What is the essence of romance? Is it understanding? Or is it unexpected bouquets -- of flowers or words? What about candy? Heart-shaped diamonds? Sports cars? Suggestive clothes?
Or maybe it's this: for the 846th morning in a row the person you live with gets up first and makes the coffee. Now that's romance.
To receive this gift every morning is also a fine art: the ability to lie perfectly still -- to stay asleep, even -- until the very second the last drop of coffee passes through the filter requires concentration and years of practice.
People who care about coffee tend to really care about coffee. Of course some of these are just users -- folks who need a legal, nonprescription drug, especially in the morning. (Note that Coca-Cola has recently recognized this group as a legitimate market segment by pushing Coke-in-the-morning.)
For others, need is mixed with pure desire. Desirous coffee drinkers savor the ritual -- they love the shiny gleam of the beans, the process of grinding them to the perfect fineness, the way the grounds inflate when they come in contact with water, the limpid look of the coffee and of course, the devastating aroma.
One of the arguments that coffee lovers get into is the methodological one. Users love the automatic coffee makers, especially ones that come with a timer. With these machines you can set everything up the night before so that your coffee will be ready at the same moment the alarm goes off. Even without a timer, there is something seductive about the idea of "automatic," the implication being that you don't have to do anything.
Desirous types lean especially toward two other methods, neither of them electrical. One is the plain filter method -- Melitta or Chemex -- in which the grounds are put in a paper filter that fits in a filter holder. The hot water is simply poured through the grounds and in a few minutes you have very clear, sediment-free coffee.
A second method, which produces a thicker, frothier coffee closer to espresso, is the plunger method. The coffee grounds and the hot water are left to stand together for a few minutes in a glass beaker, then a plunger-filter is forced down through the water, moving and trapping the grounds at the bottom of the pot, where they stay. The coffee is poured directly from the beaker.
First, about electric filter coffee makers. Their mechanism -- heated water dripping through a grounds-filled filter -- is most like the Melitta and Chemex methods. And the product, when it is freshly made, is comparable in flavor.
One of the advantages of the electric machines, however, quickly becomes a disadvantage if what you're mainly interested in is good flavor. And that's the built-in heating element that keeps the coffee hot. While it's keeping the coffee hot it's also overcooking it, resulting in that harsh, alarming, bitter flavor. Good coffee can be reheated fairly successfully, but only quickly and only once. In some cases -- in an office, for example -- there is no other way to keep coffee hot and then these machines are pure gold.
Another of the advantages of the electric machine -- that it is "automatic" -- is also questionable. If you do side-by-side comparisons of electric and Melitta or Chemex methods, you'll see that time required is similar and so are total hand motions. If anything the nonelectric methods have the edge on simplicity.
For one thing, the margin for variability or error is greater with the nonelectric methods. If you overfill the chamber of the electric drip pot, it will overflow. Depending on the type of pot you own you could have water all over the place, or coffee grounds and water.
And if you fill the filter too full of grounds in an effort to produce an extra-strong brew, there is no way to alert the machine, which will send water through the filter at its usual pace. Then the water, unable to make its way through the thick grounds, will overflow. Talk about a mess.
In total time from start to finished cup of coffee, the electric method may be a minute or two faster, depending on how quickly your stove burners heat water. And with the electric method you will not have to pour the water through the filter, an operation that requires two or three tips of the tea kettle.
The nonelectric filter methods will prove much easier when it comes to cleaning up and getting ready for the next batch of coffee, however, just because there is only the filter holder and the receptacle to handle.
If what you're looking for is clear, sediment-free coffee with intense coffee flavor, the filter methods are your best bet. Among nonelectric coffee "systems," you have mainly Melitta and Chemex from which to choose. The Chemex system consists of one hour-glass-shaped glass chamber. The paper filter fits in the top; the water drips through and collects as coffee in the bottom.
The Melitta system come in two parts; a glass or porcelain pitcher and a cone-shaped plastic or porcelain top that holds the paper filter. This system, like the Chemex, comes in various sizes. Purists believe that the porcelain top is preferable to the plastic because it is less porous and therefore easier to clean. The two-part system is preferable if you're butter-fingered; dropping and breaking an eight-cup Chemex will cost you at least $25.
Coffee made with Chemex paper filters is very slightly clearer because of the quality of the paper. The difference is so slight, however, as to be unnoticeable unless you are paying very close attention. For those who like things that glitter, there are gold filters available. With these you use no paper; you just wash and reuse them. Using gold filters tends to neutralize the purpose of the filter system, however; they allow much more sediment into the coffee than paper versions. You may like your coffee that way, but at least you should be forewarned.
The Melior system, which makes thicker, stronger coffee somewhat like espresso, is more elegant and much more expensive, at least initially. But it is pure simplicity to operate; coffee grounds and hot water are put together in the glass chamber. After a few minutes the plunger is pushed down through the mixture and the result is rich, strong coffee with lots of flavor and a good bit of sediment.
The true Melior system is very expensive (over $100 for the eight-cup "Chambord" model with nickel top and frame), but cheaper knock-offs abound. Some of these knock-offs look precisely like the real thing, but they aren't. The price, sadly enough, will guide you. Metal on the cheaper versions will tarnish and become irreparably dull and, more important, the filter system will not be either as sturdy or as thorough.
As befits its price, the Melior system with its gleaming metal stand and clear glass container is elegant to look at and to use; you can take it to the dining or coffee table, wait your few minutes, plunge the plunger and serve the coffee.
Getting used to good coffee at home has its down side, which comes whenever you travel. To solve this problem, several manufacturers have designed small electric coffee makers just for taking on the road.
The version made by Ronde is compact, efficient and very well designed. It's also cheap -- about $30. It produces a good honest cup of coffee with a good bit of sediment. The Melitta version is more expensive, slightly larger but very elegantly designed. It heats the water automatically, then sends it through a paper filter. This coffee is clear and clean-tasting. You must remember to keep a supply of paper filters on hand, however.