Coffee Time Part 2 - Brewing Methods

Now that you know where coffee comes from, it's time to focus on the more practical aspect of coffee: the making. There are a lot of ways to brew coffee, from the pedestrian to the futuristic to the complicated to the, well, weird.

All coffee making methods share the desire to combine grounds with hot water in one form or another, and most of the methods separate the grounds from the water at some point in the process before it reaches your cup. In a nutshell, that's brewing. After brewing is preparation and/or drinking, but that's a story for another time.

Automatic Drip


The most popular method of brewing in the US is the automatic drip. You start with some grounds in a filtered bowl, pour hot water through, then let the water fall into a pot waiting below, while the grounds stay with the filtered bowl. Very consistent, for any given coffee pot, and likely to make a serviceable pot of coffee with minimal effort.

There are a few problems with the automatic drip method, depending on how you like your coffee. But to understand why, you'll need to learn a little bit more about the coffee itself. Most of the flavor of coffee comes from the essential oils that are captured by the water. These essential oils are what the roasting process is all about; the darker the roast, the more oil there is, with additional changes in flavor from the heat treatment. In an ideal brew, you strip off all of the essential oils and leave everything else, because the rest of the flavor in the coffee bean is very bitter and nasty, which does not make for a tasty brew.

Any given volume of water will be inclined to pull out a certain amount of flavor and then stop, or at least slow down, the acquisition of additional flavors. There's only so much space between the water molecules for yummy treats. However, consider the layout of your general automatic drip: Bowl of grounds, water up top, small hole at the bottom. All of the water falls into that bowl from a single point or set of points. After a while, the points of contact between the water and the grounds are going to lose essential oils, and then the water will start picking up the bitter compounds from the coffee before grabbing the essential oils from below.

Some coffee pots try to fix this by pouring in enough water that the grounds are floating in a pool while the relatively small spout at the bottom slowly releases the coffee enriched water into the pot. That's a good step, unless you like your coffee strong (as I do). If you try to add more coffee to the filtered bowl (especially what I consider to be the "proper amount", it may overload your filter basket and you'll make a big mess. So, if you want pretty strong, not-terribly-bitter coffee from an automatic drip, it's going to take a lot of comparison shopping, and a lot of trial, error, and returns.

Another difficulty, though more easily fixed, is that putting the water through paper doesn't taste all that good. A metal filter will let more of the oils through, though I'll admit, this is one of those subtle changes. There are many more ways to optimize your coffee experience that will have a greater impact.

Finally, the convenience of the automatic drip is also its downfall. The timer option encourages you to either use pre-ground coffee, or to grind your coffee the night before. The more surface area on the coffee, the more oils will be exposed to air, which will break them down into flavorless compounds. Don't hurt your coffee this way, grind as close to brewing time as possible. The other convenience factor is the heated pot, which will break down the oils and make them bitter.
But, considering all these disadvantages, how else can you brew coffee?

French Press


French PressThe easiest, least expensive way to move away from the tyranny of the Automatic Drip Coffee Pot is to buy a French Press. A simple contraption, it involves a container that holds both the grounds and the water together, as well as a filter on the end of a stick. You put the grounds in the bottom, add near-boiling water, wait four minutes, press the filter down, and enjoy your coffee. You can easily control both the amount of coffee and the length of brewing time to fit your own personal style. There are a couple of downsides, though.

The first is that it has no water heating mechanism, so you'll have to provide the hot water yourself. I use an electric coffee kettle, which is a nice, multipurpose device that heats water extremely quickly with minimal effort. You can also use a regular kettle, some manner of pot on a stove, a bottled water dispenser with hot water tap, or an under-sink hot water heater, depending on your preference.

The second is that it has no timer, so you can't just wake up to pre-made coffee. On the other hand, it's really not that hard to make, and you'll want to grind the beans (with a rough grind) as close to the time you brew anyways.

The third is that there are very few insulated presses, and the insulation isn't all that great anyways, so your coffee will get cold quickly if you don't drink it immediately. However, a vacuum flask will take care of that problem.

The fourth is that the clean up is a bit of a pain. You have to dump out the grounds then wash the apparatus. An automatic drip is a bit easier with the paper filter, but if you use a metal filter, well, it's the same amount of work.

The final disadvantage is the obverse of the flexibility: you have to pay more attention to what you're doing. If you want minimal thinking while you're making coffee, and don't want to have to keep an eye on the time and so on, then you might not like the French Press. Which leads us to...

Vacuum Pot


This is my latest coffee related acquisition, and it's keen. Although the tech is decades old, it looks very futuristic. The basic concept is similar to those "love meters", which are little glass contraptions with colored water and two reservoirs connected by a glass tube. If you put your hand on the airy section of the lower reservoir, the heat from your hand will increase the pressure on the air, forcing the liquid up through the tube to the top reservoir, in apparent defiance of gravity. Same thing with the Vacuum Pot.

The lower pot looks much like any automatic drip's pot looks like, but generally slanted at some funny angles. Then you have a top section with a filtered tube that drops almost to the bottom of the first pot. You put water in the bottom section, coffee grounds up top, and apply heat to it.

Water heats up to just below a simmer, which is a great temperature for brewing coffee. The vapor is released from the water slowly, which collects in the air above the water. This increases the pressure on the water, and, when it hits the appropriate temperature, the water flies up the tube, mixing with the coffee grounds. Some of the air even follows it up, ensuring that the water and coffee are thoroughly mixed while treating you with a cool bubble show. Then you remove the heat, and the air will cool, pressure drops, and with it, the water falls back through the filtered tube, sans coffee grounds, into the reservoir below.

If you have an electric model, it takes no supervision at all after the elements are assembled. There are even models with timers on them, so you could leave it overnight (though I would recommend you never do that, what with the air and essential oils and destruction of all that lovely flavor and such).

You could also get a stovetop model, as the original ones are, but that would obviously be more work while brewing a pot of coffee, since you have to take it off the heat at the proper time and all. It does give you more control, of course, if you can't find an electric model that brews for as long as you might like.

On the downside, they're a little expensive, in the $100 range, but you'll pay that for a good automatic drip, so it's not so bad. Cleanup is also a bit of a pain compared with a paper filter, and the electric models can't be cleaned in a dishwasher, unlike most of the automatic drip pots and french presses.

Percolator


Ah, the savior of the catering industry and the bane of coffee lovers everywhere. The percolator is a huuuuuge pot of water and coffee mixed together with heat applied and a filtered spout at the bottom. Mix together, apply heat, and eventually, pour out on a per-cup basis. Whether for 4 minutes or 4 days, the coffee and grounds stay together, warmed continuously throughout.

So, continuous application of heat, and contact between the grounds and the water well past the stage necessary to extract oils, combined with the likelihood that cheap, prepackaged and pre-ground coffee of the cheapest nature will be used to minimize cost, and you have...? That's right: coffee as bitter as an English major being forced to take calculus. While being taught by her ex-husband. When the graduate assistants are the men she caught him with the night he left her. Maybe even a little more bitter than that.

On the other hand, if you have to make coffee for 200 people you hate, there's no more convenient way to do it.

Egg Coffee


What?

No, really. What?

Well, back in the old days, say turn of the last century, people didn't fuss with those fancy filters or French contraptions. No, what they did is they mixed the coffee grounds with a beaten, raw egg, poured boiling water over it. The egg would hold the grounds, while still allowing the water to get at them. The egg would end up cooking enough to be easily separated from the coffee laden water, and people drank it. Oftentimes, the egg shell was kept with the egg as well.

I won't lie to you: I haven't tried this yet. I keep meaning to, but it slips my mind when I'm at home, and at work, well, there just isn't an egg to spare. As soon as I try it, I'll report on the findings. I will say that people who've had this claim there's no finer way to make coffee. On the other hand, people who've willingly tried this could be crazy, so there may be some selection issues with the sample.

Espresso


Enjoying a renaissance of sorts in the United States, fueled by a little Seattle coffee house you've probably never heard of, espresso is extremely concentrated coffee made by pushing steam through finely ground coffee and pumped into a cup. You have to use steam, because water is too dense to fit through the coffee as it is ground so fine. Most people in the US drink espresso in the form of a latte or one of its brethren, because the espresso is so poorly made you have to drown in it milk to enjoy it.

I have had precisely one cup of decent, coffee-house/restaurant espresso in my life, but I try it at any coffee house or sufficiently fancy European descended restaurant. If I don't like the espresso, I will snobbily consider the coffee house to be below my consideration. Of course, once you find out how I prefer my coffee prepared, you'll likely not care about my snobbishness. Still, a good espresso is a thoroughly tasteful and enjoyable, and a bad espresso is a tiny cup of concentrated bitterness. Seek out good espresso, and enjoy it if you can.

There are several ways to make espresso, ranging from the traditional and inexpensive to the "would you prefer that espresso machine or perhaps a sports car" price range. The least expensive is a device that is shaped like a small, metal vacuum pot, except without the tube going down. Reservoir in the bottom with water, coffee grounds in the middle with a fine filter on each side, and a pot on top to hold the coffee. Heat the water until it boils, the steam goes through the coffee, into the top reservoir where it cools and, being liquid again, can't go down through the grounds again. Pour and enjoy.

The most popular home version is like that in function, but is self-contained, much larger, and brews directly into a cup. Still, the pressure of the steam is what propels it through the coffee grounds. The more expensive models will actually pump the steam through mechanically, adding additional air pressure, allowing a finer ground. Many of these electric models will have a steam wand that allows you to froth milk, for the cappuccino and latte lovers.

Unfortunately, that's about as much detail as I can go into, as I don't really have a schmancy espresso maker, so I can't give you good tips. When I get one, or if I find a good guest writer, you can learn all about the dangers and pitfalls of espresso making, and how to avoid them.

Oh, and there's powdered espresso, I'm sure that's really tasty to drink. Heh.

Turkish Coffee


This is a very different style of making coffee, and likely the oldest type. First, you grind your coffee very fine, until it's powdery. Fill your ibrik, or Turkish Coffee Pot, with sugar water, and put the coffee powder over it without stirring. Heat this on your stovetop or sufficiently hot, desert sand until foam comes up to to top. Remove from heat, and stir. Repeat this procedure two more times. Pour into a coffee cup, and, um, enjoy.Turkish Coffee Ibrik

Okay, I'll admit that I've never had coffee prepared this way, so it could be fantastic. However, I suspect it's going to be bitter and, very possibly, nasty. Bear in mind that you will have coffee grounds mixed in with your coffee, as this method was invented well before people decided that filtering their coffee was a good idea.

Vietnamese Coffee


Okay, I have a soft spot in my heart for Vietnamese style coffee, on account of it using Sweetened Condensed Milk. Much like Thai Iced Tea and an empty spoon, everything is tastier with some sweetened condensed milk.

To make Vietnamese style coffee, you take a coffee cup with some sweetened condensed milk in it, and you place on top of it the metal coffee pot. This pot has a tight filter that only allows a little water out at a time. You put the grounds and the hot water into the pot, close it up, and wait for all the water to drip out 4 or 5 minutes later. Stir and enjoy.

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