Jeff wrote:OK, I'll bite...
I've tried to give the "why", not just the "what", since these are big decisions
Grinders are most important, so start with the grinder.
First, I'd pay someone for a few hours of their time to help me understand and recognize the differences between sour, bitter, and astringent. This still stumps me sometimes, especially when they occur at the same time. If they can help you dialing in a classic Italian*, medium, and light washed on your gear with you being able to taste the changes, even better. Understanding flavor isn't something you can easily learn by reading or watching videos.
Then, I'd join a "coffee of the month club", ideally with members with similar gear, so that you can share experiences on how to dial in and what they are tasting to further your skills more quickly. It will also help you by stretching your coffee experience with different roast levels, origins/varieties, and processing (natural, washed, fermented, ...). You won't like them all. That's part of learning what you do like, and having it evolve.
* "Classic Italian" rather than an unqualified "dark" as extracting a well-balanced blend/roast is more enlightening than something bordering on charcoal.
Grinders are most important after coffee, so next pick the grinder.
I'll accept some of that, but with a $5,000 budget, I already know there's room for my current pick of machines.
Skale 2 and 3D-printed drip-tray stand using Damian's design
The DE1+ is strangely both an ideal "expert" machine as well as a raw-beginner machine. It is both repeatable and agile. That means if you taste a change in the cup, it is almost certainly something you did, not the variation of the machine. Did you move that E61, flow-management valve exactly the same way as last time? That's never a question with a DE1. Next is that is is about the only production machine that gives you insight into what is happening during the shot. Time all of a sudden becomes a poor surrogate for flow rate during the shot.
A couple days ago, I loosened up the grind a little bit, what my experience told me should probably add just a little brightness to an otherwise boring cup. The ratio was right and the time looked reasonable. "Sour, astringent, bad" were my notes. I looked at the flow rate and it was much higher at the end of the shot than I expected. Sure enough, when I looked at the cell-phone video of the shot, there was a "burble" that I didn't spot live, a sign of channeling that had me chase my prep, not the grind.
The kind of feedback that a DE1 can provide both speeds beginners' learning (there are a surprising number of them with DE1s as their first machines past a "buzz box" or capsule machine), as well as allow the more experienced user to work on that last 20% of excellence. Its agility and flexibility lets you try out different approaches to a coffee, be it temperature, subtle pressure/flow profiling, or even "extreme espresso" such as blooming or high-flow-rate extraction. (The Herndon paper that everyone was buzzing about seems to come down to high flow-rate rather than time.)
Grinders are most important after coffee, so next pick the grinder.
Fanwer "Pressure drum massager ..." as a "puffer"
Solid grinder across the full range of roast levels and beans. Easy to use, easy to keep clean, quiet, compact.
Sure, there are probably "better" grinders on the market, especially for light roasts. i still wouldn't know if I wanted LU, HU, EK, unimodal, shiruken, red, silver, black, ... burrs, and still don't know if it would make $2,000 or more difference to me.
It's good enough for me. it's good enough for coffee professionals to use during trade shows. i think it's good enough for most people that would consider asking "which grinder" with the word "budget" (at any level) in the question.
A square-to-basket, force-indicating tamper takes a lot of prep variability out for beginners, as well as bleary eyed of any experience level. The Bravo is one of the few that is both square-to-basket and manages the tamping force.
A lot of people love The Force Tamper. it provides the same benefits and then some, especially if you or someone in your household have finger, hand, wrist, arm challenges. I have no hard, or really any soft evidence, to back up my suspicion that the impact approach to tamping is not as good as applying pressure. The decision between the two I made on instinct and feeling.
Other Prep Tools
My experience is that anything thicker than 0.4 mm acupuncture needles do little, or make things worse. four or so in a cork, or one of the commercially available tools like the LeverCraft or BPlus.
A dosing funnel that sits on the basket itself. i switched from one that sat inside the basket (a well-loved OE funnel) to on top. I changed a lot of things in my prep as well. My incidence of donut extractions went down. I can't say that changing the funnel improved my extractions' visual evenness, just that I can get reasonable extraction visuals with the on-the-basket one. I happen to have a DE funnel, there are several available through Amazon, eBay, Etsy, ...
i use a hockey puck as a tamping stand. Fits my budget and lets me spend on other toys. A knockbox is a glorified compost bin.
None of the fancy levelers have convinced me of enough value to spend on. Many seem to me to potentially make things worse. With the stirrer as a puck rake, i can get the bed "level enough" for my desires. Every step you add to your prep process potentially adds more uncontrolled variability.
Baskets: VST 15, 18 ridgeless; EPNW "HQ 14" ridgeless
I find ridgeless baskets let me fill and prep the basket out of the PF handle. The VSTs are my "go to" baskets, but are unforgiving of weaker puck prep. the EPNW 14 doses like an 18 and seems a bit more forgiving.
if you buy a DE1, have them swap out the basket for a pour-over or puck-simulator basket.
Edit: I seldom dose over 18 g. With a stock machine from most manufacturers, starting with a VST 15 and VST 18 gives a wide range of options, probably from 13 g to 19 g for most coffees and grinds. Much less than 15 g can be a challenge without excellent prep.
Atago PAL-COFFEE, centrifuge or syringe filters. i can't confirm that this has $500 of value as I've just started using it myself. I think it gives me some valuable feedback on prep and choice of extraction methods.
I don't know that a roast-level meter would make dialing in any faster. Even two beans at the same apparent roast level can require very different grinds. With an extraction profile that I'm used to with my gear (either E61 HX and Compak K10 or DE1 and Niche), I can usually dial in a new bean in three shots.
I really love this post, and greatly appreciate you taking the time to give such a thoughtful answer. I'll be sure to reference it and all the other posts here in the future
Training my taste buds to accurately diagnose issues is a great idea, as is the coffee of the month club.