Bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, I stumble into the kitchen and blindly rummage around for sustenance. Sheer muscle memory propels me forward before my brain has fully activated, recharged and ready to begin processing a new day. Coffee is the switch that flips it on, that starts the cycle anew, for me and so many millions, if not billions of other sleepyheads across the globe. How you choose to brew says a lot of about culture, economics, habits, and personal taste, but more attention is paid to the beans than the actual mechanics of making a cuppa. Respectably so, for all their natural nuances, slick brands and designer packages notwithstanding; the bean alone is a weighty decision to contemplate when the need for caffeine overrules all other sensible demands.
Let’s take a step back for a moment to appreciate the method of making coffee itself. Do you use an electric, automatic drip coffee maker like most Americans? One of those ubiquitous plastic models always found in attendance at moving sales year round? Maybe you have more than one, because it never hurts to have a backup. Cheap, easy, accessible, reliable; I’m there with you, friends. There’s nothing wrong with the effortless instant gratification of push-button service, delivering a hot cup of coffee on demand, no questions asked.
When it comes to manual brewing methods, you take control back into your hands, quite literally.
Pour Over (Chemex, Hario V60, Kalita Wave, Clever): Functioning almost exactly like a standard drip machine without the buttons or whistles, there are a number of popular variations on the concept but it all boils down to pouring hot water over grounds, slowly allowing the brewed liquid to run down into a waiting glass below. It takes patience and a steady hand, but no real skill since gravity does all the hard work. Use a medium grind to extract the brighter, lighter, more floral flavor notes without any hint of bitterness. Different models have their own uniquely patterned ridges built in, which will each affect the rate of drainage differently and produce surprisingly distinctive results. Which is “best” is just a matter of preference, so experiment a bit to find what tastes just right to your palate.
Plunger (French Press, AeroPress): Most people are familiar with the French press due to it’s accessibility and wide availability. Simply add grounds, water, steep, and plunge. There are no disposable filters to trifle with and no waste as a result. Detractors grouse about gritty brews or long steeping times, but a properly sealed, well-built device shouldn’t give you any trouble. Because the beans have full contact with the hot water for the entire time, this approach extracts the full gamut of flavors locked within, as well as the most antioxidants and caffeine. Use a coarse ground to enjoy the most robust results in a traditional French press, but fine for an AeroPress, which does use filters to catch any residual sediment.
Cupping Brewer (Rattleware): Uncommon outside of serious barista circles, it doesn’t get much simpler in concept, or more complex in flavor. Grounds and water combine for extended brew times, 10 minutes and beyond, to get every element of the bean to come forward. Grounds float toward the surface, to be skimmed off with a spoon before sipping. Though impractical for multiple servings, it’s an ideal way to truly appreciate a fresh brew with zero waste. Use a very coarse grind and be prepared to stop drinking before you reach the bottom, since most will settle and remain there. It’s impossible to avoid consuming at least some of the sediment, so this stuff is like rocket fuel.
There’s also the stove top moka pot, although I’d argue that this begins to skew into a more hands-off realm where the device does most of the heavy lifting. In fact, there are electric versions available, which always pull in top recommendations from experts, so I don’t trifle with the low tech toys. Siphons, using vacuum pressure to force hot water through coffee grounds, could also fall under this distinction, but they’re more of a novelty than realistic appliance for the average home brewer. Plus, the cost for entry is rather steep- No pun intended.
Across the board, general guidelines for success start with using 60 grams of coffee for every 1 quart of water (yes, you really should weigh it!) and water heated to 195 – 205 degrees Fahrenheit, ideally in a goose neck kettle for easy maneuvering.
How do you do your brew? There’s no one perfect approach, which is a true gift for coffee lovers. Go outside your comfort zone and try something new. You may just discover a whole new world of flavors locked within the same beans you already love, and only thought you knew.