Part of Gear Patrol‘s mission is to get our hands on as many products as we can, test them and let you know what’s worth pulling your wallet out for and what’s just smoke and mirrors. Because of this, we sometimes see ourselves as experts in a product realm. When speaking about all things coffee with James McLaughlin, I did not feel this way.
The President and CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee was not thrust into his position because of a strong handshake and bright smile (though he has both). He earned the title by working at nearly every level of the coffee industry — including moving his family to Brazil to take over a coffee farm, and eventually turn that coffee farm into a respected grower of specialty coffee in a country traditionally overrun with mass-produced schlock. He served as Intelligentsia’s Director of Green Coffee, Roasting and Quality Control before becoming its frontman, and sits on the board of World Coffee Research, an enormous collaborative effort bringing scientific rigor to coffee. In other words, McLaughlin is an actual expert.
I sat down with him at Intelligentsia’s Highline Coffee Bar with a specific goal in mind — figure out which fringe coffee products that scream “Do I really need this?” are worth buying into, and which are all talk. Here, McClaughlin outlines eight pieces of coffee gear that make us ask that question, and what he thinks of them.
Do You Need a Hand Coffee Grinder?
Verdict: “I’m generally sleepy in the morning and I don’t want to stand there grinding. I mean, a hand grinder can be good and provide good, consistent grinds. We sell a Japanese one that’s excellent, and really it’s a matter of personal preference. Some people like the ritualistic, sort of manual nature of the hand grinder. To me, a good electric burr grinder gives you comparable grind quality at the push of a button. It’s more important you get a burr grinder than anything else, blade grinders make for pretty sub-par cups of coffee.”
Do You Need a Milk Frother?
Verdict: “They’re fun — you know, having the froth on top of a cup of coffee is a bit different, but they’re not worth investing a lot in I don’t think. It’s not a requirement, and it’s not really what you’re going to get in a cafe at all, but I guess it can be used for a bit of a change up. I don’t personally use one.”
Do You Need a Milk Steamer?
Verdict: “You can teach yourself how to steam milk like a barista much more quickly than you could teach yourself how to pull a proper shot of espresso out of a manual machine. It’s certainly superior to imitation milk frothers, though a bit more involved. I say why not, but only if you’re going to teach yourself how to use it correctly.”
Do You Need Gold Filters?
Verdict: “I’m definitely familiar with the product, but I’m not familiar with any reasons for needing a gold-plated brewer, filter or cup. I imagine it works fine, like any decent filter, but I don’t view it as something you have to have in the kitchen, or something that makes an astounding difference either way.”
Do You Need Third Wave Water?
Verdict: “Coffee is largely water, obviously, and at all of our shops and cafes we’ve got treated water using a commercial system. It strips all the minerals and whatever else is in the water and re-mineralizes it with our own special concoction. Depending on where you live in the country, having something to soften your tap water is actually pretty important. When we do events in other cities [Intelligentsia is Chicago-based], we’ll take the Third Wave Water packets with us and put them into distilled water to get a properly minerally-balanced water for brewing. If you’re looking to geek out, it’s well worth it. Just add it to distilled water if you can.”
Do You Need a Coffee Scale?
Verdict: “Scales are great. They’re phenomenal tools. They are absolutely necessary if you’re going hard into coffee — you know, dialing in the ratio of coffee to water and further. You have to have it. When you’ve left the realm of “I just want a great cup of coffee in the morning” and entered the realm of flavor manipulation and focusing really hard on extraction.”
Do You Need a Cold Brew Maker?
Verdict: “I think it’s worth it if you’re already really, really into cold brew. It simplifies the process and it’s cleaner. Cold brew is obviously super popular these days, and I think it makes your life easier, but there are obviously plenty of ways to make it. Having a specific product to make your cold brew just provides an ease of execution, cleanliness and convenience that lends to making more of it.”
Do You Need a Moka Pot (Stovetop Espresso Maker)?
Verdict: “Making espresso at home is very difficult. Making good espresso at home is very, very difficult. I personally own a stovetop maker, but I don’t think it’s a 100 percent representation of espresso at all, but it is closer than a home drip. It’s incredibly difficult to get a consistent product out of it. I consider myself to be a coffee geek, and I still feel like there are more bad days than good days with it. Where I’m like “Wow, I over or under-extracted it and forgot to take it off the stove.” I take it to an extreme and even I struggle with it. But again, it’s closer to espresso than a drip, so I still suck it up and use it.”