What’s true all down the line, however, is that you must start with fresh coffee. Unless of course you enjoy the wet cardboard flavors of beans that have sat on a shelf for months, and if you do, you can probably stop reading here and move straight to the comments, where you can explain that a can of Folgers and a percolator are all you need to start your morning. (To be honest, that’s where I started with coffee, too, so I know where you are.)
To help Farrow — and, by extension, many of us — I spent one morning testing five brewing devices, all using the same coffee: a natural Guatemalan from Vigilante Coffee, an excellent roaster based in Maryland. You could argue that a natural coffee — in which beans are processed with the coffee cherries still intact, absorbing some of the sugars and fruit flavors — isn’t ideal for such a test as mine, but it was the freshest coffee I had in the house. It was just a week off the roast.
Aside from showing the pros and cons of each brewing method, I wanted to offer a glimpse at how each leads to different flavors in the cup. This will always be the case, no matter what beans you have on hand. Brewing devices may work well with some beans but less so with others. Rarely is one ideally suited for all. The goal is to find the device that works best for you most of the time.
For each device, except for the pour-over, I relied on a recipe and method that is publicly available, so that you can refer to it at home (though I’ll confess that one recipe wasn’t worth a hill of beans).
Pros: Small and portable, which is why many of us took it on the road, back when there was a road to travel. Speedy, too: You can have caffeine in your system in just a couple of minutes, which is important on busy mornings.
Cons: Produces only espresso (usually without crema unless you follow specific techniques) or a small cup of coffee. Because of its quick, pressurized process, you typically don’t extract the full range of flavors.
Taste: A rather thin cup. The tropical fruit flavors of the Guatemalan natural were reduced to background notes, though there was a lovely hint of dark chocolate bitterness.
Cleanup: A breeze. Just knock the used filter and grounds in the trash or compost and rinse the three small pieces of equipment.
Stagg X pour-over dripper
Pros: Double-walled and insulated, so it can better maintain a constant temperature throughout brewing. Its compact chamber keeps the grounds tightly packed, giving you more control over brew time and extraction.
Cons: Produces only one cup, which will frequently be too hot to drink at first, a problem for those looking for a quick fix. You need custom paper filters.
Method: Basic 16:1 ratio of water to freshly ground coffee, using 204-degree water. (Note: The water temperature will drop as soon as it hits the room-temperature grounds.)
Taste: Bright and full-bodied, although it took several minutes for the coffee to cool to the point where I could appreciate its flavors. Tart pineapple, ripe mango, a light cinnamon sweetness in the background. The tart fruit lingered on the palate like rock candy.
Cleanup: Simple. Dump the filter and wet grounds straight into the trash or compost. Only one small piece of equipment to clean.
Pros: The custom bonded filters. They produce a sweet and balanced cup with less bitterness and fewer oils than with other pour-over devices. You can brew a few cups at once. The brewer, designed 80 years ago by chemist Peter Schlumbohm, is a thing of beauty.
Cons: The custom bonded filters. They’re not cheap, and they can mute the more complex flavors found in single-origin beans. The glass brewer is fragile. I’ve broken one and live in fear of the next disaster.
Taste: Fruit forward, surprisingly bright. Bitter elements were AWOL, with an almost metallic flavor as the cup cooled.
Cleanup: Easy to dump the filter and grounds, but cleaning the hourglass-shaped brewer can be a pain, requiring a long-handled brush.
Pros: This cross between a French press and a pour-over dripper requires no water-pouring skills and little oversight. Gives you pinpoint control over brew time and has a convenient stopper that allows coffee to drip straight into your favorite mug.
Cons: Unless the beans are ground fairly coarsely, the coffee can be overextracted. The plastic tends to stain after repeated usage. It’s easy to forget about, leading to grounds that steep too long.
Taste: A cup with more floral aromas than the other devices. The fruit and acidity started to pop as the coffee cooled, though I noted a strange astringent aftertaste, like wine with a lot of tannins.
Cleanup: Nothing to it. Dump the filter and grounds in the trash or compost, and rinse the device. Note: It is not dishwasher safe.
Pros: Requires no filters, no water-pouring skills and little oversight. Gives you precise control over brew time. With no filter, oils remain, often making for a full-bodied and flavorful cup.
Cons: Grounds can seep in. The French press wastes a lot of water warming up the glass carafe before steeping. Depending on the size of your press, you may need more than one kettle’s worth of water. As with the Clever, it’s easy to forget about, leading to overextraction.
Method: I trusted Stumptown Coffee’s recipe for a French press, which turned out to be a mistake. The ratio of coffee to water looked off from the start. When I punched the numbers into my calculator, it turned out to be 18 parts water to 1 part coffee. I decided to prepare it a second time with a similar, two-part pouring technique, but with a 13:1 ratio.
Taste: The Stumptown recipe led to a thin and tealike cup. There was some nice, light acidity to the coffee, but I found it underwhelming. The second recipe produced a far better cup: acidic, fruity, sweet, superb on almost every count.
Cleanup: There’s no way around it: It’s messy. Used grounds collect at the bottom of the carafe, and it can be a pain to sweep those cleanly into the trash or compost. The problem is such that people have developed “hacks” to better clean it.