A Brief History of Manual Brewing – How we got here and where we’re going

 

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One of the more exciting trends I’ve observed in speciality coffee in the last 10 years is an explosion in popularity in manual brew methods. Although the concept of single-cup brewing is more than 100 years old, many manual brewing innovations have only taken place in recent years.

The paper filter drip-cone dates back to 1908 when German Entrepreneur Melitta Bentz fashioned a paper coffee filter out her son’s school workbooks. Before the invention of the paper filter many brewing methods used a cloth filter, that was a hassle to clean and would pick up a funky smell and taste over repeated uses.

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As many homes became electrified and the use of electric appliances became more popular, many homes used an electric percolator to brew coffee. Percolators work by recirculating hot water through coffee grounds and produce a bitter and horrible tasting beverage. The rise of electric coffee brewers with a paper filters was the final nail in the coffin of the electric percolator. Unfortunately, this meant many of the manual brewing devices; like the chemex, french press, and various filter cones became less popular.

Post-War America became interested in a culture of commodities and convenience, and many has been accustomed to drinking World War 2 “Ration Style” Instant coffee. There was very little interest in quality coffee. Alfred Peet of Peet’s Coffee and Tea sought to change this forming his coffee roasting business in 1966. In 1971 Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegel and Gordon Bowker, three partners who had learned coffee roasting from Peet would go on to form Starbucks and open a shop in Pikes Market in Seattle selling freshly roasted coffee and brewing equipment. As you can see in the picture below Starbucks sold various filter cones and pouring kettles.

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Starbucks is often credited with introducing America at large to espresso beverages, although this did not begin until the mid-to-late 1980s. Howard Schultz, now Executive Chairman of the company, joined Starbucks in 1983 and pushed the company to serve espresso beverages after he returned from a trip to Italy. Starbucks wasn’t interested in entering the cafe business and rejected Schultz’s Plan. Schultz then went on to start his own Cafe Il Giornale in 1986. After 2 years of running his Italian-themed espresso bar, the founders of Starbucks decided to focus on the Peet’s Coffee and Tea Brand and made an offer to sell Starbucks to Schultz in 1988. Schultz then aggressively expanded the company fulfilling his vision of an espresso bar on every corner in America. 

Starbucks may not have necessarily started America’s fascination with espresso beverages, but it certainly helped to popularize it. The Starbucks concept inspired a whole wave of independent coffee houses in the 1990s. Many of the larger Speciality Coffee companies we know of today – Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown started to improve upon this concept, focusing more on the quality of the coffee served rather than strictly the social experience of the coffee house. These companies still were very focused on offering espresso beverages in their cafes.

In my personal coffee conscience, sometime around 2010 marks the time when I noticed coffee roasters paying more attention to brewed coffee. Pour-over brewing quickly became a fad in the speciality cafes and in February 2011 New York Times Magazine food editor Oliver Strand wrote an article entitled Coffee’s Slow Dance which details how prominent figures in 3rd Wave Coffee became interested in the Japanese practice of by the cup brewing.

When imports began entering Japan after WWII, the Japanese were eager to embrace Western culture after years of restriction. Coffee was no exception to this and  Kissatens, traditional Japanese Tearooms, began serving coffee. In the years that would follow Kissatens would branch out into two general concepts. One would incorporate amusement and entertainment into their cafes such as Maid or Manga Cafes. The other would focus on perfecting the art of coffee brewing.

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In these coffee-focused Kissatens coffee was brewed by the cup using single-cup brewers invented and manufactured in Japan. In 1925 Coffee Syphon Co, released the first Coffee Syphon brewer in Japan in response to Kissaten owners who wanted to showcase craftsman ship in coffee brewing. Nel Drip, a cloth filtered drip method, that required time, patience and attention to was another popular method that allowed Kissaten owners to showcase the craft of brewing coffee. In 1973 The Coffee Syphon Co came out with their own paper filtered dripper, The Kono Paper Filter dripper an improvement on the Melitta style dripper, similar to the Hario V60 we know today.

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In Oliver Strands article, James Freedman founder of Blue Bottle Coffee recalls a trip to Chatei Haotou a Kissaten in Tokyo. There he observed the attention to detail the Japanese took to single-cup brewing. He paid special attention to the thin-necked coffee kettles they used, the kettles had ergonomic handles and the thin spout allowed a slow stream of water to pour out giving the user ultimate control when brewing. At the time there was nothing like this on the American Market.

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By 2009 Freedman began stocking pouring kettles and Japanese Filter Cones at their cafes and other speciality coffee shops such as Inteligentisa and Ritual coffee followed suite. At the time Japanese coffee equipment was hard to come by and you were likely only to find it if you lived in a major city like San Francisco or New York. The rarity of this equipment signaled that you were a true coffee nerd and a member of the urban elite.

This all changed in the Autumn of 2010 when Williams-Sonoma started stocking Hario (a Japanese kitchenware company well-known for coffee gear) products in more than 250 of its stores in addition to selling them online. This no-longer meant that Japanese coffee gear was a rare sought-after item, any suburbanite could make their way down to the mall and purchase it.

The reason why coffee roasters were excited by the idea of single-cup brewing is allowed them to highlight their rarer and higher quality coffees to customers without letting them go to waste in a batch brewer. It also drew an artisanal connection to the brewing process allowing customers to watch their coffee being brewed. It was supposed to educate customers about coffee

I worked as a barista roughly between 2011-2014 the height of the pour-over fad. It felt as though it was a time when every coffee shop was rushing to implement a “slow-bar”, whether or not their customers wanted it. Chalkboard signs would advertise coffees with unique flavor notes. Pour-over bars seemed to confuse and frustrate customers more than educate or entice them. The coffee was often sold at an up-charge $4 or more. At this pricing and with the listed flavor notes customers weren’t sure what they were getting. I had plenty of customers think they were getting an almond and blueberry infused coffee only to wait 5-7 minutes for a simple cup of black filter coffee. I even recall one woman throwing a stack of V60 filters at me after realizing she had waited several minutes for a black coffee.

Pour-over coffee is problematic in retail environments. I’m not certain it’s something most customers want and as an ex-barista, an educated coffee customer it’s not even something I want. There is so much inconstancy in brewing methods that it’s hard to tell if what you’ll receive is going to be any good. Ordering a pour-over at a coffee shop is $4-5 gamble, a literal roll of the dice on whether or not you’ll receive an enjoyable cup of coffee. If you drink coffee at a cafe, I’d strongly encourage you to order a batch brew. Even if it’s not one of the roasters special offerings the extraction will be far better and as a result your beverage will taste better.

I’ve observed that many cafes are listening to customers and far fewer cafes are offering pour-overs. Even some of the staunch pour-over only cafes near me have purchased a batch brewer to give customers faster service. Many of the cafes that still offer pour-over are slower volume or only offer it as a service during slower times of the day. Many cafes who are interested in brewing by the cup are starting to automate their brewing process have started to invested in the Mod Bar or Curtis Seraphim systems. These machines offer a programable and consistent flow rate and water temperature. It may be odd at first to watch robots pour your coffee, but it frees up cafe staff and makes a more consistent cup.

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In fact in researching this article, I found an article written in the New Year (2018) from the Wall Street Journal announcing the end of Pour-Over observing that many Speciality Cafes are giving way to automation.

While I both agree with and applaud many cafes for switching over to more consistent brewing methods that offer customers higher quality and faster service – I don’t think pour-over coffee is completely dead. In fact the prevalence of coffee brewing equipment both at coffee shops and home goods stores would argue against that.

I think that for home Baristas manual brewing is an extremely good option. While there are some good automatic machines for home-use, most are relatively expensive $100-350 USD and tend to brew their best cups of coffee when brewing several cups at a time. Rarely do I brew more than 2 cups at a time and these machines take up valuable countertop space and electrical outlets in my kitchen.

Manual brewing may be the only practical option for home Baristas. I also feel the involvement affords a full sensory experience that can teach a user a lot more about coffee rather than simply pressing a button.

I’m a vocal advocate for manual brewing for the home Barista, however I’m completely unsatisfied with many of the brewing guides offered to home Baristas. I feel their too inconsistent and often set up people up for failure.

In the next several articles I will address techniques that hopefully will aid in achieving a delicious and consistent cup of coffee.

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