This $300 Coffee Maker Is Actually Worth It
Indeed you can put a price on happiness
What is the price of happiness? More specifically: What is the price of daily happiness, of something that can unite a small household of adults whose ages range from 25 to 63? Even better: What is the price of impressing your food snobbiest friend?
I'm here to tell you that the price, for me, has been between $59 and $309. It is the price I did or didn't pay for the world's greatest home coffee maker.
It's sitting on my counter right now. It's not pretty, or particularly sleek. It looks sort of like a NASA launch tower as designed by IKEA: A short platform on the bottom and a single on/off switch and red light. A tall, rectangular metal tower rising up to a clear water bin that looks like a miniature aquarium with a tube in the middle. A black gantry that reaches over the cone-shaped holder where the filter and coffee go. A horse-shoe shaped indentation where you slide in the thermal carafe (if you opt for the thermal carafe—and you should—the vacuum seal theoretically keeps coffee hot for at least an hour, although in my coffee-obsessed household it never lasts long enough to test that).
The coffee maker came into my life a year ago. Our old coffee maker, a stylish but staid red and steel basic drip maker I had picked up at Target, never made great coffee, but it made OK coffee. It was fine until it developed a slow leak that sometimes covered the counter with a pool of water, especially if you tried to set it up the night before a very early morning.
I was just going to toss it in the Goodwill pile of my life and hit Target again, but then I got an assignment on coffee houses in my city, Charlotte. Which gave me a chance to quiz experts about what coffee apparatus they used at home.
I got lectures on the importance of proper water temperature—between 195°F and 205°F for optimal coffee extraction without bitterness—and heard about all kinds of Rube Goldberg arrangements involving thermometers and obscure glassware. Nah, too much work. Too much like French presses and pour-overs, which all test my patience.
Then one brilliant coffeehouse owner told me about the Moccamaster: That tall, silver rectangular tower hides copper guts. As someone who writes a lot about distilling whiskey, I know about copper and its ability to handle heat. If it's the secret to good whiskey, it stood to reason that it would also be the secret to good coffee.
Then I went to Amazon and gasped at the price: $309. For a coffee maker. I winced like the first sip of burned coffee from an old urn. But then, I started to reason with myself: Three adults, at least six cups of coffee every day for 365 days a year, potential years of use, divided by Christmas coming up. By that equation, $309 started to sound OK. Not bargain basement, but justifiable.
A few days later, a brown box was in the living room. The next day, when I got home from work, a second, identical box was in the living room, sitting right next to the first. Ah, the serendipity of Amazon order fulfillment. I called, made sure I wasn't being charged $618, and asked how to send back the second coffee maker.
You don't, the cheerful toll-free call taker informed me. It's our mistake, so you get to keep it. But wait, I insisted—it's a $309 coffee maker. I can't keep that.
Sure you can, she told me. It's our policy.
The birds sang, the sun shined, and I was as happy as a woman with a bedside barista. I'm not greedy: I went on Facebook and offered up the spare for $250, a reasonable discount. A smart friend snapped it up and within a few days, I had a $309 coffee maker for $59. Sometimes, life is good.
The coffee maker has its quirks, but we quickly learned them. The carafe has an insert with a tube that supposedly stops stratification of your coffee. Whatever—words like stratification make me itchy. The filter basket has a simple toggle to turn off the flow of coffee, a step we didn't understand until we realized how hard it is to tell when the coffee stops dripping and yank the carafe too soon. It's hard to see and remember to reset it, so you can screw up a batch if you don't open the flow again and water backs up into the cone holding the filter. And there's the issue of trying to unscrew a vacuum-sealed carafe after my 25-year-old son has worked out his biceps on it.
All in all, though, we quickly learned our coffee routine, setting it up by the sink where we can stretch the faucet hose over and just fill it like a watering trough. We happily go through enough coffee beans to change the economy of Colombia (our coffee grinder experiences are tales for another day).
The coffee maker, though, was awaiting its final test: The arrival of my food-snobbiest friend.
My food snobbiest friend is a great friend, actually. As a food writer, I know a lot of food snobs and many of them are, frankly, pills. They react like you're a cretin if you haven't eaten this or been there, if you don't know an obscure dish or still sometimes splay your chopsticks like a gymnast's legs when you eat sushi. Thanks to Facebook, they're more present than ever.
My food snobbiest friend isn't like that. He's a former chef and restaurant critic who is genuine in his love and excitement over food. He's like a little kid at Christmas when he makes a new discovery, and he never talks down when you don't know what Pommes Aligot is. He's the guy who understands when a new food experience leaves you flat and who can point out that Wylie doesn't pronounce the "S" in Dufresne so gently and kindly that you don't even blush. I love this guy.
And this guy seriously loves coffee. Here's how much he loves coffee: Back in the '90s, when we still got food finds through the short items in Gourmet and Bon Appetit instead of breathless Facebook posts, word got out about "poop" coffee. This was Kopi Luwak, a coffee so obscure that little animals called palm civets in Indonesia eat the beans and the coffee is gathered by following them around, waiting for them to defecate.
Needless to say, this is very expensive coffee. Ounce to ounce, it's more expensive (and harder to get) than cocaine. My food snobbiest friend had to have it. But: Expensive. So he contacted a group of us who were all headed to a food conference and made a deal: If we'd all chip in, he'd score an ounce and bring it.
We dd, he did, and he actually smuggled a small French press to the table at a usually boring awards dinner, ordered hot water for "tea" and actually made poop coffee right there in a hotel ballroom. I don't recall that it was particularly good coffee – the water was nowhere close to 205°F degrees—but the whole memory has a certain je ne sais quoi.
Almost a year after we scored our $59-$309 coffee maker, my friend came through town and needed a place to crash. I put him through the usual warnings—you have to share a moldy shower with my adult son, my dog is jumpy but loveable, the guest room is usually a mess. I ended with a promise, though, that we make really, really good coffee.
And then I held my breath. You don't just tell your food snobbiest, coffee-obsessive friend a thing like that without feeling a little jitter in the pit of your stomach.
I had already left for work when he got up the first morning and had coffee with my husband. He was so impressed, he texted to tell me how good the coffee was. Even better, when he got home, he sent a thank-you gift of nice Dark Matter coffee beans (one was called Unicorn Blood, which was close enough to "civet poop" that it made me laugh).
Even better-better, a few weeks later, he texted to get the name of the coffee maker to give his sister, who needed a new machine. So I could feel, briefly, even more in the know than my food-snobbiest friend.
You can't buy happiness like that. Well, actually, you can: You can put together those Amazon and Visa gift cards piled up with your used Christmas, Valentine, and birthday cards. And if you get really lucky, Amazon might poop out a deal.