Kummer on Coffee: Which is Better, Drip or Stovetop?

This week's advice column: our coffee guru explains the Bialetti machine and why drip pots are rapidly becoming dinosaurs

Q: If you had to choose between a stovetop, Bialetti-style coffee maker or a standard drip machine, which would you use? Also, what grind would you use for a stovetop coffee maker?

A: Always, always a stovetop. The entire trend in coffee-making today is single-serve coffee, after all. Thus the recent deal between Green Mountain Coffee, which owns the single-serve market leader, Keurig, and Starbucks—an alliance that even a year ago would seem unthinkable. And, of course Starbucks Via instant coffee, in single-serve packets, has done better than anyone dreamed, and caused an interesting rift between Starbucks and its longtime supermarket distributor, Kraft.

So single-serve is big business, and drip coffee, with the too-many cups that go stale too fast, will soon seem an antiquated countertop dust-gatherer. The movement will be in single-serve machines, which so far haven't particularly impressed me but are nonetheless clean and easy to use. And, I hope, back to stovetop machines, which are what every Italian household uses to make coffee and the method I use every morning and numerous afternoons.

I like the Bialetti brand itself, even if it's generally made of aluminum, which reacts with the acids in coffee and is not best form. But I somehow find myself coming back to it rather than the collection of stainless-steel stovetop pots I've amassed over the years. The gaskets, which wear out, are usually easier to replace than the orphan stainless-steel models. And I must have some sentimental attachment to the idea that a seasoned Bialetti makes better coffee, because I actually prize the stained metal, and never ever use soap or scouring powder on the pots, which really would impart off-tastes to the coffee.

You can buy various sizes of moka pot (the generic term for Bialetti-style pots) that will make anything from what Europeans would consider two cups—which we used to call "demitasse," and now know as espresso cups, in a sign of progress—and Americans would consider half a cup, to the eight-cup model, which will make three or four U.S. cups. We use a six-cup model for two ample servings.

Grind: coarse, almost as coarse as the evil, never-do-it percolator. Ask at a coffee shop for electric-drip grind if they're not sure what to recommend for stovetop espresso, and next time grind it a bit coarser. For instructions on quantity and tamping, see my Joy of Coffee—I've got a whole chapter on the moka pot, then and now my favorite brewing method.

Want to submit a question for next week's column? Ask Corby for food, drink, or restaurant advice by emailing askcorby@gmail.com.

Image: p.s.v./flickr

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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