Coffee Center Feature Guide
Coffee makers and espresso machines, often referred to as coffee centers, are adding more and more features to differentiate themselves from the competition. While many of these features may improve the convenience of making coffee or espresso, it is important to keep sight of the fact that the overall goal is great taste.
Below is a list of features found on a variety of coffee and espresso makers. We explain the features and offer recommendations when we have one. Some of the features are found only on espresso machines, while others apply to any style of brewing center.
Programmability - Just like an alarm clock, you can set some models to start brewing your morning coffee to have it ready when you are. Some high end models also let you program to individual tastes so that an espresso is brewed exactly to your preferences and the next one is tailored to another's tastes.
Brew Strength Control - This feature allows you to adjust the coffee strength by adjusting the brewing process. You could adjust the brew strength by changing the amount of coffee grounds or water used. However, for better tasting coffee, the brewing cycle is a better way to make adjustments.
Reusable Coffee Filter - Instead of using a new paper filter every time you make coffee, a reusable filter can be rinsed and reused after every batch. Generally are made of either a fine mesh of plastic threads or a mesh of metal threads coated in gold. The gold suppresses bacterial growth and is easy to keep free of coffee oils. the plastic threads work well also but are a little less durable.
Water Filtration - Filtered water is of key importance in creating good tasting coffee. The filters used in most coffee makers use activated charcoal and must be replaced after a certain number of uses. The drawback to charcoal filters in coffee makers is that they may not be large enough to do the job well, they tend to be comparatively expensive, and filters for your specific coffee maker may be hard to find. A better option may be to use water filtered through a drinking water filter, which is useful for multiple appliances like the refrigerator's through the door water and the ice maker.
Auto Shut Off - Carafe models will keep the coffee warm in the carafe after it is brewed. Those with an auto-off feature will turn off the heating element after a preset amount of time. Some models allow you to specify the length of time before shutting off.
Brew Pause - While the coffee is brewing, you may want to pour yourself a cup. A brew pause feature allows you to take out the carafe and stop the flow of coffee into the pot. Most only hold the flow even water is still pumped into the grounds, so this will work for a only minute before it could overflow the brew basket.
Built-in Grinder - Models with this feature allow you to load whole beans into a hopper where they are stored until needed for brewing. When a brew cycle starts, a measure of whole beans is released into the grinder; some models also then dispatch grounds to the brewing vessel. Some models grind as needed while others pregrind one load to reduce cycle time for the next batch. The drawback to this time saver is that the ground beans won't be as fresh if it is a day or more before the next batch is made. Unless you have a fully automatic system, we still prefer using a separate grinder.
Thermal Carafe or Mug - These function as a thermos to keep the coffee warm over an extended period of time. This is better for the coffee's flavor than a hot plate which tends to make the coffee bitter over time.
Small Batch Setting - Adjusts the water flow over the grounds when making a single or small serving.
Temperature Adjustment - The hot plate beneath the carafe keeps the coffee hot. Some models allow you to adjust the temperature up or down. Generally of greatest benefit to those who like their coffee very hot.
Plumbed with Water Line - Automatic coffee centers may offer a plumbing option that allows you to connect the appliance to a permanent water line, just like with an ice maker. This convenience eliminates the need to refill the water reservoir every time you brew coffee or espresso. Another advantage is that you can add an in-line water filter that is likely to be better and cheaper than the filter the coffee maker includes.
Self-clean Cycle or Flushing - Automatic coffee centers that dispense coffee, espresso or steamed milk need to be rinsed after use to avoid clogging and bacterial growth. An automatic cleaning cycle or flush cycle is a valuable feature. Automatic brewing centers seem a lot less automatic if after brewing you must then manually clean and rinse the appliance.
Carafe Pre-Warm - A warm carafe reduces heat loss when the coffee begins filling. In reality, it probably makes little difference and as to being a feature, it is likely cheaper and easier to manufacturer the device to operate this way than not.
LCD display vs: Indicator Lights - Indicator lights are less expensive but reveal less information than a display. Although, displays sometimes provide frustrating little information also.
Bypass Doser - Automatic brewers with built-in grinders may offer a bypass doser to allow the use of grounds other than the beans loaded in the hopper. A useful feature when you need to brew a special batch, like decaf when the hopper contains regular coffee.
Dual Heating Elements - Super-automatic espresso machines use two temperatures of water, one for brewing, and hotter water for steaming. A second heating element allows speedier production by allowing each to operate independently instead of heating or cooling down to the required temperature for the operation.
Removable Brew Group - Super-automatic brew centers automatically load the grounds into the brew group for brewing. The cleaning and maintenance of this is made easier if it is removable. Models with non-removable brew groups generally run an automatic rinse cycle; although it may be less effective than a manual cleaning.
Cup Warmer - Coffee or espresso lose some temperature the moment they are poured into the cup. A pre-warmed cup helps keep the beverage serving temperature hot. Some model use passive waster heat, while others add active heating specifically to warm the cups.
Grinder Settings - Some automatic grinders produce a fixed result. The fineness or coarseness of the coffee grounds influence the flavor. Having control over the grind gives you precise control over the resulting espresso or crema. In order to produce barista quality drinks, this level of control is very important.
Adjustable Dosage - Another factor to flavor is the quantity of grounds used to brew a serving. The flexibility afforded by dosage control is very useful for creating drinks tailored to different tastes.