Serious coffee lovers like to be able to control every step of the brewing process, allowing them to individualize every single cup they drink. For them, the answer is a manual coffee maker. It takes longer to make a cup of coffee with one of these brewers, and there's a certain amount of fussing involved, but the result is a rich, flavorful blend that can't otherwise be found outside your local specialty coffee house. Be aware: there is a learning curve when first trying to brew coffee manually. In particular, you'll need to experiment with different grinds -- fine, but not too fine is what most experts say. You will also decide whether or not to grind your own beans (if you do, see our report on coffee grinders) and how you're going to heat your water to be sure it's the optimal temperature. If that level of customization is not your thing, and you'd just like a quick cup of coffee, see our discussions of large pod coffee makers and small one-cup coffee makers elsewhere in this report.
When it comes to French press coffee makers, the Bodum Columbia (Est. $80) is a very popular model that comes in 6-cup (17 ounce), 8-cup (34 ounce) 12-cup (51 ounce) sizes. Owners love the Columbia's stainless steel construction and "classic," minimalist pot shape. Unlike glass press pots, the Bodum Columbia is extremely sturdy and durable. The double thermal wall keeps coffee hot for quite a while so you don't have to transfer it to a separate carafe -- although, some say it doesn't keep coffee quite hot enough, while some others say the coffee gets too sludgy if it's left in the Columbia for too long.
The Bodum Columbia gets plenty of love from experts and users, and it gets perfect scores across the board in one expert roundup for heat retention, quality of coffee and ease of use and cleanup. Editors there describe coffee made in the Bodum as "rich," "rounded," "nutty," and "full-bodied." Users almost unanimously agree with the experts' opinions, saying the Columbia French press is the best coffee maker they've ever owned. The few who are less satisfied mostly dislike the plastic mounting ring holding, and the silicone band surrounding, the Bodum's stainless steel mesh filter. While this construction provides a solid seal for the filter, aiding in making a smooth, sediment-free brew, there are a lot of plastic haters who would prefer all stainless steel materials, even at the expense of performance, and even if the product cost more.
The simplest incarnation of manual coffee making lies in the pour-over technique. Literally, you put ground coffee into a holder with a filter and pour hot water over the grounds. The hot water extracts the coffee from the grounds, and it drips into a pot or mug below -- although some pour-over methods include a press of some type (there's more to it than that, and everyone has their own technique, but that's the general idea). Some pour-over coffee makers have proprietary technology to better disperse the hot water evenly over the coffee grounds to ensure that the maximum flavor is extracted. Others require that you do that work -- carefully pouring hot water evenly around the grounds. There are even dedicated kettles with special spouts available to do that properly, and we cover those in our report on tea kettles.
It has been either a top pick or a runner up in this category for several years now, and the AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker (Est. $30) is still an extremely popular option. Reviewers say it's easy to use: Simply insert a disc-shaped paper filter in the plastic tube, add coffee grounds, place the tube over a cup, pour in hot water, let it steep, and press the plunger down. Owners say it's easy to control the strength of coffee or espresso by adjusting the amount of coffee grounds used and the length of time the coffee is immersed. The AeroPress is made of tough, BPA-free plastic and is highly portable, making it popular for travel.
The classically designed Chemex CM-1C (Est. $35) has been around since 1941 and is still one of the mostly highly regarded pour-over coffee makers that we saw. It has the same variable control as other manual coffee makers, but the design causes the water to flow through the grounds more slowly for the ultimate in flavor extraction. Its glass styling makes it attractive enough to leave it sitting out on a counter; however, that also makes it more fragile.
Even simpler to use, the Clever Coffee Dripper (Est. $17 and up) is at the top of every list we saw for manual, pour-over coffee drippers. Experienced manual coffee enthusiasts love it, but it's also the one that's most-often recommended for beginners to manual coffee making. It's a cone, but a clever cone that is a hybrid of dripper and immersion-style manual coffee makers. Unlike traditional cone coffee drippers, the Clever first holds the ground coffee, immersion-style, to extract the maximum flavor from the beans. To brew, you just set it on a mug or other receptacle which releases a lever to start the drip.
The Clever comes in 10-ounce and 18-ounce sizes and in three colors. Some versions include a cover, some do not, but covering the cone is part of the brewing process, so if you don't buy a cover, you'll need to use a small dish or something similar. The price doesn't seem to vary much regardless of which size or type you choose, but you'll save a couple of dollars if you just buy the small, basic model.
For a manual coffee dripper, it's super easy to use, say reviewers; in fact, the only complaints we saw about the Clever are from people who think it's too much of a hassle to make a cup of coffee and they just want something for a quick cup. In that case, a more appropriate choice might be either the Keurig K10 MINI Plus Brewing System (Est. $95) or the Black & Decker DCM18S Brew 'n Go (Est. $30).
Even simpler and more basic than the Clever is the Melitta Ready Set Joe Single Cup Coffee Brewer (Est. $6). It's literally a plastic cone with a hole in the bottom, but users say it can turn out a great cup of coffee, especially if you're patient enough to carefully pour the hot water evenly over the grounds. Serious coffee aficionados prefer something with a bit more technology -- and they also prefer it to be made from ceramic -- like the Hario VDC-02W V60 Ceramic Coffee Dripper (Est. $20), which has ridges inside the cone to create a vortex-like effect to help distribute water more evenly. However, experts say you have to pay attention to what you're doing and pour the water slowly, or you'll get a too-fast brew.