Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cheap Coffee Makers - The Best Kind

Of all the coffee makers we've had over the years, cheap ones, like this Black & Decker model seem to work best and last longest.

Coffee is probably not good for you, as I noted in my Coffee entry in my Losing Weight blog.

But if you are going to drink coffee, you'll probably need a coffee machine. Over the decades, I have probably bought a dozen or more. From the cheap dented aluminum stove-top percolators that you can find at a thrift store for less than a dollar, to a Bunn-O-Matic commercial-grade unit that cost hundreds, to a fancy espresso machine with a milk foaming feature, to programmable machines with thermal carafes. You name it, chances are, I've bought it.

And you know what I have discovered? After 30 years the only ones I have left are the cheapest models out there. They last the longest, work the best, and make the best coffee. Spending a lot of money on a coffee maker might impress your friends and take up a lot of counter space., but in terms of making coffee, they really aren't a good buy.

This is the most cost-effective coffee-maker,
But you do have to monitor it.

The cheapest and best coffee maker is the old aluminum stainless steel percolator type that you can buy new for a few dollars or find used in a thrift shop for a few cents. These are very simple units with no moving parts and require no electricity. They take up no counter space and are easy to use. You do have to watch them, though, as they are not automatic. Just fill with water, add coffee to the basket (coarsely ground) and put it on the stove and wait for it to perk. No filters to buy or flashing clocks to program. How simple is that? But like watching water boil, they can be frustrating when you first wake up in the morning.

We use these types of percolators in our camper and in our boat. They are lightweight, easy to store and cheap. And since the bed is almost on top of the stove anyway, you can watch them perk while you snooze in the morning. In terms of durability, cost-effectiveness, and ease of use, this tried-and-true standard works the best.

Coming in second place are the basic, cheap electric coffee-makers that you can buy in home improvement stores and drug stores for $20 or less. The Black & Decker Smart-brew, shown at the top of the page here, is an example of such a coffee maker. But there are hoards of such cheap coffee makers out there, and they are all about the same. We have two right now, the Black & Decker at the lake house kitchen (about 15 years old), and one in the ceramics studio, a hoary old Braun that we've had for over 20 years.

These coffee makers are simplicity in themselves. No clocks to program, nothing to set. Just put in a filter (or use the gold filter), add water, insert the carafe, and turn it on. Mr. Coffee started the trend toward these devices, and those are another example of a cheap coffee maker that works well.

Third place goes to the programmable types and the thermal carafe kinds. We have a programmable Mr. Coffee with Thermal Carafe in Georgia, and it works well. The only problem with programmable coffee makers is that the manufacturers always seem to mount the electronics and display under the carafe area. So if the coffee maker overflows or water is spilled on it (and that never happens, right?) the electronics get wet and the unit stops working.

I have disassembled the Mr. Coffee a couple of times and dried out the electronics, in defiance of the "no user-serviceable parts, refer service to authorized personnel" label (I am an Electrical Engineer, do not try this at home!). It still works, but I am a lot more careful about getting it wet. It has lasted about 7 years so far. In other cases, we have not been so lucky. The electronics get wet, the machine goes Pfft! and off to the curb another coffee maker goes.

The thermal carafe thing works OK, but one problem with these types of makers is that you have to make sure the carafe lid is properly attached, otherwise, the coffee maker can SPEW COFFEE AND GROUNDS all over your kitchen. We had this happen in the condo, and it is a total mess - coffee and worse yet, grounds, overflow from the top of the filter basket and then run down behind the cabinets and get everywhere.

Progress, it seems, comes with a price. The convenience of being able to program when the coffee makes itself is nice, but if you set it for 8 AM and then sleep until 10, your coffee may be less than hot. And if you forget to program it, well....

Dead Last are the fancy overpriced machines. If you are spending over $100 on a coffee maker, take a moment to look in the mirror and then slap yourself very hard, repeatedly, over and over again, until you come to your senses. Keep saying to yourself, "It's only coffee, you idiot" and think about how $100 would look a lot better in your 401(k) plan, your children's college fund, or paying down mortgage debt, than in increasing your credit card debt load.

We had a Bunn-O-Matic "professional" stainless steel coffee maker than was a total counter hog. It certainly impressed guests, or maybe they just shook their heads and thought privately what fools we were.   Did it make good coffee? For a while, yes, but just as good (no better) than other makers.

The gimmick of the Bunn-O-Matic was that it was always on, and the water was always "hot". So as you added water, it started making coffee right away (Real commercial models are plumbed into your house plumbing and refill themselves). One problem with this unit was that guests couldn't figure out how it worked. They would put water in from the carafe and then panic as the unit instantly started making coffee, which spewed all over the counter-top. Worse yet, they would turn the unit OFF, not understanding that it took nearly an hour for the internal tank to heat up and make coffee.

Here's a clue: Any coffee maker that requires INSTRUCTIONS to work is probably not worthwhile. The Bunn-O-Matic eventually stopped getting really hot and made only lukewarm coffee. Off to the curb it went and the hoary old Braun came out of storage.

We also had one of those espresso machines. This was another counter-hog as well, and my partner kept "putting it away" for more needed counter-space. Here's a hint: Unless you have these things OUT all the time, you will never use them.

These are also horribly expensive, although we got a deal on it as a scratch and dent return at a store my partner worked at. While it mostly worked as advertised, we found ourselves not using it. Let's face it, frothing milk is a pain in the ass and not really worthwhile. After the second sip, your foamy "latte" is just coffee with milk in it. Get over it.

Also, "home" versions of these machines do not froth quite as well as the commercial ones (they take a lot longer to make steam). The frothing wand broke off (houseguest again) and that was the end of the espresso machine, as replacement parts are not available, like most consumer appliances these days.

So off to the curb that went, too.

Fast forward another decade and the hoary old CHEAP coffee makers we've bought at home improvement stores or drug stores or Wal-Mart or wherever continue to soldier on, while their more expensive, finicky brethren, have gone to that great coffee shop in the sky.

My experience with coffee makers mirrors my experience with a lot of consumer appliances and electronics. Buy standard "consumer-grade" appliances for cheap - that is the best bet. Chances are, they will give good reliable service, if treated well, and will cost a lot less than the fancy esoteric types. And if they do break, well, you are out a lot less money.

Sub-Zero refrigerators are all the rage in "gourmet" kitchens, but a standard refrigerator from Lowes or Home Depot will work just as well, if not better (and be more reliable) and cost maybe 1/4 as much. High end audio may be impressive to your friends, but you'd be surprised how cheaper consumer-grade electronics can sound (room acoustics being one of the major factors in any system) and cost 1/10th as much.

The common denominator in all of this is STATUS. As I have noted time and time again, many of us (myself included) succumb to the need to achieve status, and purchasing and displaying consumer goods is one way we chase after STATUS. Surely our friends and neighbors will be impressed by our sophistication and wealth, as evidenced by our selection of consumer goods, no?

The reality is, real wealth is not in displays of things bought, but in money in the bank, which is never apparent to others. It takes no talent or skill to select merchandise, other than to look for the best bargains. Any idiot can whip out a credit card and buy shiny things and go deeply into debt.

If you can look beyond your own status-seeking motivations and look at what really is a real value or real bargain, you can live better on less money and be happier. As my experience with coffee-makers illustrates, it is often the least expensive option that turns out to be the most useful and durable.

Live well by spending less. Live stingy!

P.S. - if you really want to save money on coffee, switch to tea.  Even using a cheap coffee maker and cheap coffee, it comes to about 22 cents a cup.   Tea is about 2 cents a cup.   Quite a savings - several hundred dollars, over the period of a year.