Brew Better Coffee Manually

Originally posted on the Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Co. blog.

People often ask me about the difference between using a standard coffee maker and manually brewing your coffee with a french press or pour-over device. I’ve met many who also feel that manual brewing is just too tricky. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be providing some insights, tips, guidance, etc. for many different manual brewing methods.

So, let’s begin with the primary question revolving around this topic:

Does manual brewing actually produce better coffee?

The short answer to that question is, almost always.

To begin, let’s define a “better” cup of coffee. Obviously, a better cup of coffee begins with a better bean that comes from the farmer that is then roasted properly and delivered fresh for you to brew. But beyond that, a perfect cup of coffee is one in which you have the ideal ratio of water and dissolved solubles. You see, when you brew coffee, you are using very hot water that is then filtered through coffee that is ground to a certain particle size or coarseness. As the hot water filters through the coffee, it dissolves the various soluble flavor compounds that will make up your finished cup of deliciousness.

Now here’s where that gets tricky. That final cup of perfectly balanced water and dissolved solubles depends on three primary variables:

1. Water temperature

Different flavor compounds dissolve more at different temperatures. Water that is not hot enough will not extract all of the good flavor compounds properly. Water that is too hot will extract less-desirable flavor compounds such as bitter notes. The ideal temperature is between 195-205 degrees F. If you are using an automatic brewer, make sure you use one that has strict water temperature control. If you are using a kettle for manual brewing, make sure that you do not use boiling water. Most electric kettles shut off right at boiling point (212 degrees), so it’s best to let them rest for a minute before starting your pour.

2. Grind particle size (coarseness)

The particle size of your coffee grinds will determine how quickly the water filters through, as well as how easily the flavor compounds are dissolved. This is why a shot of espresso, which produces the finished coffee in about 22-28 seconds uses very finely ground coffee, because it is extracted very quickly. This is also why a french press uses very coarsely ground coffee, because the grounds are fully submerged in hot water for 4-5 minutes. A grind that is too fine would result in an over-extracted coffee, in addition to creating an incredibly muddy cup. Consistency of the particle size is also important. This is best achieved with a quality burr grinder. Each brew method has an ideal grind setting, and the ideal grind setting for most brew methods correlates with the third variable, water flow and distribution. A fun aspect of most manual brewing methods is that you can play around with different grind settings and water flow to create the right balance.

3. Water flow and distribution

This is the one variable that distinguishes manual and automatic brewing. With manual brewing, you have full control over the speed at which you distribute the water, as well as the surface area that you cover with your pour. Although, there have been some great advancements in the automatic brewer market, with machines that can mimic the water disbursement of manual pour-over brewing, such as a bloom cycle and incremental pauses during brewing.

When brewing, you usually start with the “bloom”, which is simply the beginning step of saturating the bed of grounds. The expansion or “bloom” of the grounds is created as they absorb the water and release gases. If your coffee does not react this way, that means it’s not fresh. The grounds are usually allowed to bloom for 30-60 seconds, depending on brew volume and freshness of the coffee. After the bloom, the remainder of the pour takes place. The rate of how fast the water is poured through the grounds and how it is distributed over the grounds will determine the amount of dissolved solubles in the final cup. Play with different grind settings and pouring variations to find the perfect balance.

So, I may have answered a question by creating 20 more, but to come back to original question, yes, manual brewing almost always produces a better cup of coffee than automatic. It takes some time and practice to get the above variables perfectly aligned, but when they do, it’s a beautiful thing! It may not be as convenient as pushing a button or setting a timer before you go to bed, but the finished cup is soo much better. And there’s something about the process of manually brewing coffee that brings a sense of admiration for the craftsmanship behind those beans. It’s also a cool way to impress your guests and show them that you take your coffee seriously.

Remember to have fun! Take your time. Practice. Brew an awesome cup.

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