by Matt Gibson
Pour over coffee has been around for over 70 years. The method didn’t take the coffee world by storm like pod brewing has in recent years. Instead, people came around to enjoy the pour over method slowly but surely. The Chemex pour over device was the first pour over brewing system to be introduced to the western world, and it quietly developed a cult-like following that grew steadily over several decades. Pour over coffee is not the most popular brewing technique in the world, but it has amassed quite a large and loyal following, and those who use the method swear by it emphatically, and are quick to boast of how their favorite brewing technique produces the finest cup of coffee in the world.
The prideful boasts of pour over users are not just hollow exclamations either. Pour over brewing makes a truly exceptional cup of coffee. It has a noticeably different flavor, aroma, and body that distinguishes it from other brewing techniques. Pour over coffee is not overly strong and robust like French Press brews, nor is it as one dimensional as standard drip coffee. Pour over coffee produces a mild, delicate brew, with a bright, complex, aroma and flavor, a balanced, well-rounded body, and a silky smooth finish. Pour over brewing brings out the intricate, multi-layered, vibrant character of any roast that it is paired with. Pour over is more than just a brewing method, it is an intimate relationship between the brewer, the device itself, and the brew.
In this article, we give you everything you need to know about pour over coffee. We define it clearly, and discuss the chemistry behind the brewing process. We list off the many advantages as well as the very few disadvantages of the technique. We offer a few tips about how to make the best possible brew using the pour over method. And lastly, we explain how to brew coffee using the pour over method, in a simple, step-by-step guide. If you are considering giving pour over coffee a try and thinking about investing in a pour over coffee maker, this article should tip you over the edge and leave you anxiously awaiting the opportunity to dive into the world of pour over coffee, and trust us, you will never look back.
What Is Pour Over Coffee?
Pour over coffee has been around for centuries, and is the most popular coffee brewing method in the Eastern world. Introduced to the West with the invention of the Chemex coffee maker in the early 1940’s, pour over coffee wasn’t immediately adopted by westerners, but did develop a large and loyal following over several decades, and is now one of the most popular brewing methods used today.
Similar to drip brewing in that hot water is poured over fresh coffee grounds, extracting the flavor and caffeine locked inside the beans. The water soaks the grounds, absorbing their richness, and drips out into a mug or carafe, ready for you to enjoy. The difference between the pour over method and electric drip machines, is that the user has much more control over the brewing process when using the pour over method, than is possible with drip coffee. Electric drip machines only allow the user control over the amount of grounds and water that is used in the brewing process. Once the user puts the grounds and water into the machine, their part is complete, as the machine takes care of the rest.
All you need to make pour over coffee is a water source, a way to heat the water, a device that is well-suited to pouring the water out slowly over the grounds (we recommend an electric kettle with a gooseneck spout), freshly ground coffee beans, a coffee grinder (we recommend a conical burr grinder to help achieve a consistent grind size without burning the grounds with heat friction), a pour over device, and Chemex-style coffee filters.
The brewing process is very involved, but very simple. The hot water is poured into the grounds very slowly, at first just enough to soak the beans, then stopped to allow the wet grounds to expand and bloom. Once the bloom occurs and the grounds settle, the slow pouring is resumed, pouring in small circular motions around the cone of the pour over device until the carafe is full or the kettle is emptied.
The Science Behind The Pour Over Method
Chemistry is involved in every known brewing technique, but it is at the very heart of the pour over method. In order to help you better understand the intricacies of the pour over technique, we break down the science behind each step, from the initial wetting of the grounds and the bloom, to the final drop that tops off your carafe. Here is the science behind the pour over brewing method.
Wetting The Grounds
The cone-shaped device of a pour over brewer is first lined with a quad-fold filter, so that one side of the filter has one layer and the other side has three layers. The filter is placed into the device with the thick, three-part layer facing downwards towards the spout of the device. The filter is then filled with the desired amount of freshly ground coffee beans. Hot water is then poured over the grounds, just enough to wet them.
When the grounds get soaked with heated water, carbon dioxide is released from the grounds. This release of gas blocks the water from fully soaking each coffee ground. A few moments of rest is given to allow the CO2 to escape so that the water can fully saturate the grounds. This process is known as the bloom. The recommended pause time is about 30 seconds. Watch the grounds as they swell up and expand from the contact with water. As the grounds begin to exhale, and settle back into the cone, you can resume a slow circular pour.
Dissolution and Timing
As the grounds are submerged in water, the soluble material in the grounds begins to dissolve. The art behind this hands-on brewing process is all about knowing when you should stop. Coffee chemistry is all about the process of what dissolves into the brew. Thankfully, all the good flavors and components that you want to dissolve into your brew break down first, so as long as you stop at the right time, you get all of the good stuff and none of the bad.
You definitely want to develop a slow pouring technique, yes, but you don’t want it to be too slow, because after the good components of the grounds dissolve, the bitter, bad components start to break down and seep into your brew as well. So, getting your pouring technique into perfect form involves finishing the pour before over-extraction occurs.
Diffusion: Coffee Osmosis
The process of extraction in coffee brewing is called osmosis in the scientific community. If you remember learning about osmosis in school, it’s a pretty simple concept involving cells and how they break down when changing into different forms, like from liquid to gas, from gas to liquid, or in the case of coffee brewing, from solid to liquid. To put it simply, when the cells of your coffee grounds come into contact with water, the cell walls allow the water to penetrate into the cell.
Once inside the cell membranes, the water breaks down the particles inside the coffee grounds, extracting the flavors and tasty compounds within the grounds to disperse into the water. If the water is too hot, or if it is allowed to mingle with the grounds for too long, over-extraction occurs, which results in a bad cup of coffee. If the timing is just right, the result is a remarkable cup of coffee. So, let’s discuss how to get that perfect timing down to a science (see what I did there?)
Perfect Timing and Adjusting Your Technique
The majority of a coffee bean, or nearly two thirds of its total mass, consists of insoluble cellulose, which will not break down in water. The remaining third consists mainly of compounds that you want to break down into your brew, like sugars and acids. What’s left is bitter, unpalatable, long-chain molecules. The optimal extraction should remove about 20 percent of the coffee ground’s mass, after which, what is extracted will be either bitter or sour. The most important component of good coffee brewing is extraction timing, and avoiding extracting these unwanted flavors.
A uniform grind, and a medium-coarse grind size will help ensure the proper extraction time, and the ideal pace for your water to drip through the grounds. Variables like grind size, grind uniformity, and bed depth, all factor into the final brew. Perfecting your timing and technique can take some effort, and should be adjusted until you find the sweet spot. Using a burr grinder to get a uniform grind and achieve the correct grind size will help immensely.
A narrow, gooseneck-style pouring spout will help you get more control over your pour. Another important factor is water temperature. The ideal temperature for coffee brewing is 203 degrees Fahrenheit. If you pause for too long during the bloom, your temperature will drop, and that will slow down the extraction time. If your water is too hot, it can speed up the reaction.
Perfecting your timing for the perfect extraction can take some time, and you should expect some trial and error. However, once you get your technique down, you should be able to consistently brew amazing coffee every time you use your pour over machine. Yes, there is more room for error when using the pour over method, but there is also a whole lot of room for improvement, and all it takes to get there is a little bit of practice.
The (Many) Advantages Of The Pour Over Method
- Complete Control
Pour over brewing is a hands-on process, where you are in complete control of the brewing. It is up to you to achieve the perfect extraction, which provides a much more personal brewing experience.
- Zen Brewing
Brewing coffee using the pour over method is a meditative experience. Once you have a few perfect extractions under your belt, the entire process becomes more natural, and all the stress of striving for perfection goes out the window, as you know that you will achieve perfection. At first, there is too much concentration required for the process to be meditative, but once you get the hang of it, brewing becomes very zen-like and calm.
- The Freedom Of Experimentation
With complete control comes more room for error, but experimentation is the way to achieving greatness as well. Once you have mastered the technique, you can begin to experiment freely without worrying about potentially ruining your brew.
- Getting The Most Out of Your Roast
Aside from the French press method, there is no other brewing technique that comes close to the coffee that you can get out of a pour over device. Even pre-ground, grocery store coffee can taste amazing when brewed using the pour over technique. Fancy single origin coffees will never taste better than they will with the perfect pour over extraction.
- Simplicity and Practicality
Pour over devices are simple and easy to use once you get the hang of it. Brewing espresso and other Italian coffee drinks is a science that involves exact pressure, post-brew processing, and first-hand knowledge similar to pour over brewing. However, espresso and its siblings all require complicated machinery, a time consuming process, and lots of cleanup. Pour over brewing is as simple as it gets.
- Budget Friendly Brewing
Pour over devices are very affordable and durable as well. Once you invest in a pour over device, it should last you a lifetime, as long as you take proper care of it and rinse it out after each use. Going out for coffee can be very expensive, and those five dollar drinks can add up quickly. Getting a coffee maker for your household can save you a lot of money versus going out for coffee regularly. Plus, the cost of fancy household coffee makers can be ridiculous as well. Pour over devices are simple and inexpensive, especially when compared to espresso machines and electric brewers with tons of extra features.
- The Healthiest Brewing Method
Though much more research is needed on the health benefits of drinking coffee, recent research has shown that people that drink unfiltered coffee have a much greater chance of suffering from raised cholesterol levels because of their coffee habit. However, filtered coffee traps the harmful compounds that cause raised cholesterol levels, and keeps them out of your brew. Electric drip coffee has to travel through a simple coffee filter, whereas pour over coffee is triple filtered before it reaches your mug. More filtration makes pour over coffee the healthiest coffee brewing method.
The pour over coffee maker is small and compact, which makes it ideal for a functional travel device, and an excellent choice for coffee drinkers who are always on the move. If you’re going out of town and won’t be near your home for a while, you could never take your commercial-grade espresso machine on the road with you. Even drip machines would be a hassle to clean and pack into a suitcase. However, the pour over device is easy to clean, quick to dry, and portable in every sense.
- The Quickest Clean-Up
Fancy coffee makers are a pain to clean, and some drip machines have water tanks that are impossible to clean well, which can lead to mold and bacterial build up. Espresso machines and French presses have to be disassembled to clean properly. Meanwhile, pour over coffee makers are among the easiest coffee makers to clean. All you have to do is rinse it out with water and maybe a few drops of dish soap. The glass part of the device can occasionally be tossed into the dishwasher as well, if it starts to look cloudy.
The (Few) Disadvantages Of The Pour Over Method
- Takes Time To Master The Technique
Pour over brewing takes time to perfect. You have to get the timing down to perfect your technique, which can take some time, and may result in a few bad extractions. More control means more room for error. However, error is temporary, and practice makes perfect.
- Requires More Work To Brew
With more benefits comes more responsibility. If you enjoy the convenience of having a machine brew your coffee for you, pour over coffee is probably not the best choice for you. If you don’t mind the extra work and having a more hands-on brewing experience, pour over coffee is just your speed.
- Could Turn You Into A Coffee Elitist
Once you master your brewing technique and realize how much better the coffee you drink is than the average joe with an electric drip machine and his average joe (heh), you will feel like the fanciest person you know. You may even start referring to yourself as a self-employed barista. Try not to let your excellent pour over technique go to your head.
If this article has convinced you to dive head first into pour over brewing, you will not regret your decision. For the best possible brews, purchase your coffee beans in small batches for maximum freshness. Wait to grind your beans until the very last second and only grind what you need for each extraction. Freshly ground coffee makes a much better cup than pre-ground coffee, so do what you can to preserve the freshness as best as possible.
Use a burr grinder to get the most uniform grounds and set the grind size to medium-coarse. Use spring water or mineral water instead of distilled water or filtered water, as great coffee requires a water source with plenty of mineral content, so be sure not to filter it out, as it plays a major role in quality and depth of flavor.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to make adjustments and experiment with your technique. Remember, practice makes perfect. Plus, even when you have perfected your technique, learning something new can lead to improvement, and true masters never stop learning.
[Let us know about your experiences with pour over brewing in the comment section. Do you have any advice for perfecting your pour over technique that we missed? What coffees are your favorite roasts to use in your pour over devices?]