Call it the coffee paradox: The time when most of us make coffee is the worst possible time to experiment with a new way of making coffee.
You need some coffee first.
This is especially true of the pour-over method, which in recent years has become the brewing style of choice for many of the best independent coffee shops in St. Louis, Mo., and elsewhere — and which is now making inroads into the consumer market as well, with the necessary equipment and supplies available at retailers such as Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods Market.
Pour-over brewing looks easy enough. Boil water. Grind coffee beans and place inside a cone-shaped filter. Allow the water to cool slightly and then pour over grounds. Enjoy coffee with a flavor far more nuanced than poor old Mr. Coffee ever imagined possible.
Yet every step of this seemingly simple process — from the temperature of the water to the fineness of the grind to the speed of your pour — influences what ends up in your cup. Is the weight of your ground coffee appropriate for the volume of water that you're pouring over it?
You did weigh your ground coffee, didn't you?
You do own a digital scale, don't you?
"For a lot of people, it's a balance of how much time (they can dedicate to brewing) versus convenience," says Tyler Zimmer, co-owner and coffee director for Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Co.
"Most people do want to push the button" of an automatic coffee-maker, he admits.
Yet coffee properly brewed with a pour-over device conveys a flavor — or, really, flavors — so much more complex than generic coffee (usually bitter, often burnt) that it might be a different beverage entirely. Coffee geeks describe the flavor profiles of individual beans with the sort of tasting notes associated with wine: citrus, berries, chocolate, spice.
"That's one of the main reasons we do it in our cafes," Zimmer explains. "To let people know there is another way to (brew) and understand why it's better."
The cost of a pour-over device itself is not prohibitive. One of the most common models, the V60 coffee dripper from the Japanese company Hario, retails for about $23. A classic Chemex coffeemaker (invented in 1941, the vase-shaped glass device has lately enjoyed a resurgence in popularity) costs from $35 to $40, depending on whether you purchase the 6-cup or 8-cup size. Each device requires a conical paper filter that matches its size, roughly $8 for a supply of 100.
From here, however, the price of the pour-over method can escalate.
To simplify, brewing coffee is the process of extracting the desired percentage (about 18 percent to 22 percent) of dissolved solids from the ground coffee into water. Exact measurements matter. The recommended ratio of the weight (not volume) of ground coffee to water can vary based on which expert you consult; a water-to-coffee ratio of 16:1 is a reliable approximation. In other words, a digital scale is a must. An inexpensive model, as long as it is accurate, is fine.
Water temperature is also important. A digital thermometer is useful, but in general, letting the water cool for 30 seconds or so off the boil will get you to the temperature (about 200 degrees) you want.
Of course, you can boil this water in any old kettle, right?
"To really do it well, you need a special kettle," Zimmer says.
The gold standard is the Hario Buono Kettle, which boasts a ziggurat-shaped body and a long, narrow curving spout. It grants you greater control over the speed at which you wet the grounds. Control is vital. With the V60, for example, you want to saturate the grounds, but you do not want water to pool above them, which will weaken the coffee. If you decide that you must have the Hario Buono Kettle, shop around: Williams-Sonoma sells it for $62, but Amazon currently offers it for $47.
The final element in your pour-over ensemble is also the most expensive: the burr grinder. (It should go without saying that if you are taking the time and effort to brew coffee using the pour-over method, you are grinding recently roasted, top-quality coffee beans to order.) You can easily spend several hundred dollars on a burr grinder. Even middle- and lower-tier models will set you back more than $100.
Must you purchase a burr grinder? The coffee geeks will say yes, absolutely. A burr grinder produces coffee of a uniform grind, essential for proper brewing. You can also calibrate the grind more precisely to refine the flavor and/or body of the coffee that you are brewing.
However you choose to assemble your home pour-over system, practice and patience are key. Brewing coffee in this manner requires both precision and finesse. (Both the Chemex and the V60 come with brewing instructions, and brewing tips and how-to videos are numerous online.) If your practice coffee is also your get-out-the-door coffee, the Chemex seems more forgiving of amateur efforts than the V60.
You can spend a decent chunk of money in your attempt to brew excellent pour-over coffee at home. You don't have to go broke, however. In the case of the kettle, for example, Zimmer says at Kaldi's he is pointing interested novices toward the Bonavita brand, which he describes as "consumer-friendly and half the price" of the Hario Buono kettle.
For those seeking a less daunting pour-over experience, both Zimmer and Mark Attwood, owner of Comet Coffee in Dogtown, which also employs the pour-over method, recommend the Clever Dripper. The device, which costs roughly $20, looks like the V60 but works similar to the French press. You infuse hot water with the grounds for several minutes and then release the water into a cup.
For Zimmer, the sudden popularity of the pour-over method is not a trend to cash in on but an opportunity to increase knowledge about coffee.
"Our goal," he says, "is to get people interested."
(Ian Froeb is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch restaurant critic.)