With its complex mix of aromas and tastes, good coffee is like fine wine. But while wine comes out of the bottle as a finished product, beans from a bag require the right apparatus and a little effort to ensure the experience that the roaster intended.
There's plenty of equipment out there to help you in your quest for the perfect cup, from $10 French Press pots to $1,000 espresso machines. Any would make a salutary gift for the coffee lover on your list (even, perhaps, for that person who makes coffee for you every morning). I've picked a few of my favorites that hew to the science of the brew.
First, get rid of those paper filters. Some can impart a slight papery taste to the coffee. Worse, they swallow up the very essence of coffee, the volatile oils that give different coffees their unique tastes. An easy fix is to use a $10 to $20 "permanent" gold filter from Braun or swissgold in your drip pot. Better still, try out some not-so-new ways to get a more gratifying cup from the same beans.
My favorite way to brew coffee is the vacuum pot, a.k.a. the coffee siphon. It was probably your grandmother's, too. These pots look like two glass globes, one atop the other. You put the water in the bottom one, the coffee in the top. As the water heats, it's forced into the top chamber. When you take it off the stove, a vacuum is created as the now-empty bottom part cools, and the brewed coffee is sucked back down through a plastic or glass filter. Good starter models are Bodum's original Santos, for $40, or the slightly smaller $36 model from Yama Glass.
Because of the constant attention that these stovetop brewers require, and their more difficult cleanup, you're not likely to use a siphon as your everyday pot. They're great for entertaining or for leisurely weekend mornings when you have time to savor your java. Take a look at the $90 Japanese Hario Nouveau, with its stand and alcohol burner. Another, even more expensive line is the British Cona brewer series: They start at around $150, but they're downright elegant, if a bit scientific, on the dinner table. A good source for these hard-to-find vacuum pots is Sweet Maria's, a roastery in Columbus, Ohio (sweetmarias.com).
The best news: There's now a fully automatic siphon, Bodum's $129 electric Santos, which has won awards for its design. Just like Mr. Coffee, it has a timer so you can set it up the night before. Starbucks (SBUX ) has the same machine, called the Barista Utopia, and it's on sale for $99 through the end of the year.
GROUNDS DOWN. Many roasters prefer the French Press technique because it comes closest to the way coffee is "cupped," or graded for quality. You fill the glass cylinder with boiling water and spoon in the coffee. After four minutes, you press the plunger to force the coffee grounds to the bottom; they're trapped by a wire mesh. The most popular brands, ranging from $20 to $50, are the dozens of Bodum and Bonjour models. A convenient variation is Thermos Nissan's insulated press, around $50, which keeps the coffee hot for about an hour. You can also buy plastic presses for around $10 that nicely fit a car's cup holders.
The problem with paper-free brewers is that the coffee often leaves a powdery feel in your mouth. You can solve it with a quality mill that grinds coffee evenly. The hottest home grinder is the new Solis Maestro, made by Baratza in Bellevue, Wash. You can get it for $129 at Aabree Coffee (aabreecoffee.com). The $80 Bodum Antigua and the $99 Starbucks Barista mills are almost as good and use the same mechanism, but neither can grind fine enough for some espresso machines.
For more ideas, from espresso cups to home roasters, check out Vancouver coffee enthusiast Mark Prince's Web site, coffeekid.com. Whatever you choose, don't forget to include a couple of bags of unusual beans (table). After all, the best coffee starts with the best beans.
By Larry Armstrong