About 70% of the coffee consumed in the United States is brewed with paper filters, a method that produces coffee in the classic American style: clear, light-bodied, with little sediment or oil. Any other brewing method (except cold water concentrate) produces a coffee richer in oils and sediments and heavier in flavor than the typical American cup of filter coffee. Those adventurers who experiment with other brewing methods should keep this difference in mind.
Convenience and a clear, transparent cup seem to have driven the success of the automatic filter drip brewer, which in the years since its introduction in the early 1970s has become America’s favorite brewing device. The heart of the automatic filter drip system is the familiar paper filter, filter holder and decanter. The machine simply heats water to the optimum temperature for coffee brewing and automatically measures over the ground coffee in the filter. The brewed coffee drips into the decanter, while an element under the decanter keeps the coffee hot once it is brewed. You measure cold water into the top of the maker, measure coffee into the filter, press a switch, and, in from 4 to 8 minutes, obtain 2 to 12 cups of coffee.
Furthermore, the manufacturers of these brewers have considerably improved their performance over the past 15 years. Most of the leading makers have resolved such problems as ground coffee floating or forming a doughnut around the edge of the filter basket, variations in water temperature, and excessively slow or fast filtering.
Some years ago, I was certain that I could make better filter coffee than any of these machines could simply by pouring the water over the coffee myself by hand. Now I am not so sure. Even the cheapest, mass-marketed machines have improved, with most of the egregious performers of yesteryear eliminated from the shelves. A rather rigorous 1999 test in which I took part turned up no bad performers whatsoever among the models tested. Furthermore, the low-end, mass-marketed brewers performed almost as well as a selection of more expensive, high-end models. It appears that the main criteria for choice in these brewers are appearance, the prestige of the manufacturer’s name, and, above all, an impressive and often baffling array of special features.