POSTED: Friday, May 25, 2012 - 7:30pm
UPDATED: Friday, May 25, 2012 - 7:44pm
Want great coffee for less? Take matters into your own hands
A revolution has been brewing in the workplace among coffee drinkers unwilling to settle for the break room sludge.
For some of them, pod machines and single-serve cups provide the illusion of a superior product. Others swear by the French press method, which has traditionally reigned supreme as the alternative to automatic coffee makers.
Now, more hand-brewed coffees from devices like pour-overs and the Aeropress are popping up in home kitchens and cubicles alike. Even in the CNN.com break room, the buzz of a coffee grinder has become a regular morning fixture. But why the fuss?
"The first thing that drives people to these alternatives is improved taste. While pod machines and ready-to-brew cups are simple and fast, they can't begin to touch the quality of a freshly roasted, ground and brewed cup of truly quality coffee," says David LaMont, who works with Counter Culture Coffee in Atlanta, which sources coffee from around the world and roasts it in the United States. He also teaches classes on coffee education and preparation.
Up your coffee vocabulary
"People are always looking for ways of reintroducing handcrafted arts into their lives as a counter to the convenient but often over-produced items that we so heavily rely upon," LaMont says. "Someone may not want to give up their kitchen stove in exchange for an open fire in the backyard, but they can trade up to a simple drip cone and freshly ground coffee without a lot of added headache or trouble."
It's a skill set that casual coffee drinkers are seeking out with increasing enthusiasm. On a recent rainy Sunday at the 2012 Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, LaMont and three Atlanta baristas demonstrated the use of a pour-over, or a cone-shaped dripper in which coffee and water are slowly combined and drained through a filter.
They talked up the benefits of buying locally roasted beans and grinding them yourself in order to yield a crisper cup of coffee. As they passed out wet filters for the ceramic drip cones, the quartet waxed poetic on the virtues of treating coffee like the fruit it is. As participants waited in between pours for their coffee to "bloom," LaMont politely urged them to ditch coffee pods, if not for the sake of quality then for the environmental and financial benefits.
The politics of the office coffee pot
"I find that once a person is willing to give a pour-over a try with all the right equipment, [he or she] always end up getting hooked," says Empire State South Coffee Program Manager Emily Letia, who coached participants as they slowly poured water from a kettle in a circular motion into the cone.
"The key is having everything you need before you make a judgement on the pour-over. That's a good grinder, a pour-over device... the correct filters, and a kettle. I haven't met someone interested and willing that has gone back to their coffee maker after diving in to manual brewing."
Pour-overs seem to be the most popular manual brewing method, second only to French press, which involves combining hot water and grounds in a special carafe, then pressing down a plunger to halt the process. But Letia finds interest in all kinds of forms is growing with the proliferation of venues dedicated to the science of brewing.
LaMont has also noticed the upswing. "A few years back, the vast majority of the people we taught at the Counter Culture Training Center in Atlanta came to us to learn about espresso-making and barista skills. Now we get just as many if not more attendees interested in learning about the basic science of non-espresso brewing."
Factors such as price, convenience and control tend to dictate which method people favor, LaMont says, and offers some words of wisdom:
French press: The carafe and plunger combination is easily the most popular among the general public because it's easy to use and widely available. But, it tends to produce a silty cup of coffee with a muddy bottom that is often under-brewed, which is why many professionals and home enthusiasts look for alternatives.
Pour-over: Many of today's hand drip cones are based on a simple 110 year-old design that originated with Melitta Bentz in Germany. Most cone-shaped drippers produce (arguably) equally great coffee, regardless of whether it's a $2 plastic Melitta cone or an $80 hand-made ceramic. From there, it's a matter of perfecting the technique using coffee of a coarse grind, a pre-wetted filter and a pour with the right kind of kettle.
Aeropress: The Aeropress has morphed from its original design as a pseudo espresso maker into the most portable, unbreakable brewer around. It doesn't rely on a nice pouring kettle, making it one of the more approachable brewers.
Chemex: Among American designs, few brewers hold the pedigree of Peter Schlumbohm's Chemex. Part of MoMA's permanent collection, it is one of the older and still most elegantly designed. It consists of an hourglass-shaped glass flask with a conical neck that uses a thicker filter than you'd find on a standard drip coffee filter.
The coffee is made by placing the filter and grounds in the neck of the flask, heating water in a separate vessel and "blooming" the grounds with a small amount of water to moisten them before pouring the rest of the water over the grounds.
Vacuum pots: There are a few die-hard users of "vac pots" or siphons. Most of the time, they are beautiful, two-piece brewers made of blown glass that require an extra degree of skill and knowledge to perfect. Used properly, they can quickly brew a clean, refined cup of coffee and impress dinner guests. Sadly, they are expensive, easily breakable, and a pain to clean.
If someone is interested in testing the waters of home brewing, LaMont says to consider the following as an order of importance when it comes to purchases and investments:
1. Buy good, fresh coffee .
2. Invest in a good burr grinder (Baratza, KitchenAid) and spend about $120 or more.
3. Purchase a sturdy, nice-looking drip cone or Chemex.
4. A pouring kettle designed for coffee-making isn't an absolute necessity, but almost (Bonavita, Takahiro, Kalita, Tiamo).
Once you've got the tools, start brewing and drinking, LaMont advises. If the coffee tastes great, then sit back and enjoy. If it doesn't taste as good as the coffee shop in your area that brews on the same equipment, then drop in and ask them for pointers. Most shops, especially those that are preparing hand-brewed coffee, are going to be willing to share a lot of their tips and techniques and probably even diagnose what's going wrong with your brew.