God, I love nothing more than disagreeing with The Wirecutter/The Sweethome. Their write-ups are so good that it doesn’t happen often. But when I do disagree, the differences between their priorities become obvious and I get great perspective on the trade offs companies have to consider when designing a product. Today’s example is the Aeropress the Sweethome’s lack of love.
The Aeropress is my favorite way to make coffee. Its commonly known for three features:
- Cheap – only $25–30 with filters that cost about a penny
- Small – fits in a cabinet or drawer so it takes up zero counter space (crucial in nyc) and even packs up well for travel
- Fast – end to end the full process takes me about 5 minutes (4 minutes is heating the water and clean up is only 10 seconds) But small, cheap, and fast isn’t going to win support from coffee snobs who spend happily and enjoy semi-ridiculous (ok, fine, completely ridiculous) coffee making rituals. I’ve excitedly bought bags of beans that cost as much as the aeropress and, don’t hate me/yet I’ll explain eventually, I hand grind beans every morning. There are also pour over drippers with an even smaller footprint than the Aeropress
So… none of the common strengths really justify the Aeropress’s popularity with the coffee nerds who support it.
Instead, Aeropress’s greatest strength is the control. At its core, the Aeropress allows you to start with hot water, blend in coffee grounds, then quickly separate the water from the grounds. In most brew methods it is easy to control variables like water temperature, water mass, coffee grind size , and coffee ground mass. The Aeropress adds two unique additions by enabling relatively precise control over extraction of goodness from the coffee grounds.
- Exposed surface area – with stirring it is possible to suspend the coffee grounds in the water and essentially expose the full surface area of all the ground to the water. Exposed surface area is proportional to extraction, so in the Aeropress exposed surface area can be controlled by just going for the max: the full surface of every ground of coffee is exposed during extraction (This isn’t purely true. Most recipes call for limited stirring which should slow extraction. In the future I’ll go into more detail about the factors that impact extraction.) Compare this to drip or pour over where water is allowed to pour through damp grounds at varying levels of saturation. Exposed surface area variation can be minimized in an Aeropress
- Extraction time – extraction starts when water is added to the grounds and then is very quickly stopped when the plunger is pushed. Drip through methods depend on the time taken for water to pass through the grounds. Sure, skill/technique (or automation) allows control of extraction time in those methods, but control over extraction time is inherent to the Aeropress’s plunger design Limiting uncontrollable variables in this way allows experimentation and coffee nerds have really run with this control. Coffee heroes like Tim Wendelboe and the crew at Búðin  create recipes based on experimentation, intuition, and dissolved solid meters. The Aeropess world championships let people compete with their recipes because sometimes the world is kind of excellent. The Aeropress has so much coffee nerd cred that it has to be amazing, right?
Yet, the Sweethome’s tasters were not impressed.
Instantly, I started looking for holes in their methods. What was their water temperature? What recipe did they use? Were the beans appropriately ground? Was the tasting panel made up of Folgers drinkers? Starbucks drinkers?!? How could they possibly not have loved a brew method that so many legit coffee nerds support? Even worse, how could they recommend using cheap coffee with the Aeropress?
The problem is that all of this control, which obsessives think is so great, can also mean there are a lot of ways to screw up. The real issue may be that Cale Weismann is incredibly skilled at making pour overs, is not experienced with the Aeropress, and the Aeropress only rewards those who have mastered all the control it offers. What if you don’t want to go ridiculously overboard with your coffee brewing? What if you don’t want to use a scale, thermometer, and timer to tweak your recipe every morning?
The take away is that the Aeropress is a great product for a niche market and it is ok if you or anyone else doesn’t love it . It provides some very specific features and can brew a cup of coffee so good that coffee allstars swear by it. But if you don’t want to start your day by following an extremely precise recipe, if you don’t want to run experiments fresh out of bed, or if you prefer a little more art and magic in your brewing, then… and this is hard for me to write… it is completely ok if you don’t want an Aeropress. Otherwise, the Aeropress is amazing and I really really want you to try it.
Oh. Unless you need to make a ton of coffee all at once. That is a legit weakness of the Aeropress. You win.
God, what am I doing with my life ↩
Grind size actually requires a fancy grinder, but that is independant of the brewer ↩
It is also possible to switch from paper to metal filters to allow more oils through, although there is good reason not to. Check the slashdot interview with the Alan Adler, the inventor of the Aeropress, for more info. Just search cafestol to find the right question. ↩
I haven’t looked into it but based on the name I assume that Jack’s Stirbrew coffee also maximizes exposed surface area by brewing with grounds fully suspended in water ↩
I’m not sure if that was clear. To look at it from the other side: it is hard to do an experiment with uncontrolled variables, the Aerorpress is sweet because it reduces the number of uncontrolled variables. ↩
I don’t actually know the names of the masterminds at Búðin… very sneaky over there ↩
Don’t do that. ↩
The author of The Wirecutter’s write up. I should have mentioned his name before. It is really a great write up. I’m a bad person I guess. ↩
Well, ok for me, because I don’t sell Aeropresses. ↩
The aeropress is also very manual. Sure it only takes a few minutes, but when you use an autodripper you can just walk away and ignore it during the brew process. Little effort, little room for error. ↩