“Great coffee” is a moving target. Thanks mostly to Starbucks, the typical coffee drinker today laughs off Sanka and other instant coffees that were considered great three decades ago. But at the same time, “third-wave” and “fourth-wave” coffee shops consider Starbucks to be a purveyor of mediocre coffee, and serious coffee drinkers agree. Independent coffee shops have continued to push coffee quality and variety forward, dragging donut shops, Starbucks, and home coffee makers to make better-tasting beverages in the process.

My Kitchen Tech column has previously explored the highest end of fancy at-home coffee with Chemex’s $250 Ottomatic pour-over coffee machine, and yesterday we covered KitchenAid’s announcement of a $250 deluxe coffee siphon brewer. But most people don’t want to spend that much money just to pour hot water on coffee grounds. So this week’s column takes a quick look at an option that’s around 90% less expensive, extremely popular, and capable of achieving excellent results: the $26 AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker. With an average Amazon user rating of 4.6/5 stars after nearly 3,700 Amazon reviews, the AeroPress requires a little more manual involvement, but pumps out great-tasting individual cups of coffee. Read on…

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The $26 AeroPress set arrives with a collection of mostly plastic pieces: a chamber that holds ground coffee, a plunger that goes into the chamber, a coffee scoop, a stirrer, a coffee ground funnel, and a filter holder. You also get roughly a year’s worth of small circular paper filters in the package, with each additional pack of 350 filters for $5. Unlike the basic glass $50 Chemex pitcher, which feels a bit too expensive for what you get and doesn’t arrive with all the parts you need to make coffee, there’s a lot of value in the AeroPress set.

As compared with the automated coffee makers I’ve previously covered, the AeroPress leaves you to handle three major steps on your own: you have to heat the water, pour the water, and stir the water and grounds together in order to maximize your coffee brewing. It’s also a tool for making a single cup of coffee at a time: you place it directly on top of your mug.

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AeroPress recommends a water brewing temperature of 175 degrees — low by coffeemaker standards — which is most easily accomplished by microwaving a Pyrex 1-cup measuring cup full of water for around 1.5 minutes. This temperature was selected for the neutral (non-bitter, non-acidic) extraction it achieves with coffee beans; some coffee vendors offer their own AeroPress temperature suggestions.

You place one filter at the bottom of the AeroPress chamber, measure and dump in two scoops of (preferably great) coffee grounds, then pour water in to the marked level “2,” and stir briefly to saturate the grounds. Then you push the plunger gently down into the chamber, creating pressure that forces the water through the coffee grounds, releasing the flavor.

If water runs through the grounds before you press, you should use more finely-ground beans; if it’s too difficult to press, use a coarser grind. Assuming you used the right grind of beans, you can drink the finished product as a double espresso, or top off the mug with hot water to have a standard concentrated cup of American coffee.

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I’ve owned various coffee making tools for long enough that I don’t see their results as magical, but there’s no question that I prefer the taste and temperature of handmade coffee to the stuff that comes out of typical coffeemakers. The virtues of the AeroPress are that it’s affordable and portable enough to carry around. One coffee fanatic told me that he prefers to use a Chemex at home for multi-cup brewing, but travels with an AeroPress for his own use. That’s completely understandable. But at this point, I keep only one handmade coffee device in my kitchen, and that’s the AeroPress. If you’re on a budget, or only make coffee for one, it’s probably the better choice for you, too.

Read More Kitchen Tech

9to5Toys readers have told us that they’ve “thoroughly enjoyed” Kitchen Tech, praising it as “very well written” with “great” book recommendations. Here’s what I’ve covered in past weeks.

Column 1: Learn how to up your drinking game with magical ice ball makers, which transform everyday drinks into classics – recently updated with a great affordable pick!

Column 2: Radically improve meats, poultry, and fish with Sous Vide water baths, which turn plain pieces of meat into succulent, restaurant-caliber steaks, ribs, and more.

Column 3: Learn about avant garde cooking with incredible modernist cookbooks, which bring professional, modern recipes and techniques home.

Column 4: Explore part one of the world of bar tools, starting with fundamental items needed for preparing cocktails, then continuing with “good idea” tools that will make your drinks even cooler.

Column 5: Part two of the world of bar tools, including the “fancy stuff” that makes restaurant-caliber cocktails possible.

Column 6: Chemex’s new Ottomatic pour-over coffee machine, Wilfa’s Precision Coffee Maker, and the world of premium coffee makers.

Column 7: Explore home- and restaurant-caliber wine and champagne tools, including the Coravin wine preservation system and much more.

Column 8: Create restaurant-caliber rotisserie beef, pork, and poultry with the Showtime Rotisserie Oven, one of my favorite easy-to-use home cooking tools.

Column 9: Use a pressure cooker to create incredible fried chicken, sandwiches, crisped meats, soft beans, and rice in record time.

Column 10: Puree fruits, vegetables, and nuts into silky smooth smoothies and soups with a Vitamix blender, and create foamy cocktails with a hand immersion blender.

Column 11: Learn how to use spherification to turn fruit juices, vegetables, cheeses, and cocktails into burst-in-your-mouth balls of liquid caviar.

Column 12: Carbonating tools including the SodaStream and iSi Soda Siphon help you make your own soda water and carbonated drinks at home, as well as fizzy fruits and desserts.

Column 13: Recommended by top chefs, iSi Whips use Nitrous Oxide (N2O) to make the fluffiest pancakes, air-light waffles, and freshest whipped cream you’ve ever hard.

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