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Monday, April 15, 2024

I Thought Pour-Over Coffee Wasn’t for Me—Until I Did It Right

Back when pour-over coffee got a popularity boost on North American shores in the late aughts, I was fairly certain it wasn't my cup of joe. I kept shelling money to try it at coffee shops, but between the price and the flavor, it felt like an "it's not you, it's me" thing.

Lauded Japanese manufacturer Hario, which makes a variety of inexpensive gadgets to brew and serve pour-over coffee, helped me see that my ambivalence was just a big misunderstanding. For the uninitiated, pour-over is a bit like a handmade version of drip coffee. You typically use a gooseneck kettle to pour a thin stream of hot water over a basket or cone filled with grounds, often breaking the flow into a series of precise pours and pauses over the course of several minutes. It's labor-intensive, but the results can be phenomenal.

I had asked Hario to loan me one of its V60 drippers ($12 and up) and some of its newer pour-over products: the Mugen ($13), the Switch ($44 and up), and the Drip-Assist ($14).

The V60 is one of the classics of coffeedom, a ribbed cone with a large intimidating hole in the bottom and a platform for it to sit atop a brewing vessel. Hario sells paper filters to fit the V60’s unique conical shape. The Mugen—formally known as the V60 One Pour Dripper Mugen—gets its name from a word that my Japanese-literature-professor buddy Ted tells me refers to a concept of infinity or boundlessness. It looks similar to the V60 from the outside, but with less ribbing on the interior wall. This design allows you to pour in a relatively quick, steady stream, yet still gives the grounds plenty of time in contact with water. The Drip-Assist is an accessory that sits on top of a dripper and has sets of holes in two concentric rings, making it easier for beginners to get a more consistent pour. Finally, there's the Switch Immersion Dripper, which is like the V60 with a stopper in the bottom to turn the water flow on and off.

Knowing I'd soon speak with some experts, I focused on getting the hang of the V60, using instructions from Jessica Easto's excellent book, Craft Coffee. Using a stopwatch, scale, and gooseneck kettle, I slowly poured water over the grounds, taking time to saturate them and pouring in precise little circles to make sure all the grounds spent roughly equal time with water flowing through them. In the end, I poured 400 grams of water—most of which drained through the grounds—in about three and a half minutes. There are thousands of methods for using a V60, and like Easto's, most of them are slow, meticulous, and pleasingly meditative. It is neither fast nor convenient. I always had her instructions in front of me when I poured, but I went from "eh" to "oh!" in that first cup of French roast, which was strong, smooth, and smoky.

I still had plenty to learn. Making it took long enough that it wouldn't be the way I'd brew on mornings when I want a high volume of coffee with minimal effort, but I liked the idea of pour-over as my contemplative afternoon brew.

Why the change in opinion? When I first tried pour-over at coffee shops, I'd confused the effect of the beans for the effect of the method, a mistake I've made before. I should have started out with the dark roast I drink every day, not exotic beans with a completely different flavor profile.

I tried it with everything from the high-end beans of Café Con Cé in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Costco Columbian, and the results were always surprisingly good. My preferred method is French press, but pour-over gave similarly excellent results without the sediment or messy cleanup.

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For more in-depth testing, I grabbed my bag of toys—the V60, Mugen, Drip-Assist, and Switch—and went to Olympia Coffee's Seattle lab to meet with two friends I often ask to help me test coffee stuff for WIRED, Olympia co-owner Sam Schroeder and retail trainer Reyna Callejo. Watching them test was a fun combination of seeing the fundamentals of coffee at work and a giddy glimpse of coffee nerds at play.

Coffee-making is a cause-and-effect dance of variables where every tweak changes the outcome. Those variables are legion: water volume and temperature, coffee beans and roast, grind size and consistency, agitation, and the amount of time that the water is in contact with the grounds. Every tweak can change the final product, and nowhere are all of those variables so nakedly on display as they are with pour-over, where skill and technique make the difference between an exquisite cup and a bitter brew.

What surprised me most was seeing what caught Sam and Reyna's attention and what didn't, a blend of divide-and-conquer and personal preference. I figured the Mugen, which is designed to streamline things, would be the most interesting to them, but it was the first to go.

If you've ever wondered why pour-over is so expensive, watch the way it monopolizes a barista for several minutes as they pour, wait, pour, and wait; pulling shots or pouring a cup of drip is much faster. With the Mugen, the idea is that you pour in one quick go—here in 15 seconds—then let it drain. But while the pouring is quick, the Mugen's design means the flow is slow.

"The industry trend is faster flow rates," something you can control with grind size, Reyna explained while Sam nodded in agreement. "It's cool, but not compelling."

The product that grabbed Sam's attention was the V60 Drip-Assist accessory, a collaboration between Hario and award-winning barista Pete Licata. It's a fat plastic disc with two concentric rings of holes separated from each other by a raised barrier.

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"This makes sense to me. There are just two places to pour instead of infinity," Sam said. "The challenge with pour-over is repeatability. Where you put the water matters and this fixes those problems."

"Bloom in the center, run around the edge for the second pour," Reyna said, discovering as she poured. This meant that she used the center ring with its slightly larger holes for the first pour (the bloom) and added water to the outer ring on subsequent pours to fully saturate the grounds. Set over the top of the V60, the Drip-Assist did the aiming for her. On her first try, she used 20 grams of coffee and 340 grams of water (a 1:17 ratio), sending the first 40 grams right down the middle, then adding 60 to 70 grams of water every 20 seconds, making sure to take a few laps out toward the edges. Both of them were clearly pleased.

"It tastes like Big Truck," Reyna exclaimed, meaning Olympia's signature blend tasted like it should have—an excellent sign for a first batch. She put a few drops of the coffee in a refractometer, a meter that checks for total dissolved solids (known to coffee geeks as TDS, or the amount of coffee in your coffee). Their ideal is between 1.3 and 1.45 TDS, and the first Drip-Assist batch came in at 1.24, a near-bullseye that could be finessed to perfection with a slightly finer grind.

As they made a few more batches, they realized that Drip-Assist is like training wheels. If you're new to the pour-over game, don't have a gooseneck kettle for that thin, accurate stream, or have unsteady hands, it can be particularly helpful. For most people though, once you have a bit more confidence, you'll likely want to move on. After using it a few times, Sam wanted more control over the water flow.

"Eventually," he said, "training wheels get in the way."

Reyna, meanwhile, swapped her attention to the Switch.

"The first thing I taught my partner was to make coffee on a Clever," she said, referencing a similar dripper. "I didn't want coffee that tasted like butt."

The coffee she made with the Switch was anything but.

The Switch has a silicone bottom with a "switch" inside—a ball bearing moved up and down by a tab that starts and stops the flow of water.

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It's a chunky thing and less elegant than the classic V60, but the Switch is essentially a V60 with options, and you'll want to buy the larger "03" size to take advantage of them. My favorite use for it was to start in the closed position as the bloom happens, without water running through the bottom, making it more certain that the grounds are uniformly saturated.

"I could really get nerdy with this one," Reyna said, then did, turning the flow off then on twice during one brew.

She explained how the Switch combines two methods of brewing: immersion—like French press, where grounds bathe in a pool of hot water—and filter, where water continuously passes over the grounds. The V60 does filter, but the Switch does both.

(It should be noted that the Switch is a new entry into the category of flow-control drippers that includes standouts like the aforementioned Abid Clever Coffee Brewer and the December Dripper.)

Sam chimed in at this point to mention how he enjoyed watching something simple—like how closing the Switch meant a little less of a drippy mess at the end of brewing.

"In coffee, there are equipment people, and pros who brew coffee, and it's like they don't talk to each other," he said, "So it's nice to see it happening with these products."

We finished making some V60 coffee using Reyna's classic method: blooming, waiting, and patiently spiraling in and out, a coffee ritual if there ever was one.

"Pour-over is the least convenient way to make coffee," Sam said with a mix of truth, humor, and appreciation, noting that he has an OXO drip brewer at home for his busy mornings. "But if you want coffee to be a hobby, pour-over is it."

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