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An Argument for ‘Polished’ Immersion Brewing for Your Brew Bar

polished immersion kong coffee

Kong Coffee is an in-development brewing device that is based on the cupping process and shares principles with the “polished immersion” concept.

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.)

Comment

10 Comments

greg

As George Howell famously said, cupping is the only way to evaluate coffee but it’s not the best way to enjoy coffee.

C Oppenhuis

In the first World Brewers Cup Keith O’sullivan won using a Chemex. James Hoffman placed 2nd with his cleaned up full immersion filtered through a sock dripper.

Aubade

And I believe Perger won using a v60? Busy cafes in Melbourne like Proud Mary are packed but still rock $15 Geishas because they have the right set up and training.

Dick

O’Sullivan, Perger, AND Domatiotis, that is, 3 of the 4 World Brewers Cup champions, all used “cone-shaped filters.” Please check your facts before posting things. Thanks.

Nick Brown

Hey Dick,

Thank you for the clarification. An update to the story has been made.

-Nick Brown, Editor

Brandon

Before we get too distracted by who won what with which, I think the initial direction of instituting polished immersion in stores—particularly ones with high volume—is intriguing. There’s a constant struggle of quality and quantity and workflow logistics, so if we’re able to better balance these three mechanics, AND raise the strength of them, it’s worth the discussion.

Immediately, we’d eliminate the human error, which is significant. No stir (or stream from a kettle), no matter how exact will yield identical results as a previous stir. Mr. Le Compte mentions the split attention of a barista simply from the perspective of addressing multiple drinks in a line, add to that the distraction of customers, co-workers, etc. and you’ve got a lot to multitask with even a single drink order.

The most important factors are our ingredients. Water and coffee. Toss in wait-time to the equation. After all, we’re talking about making the best drink possible in an efficient amount of time. No matter how hip or appreciative we want to be, we’re not going to wait ten minutes to have the barista sort out all the isolated variables of the drink AND environment. If we’ve got two really delicious ingredients, and are aiming to make individual cups of coffee to highlight the best flavours of a coffee, then this is certainly attempting effort towards that.

George and I have talked about cupping vs. brewing regarding “enjoyment”, and you’ve got to take more into account than what’s on the counter. Hand brewing, which has origin in the home, is something a person can do with their cup of coffee. They directly shape how their coffee is brewed. In the store, even with pour overs, the customer waives this portion of the experience, which is most of the experience. With cupping, you have the slurping process to aspirate the palate and olfactory. It’s not “enjoyable”, per se.

It’s possible to merge these two methods to increase efficiency, mitigate inconsistency, and make the best of the ingredients at hand. It’s certainly something worth experimenting with on more than a single occasion to discover its merits.

Salvatore C.

I work as a barista and I know from first hand experience that a high-volume shop is a perfect testbed for polished immersion. I have held that the ‘slow brew bar’, otherwise known as the pour-over station should be removed from the barista station as it needs a dedicated staff and position to iteself. There will always be the customer, myself included, who will wait for that cup to brew individually. The issue becomes one where, with multitasking, and drink making are meshed together, the pour-over station tends to be relegated to second stage. If polished immersion can fill in where slow brew bars can’t, than perhaps it is worth a go.

Dave

Every roaster in the world base their coffee’s quality from the cupping table and couldn’t disagree more with that first comment: “As George Howell famously said, cupping is the only way to evaluate coffee but it’s not the best way to enjoy coffee.” Coffee is evaluated through cupping (i.e. full immersion) which is by far one of the best ways to extract and taste coffee, but it would NOT be enjoyable to drink 8 ounces of my morning coffee through a cupping bowl and a spoon – that’s just ridiculous! Enjoyment comes from the cup of coffee while reading the morning paper, over breakfast, or whatever people do in the morning. The method isn’t flawed rather full-immersion just has a bad wrap for being gritty without any acidity, etc. If this was the case, why would roasters use this method to evaluate their green coffee, roast profiles, and post-production QC?

Polished Immersion creates a bar flow that is so much faster, creates a better customer service experience since the barista can interact with the customer without worrying about every detail of the pourover, and consistency is king. The cup profile gives the coffee great body, sweetness, even and balanced extraction that is still clean, acidic, and what you want from a pour over but at 10 times the ease.

French Press is the King of full-immersion, but most people don’t realize how much more there is to full-immersion brewing.

I’m sure we will see an emergence of full-immersion brew bars as well as Brewer’s Cup routine’s featuring the Polished Immersion.

Rich Westerfield

I’m chuckling a bit at this as things in coffee certainly do seem to go around full-circle. When we got into the business in 2004, we quickly learned that all the best roasters insisted that standard cupping consistently yielded the best flavor of any brewing method available at that time. Then we went through Clovers, Chemexes, vacuum brewers, Clever drippers, V60s and their many variations, steampunk, overdesigned (and expensive) brewing stands, esoteric methodologies, etc. etc. only to get back to… basically cupping.

I can’t recall the year, maybe 2008 or 09 when Mr. Hoffmann first published about skimming a press pot and how similar the result was to the flavor of a cupping bowl. It’s a method we never used at our shop, but one we did use at our farmers market stand shortly after reading James’ post, using several 64oz presses and some (*gasp*) airpots. It worked like a charm. Wouldn’t win a brewer’s cup, but it was certainly more than close enough for rock n’ roll when the lines started.

Tionico

Hmm..musta missed this piece first time through. Just coming across it today.

I’ve always thought the formal cupping protocol was limited, most of the tme the resulting brew ends up being overextracted. But, the advantage is twofold: a precise and consistent treatment of every coffee, typically to include a standard roast profile; and a brew that extracts practically everything that is available in that bean/roast. I do not much enjoy cupping. I’d far rather just enjoy the coffee…. it is a necessary tedium. That said, now I’ve tasted everything inside that bean, I make my buying decision then go to work on deciding what, amongst all I found in that cup, I want to bring out in my roasting. So it IS a valuable tool.

WHen I first began to play around roasting myself, (air popcorn popper, what else?) my brew method was the french press… it was that method produced the first sip I ever swallowed (everything up to that point got spit out, quickly and finally, and no more of THAT wretched stuff for me, thanks all the same) , and then proceeded to drink the whole cup, delighting in what had for all the decades of my life thus far, been a wretched concoction no sane person would ever voluntarily ingest. That first cup was so “other” I had to figure it out. Since it had been made with a french press, I assumed that was one of the keys. (well and freshly roasted had to be most of the rest). Early on, following the directions with the press, I did not enjoy the coffee overmuch. Then my friend who made that Legendary Cup for me gave me some hints.. throw away the instructions that come witih the press, and do it this way. I did and the difference was stunning. Smooth and rich, not bitter at all. At EXPO early on in my venture, I ponied up the cash to take the Brewing and Extraction class, the early all day version. Morning lecture with samples, afternoon workshop playing with each of the hand brew methods. The science of what happens when water contacts roasted coffee was astounding…. and I suddenly knew WHY the different brew protocol with the french press worked. I have since been through the lecture and lab parts of B&E four more times, as station instructor, and learned new things every time.

My most recent stint at that was Seattle two years back… I happened to draw the french press station.. none of the other SI’s wanted to, I got the impression that french press is so passe and out of favour no one wanted to bother with it. There WAS a wrinkle that year.. for the first time, we were compelled, at the french press station, to change the protocol, and “polish” the brew. I’d seen this on a menu board, had no idea what it was, except that it brought an exrra dollar onto the price tag. Not interested. My standard shop brew is an Americano…. reliable, predicatble the closest thing the shops offered to my home french press. SO I asked the lead “what is polished”, it was described to me and so I agreed, thinking “that’s silly, but alright”. I think it was the third group I had to my station, I explained that we would be polishing the brew, and gave precise instructions. We had eight one litre presses, one to two class members on each one. Coming to the end of the prescribe brew time, two of the crews reported to me “oh, since I’ve never done it before I completely forgot to do the polish, and its already been plunged.What to do? I quickly considered… leave it. We’ll note which two did not get polished, and have everyone sample all the pots, and decide which one they like best. Hah hah, of the dozen at the station, ten preferred one or the other of the ones NOT polished, and we did it blind. Asking specifics, the non-polished brews all had more comolex and balanced flavour, and more body. The others were “thinner” and less satisfying….

My comment: I work hard to put those flavour oils into the bean when I roast the coffee, and I want those oils in my cup, thank you very much. I much prefer a pourover done with the Kone as opposed to a thick paper filter hungry to absorb all my friends, the oils…. I am convinced that going back to the basic chemistry/physics of Brewing and Extraction and rethinking the brew process will result in some significant progress toward a rich, full flavoured brew that has good body, and can bring out much of what we taste at the cupping table, yet without the bitterness. And it can be done simply and quickly with minimum of labour….. I do recall the tedium of polishing those presses at my station…. clumsy, incomplete, time consuming, limiting…..

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