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Brew the Perfect Cup: In Search of the Right Method

Coffee brewing methods vary not only in the degree of grind and brewing time they require, but also in the uniquely different cup qualities they produce given identical coffees to brew. If your goal is a perfect cup, it becomes important to know which method is a perfect match for the coffees you prefer. Although many brewing options exist, we will mention four: automatic drip, manual drip, French press, and vacuum (or siphon) pot.

Automatic Drip Method

First, the downside on this popular brewing method. An automatic drip coffee maker designed for home use delivers brewed coffee conveniently but often at a detriment to flavor. Most homes aren’t equipped to deliver enough power to achieve the 195-205° F water temperature essential for extraction and simultaneously attend to the warming element so that brewed coffee remains hot. To complicate matters, most automatic drip coffee makers require a minimum of 10 minutes to brew a pot of coffee. The ideal brew time for drip coffee is 4-6 minutes. Long brew times and substandard water temperatures will produce a bitter, over-extracted cup.

The upside is that at least one automatic drip coffee maker on the market today meets both the temperature and brew time requirements. Also, some drip coffee makers eliminate the need for a warming element because they brew into a thermal carafe. With more power available to heat the water, the system can produce better extraction, although brew time may still present a problem. Carefully check the manual before purchasing a new drip coffee maker as some are capable of brewing within the required time range. An option to automatic drip is the manual drip method described below.

          Manual Drip Method (or Pour Over Method)      
          manual drip

As its name implies, this method requires brewing by hand. But what the manual drip approach lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for in quality. Here’s how to brew:

Boil the amount of cold, fresh water needed to fill the carafe or thermos you’ll use. Grind the recommended amount of coffee (2 tablespoons for every 6 ounces of water), transfer the grounds to a paper filter (oxygen-whitened, not bleached or brown), place the filter into a brew basket, and position the basket over the carafe. Once the water has reached a boil, remove it from the heat and pause for a moment, then pour enough “just off the boil” water to cover the grounds at first—in order to “bloom” the coffee. After the water disappears, slowly add the remaining water so that the water level stays just above the grounds. This process should take about 4 minutes, the ideal brew time for drip coffee.


Coffees Best Suited to the Drip Method:  Since paper filters trap essential oils and aromatics, drip coffee resolves as light-bodied and transparent in the cup. Unlike other methods, paper-filtered brewing produces sediment-free coffee. Pair this method with coffees whose strong suit is flavor, such as those from Ethiopia, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. Flavored coffees also display well with this method.To maximize the flavor of decaffeinated coffees, try increasing the amount of coffee grounds you use. The ideal brewing method for decaf, however, is the press method described below.

French Press Method

By far the easiest brewing method to use, the press looks every bit as stylish as the coffee it renders. Also known as a press pot, plunger pot, or cafetiere, the coffee press brews by way of infusion.

Coarsely ground coffee, measured out as 2 tablespoons for every 6 ounces of water, is steeped in water “just off the boil” for 4 minutes. A plunger equipped with a stainless steel filter that grips the interior walls of the pot is then pressed down gently. This forces the grounds to the bottom and brewed coffee to the top—ready to be consumed.

This coffee should be enjoyed within 20 minutes after it has been prepared, however. Particles in the coffee will continue to extract, making pressed coffee a poor candidate for thermos storage. Heat loss also plagues coffee press brewing, but insulated presses help to reduce this problem.

Coffees Best Suited to the Press Method: Press brewing mutes aroma and varietal nuance, but it suggests increased acidity and dramatically heightens body. The result is a very thickly textured cup rich in natural coffee oils. It is a perfect match for dark roasted coffees, medium-roasted Latin American coffees, and low-acid coffees such as those from Sumatra and Nicaragua. The coffee press also offers the ideal brewing method for decaffeinated coffees whose flavors are accentuated by the extraction process.

French press    
        Vacuum (or Siphon) Pot      
The vacuum pot may seem odd and cumbersome, but don’t let appearances dissuade you from considering it. Vacuum pot brewing is what every other method wishes it could be, a means by which a coffee’s full range of flavors is revealed. Vacuum coffee is as flavorful as pressed coffee, yet hotter. Brewed without a paper filter, it possesses the clarity of a drip and is nearly sediment-free. Yet vacuum brewing also preserves a coffee’s aroma and essential oils, attributes that paper filters mute in the drip method. Enormously popular in the 1930s through the 1950s, the vacuum pot is used primarily today by coffee enthusiasts who recognize its ability to produce an exceptional brew.
vacuum pot

The vacuum pot is comprised of two glass or metal globes that when fitted together represent a unique brewing system. The lower globe is filled with fresh, cold water. The upper globe, with a tube extending from its bottom, is placed onto the lower globe, forming a seal. A special plug covers the tube’s opening in the upper globe, assuring that water can enter and grounds won’t escape.

Ground coffee, 2 tablespoons for every 6 ounces of water used, is measured into the upper globe. As the lower globe is heated, increased air pressure draws the water up the tube into the upper globe where it infuses with the coffee grounds at just-off-the-boil temperatures.

        When most of the water has moved to the upper globe, a time of three minutes is allowed for extraction to occur. At the end of three minutes, the pot is removed from the heat. As the lower globe cools slightly, a vacuum is created that pulls the freshly brewed coffee into the lower globe which now functions as a serving carafe. Owing to the filtering plug, coffee grounds remain in the top globe while essential oils are pulled into the final brew. The coffee is hot and ready to savor.

Coffees Best Suited to the Vacuum Pot Method
: Unconstrained by a paper filter, vacuum brewing produces a layered, medium-bodied coffee imbued with varietal flavor, heady aroma, sparkling acidity, and natural oils. Latin American and East African coffees taken to a light or medium roast pair nicely with this method as their subtle flavors shine through in the cup.

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