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An Ode To Pour-Over Coffee

Life’s best designed products are sometimes the ones we take for granted each morning.

I used to have a coffee machine from the future. It was silver, naturally.

It could be programmed to burr-grind my beans to various levels of fineness, charcoal-filter tap water, and brew 12 cups of coffee before I woke up. It was an object from a Jetsons kitchen, the realization of an automated, mechanized future that humanity rejected the second microchips came into play.

Today, that machine sits unplugged in my closet. It’s been replaced by a ceramic cone with a paper filter—a pour-over system some might call "third wave coffee" tech, despite the fact that its methodology is over 100 years old.

Image via Wikipedia

Coffee itself rose to European prominence in the 13th century, but it wasn’t until 1908, when Melitta Bentz, a housewife from Dresden, apparently became fed up with swigs of bitter grounds. So she ripped a piece of blotting paper from her son’s notebook and punctured a few holes in a brass pot, inventing modern filtered coffee as we know it. She patented the device, and it must have been quite the success, because the Melitta coffee company is still around today, selling pour-over products that work largely the same way as the humble original design.

If Melitta represents the German-engineered approach to pour-over coffee, Hario would represent Japan’s. And it’s Hario’s gooseneck steel kettle (released in 2009), ceramic drippers, and perfectly pressed paper cone filters that have intoxicated me long after the honeymoon period of owning something new. I appreciate their mass-produced craftsmanship on a daily basis. With proper use, they can produce an unparalleled cup of coffee—something sweet, acidic, and nutty all at once—mind-tickling spikes of flavor that my Jetsons machine would steamroll flat.

But if I’m to be perfectly honest, it’s the experience of pour-over that keeps me coming back. The process provides a ritual rich with tactility. Because as cognitively as I might approach the process, measuring my beans, controlling my grind, bringing my water up to just the right temperature, and weighing how much water to add, pour-over requires more than proper titration. Each new cup necessitates just a little bit of skill and a little bit of grace, grounded in a series of meditative gut checks.

First, I want to splash the grounds with just an ounce of almost-boiling water before adding the rest of the cup. It's a presoaking process that begins a chemical reaction, extracting the water-soluble flavors of coffee. That moment requires dexterity, and if I do it right while working with beans at the peak of freshness, I’ll be rewarded with the bloom—a fizzing blossom of aroma that I follow up moments later with more water, poured in circles to create a vortex within the cone. My wrist needs to remain loose, or I'll pour too quickly and stiffly, stifling a caffeinated whirlpool into a murky coffee lake. But either way, I know it's okay. A murky coffee lake produces a perfectly acceptable baseline allowing the more perfect cups to sparkle.

While my steel-chested Jetsons machine provides the homogeny of automation, it conceals the zest of choreographed chemistry—a process in which each bubble, twist, and spritz reminds me that as blurry-eyed as I may be that morning, every inch of the world is surprisingly alive. Sometimes, we both just need proper coaxing.

[Gif adapted from Trevor Southworth]

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  • Coffee Lovers

    I don’t know if there is precision in this pour over using the filter paper. It is like doing experiment in the laboratory.

  • Kurt

    Old person here. I've been making coffee this way my whole life. What you call "pour-over" is what many people call "making coffee."

  • PublicEspresso

    Nothing else compares. Its amazing how people have gone from drip coffee machines, to Keurigs, to now discovering the magic of the pour-over. It's worth the extra time and the process is a lot more rewarding, especially on the weekend. Loving the coffee-related articles on the site, too!
    We're a small-batch roaster located in Buffalo, NY, that's just getting off the ground. Give us a look, if you're interested.

  • James Pikover

    Sup Mark. Didn't think about doing that with my coffee before, it sounds obvious and blatantly better than the traditional drip/machined systems. I've jumped from my own drip machine with some great coffee beans, and that still makes the best coffee I've ever had. Crappy $15 grinder, standard drip, cheap Danessi Gold espresso beans.

    That took time, and we had an espresso machine with pods from Nespresso, and that was almost as good but way faster and way less work. Plus there's less acidity, which is better healthwise, but I'm not so concerned about that; the Danessi beans are very smooth out of the drip.

    Finally at work CEO bought a $500 Odea machine, which makes decent espressos that are fresh but more bitter than I'd like. It's a good machine, which grinds and has everything built in (though it requires more work to clean, add water, etc.), and we're using Blue Bottle Coffee. I'm not as impressed with the machine than either the drip or Nespresso.

    All that said, now I very much want to try your method. I have no problem with putting a little time into making a decent coffee. I'll have to give it a go in the morning. And we haven't chatted in awhile but loving your work here. Use the stuff I read on Co.Design all the time.

  • Lucas Rayala

    I've become a huge fan of my Aeropress--completely manual, no mess, awesome coffee. A tiny bit steam punk because the coffee is pressed through what is essentially a giant syringe, and there's some pneumatic awesomeness involved.

  • Mark Wilson

    I was a total Aeropress guy before pour-over wooed me! I found I was grunting a lot, and about 1/30 times I would somehow spray coffee all over the kitchen.

  • Lucas Rayala

    My problem is spilling, and I think the open-faced design of the pour-over would make things worse. You've definitely tempted me, however.

  • Mark Wilson

    I used to weigh everything, now I eyeball. 205 degrees. Grind anywhere from 12-18 on my Maestro. My wife drinks decaf, which I think benefits from a smaller grind.

  • Mark Wilson

    I tend to rotate roasters, since it seems like every great coffee shop is now sourcing/roasting its own beans. Aside from the usual suspects, I'm a big fan of the (I think, underrated) Metropolis in Chicago, as well as Wormhole. I've been sampling a Tonx preview subscription, too, which I've found mostly quite good and incredibly convenient.

  • Tim Stiffler-Dean

    I don't like spamming, but I'll hope you'll forgive me this time. If you've been trying out different Roasters already, you might like what my company is doing. We source fresh roasted coffee from three or four different Roasters every month and feature them in coffee boxes for our customers. Each month you'd get a few different coffees from different Roasters, then when you find one you love you just go back to the app and order that same coffee until it's no longer being roasted.

    Kind of like Tonx, but we're featuring the independent specialty coffee Roasters, rather than roasting ourselves. You ought to give us a try sometime! :-)

  • Andi

    This makes me miss Intelligentsia back in LA. They have the best (and priciest...) coffee I've ever had. I wonder if they ship their drippers to the east coast...

  • Mark Wilson

    Intelligentsia used to use Hario drippers (linked in the piece). But I believe they've recently switched to a stainless steel alternative. Not sure who makes it.