The Brews of Our Lives 

Coffee brewing has gotten rather fancy these days. Is it worth all the fuss?

Back in the day, making a good cup of coffee required little more than a paper filter, grinds, water, and the press of a button. But these days, the pursuit of a quality cup seems to demand expensive drip filters, measuring scales, grinders, and fancy water pitchers. Every new cafe seems to have a pricey setup, but it's not just for them — specialty coffee equipment, once only available at high-end cafes and online, can now be found at places like Sur La Table.

Demand for better coffee has become widespread, but it remains intimidating, what with all those particulars that make coffee drinking nowadays so, well, particular. But is all the fuss worth it?

"We do get a little bit fussy about our coffee," said Oakland resident Molly Sims, while enjoying a cappuccino at Pizzaiolo on a recent morning. "There seems to be bigger issues out there in the world than the temperature of the water and the type of grinder that you have. But the results are pretty delightful."

According to Danny Gutierrez, a coffee educator and barista at Highwire Coffee Roasters in Oakland, different brewing methods do change the character of the coffee, and which method you choose depends on your personal preference. Gutierrez compares it to the way a song sounds through different kinds of speakers. "You have different outcomes based on different brewing methods .... Everyone has their preference. There is no one perfect brewing method. It's like at a bar .... There's all kinds of beer, right? Because people have different tastes."

Water temperature, extraction time, the fineness of the grind, and the filtration all play a part in the ultimate taste of a cup of coffee. Filters can cause variation in the level of sediment left in the cup, which changes the mouthfeel, and floral and fruity notes can get lost in the mix in muddier brews. A finely ground coffee will expose more bean to the water than a coarser one, which also can mean a more detailed flavor profile. The temperature of the water and the amount of time the water is exposed to coffee affects the extraction — too hot for too long can over-extract it.

Eric Thoreson of OneNinetySeven, a microroaster based in Oakland, demonstrated these variables for me one day, using one of his blended coffees, the Baird. With a Japanese ceramic dripper called a Bonmac (which is what Blue Bottle uses), it tasted of Hershey's Kisses. With a Chemex, it tasted of apples. "Every once in a while, I'll take a batch of beans and make different cups of coffee using different methods," said Thoreson. "I usually end up liking the Chemex the best."

Of the brewing options out there, the Chemex seems to get the most love. It sits on almost every display shelf in specialty coffee shops around the East Bay, even if the cafe doesn't use it. Invented by an American chemist in the early 1940s, it looks like an hourglass with its top cut off. "You can see it in some scenes in The Godfather," said Thoreson. "It's in the Smithsonian, and the MOMA."

The Chemex requires finesse. When you use a paper filter, the wide opening in the top funnel demands a careful pour, so that the grounds are extracted evenly throughout the brewing basket while still maintaining the correct water temperature — otherwise the grounds can cool too quickly. The pour also has to be well timed so that the water has a good amount of contact with the coffee before it runs through. This may be part of the reason why many specialty coffee shops don't use it on a regular basis.

Berkeley's Local 123 uses the Chemex for the majority of its pour-overs, but with a metal filter called the Kone, instead of Chemex's standard paper filter. Produced by Portland-based company Able, it's a pricey filter ($60), but the newest version makes for a straightforward, easy pour.

Made of surgical steel, so as not to impart any flavor, the Kone has many small holes that allow the natural oils of the coffee to come through, but not the sediment — the fine particles that make a cup of coffee sludgy. It's a quality that some drinkers like, and others eschew.

"For me, a French press is too gritty, I can't appreciate the clarity of the coffee," said Frieda Hoffman, who owns Local 123. "The Kone gives a full mouthfeel while taking away the sediment experience at the same time." The result is a cup that allows lighter, more delicate notes to shine, but with more body than a paper filter might provide.

Another common pour-over method is the v60, which builds upon the design of the Chemex. Alchemy Collective Cafe and Local 123 in Berkeley and Bica Coffeehouse in Oakland use them. "It's basically the glass funnel of a Chemex, but with ridges that keep the filter paper from sticking to the glass," explained Thoreson. "So the water doesn't sit in the coffee the way it can with a Chemex." The ridges allow the water to run more smoothly down the sides of the glass.

The flavor is smooth, too, although it has a tendency to provide a less rich, more light-bodied cup. "Sometimes when you're in a rush, pour-overs can be a bit lackluster," said Kristen Nelson, owner of Modern Coffee in downtown Oakland. In response to this, Modern uses the Clever Dripper. "The Clever ensures that it gets properly extracted."

The Clever Dripper is a Taiwanese-made device that allows the grinds to be immersed in water, such as in a French press. After a certain amount of time, the Clever is placed on top of the cup, which triggers a drain to open at its bottom, so that the brew drips through. You don't have to stand over it, carefully swirling the water with a fancy pitcher. It's as easy to use as a French press.

The Aeropress is another popular newcomer. "In the last six months, I've been hearing a lot about the Aeropress," said Hoffman. American-made and inexpensive at $30 a pop, it looks like a piece of medical equipment — a giant plastic syringe. The coffee grounds are immersed in water, and then a plunger is used to push the brew through a filter. It's incredibly versatile, and can be used to make espresso.

Because it's tough to clean, cafes don't tend to use it. "It doesn't lend itself well to commercial use," said Hoffman. "But I want one for home."

Even with the most carefully chosen brewing method, coffee can be a fickle mistress. A paper filter, a gentle pour, and a Bonmac ceramic dripper could reward you with a clean, milk chocolate-y flavor, one that makes your neural synapses sparkle and snap. But the next day, it may not taste the same.

"You can brew the same cup of coffee, from the same bag of beans, exactly the same way, and it won't taste the same," said Gutierrez. "It's a natural product. Each bean is different."

Editor's Note: The original version of this story erroneously attributed a quote from Eric Thoreson to refer to the Aeropress as being "idiot-proof." He was actually referring to the Clever Dripper. This version has been edited to correct the error.

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