How to make good coffee on a starving student’s budget

Edit: I’m an idiot and miscalculated the break-even point for the cheap gear and cheap beans option, it’s 84 days instead of 155.

This is yet another article on how to make good coffee. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My interest in coffee was sparked in high school, became a hobby in college, and later inspired me to create a blog when I was bored and frustrated with the lack of good coffee in Davis. I started investigating coffee gear when I had the least amount of disposable cash, which steered me towards the most cost efficient methods. As is the case with any new interest, the cheapest method is the least risky.

Hopefully you have taken the advice from my previous post, “Why good coffee?“, and experienced good coffee for the least possible outlay: pay someone else to make it for you. But if you are not rich, you probably don’t want to always pay for something that you can easily do for yourself. With coffee, you can easily make good coffee for less than it costs to buy both good and bad coffee1 from a cafe.

There’s a saying in Italian about what it takes to make good espresso, but I forget what it is. It translates to blend, grind, machine, and hand. Translated again from the abstract metaphors: good coffee, grind, espresso machine, and technique. But basically all you need to know is that good espresso requires those four things in that order. Good coffee swaps the last two, the quality of the actual brewing apparatus is much less important than with an espresso machine.

Oh, and always use filtered water. With coffee having such a strong flavor, bad water plays a surprisingly big part in the final product.

Beans

Get it from a local roaster (Chocolate Fish or Temple if you are in Davis) or order online. Here are a few of my favorites:

Store them in an airtight container, my favorite one so far is the Planetary Design Airscape. They sell these at Peet’s as well. Use your beans within two weeks of roasting, faster if possible. Don’t buy in bulk, only buy what you will drink in less than two weeks.

Price: $10.50 – 14.00 per week, one 12oz cup a day

Grinder

Aside from good coffee, the grinder is by far the most important piece in the coffee ritual. A good grinder will actually “shave” your coffee beans into particles that have roughly the same surface area. A consistent grind means a consistent extraction, you don’t want to extract some particles of coffee too much and others too little since they will bring out unpleasant flavors.

I recommend a Hario Skerton hand grinder for under $50. I personally have only used Zassenhaus hand grinders (used one exclusively for over a year), but sources that I trust report that the Hario is much easier to use and delivers a great grind.

If you want to get an automatic grinder, it’s hard for me to recommend anything less than the Baratza Virtuoso. It’s a shame, but Baratza’s cheaper grinders all seem to fail pretty quickly and consistently.

If you are a starving student, go for the Hario. Hand grinding your coffee builds character.

Price: $50 – 200

Machine

There aren’t any machines when brewing coffee (unless you count the Clover), just different vessels with various ways of filtering the grinds from the coffee.

Water Boiler

For these manual methods, you will need hot water. You can use a metal pot or kettle, but a water boiler is probably the most awesome invention EVER. The PINO digital kettle is pretty great and only costs a little more than most electric kettles. You can use it for all kinds of stuff that uses hot water, which is literally everything. Literally.

I have seen a few in thrift stores, but they are usually plastic, which makes your water taste like… plastic.

Price: $0 – 70

French Press

The Bodum Chambord is the classic, and one of the cheapest, french press options. It’s decent, but the screen is a hassle to clean and the carafe shatters from careless bumps in the sink.

The Bodum Brazil has a plastic frame and handle, but is otherwise the same as the Chambord for almost half the price.

I’ve seen cheaper Bodum french presses in thrift stores pretty often, so check there first.

Price: $19 – 35

How-To by Barefoot

BAREFOOT COFFEE // FRENCH PRESS from MKSHFT/CLLCTV on Vimeo.

Find more french press videos here: Brewmethods.com

Drip

A drip cone is a drip cone, you can get one in most groceries. I would just recommend not getting a plastic one, the Hario V60 is the most popular and probably what you see in cafes. You can also get the clear version, which is cheaper (I’m not sure why).

Price: $13.50 – 22

How-To by Tonx

Hario V60 pourover how-to from tonx on Vimeo.

Aeropress

I’ve saved this for last, but it might be the best mix of affordability, ease of use, and quality coffee. The reason I saved it for last is because I just ordered one myself, having never actually used it. However, I’m still waiting to find an opinion that pans it as a gimmick from someone I trust. It seems that everyone, from layman to professional, praises the Aeropress. Even the professionals that were very skeptical of it were surprised that it makes good coffee.

I’m leaving out impressions until I actually try it for a while, but take a look at the video to and see why some people call it idiot-proof.

Price: $24

How-To by Doubleshot

Aeropress from doubleshot – pražírna kávy on Vimeo.

Price breakdown

Since this is supposed to guide you through the cheapest way to enter the world of good coffee at home, here’s the price breakdown.

Method Cheapest Upgraded
French Press $69 $305
Drip $63.5 $292
Aeropress $74 $305

As you can see, there’s very little difference in price between the different methods and the low/medium end setups I recommend. The most expensive upgrade by far is the grinder ($200 vs $50). If you can handle the hand-grinding, go for it.

Now for a price breakdown vs buying coffee. Lets say that the cheapest home-setup is around $70 and the mid-level setup is around $300. As I mentioned before, I spend about $10.50 – 14 on 12oz of beans, which should last you around nine 12oz cups of coffee.

$10.50 / 9 = $1.17 or $14 / 9 = $1.55 per cup of coffee

Lets assume that a cup of coffee costs around $2 from a cafe; you would save $0.83 – $0.45 if you make it yourself. If you drink a cup a day, after a year you will have spent $302.95, which is $164.25 more than if you had made the coffee yourself. If you drink more than a cup a day, the difference is even greater. And lets not forget, the coffee you make at home is good coffee.

It would take you 84 days, or 84 cups of coffee, to break even if you went the cheaper gear route and were buying $10.5 bags of beans.2

It would take a little less than two years, or 667 cups of coffee, for you to break even if you went with the Expensive gear and were buying $14 12oz bags of coffee beans.3

  1. Brewed coffee, not espresso
  2. $70 / 0.83 = 84.33
  3. $300 / 0.45 = 666.66