For those of us who enjoy it, the ritual of pourover coffee is something close to our hearts.
At home, where time and space are greater than in a busy coffee shop, this enjoyment can be fully realized. But in a busy cafe, pourovers can transition from enjoyable ritual to essential, sometimes time-sucking, duty. This can be problematic, since many conscientious consumers view a pourover bar, manual brew bar, slow bar, or whatever you might call it, as a key signal of a contemporary shop’s focus on coffee quality.
It takes time, training and well-considered, proper execution to create a great cup from these simple little devices. Despite the fact that many of these manual pourover brewers have been around for decades, it is only in the past one or so that they have become upscale retail staples. In a way, this has been a test period for pourover brewing in commercial applications, and it’s a test many shops have failed. Busy, cluttered cafes have been struggling to produce consistency from their pourover stands, and for many, it simply isn’t working.
This is not necessarily a barista issue, or even a human issue. It may be an equipment issue.
Of course, a number of well-known brands create manual pourover devices. Some of these devices have been around since the late 1700s, predating the espresso machine. They vary in size, shape and design. Many of the design differences are minute: ribbing or smooth; two or three holes; glass, metal or ceramic. However, the most significant design element is the shape of the filter: cone or trapezoid.
A remarkable array of things can go wrong in the simple action of water passing through a bed of coffee. Innately through the pourover design, grounds sitting at the bottom will be generally over-extracted while grinds at the top will be generally under-extracted. This extraction variation is most pronounced in cone-shaped filters, where it can be mitigated by actions like stirring, but that is an additional step for a barista whose attention is likely already split. Even in the most controlled settings, cone-shaped filters are fickle, prone to varying results. Without a barista dedicated to the pourover bar, a rarity in most shops, these varying results can be perceptible to customers. Inconsistencies, of course, are generally bad business, especially when a pourover cup might run to $4 or $5 compared to a $2.50 batch brew.
Looking at the direction of the brewing industry, which the Brewers Cup competition has some role in guiding, we see the winning recipes, particularly in the U.S. national competition, may be progressing toward with less agitation, working toward more even extraction.
At this year’s World Brewers Cup, a trend emerged, one that further mitigates the capriciousness of the pourover and which has potential to change manual brewing in retail settings: Polished immersion. The technique, used by Intelligentsia Coffee’s Sarah Anderson in her U.S. Brewers Cup winning routine, is powerful in its simplicity. Basically, it borrows the principles of technical cupping, the industry standard for preparing coffee for grading. Place a set amount of grounds into a vessel and pour water over them. Polished immersion involves skimming the grounds off the top and pouring the brew through a filter medium.
In a cafe setting, this 4-5 minutes of steeping time could allow baristas to attend to other tasks, engage in conversation with customers or run the register. With little required in terms of manual action — concentrated pouring and agitation — this could also reduce training time and improve consistency.
Accomplished brewers at regional and U.S. Brewers Cup have found competition success using variations on this polished immersion technique over the past two years, and it may only be a matter of time before it filters into the mainstream commercial arena.
(update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that previous World Brewers Cup championships had used cone-shaped brewers in their winning routines. In fact, three out of the past four world champions have indeed incorporated cone-shaped brewers, rather than trapezoidal brewers.)