Brewing Coffee 101: Pour-Over / Drip Coffee Method
The manual pour-over drip coffee method is time-tested. It abides by Corby Kummer’s rules for a great brewing method: it’s quick to set-up and use, requires little clean-up efforts and still gives you control over the brewing process (as opposed to automatic drip machines). But before we can get to that, let’s define what the pour-over drip coffee method is.
Water is poured over a bed of ground coffee sitting on a paper, cloth or metal filter. The water seeps through, extracting flavorful oils from the coffee grounds and dripping through the filter holder (called a ‘brewing cone’) and into your coffee mug or carafe. It’s that simple. This time-tested method was first developed in 1908 by Melitta Benz as she devised a paper drip machine as an alternative to the percolator, which boils coffee, turning the brew bitter (Kummer, 81).
The electric drip machine is the most common brewing method for home use and it uses the same principles as the manual drip method, except that the whole process is automated. While it may be more convenient, this is not necessarily a good thing. Electric brewing machines are notorious for ruining coffee because of the burners, which claim to keep your coffee warm. According to Corby Kummer, the electric drip machine “hogs counter space and brews coffee no better, and often worse, than a simple manual method” (Kummer, 71). Furthermore, electric drip machines take all the control over water temperature, an important factor in the brewing process (see ‘How to Brew Coffee’ blog article for more). Finally, the manual drip method avoids the problem of overflow and requires less cleaning efforts than electric machines (Kummer, 79).
Filtration Methods for Drip Coffee
The type of filter material you use will alter the taste, mouthfeel and texture of your brewed cup. It really all depends on your preferences. The primary functional difference between the different types of filters is their ability to remove or keep coffee grounds and sediment from the brewed coffee. “Some people prefer a super-clean, highly filtered beverage; others prefer one rich in sediment. Filtration methods that allow particles to pass through to the finished brew will affect taste” (Sinnott, 93).
Let’s begin our discussion with paper filters, which happen to be my personal favorite filtration method. Some people charge paper filters with trapping some of the flavor in the coffee grounds. “More accurately, paper holds back sediment and thus results in an ultra-clean brew. Paper does not prevent the passage of oils, the most important flavor component (Sinnott, 94). In fact, paper filters trap colloids, which are a combination of fatty acids, bean fibers and proteins, whereas metal filters let these compounds through. “If you can’t stand even a bit of sediment at the bottom of your cup, you’ll want to use paper” (Kummer, 72). And of course, one of the main benefits of paper filters is how easy it is to get rid of. You can just remove the paper filter with the spent coffee grounds and compost them or use them as fertilizer for your garden or house plants. Whereas with metal filters, you’ll need to wash them after each use.
In the mid 1980s, consumers became aware of some of the dangers of paper bleaching, specifically via the chlorine bleaching process. The culprits are dioxins which are toxic organic compounds and “are thought to be particularly potent carcinogens and which form during paper bleaching” (Kummer, 72). The alternative is unbleached filters. The problem is that most unbleached filters on the market contain brown coloring, because manufacturers believe this convinces consumers that the product is really unbleached, even though unbleached paper is really beige. “Unbleached filters in turn raised concerns over possible health problems from resins and other impurities that remain in unprocessed paper. Far worse for coffee lovers, these impurities can make coffee taste like glue or tar” (Kummer, 72). The distinct odor associated with unbleached paper filters is difficult to avoid. It is sometimes recommended to rinse a paper filter in cold water before using it, in order to remove off tastes (Sinnott, 94).
There are two solutions to these problems. The first is ‘oxygen-bleached’ filters, which uses chlorine dioxide to bleach the paper, and does not produce dioxin residues. “If you are concerned about chemicals or off-flavors and prefer the convenience of paper, oxygen-bleached filters are the best choice. They give you white paper without endangering the environment” (Kummer, 72). There have been charges that filters bleached this way give coffee a bitter chlorine taste. The second solution is ‘hydrogen-peroxide bleached’ filters, which are odorless making them the best option for your filters (Sinnott, 94). A final note on paper filters; do not store them near spice racks or in a cabinet with strong spices, because “filters will absorb the odors of whatever they’re near” (Kummer, 72).
Many coffee connoisseurs believe metal filters (gold plated, aluminum or stainless steel) produce a better brew. They attribute the enhanced flavor to all the sediment that passes through the filter and into the cup. It also has the added benefit of saving you money on paper filters every few months. I certainly still enjoy coffee brewed with a metal filter, but I prefer paper filters. Once again, you should try both methods and decide for yourself. Cloth filters are rarely used anymore. It may be the most environmentally-friendly option but “they’re hard to keep clean. Oils collect in cloth filters and go rancid” (Kummer, 72). Personally, the constant need to wash the cloth filter rules this out for me.
Pros & Cons of Manual Pour-Over / Drip Coffee
The primary advantage of brewing coffee using the manual pour over method is the control that it gives you. You control exactly when the water contacts the grounds, and at what temperature (let boiling water cool for 20 seconds before pouring). You also control the stream of hot water, ensuring that all grounds in the filter are thoroughly and evenly submerged (Sinnott, 97). As with all brewing methods, the more coffee grounds you use, the stronger your finished brew. In this case, the higher volume of coffee grounds in the filter slows the water’s ability to pass through. This longer contact time increases the brew strength. And since you can stop pouring water at any time, you control just how much coffee you want. All these factors, along with the ease of use and the portability (all you need is a cup, filter, and brewing cone) all lead me to choose this as my everyday brewing method. The only disadvantage is that it “takes slightly longer than electric drip, because you boil water separately and stand over the filter to pour it through” (Kummer, 94). Still, if you’re brewing one or two cups, the whole process takes about 5-10 minutes (depending on if you’re grinding your beans as well).
Tips & Tricks for Brewing A Better Cup
- Grind Medium to Medium-Fine for Best Results
- Purchase One-Size Larger Filter Size than Required to Prevent Overflow (Kummer, 80)
- When Adding Grounds to Filter, Never Pack Them (Sinnott, 98)
- Slowly Pour Water Over Grounds in Circular Motion (Sinnott, 98)
- If Grounds Rise / Foam, Let them Settle Down Before Pouring More Water (Sinnott, 98)
- Cover Filter Holder After Pouring Water to Prevent Heat Loss (Kummer, 95)
- Rinse Mug, Cup or Carafe in Very Hot Water Prior to Pouring Coffee (Kummer, 80)
- Stir Coffee Before Serving - First Drip Extracts are Stronger than Last (Sinnott, 98)
Written by Coffee Mike
I like to include the following disclaimer below each of my blogs. I try to make references wherever applicable, but I’ve read many books, dozens of articles, watched documentaries and taken courses on these subjects over the years. I mention this because sometimes I may forget the exact source of my information, so I ask the authors to forgive me if I have not cited some information where I should have.
Kummer, Corby. The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995. Pages 71-72, 79-81, 94-95.
Sinnott, Kevin. The Art and Craft of Coffee: An Enthusiast’s Guide to Selecting, Roasting, and Brewing Exquisite Coffee. Beverly: Quarry Books, 2010. Pages 93-94, 97-98.