Is Pour-Over Coffee Really That Special?
You’re at a coffee shop waiting for your craft-brewed, specialty-grade, hand-poured, $1.50 upcharge, pour-over coffee drink and you’re wondering what actually is so different about pour-over coffee compared to your simple black coffee? Afterall, pour-over coffee is more expensive and takes more time to prepare. Or maybe you’ve had a friend whip up some delicious coffee from a Chemex at home? Coffee lovers alike will tell you that their preferred cup of black goodness comes from a pour-over, or some other hand-brewed method, but why is that?
Who actually decides what coffee is delicious and what coffee should be tossed out?It’s not like there is some guy who sits on a large coffee cup throne atop of coffee mountain tasting various brews to decide what coffee should taste like (although, there are professional coffee tasters, but that’s another conversation for another time). At the end of the day, coffee is meant to be enjoyed by whoever is holding the mug, and that standard varies. Barber Jim down the street might like his coffee with a thick syrupy mouthfeel, and his wife Lucy might enjoy more delicate tea-like flavors in the morning.
While preference is subjective, and that’s a good thing, there are some factors that are worth noting while critiquing a cup of joe. The three main points of influence in the quality of coffee among the supply chain are the farm, the roastery, and cafe or kitchen. At the farming level we ask, how is the coffee produced? What are the growing conditions? At the roastery, is the roaster skilled enough to bring out the flavors cultivated at the farm level? Down to how the coffee is prepared, is the brewing process highlighting the coffee’s desirable characteristics? These are all questions that are worth asking when it comes to coffee flavor.
Let’s focus on brewing, and how that plays out with a pour-over method. Essentially, pour-over coffee replaces the automation of a standard coffee maker with a person. Instead of having a machine do all the work for me, I get a hands on experience where I can control variables in the brewing process. With pour-over coffee I control the temperature of the water going through the coffee bed. I have influence in how fast the water passes through the coffee. Also, I can promote (or hinder) an even saturation of the coffee grounds (which is what every barista aims for when brewing coffee).
While the pour-over method places more control in the hands of whoever is brewing the coffee that does not necessarily mean the coffee brewed will result in a more enjoyable cup. In other words, there is nothing special about the method itself, but rather how the method is utilized. The prime factor in quality brewing is extraction. Extraction is a fancy word that refers to the process of pulling flavors out of the coffee. When water interacts with coffee it extracts flavors from the coffee. The goal in brewing coffee is to extract the right amount of flavors from the coffee and to do that as evenly as possible.
The five factors that affect extraction are as follows, brew time, brew temperature, grind size, agitation of the coffee slurry, and the coffee to water ratio. Adjusting any of these variables will produce different results in your cup. For example, brewing with water at 195 degrees fahrenheit will extract less from the coffee than a brew temperature of 205 degrees fahrenheit. Pouring a higher volume of water in a set amount of time will also cause water to flow faster through the coffee, thus extracting less from the coffee. Agitation of the coffee in the initial stages can aid in an even saturation of the coffee bed, which promotes a clean, as opposed to muddled, flavor profile in your cup.
So why does this matter, and what does that have to do with pour-over coffee? Using a pour-over method allows for greater ability to control variables that affect the final product. This is usually only a good thing if the person brewing with a pour-over method knows what they are doing. On another note, automated coffee makers are set up to deliver consistent results, where the results of a pour-over might vary.
When you boil it down, pour-overs are fun to use. The brewing process is even aesthetically pleasing, but just because a home or cafe barista pulls out a fancy Chemex or Hario V60 there is no guarantee the coffee in your cup will be the best you’ve had.
READ MORE: Our Guide for Choosing the Best Pour Over Set
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