough time to go put your contacts in, throw on your clothes for the day, etc. The cleanup can be a bit of a pain, and these devices are often prone to water spots and grime if you aren’t careful.
I’ve used a metal one for years and love it. A word of warning if you go this route: make sure you dry them very well!
Standalone Espresso Machines
A standalone espresso machine is exactly what the name implies: a device that sits on your counter and quickly makes espresso.
Unlike their stovetop counterparts, standalone espresso makers usually require very little setup after the first use. They often have a water reservoir so you can forget about filling them daily. They’re also great for those in a rush during the morning, as you can press a button to start the brew and go. This is drastically different from a stovetop maker, where you run the risk of leaving it on the stove for too long.
Many standalone espresso makers also have numerous bells and whistles, like steam wands for making lattes or cappuccinos, or the ability to brew two shots at once.
The downside is that a standalone espresso maker can easily cost you around$100, and easily see you into $300 and beyond. You’re paying for the brand in some cases, but you’re largely paying for convenience. For the sake of thriftiness, I find the stovetop espresso maker to be just fine.
Effectively Frothing Milk
Whether you’re rocking espresso or traditional coffee, frothed milk is almost always a must in any gourmet drink. Not only this, frothed milk is an easy way to make a drink feel more gourmet.
When it comes to frothing milk you have several options. (Are you noticing a pattern here? Options, options, options!)
Manual Milk Frother
Manual milk frothers come in many forms, each similar in functionality and use. With a manual milk frother you have a small pitcher you fill with milk. Next, you place the pump in and go to work. Usually within 5-10 seconds you have a nice frothy bunch of milk to pour into your drink.
I have a glass milk frother that I love, especially because of how easy it is to clean. Metal ones are quick and easy to use as well, but like the metal stove top espresso maker you have to worry about stains, rust, and general wear and tear.
Handheld frothers are generally battery-powered, and allow you to froth milk quickly, without much effort. Unlike the manual frother, these don’t require any pumping and instead involve flipping on a button and moving the wand around.
These may sound a little easier to use, but actually require a little more delicacy than their manual counterparts. Manual milk frothers keep the milk contained, while a handheld frother leaves it all exposed. This gives you the perfect opportunity to spray milk everywhere. (I speak from personal experience.) Still, they work well, and with a little practice you won’t make too many messes.
Espresso Makers with a Steam Wand
Many top-tier espresso makers will include a steam wand. These allow you to steam and froth milk just like they do in cafes. Not only will this result in frothed milk, it will give you hot frothed milk that doesn’t cool the drink down.
The downside is that this entails buying a costly espresso maker. An added bonus of a steam wand is that you can make a mean bunch of scrambled eggs in a cup using one.
5 Tips to Help You Make Great Gourmet Coffee
You now know enough to brew any strength of coffee, and you can make magical, frothy milk. There’s still a lot that can go wrong with a drink. Here are a few tips to ensure your coffee keeps people coming back for more!
1. Don’t Make Your Coffee too Strong
I love bold flavors, whether it’s coffee, spices, beer, and so on. It was only in the past few years, however, that I realized I was brewing my coffee way too strong. More is definitely not better in the case of brewing, at least when you start.
The usual guideline is one to two tablespoons for every six ounces of water. Start with one and work your way up from there. You may think a stronger flavor equals more caffeine, but that isn’t always the case. You may have slightly more, but the flavor will be bitter and difficult for most drinkers. Make it a little lighter and enjoy the ride.
2. Try Your Coffee Black First
Just like adding too much coffee to your coffee is bad idea, so is dumping a ton of sugar in. I used to add a ton of sugar and cream to my coffee first thing. One day I decided to sip a mug of black coffee, and you know what? I loved it. You may never like black coffee, but don’t be afraid to try new roasts black first, before adding a dash of sugar and a splash of cream. You might be surprised to find you’ve simply been drinking bad coffee in the past, and only needed the right roast to come along.
3. Embrace Local Beans
I know buying local is all the rage, but in the case of coffee, it’s especially true. So many towns or regions have excellent coffee roasters. You may have to spend a little more here and there, but buying from local roasters is a great way to find new flavors. It’s also a great way to stimulate your local economy, but I won’t get into that here.
Yes, there are cheaper options. Yes, I’m all about thrifty living. Even still, buying some slightly pricey local beans every now and then is nowhere near as expensive as going to a cafe for your coffee. Give Folgers a break and try some local beans!
4. Always Ice the Glass First
If it’s pushing triple digits outside and you don’t want a hot coffee, iced coffee can be just what you need. A common mistake is putting ice in your current mug of coffee. This results in diluted coffee that’s neither cold nor delicious.
Before making an iced drink, fill the glass about 3/4 full with ice. Then, pour or brew the coffee over the ice directly. This will result in a more even cooling of the coffee and keep things from being too diluted. If you really want an even flavor, make a concentrated brew or use an espresso shot for an iced drink, as the bold flavor will mellow out with the ice.
5. Clean Your Coffee Maker Monthly
It’s easy to forget about cleaning your coffee maker. No, I don’t mean soaping and washing the carafe. You need to do a thorough cleansing of your coffee maker every month.
Use a 50/50 vinegar and water solution and brew this through once. Then, do a few brews using only water. This will clean the inside of your coffee maker and remove any grime, coffee grounds, etc. This is especially important if you’ve recently brewed any flavored coffee, as these can leave a lot of flavored residue behind and impact the flavor of future brews.
Make Gourmet Coffee Your Own
You have the knowledge, now go forth and make some gourmet coffee at home that would wow your local barista. Gourmet coffee doesn’t have to be expensive, even if you crave espresso. It’s easy to think you need the most expensive beans or espresso maker, but in reality you can craft some incredible coffee on the cheap.
Most of all, have fun with it! Take the less traveled path and create some whacky drinks. The above picture is one of the many drinks I’ve invented at home. I’ll never find it at a cafe, and that makes it even sweeter. (Look forward to a recipe on that drink in the near future! It’s a real kick in the pants, something all of us parents need!)
Do you have a specialty drink you love to make at home? If so, let me know down below, as I’m always looking for my next caffeine fix!