Discovery - Hawaiian Coffees and Pour Overs

January 23, 2010

Last week, I volunteered at a booth at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.  The booth belonged to the Hawaii Coffee Association and its purpose was to promote Hawaiian coffees.  Few other booths were dedicated to coffee at the show, consequently, plenty of folks stopped to sample our brews.


As usual, I had a fantastic three days talking about coffee.  Like any teacher, I delight when I see the look of joy and excitement on a consumer’s face when they discover the pleasure of what they’re drinking.  Actually, I think my response may be a bit stronger than most because I’m keenly aware of the often misunderstood quality of Hawaiian coffees.  


Many people think Hawaiian coffees are overpriced, uneventful, or average, at best.  Even if that were true at one point in time (which, I submit, is not the case), it certainly is not a reality today.  True, not all Hawaiian coffees are exemplary but, as with any bell-shaped distribution, there’s a tail represented by a few, remarkable samples.  The diversity and high quality of Hawaiian coffees can rival any other origin on the planet.


What I learned from the Fancy Food Show booth was that people lack the opportunity and experience of discovering Hawaiian coffees.  As W. P. Kinsella wrote, “If you build it, they will come.” (Yes, Field of Dreams is based on a book, folks.)  Not only will they come but they will love it.  


This concept was reiterated to me yesterday when I read Oliver Strand’s “Pour-Over Coffee Drips Into New York” in the NY Times.  Mr. Strand tries to convince us that this trend is popular because of simple and effective equipment (notably the Hario gadgets).  I think he missed the mark.  People aren’t discovering awesome brewers, all of a sudden.


Oddly, Mr. Strand says this early in the article when he says “Basically, pour over isn’t so different from coffee made with a filter cone. Or any sort of drip device, such as Melita or Chemex.”  He is completely correct.  Although, I think he should have included the more common device in his list- the electric drip.  


The brewing method is the same for all these devices- hot water moving through a bed of coffee because of gravity.  It isn’t a new idea.  These gadgets have been around awhile, now.


So, if we’ve been brewing our coffees the same way for awhile now, why the recent buzz about pour overs?  People will likely argue, correctly, that many drip machines don’t do a great job (hardly any actually heat the water to the correct temperature).  This doesn’t really explain why Melitta and Chemex haven’t made big waves by now (heating water isn’t so tough).  If you want to quibble about the physical engineering behind the V60 or other novel pour-overs, fine.  However, it is going to take some significant, scientifically acquired evidence to convince me the difference is all that remarkable.  I also don’t blindly buy into the technique argument- that how and when one pours and stirs magically creates the brew.


Yes, the physical shape of the brewer and the method of pouring are (highly likely) going to play a role in the organoleptic quality of the brew.  I am just not convinced that the difference is incredibly meaningful.  Given the basic brewing rules are followed, things aren’t all that different on the brewing side.


So, what is the important factor in all these great coffee experiences?  The coffee!  The cafes, baristas, and coffee geeks using the pour overs have all discovered awesome coffee.  After all, it isn’t like people are using canned coffees in pour overs.  Rather, they are using the finest coffees this country has ever tasted.  Of course these brews are complex, interesting, and fantastic!  A few degrees of heat or ridges on the brewer is not what is making the organoleptic experience so rewarding.  It is the coffee itself.


In my opinion, both the folks being pleased by Hawaiian coffees and the die-hards being impressed by pour overs are in the same situation.  They are discovering coffee.  Phenomenal coffee.  


The truth is in the cup.  It always is.  You just have to start with coffee worth discovering.






 



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