I am learning to develop a “slow pour” technique, as an alternative to my old standby, Espresso Americano. As a coffee brewing technique, slow pour has much in common with espresso, because you are controlling the coffee extraction process through water temperature, the grind, and time.
Espresso is precisely controlled. My machine is designed to maintain a calibrated temperature and pressure for consistency. I adjust the grind to a 21 second extraction when compressed in the portafilter at 35lbs of downward force.
Likewise, slow pour is also controlled, though it is a more manual process and because of this, subject to more variables. From an equipment perspective, slow pour has a much lower barrier to entry. You can buy everything you need, a slow pour kettle, pour over cone, and hand grinder for under $100. The entry point for espresso is over $1,000 at the low end for a machine and grinder that can stand toe-to-toe with a commercial setup.
Pouring hot water into a cone and letting it drip into a cup is nothing new. This was how we made coffee in the house I shared with friends back in the early 1980’s when we were all students or recent graduates but still had a taste for quality. It’s also the setup that I took with me whenever backpacking, along with a Turkish spice grinder for my beans. But slow pour takes things to an entirely new level, and I want to give it my best.
For my first pour over experience, I selected the Hario hand grinder due to its popularity, a “clone” of the Hario Buono kettle from Coffee Gator because it comes with a thermostat built into the lid, and a stainless steel mesh cone from Bocha, which I added a Mellita-style paper filter to. My aim was to do my best to replicate the basics of slow pour, matching grind, water temperature, and brew time to what is generally recommended.
The grind from the Hario, I found, is very inconsistent when shooting for something that is the fineness of “raw sugar”, as suggested by one source. I do not have calibrated screens to establish the range of inconsistency, but judging by eye, I saw a problem. Inconsistency in the grind leads to over-extraction in some of the grains, leading to bitterness and under-extraction in others, leading to sourness. I continued with the experiment because in order to tune any method, you have to start somewhere.
While preparing my pour over, I also made my usual Espresso Americano, with a “long shot” using 20 grams of beans roasted yesterday, and dropped just before second crack. To this I add 6 oz. water, to make an 8 oz coffee. I also used 20 grams of beans for my pour over, coarsely ground, with the pour at 200° F. I pre-wetted the filter and poured an 8 oz. cup of coffee in a little under 3 minutes.
When I put the two cups side-by-side, I noticed that the pour over cup tasted weak, and it was definitely cooler at 129° F than my Americano, which read 165° F. The difference in temperature was partly because I poured into a measuring cup, then transferred my coffee to a drinking cup. Measuring the strength of the brew confirmed this, reading just .85 TDS versus 1.45 TDS on the Americano.
At this point, it wasn’t worth making any further comparisons, since I was “apples to oranges” in terms of my results. Clearly, I need to improve my pour over approach. My first step will be to move to a finer grind so that I get a longer extraction from the coffee, and I need to pre-warm my cup so that I can reduce the heat loss in the resulting cup. Using weight to measure when I reach 8 oz. instead of a measuring cup is also an easy change to reduce heat loss.
Rather than b*tch and moan about how the slow pour method is inferior to espresso, I need to step up my game and improve my slow pour technique. After all, coffee perfection does not come easily. Even espresso, with fewer variables to manage manually, takes time to master. I think I’ll go try another pour over right now, and I’m confident it will be better than the last.
Stepping Up The Game
The first concern I wanted to address was the grind of my coffee, so I did two things. First, I adjusted the grinder to a finer setting, then screened out the fines and the course granules from my coffee. This screening process removed 55% of my ground coffee so I reground the coarse granules, and repeated the same process, recovering about 20% of my loss. From 20 grams of coffee, I ended up with 14 grams of usable, or a 30% loss, which I made up by grinding more coffee.
I also made the other changes noted, in that I measured my 8 oz. of finished brew by weight instead of volume, pouring directly into the warm, ceramic mug. Following slow pour procedure, I wetted the paper filter, then wetted the leveled coffee for 30 seconds before continuing my pour, which ended at 3 minutes, 44 seconds. The resulting cup was 136° F and 1.45 TDS, putting it in the “strong” category. According to the SCAA standard, anything from 1.15 to 1.35 is considered ideal, but I like my coffee on the strong side, and 1.45-1.5 is great to my taste!
Since this cup came out great, I went ahead and pulled an espresso the way I normally do, and the resulting Americano was also at 1.45 TDS, making for a good comparison, I did have to cool the espresso slightly by blending in room temperature water, so that the two coffees would be close in temperature as well as TDS.
In taste, both cups presented the beans well. Though there was a difference, you could easily tell it was the same coffee. Neither tasted over-extracted or under-extracted and both were pleasant and enjoyable with very similar fruitiness and sweetness, but to my taste, the espresso extraction had more body to it. This appears to be a fair test.
My conclusion is that while my slow pour technique is still in relative infancy and there is still some room to play with in terms of the type of cone and filter I will use, I believe that any coffee drinker can get very satisfactory results with slow pour, similar to the quality of an espresso. I so see detriments to the slow pour process and these are not related to my technique, or lack of experience.
What I do not care for in the slow pour process is the slowness. Once ground, coffee oxidizes at an alarming rate and the process of grinding, screening, weighing, regrinding, and re-screening gives the oxidation process far more opportunity to diminish the coffee than it does with espresso, where the beans are ground and compressed into a portafilter in less than 30 seconds. This alone might explain the difference between the two cups I compared. I do not see how the grinding process can be improved, as the only way to get a more consistent grind without screening out both coarse and fine particles is to increase the fineness of the grind itself. The finer the grind, the smaller the range of inconsistency. Screening can be simplified as a process, using two screens and a vibration table, but you still have the waste.
The inability to get a consistent grind at the levels required leads to screening the grind, resulting in some amount of waste. At 30% waste (a reasonable estimate), that $18 bag of beans has just increased to $23.40. If you drink just 2 pour over cups per day, you are spending more than $250 more for your coffee over the course of a year. If you have two coffee-afficionados in your household, that rises to $500 per year, and in 2 years you will have paid for an espresso machine that will provide faster and more consistent results, and with care, will last 20 years or more. My own machine, purchased as a “refurb” for $600, is more than 12 years old, and has required very little in the way of service. The same machine is $1,200 today, and I would be happy to buy it again at the current price.
In summary, espresso is still my recommended coffee brewing method, though I will continue to slow pour from time to time, so that I can calibrate my tastebuds and sample the coffee beans that I roast with all of the currently popular brewing methods.
Hario Manual Coffee Grinder
Bocha Pour Over Coffee Filter
Mellita $2 paper filter
Coffee Gator Drip Coffee Kettle
Expobar Pulser Espresso Machine
Rancilio Rocky Espresso Grinder
Thermoworks ThermoPop Digital Thermometer
Atago PAL-1 Pocket Refractometer
Royal EX5 Digital Postal Scale
HotTop 8828-2K+ Coffee Roaster
Costa Rica Helsar Magdalena Vega
Hands-Off Automatic Drip Coffee
I know there are plenty of people from the Mr. Coffee days who still use their automatic drip coffee maker. I might even have one hiding in the back of the kitchen cupboard, but I haven’t seen it in at least a decade, because I am the only coffee-drinker in our household and a full pot of coffee would be wasteful and not particularly fresh by the time I got through half a pot.
But several years ago, working in an office where the shared coffee machine was filled with the cheapest, most god-awful tasting swill that ever neared my lips (short of a “lite” beer), I succumbed to the attraction of a single serve coffee maker. These machines typically have a water reservoir and are reasonably self-contained, so you can have a personal coffee maker in your office without violating fire codes or making a mess.
Coffee pods, K-cups, and Nespresso capsules all provide convenience at a sacrifice. The potential for quality that rivals any home or commercial brewing technique is there, but with the exception of a single shot Nespresso that I was served in their flagship café in Manhattan, they have always fallen short of that mark in my opinion. Some of it is due to shelf life, though with nitrogen packing and pressurization, the shelf life is probably longer than you think, but mainly it’s due to the quality of the beans. Single-origin, handcrafted, local roasting simply isn’t scalable. There are always compromises when you are selling on a national scale for a variety of reasons, from mineral content in the water to the availability of consistently high quality beans at the volume levels needed to put a product on every store shelf.
The coffeemaker I decided upon is a Cuisinart SS-1 Cup-O-Matic, which was last available sometime around 2012. This interesting little machine was perfect for my office because it uses the Lavazza pods that my Handpresso was designed to use, but more importantly, I could also use it with freshly ground coffee. I was able to enjoy fresh, micro-roasted beans for my afternoon coffee fix.
It has been more than 5 years since I last used my Cup-O-Matic, and I wondered how it compared with slow pour. When I purchased it, the Cup-O-Matic suited my needs perfectly. It has settings for different amounts of water from 4 to 12 ounces, and a choice of “regular” and “bold”. I don’t think I have ever pressed the “regular” button. What is more important is the unique way it operates. The brew head is mechanically lowered to the ground coffee, tamping it and leveling it. Then the entire coffee basket received a low-pressure shower of water, ensuring complete saturation of the grounds. The resulting coffee drops straight into the cup at a temperature of 175° F. Whomever designed this machine really loved coffee!
My sample cup, 20 grams of coffee ground for slow pour (but not screened) resulted in an 8 oz. cup with a 1.275 TDS, which is close to perfect for “normal” straight coffee and a bit short of my preferred strength. Flavor-wise, the difference between the Cup-O-Matic and my slow pour was evident, but not unacceptable. The slow pour had the advantage of screened grounds, providing more consistency and probably increasing the extraction. It’s possible that I could fine tune my grind with the Cup-O-Matic to improve the strength in the cup, but with only that variable under my control, I can only go so far before it starts producing more bitter notes.
My conclusion? I’m going to pack this machine away, but I’m not getting rid of it. If I’m going to own an automatic drip coffee maker, the Cup-O-Matic still fits the bill, and I can pull it out when we have house guests who find the espresso machine a bit intimidating.