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Coffee culture perks up retailers' bottom lines

| Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, 9:58 p.m.

Time to wake up and smell the coffee. At the recent New York International Gift Fair, buyers were keenly checking out grinders, pots and brewing equipment, which means coffee-related gifts will be as hot as a frothy latte this holiday season.

Coffee culture is, naturally, intense. On YouTube, helpful fellows offer video tips on buying, storing and preparing everything from a humble cup of Americano to a perfect macchiato. Bloggers discuss “mid-palate chocolate tones” and “smoky back ends” with the same authoritative enthusiasm as oenophiles. (You can learn a lot: Never store coffee in the fridge or freezer, for example, since condensation on the beans or grounds spoils the flavor.)

Here's what up in the cup:

It all starts with the grind, according to experts. Chris Weaver, coffee columnist and head barista at Store Street Espresso in London, says, “the most important piece of equipment for home coffee brewing is a good-quality grinder. People should always look at buying a grinder with burrs instead of blades.”

That's because you want an even grind; a consistent pile of coffee grounds will release those delicious aromatics smoothly into the hot water. Top-quality grinders also produce minimal heat; many experts believe heat damages the coffee grains.

The Breville Conical Burr Grinder has 25 different grinds and a storage container. ($199.95, www.williams-sonoma.com) The Capresso Burr Grinder has an electric timer that will grind enough for two to 12 cups, then turn itself off. ($49.95, www.surlatable.com)

When it comes to brewing gear, choices range from low-tech, “pour-over” receptacles to high-tech machines that pretty much brew themselves. Some coffee enthusiasts prefer the classic Chemex, a simple glass receptacle in which you fit a coffee-filled paper filter. Boil your water, pour it through the filter and voila. The pour-over method supposedly gives a purer, fully extracted brew. (Chemex Classic eight-cup, $38.95, www.crateandbarrel.com)

French presses employ an equally simple pour method. Put the coffee in the glass pot, pour hot water in, steep for four minutes, then gently press the plunger. Fans say the brew is full-bodied because more oil and sediment are transferred. (Bodum Shin Bistro, $30, www.bodum.com)

Many of us own electric coffee makers, the kind you fill with water and ground coffee and walk away from while the magic happens. Toptenreviews.com, a tech-gadget review site, gives high marks to Cuisinart's Automatic Brew and Serve and Krups Programmable Coffee Maker. The former has a convenient insulated carafe, while the latter has a cleaning indicator light. Both are powerful, so you get your coffee fast. (Cuisinart 10-cup Thermal Extreme Brew, 189.99; Krups Precision 12-cup, $99.95, www.macys.com)

The Ferrari of coffee makers just might be the Saeco Intelia Cappuccino Espresso Machine, with a built-in burr grinder, brewer and milk frother, and a dashboard of customizable features. A handy “traffic light” system guides you through the steps. ($1,299.95, www.williams-sonoma.com)

Finally, there's the single-serve coffee market, which has grown by triple digits in the last few years. Nespresso, already big in Europe, is making a significant push into the North American market with a club system to buy its capsules. (www.nespresso-us.com) Note, however, that Williams-Sonoma sells their newest machine, the streamlined “U,” pre-packed with 16 starter capsules ($199.95).

Keurig's K cup is a single-portion plastic container of coffee; Emeril's, Green Mountain and Caribou Coffee are some of the format's suppliers. (Keurig Mini Plus Brewer, $99.99, www.coffeecow.com)

Krups, Melitta, Bunn and Senseo all offer machines that use interchangeable pods — little mesh bags filled with coffee. There are dozens of online sites at which to buy different flavors. And supermarkets are expanding their single-serve-coffee shelf space, as well, in response to the trend.

Kim Cook is a contributing writer to the Associated Press.

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