Simple vs. sophisticated: How much tech do you need for a decent cup of coffee?

There are a lot of ways to make coffee these days. There’s the old standby drip coffee makers (some of which have gotten pretty high tech), the traditional French press, high-dollar espresso makers that do everything but drink the coffee for you, the stove-top moka pots, and the plethora of single-serve coffee machines allowing for one cup of joe at a time. 

But how much digital wizardry and automation do you really need to make a decent cup of coffee? 

While at a favorite kitchen store recently, I noticed a couple of units that would help me answer that question. First was an electric moka pot, the second was an attractive single-serve electric espresso maker. Both were from Italian-based coffee company Bialetti, best known for its classically designed silver moka pots. I was curious how these two upgraded units would stack up to the tried-and-true Italian stovetop moka pot, of which I just so happen to own. So I took them home and got brewing. 

Stovetop Moka Pot

Unfamiliar with a moka pot? They’re often called stovetop espresso makers, and work by passing hot water that’s been pressurized by steam up through the coffee grounds to make a strong, concentrated espresso-like coffee – no machine required. Technically, moka pots don’t make espresso, since espresso must actually be brewed under at least 9 bar (130.5 PSI). But they do make a strong, satisfying cup of coffee. 

My six-cup Italian stovetop pot has no moving parts (except the lid) and no fancy tricks. It’s a design icon that can make a screamin’ hot cup of coffee that’ll put hair on your chest. However, it takes a bit of practice to get it right. Fill the bottom part of the vessel with water up to the relief valve, fill the basket with finely ground coffee, screw together, and bring to a boil on moderate heat until the coffee has percolated into the upper vessel. From start to finish (not including the time it took to grind the beans), the old-reliable method took about eight minutes to create a cup of strong, piping-hot coffee. Careful with that handle, too; it can get extremely hot. 

Stovetop Moka Pot

Stovetop moka pots aren’t foolproof. Boil the water on too high of a heat and you can cook the coffee, which leads to a burnt taste. If you don’t boil the water enough, you won’t end up with a full pot of coffee. I’ve read that for best results you’re supposed to preheat the water before putting into the vessel, too. My old Italian moka pot isn’t exactly a set-it-and-forget it unit, and there are certainly variables that might lead to the not-so-perfect cup of coffee. A six-cup Bialetti moka pot generally costs about $35—not bad. 

Bialetti Easy Café ($107.50)

A more modern approach to making a perfect cup of concentrated coffee lies in the Bialetti Easy Café electric moka pot. This unit features the classic styling of the original stovetop unit, but it’s all electric. The pot rests on a base and has a heating element on the bottom of the pot itself. No preheating of water needed, either. You fill the base with water, fill the basket with grounds, screw the top vessel on, and place the pot on the base. Then simply press the button and the pot’s element heats up to boil the water. I made several pots of coffee with the Easy Café and found it to be as fast if not faster than the old stovetop unit. When done, a light on the base flashes and a tone is emitted to let you know the coffee is ready. Plus, the Easy Café automatically shuts off when it’s finished. Even better, when placed back on the base, it’ll keep the coffee warm for up to 20 minutes in case you don’t want to drink six shots of concentrated coffee at once, or aren’t looking to make a sextuple latte.

Bialetti Easy Café

I found the coffee temperature is at that just-right hotness; not the thermonuclear temp of the stovetop unit, but certainly hot enough. This means you can surely use the hot java for espresso-style drinks or on its own.  This unit would be great for work places, dorm rooms, or other places that might not have a stovetop for those craving strong, rich coffee. The Easy Café from Bialetti will run you about $100 from most retailers. 

Bialetti Diva ($200)

If you’re a coffee drinker, you’ve likely seen the single-serve units which employ coffee-filled capsules to deliver your caffeine fix. Of course, the theory here is that you don’t need to make a full pot of espresso if you’re just looking for a shot, and they’re a lot less expensive than many of the full-blown espresso makers. Plus, they’re quick and convenient. 

Bialetti’s latest single-serve espresso unit is the Diva and I must say—it’s beautiful. Like the Ferrari of single-serve coffee makers, the Diva looks great on the countertop thanks to its brilliant red and glimmering silver finish. It includes a sampler of five espresso flavors including Milano (mild roast), Venezia (light roast), Roma (medium roast), Napoli (intense roast), and Deca, which is decaff. To operate, fill the water reservoir, plug the unit in, and flip the power switch. Next, select the capsule of your choice and insert into the designated slot. You then push down the lever and touch one of the two digital pour buttons—one makes a half cup; one makes a full cup. Place your cup under the nozzle on the adjustable cup rest, and wait for your coffee to be made. By the way, this is a true espresso maker, as the unit creates up to 20 bar (290 PSI) of pressure. 

Bialetti Diva

It only takes seconds for your drink to be made, and it comes out looking fantastic with a nice crema layer on top. The coffee tastes delicious. However, it was the coolest temperature of the three machines. It does allow for immediate coffee consumption without any waiting for the beverage to cool down, but personally, I would prefer it to be warmer. This isn’t the best unit if you’re looking to make espresso drinks due to its single-serve nature as well as the coffee’s temperature. 

When it’s time to move onto that second cup, lift up on the lever and the coffee capsule drops into a hopper that’ll hold several pods before it needs to be emptied. One negative note: the adjustable plastic cup rest had a piece break off its underside when trying to disassemble it. 

The Bialetti Diva does some things really well: It makes a very consistent cup of espresso each and every time; it’s foolproof; it’s convenient. It is also a sexy looking thing. Retail price on the Diva is $315, although the street price is generally in the $200 range. A package of 10 espresso capsules will run you about $16. 

Which belongs in your kitchen? 

Each machine has its own merits. If you’re looking to drink a single cup of espresso, the Diva makes a very smooth, drinkable beverage. While it could be hotter, the flavor is very good. Its same-every-time operation and premeasured, pre-ground coffee makes it nearly impossible to screw up. The Easy Café electric moka pot also removes some of the variables, such as water temperatures and brew time, helping you achieve a consistent pot of hot coffee. Due to its ability to make six cups at once as well as produce very hot coffee, it’s a great choice for lattes, cappuccinos, Americanos, and other espresso-like beverages. That leaves us with the old stovetop pot. It’s the least expensive and most romantic of the three. With that being said, it also requires the most patience, most experience, and most time. 

So do you really need a “modern” coffee maker perk you up? Not at all. But if you don’t want to drink a cup of coffee to focus on making your morning cup of coffee, you might just appreciate the convenience.

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