To Credit The Pour-over
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Recently I seem to be reading more and more criticisms of the "by the cup", one-off style of brewing that's making waves in cafes. Now, there are a lot of valid points out there, ranging from poor brews to the amount of time spent, as well as a sense of alienation that can be bestowed upon an inquisitive customer by a cold barista. Still, as a consumer, I have to rebuke some calls for the elimination of pour-over as a primary brew system (go back to batch brewing, perfect that instead?), and lay down my own thoughts from my side of the counter.
First of all, let's lay down some of the virtues and shortcomings of both. Pour-over is en vogue, with a variety of slick brewing devices, fancy kettles, and voodoo techniques. There's a bit of theater to the brew, which is made especially for you, to order, and that adds a bit of value. The downside? It takes more time, as it's not always-there convenience, but some may argue the taste is better becasue a barista can really dial in a brew, it's absolutely fresh when you get it, and there's often more variety. Still, not everybody wants the four-minute-refill, and baristas can equally botch cup after cup after cup. Further, because some of the equipment cafes use for pour-over, expensive Japanese kettles included, seem so unique and foreign to consumers, it often appears less approachable than the commercial Fetco-style brew towers. The latter, at least, functions much like your auto drip brewer at home. Still, with a competent and well-trained barista, a patient customer base, and a good product, the cup is often worth the wait. Especially if the barista is talkative during the process (this also helps break down that "What the hell is he doing back there?" wall).
Batch brewing, on the other hand, is often lauded for overall efficiency both in brewing and in customer service. Three gallons of coffee (or less, I'm just going with a fairly common model) that all tastes the same, all done at once, ready to pour off into cups. It's a tremendous help for the morning rush, and perfect for the refill junkies. However, automated brewing can cause its own problems, including spray pattern influencing overall extraction. More finely-tuned machines can overcome that problem, but then you get into larger equipment costs. Further, maintenance of these machines is integral to performance, and can, with some models, get expensive. The convenience of always-ready brew can trump quality, but I think the worst offense of batch brewing is freshness. Note that above, I stated all the coffee tasted the same. Well, that's true, but only for about 20-30 minutes, at which point the coffee can taste quite a bit different from that very first cup. If consistency is a valuable quality of coffee, neither pour-over nor batch brewing really take the gold. Only during a rush does a batch brewer really pull through with a consistent cup. Otherwise, cooling and loss of aromatics really deteriorte the flavors.
So, automated or manual? I don't have a favorite either way, as I've had terrible and terrific cups via both methods. They both have drawbacks, obviously, but the pour-over is getting a bit of a bad rap, as some call it a tired fad. I disagree. I enjoy engaging with my barista about what their brew process is (after all, it's rare to find somebody brewing just like you do), as well as being assured that my cup is just as fresh as it would be at home. Plus, while the equipment may seem unfamilar at first, being able to see and ask about the process may allow more novices to start making better coffee at home. The mysteries of the Bunn brewhead cover that up quite a bit, and considering the poor state of auto drip brewers, perhaps steering consumers away from auto drip isn't such a bad way to go. Still, not everybody has time to squeeze in 10 minutes of setup, brewing, and cleanup for one cup of coffee. It can't be for everybody - and that's the point here. Not thinking it's the best thing doesn't mean it's not useful. Neither method is perfect, so you have to take the good with the bad either way.
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