Coffee: Manual Madness


Chasing perfection.

I like coffee.

I’ve been a coffee drinker since college, when I got my hands on a tiny automatic coffee maker that fueled late night study sessions. Since then I’ve brewed coffee a dozen different ways. I’ve brewed French press, and percolator coffee. I’ve fired up a cheap espresso maker and tried to get a good cup out of a Bialetti stovetop machine. I’ve used the Melita, MugMate and Aeropress and I’ve run hundreds of cups through a thrift store Mr. Coffee machine that Cristi and I called “The Coffee Player.”

Thousands of cups. Because, truth be told, my tastes in coffee have always run a little toward the quantity side of the equation. My friend Krome mocked my attachment to the 8 O’Clock Bean back in the ’90’s. These days its Seattle’s Best. “The Beast.”

Yep, I’m a quantity man. Not Foldger’s quantity. I don’t stoop that low. But quantity nonetheless.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my prodigious thirst for coffee had something to do with my high-gravity IPA and red wine consumption. Because, as my hangover frequency has declined this spring, I’ve found myself drinking a little less coffee in the morning. I don’t need as much Java to kickstart my day.

The beauty of needing less coffee is that it changes the economics of caffeination. You see, I wasn’t drinking the Bean or the Beast because I thought it was good. I knew there was better coffee. Thing is, given the volumes of black tar that I was pouring down my gullet, I couldn’t justify spending the money on the good stuff.

Not that I haven’t flirted with good coffee in the past. A couple winters ago we had a stucco job over in the Monroe St neighborhood near one of the Colectivo Coffee locations. Colectivo is a roaster out of Milwaukee (formerly Alterra) and they roast some outstanding beans. Cold weather and frequent coffee breaks got me hooked on their brewed coffee. For a couple months after that job I ran Colectivo beans through my Aeropress and drank some truly good cups (Blue Heeler is a favorite). But after a while, my natural parsimonious-ness got the better of me and I went back to the Beast.

The Aeropress brews a damned good cup of coffee.

Like many of us, Cristi and I have been at home for the last month-and-a-half. I think we’re all looking for projects and new things to learn these days. I decided I was going to learn about coffee.

Starting with how to do a better job of brewing it.

I’m an Aeropress fan from way back, but most of the coffee Cristi and I brewed on the road last summer went through a pour over dripper. First a Melita and more recently a Bialetti. Somewhere on the Oregon Coast I left my old Melita dripper sitting on the bumper of the truck after a wayside brew up. It went flying off into the weeds, never to be seen again. That night I searched for a replacement at the Fred Meijer in Tillamook, WA. What I found was the Bialetti.

The Bialetti was a little different than the Melita. It had a bigger hole in the center and required folding the standard Melita filter into a cone, but it did the trick. As a bonus it didn’t seem to clog as quickly as the Melita, so we got a quicker cup.

The Bialetti pour over dripper with a folded #4 Melita cone. Folding the cone this way works OK in the Bialetti, but reduces the flow rate too much in the Hario V60.

Fast forward to today. Hunkered down on Tybee I decided to try my hand at brewing a better cup with the Bialetti. Armed with a bag of whole bean coffee and a blade grinder from Goodwill, I went to work.

It didn’t take long to improve the quality of my morning cup. Fresh ground beans and a slow pour delivered the goods. It was a start. Something started percolating.

I went to the interwebs. Here’s what I learned…

Manual Brewing
First of all, I discovered that there is a name for making coffee the way I make it. Manual Brewing. That certainly sounds sophisticated. Artisanal. Crafty.

As with all artisanal and crafty things, it looks like there is no depth to the waters you can plumb once you start brewing manually. You can change beans, but you can also adjust grind, water temperature and brewing time. You can filter your water and pour from a special kettle. And there are LOTS of different devices you can use to brew.

Despite the fact that coffee is made up of just two things (water and beans) there are a remarkable number of levers you can pull to adjust the outcome in your cup.

The two that seems most critical to me at this stage in my learning process are measuring the quantity of coffee and water precisely, and matching the grind of your beans to the device you’re using.

Manual brewing gear: Hario Mini Slim Plus hand grinder. Hario V60 dripper. Jennings CJ-4000 scale.

Coffee Gear
For years, I’ve used pre-ground coffee in my Aeropress. When I started my dive into better brewing I began grinding whole beans with a cheap blade grinder. I used these grounds in both the Aeropress and the Bialetti dripper with pretty decent results.

My research convinced me that it made sense to measure these grounds carefully each time so I could better replicate the results I got for a given cup. I settled in on using two scoops from the Aeropress (a little over 2 Tbs each scoop) when I brewed in my big double-walled titanium mug. Two scoops seemed to work well in both the Aeropress and the dripper. I was getting more consistent cups. So far, so good.

At this point, I decided I needed some equipment.

Specifically, a better grinder. As it turns out, a blade grinder does a decent job of blasting beans into powder, but it doesn’t allow for a consistent coarser grind. I was learning that my dripper would run better with a medium/fine grind (about the texture of fine sea salt) while the Aeropress prefers a fine grind (sugar crystals). If I was going to experiment with this I would need a burr grinder.

Electric burr grinders are expensive, but there are some modestly priced manual burr grinders out there. After a bit of searching I ended up on the Prima Coffee website comparing manual grinders from a company called Hario.

Hario is a Japanese glass maker that’s famous for coffee gear. I’ve got a soft spot for Japanese design (Snow Peak stoves, tenkara fly rods, Yo-Zuri crankbaits) so it’s not surprising that I gravitated to the Hario stuff. I selected a small hand grinder called the Mini Slim Plus that has a plastic body and ceramic burrs. I also ordered a Hario V60 pour over dripper (supposedly the ultimate in manual brewing) and a Jennings CJ4000 electronic scale.

The Jennings CJ-4000 runs on batteries or AC and measures in .5 gram increments.

Yep. A scale. I was all-in. I decided that the Aeropress scoop wasn’t going to cut it when it came to consistency. I wanted to be able to precisely control the ratio of coffee to water in every cup. And to do that, I would need a scale.

The best coffee is brewed at a ratio of water to grounds between 15:1 and 17:1. Personal preference will vary, but most people find a cup brewed in this range to be superior. Without weighing my ingredients, I really had no idea what ratio I was ending up with. I might be getting a cup I liked, but it wouldn’t be able to duplicate it consistently without measurement. And that measurement had to be weight.

Turns out you can’t really measure coffee ingredients by volume. You can try, but you’ll end up with inconsistent results. On reason is that its a hassle to figure out the correct volume measurements to create the optimum ratio of bean to water. The other is that the beans themselves vary so much that measuring by the scoop will give you wildly different results if you switch from one roast to another.

Different coffee beans have different densities. Mostly based on the roast. Darker roasts are less dense. Lighter roasts denser. If you switch from a dark roast to a lighter roast and leave everything the same, you’ll end up with a much stronger cup of coffee.

As soon as I learned this, I started to suspect that my preference for darker roasts had more to do with over-dosing my brewing equipment than it did with the flavor of the beans. Brewing by weight would let me try lighter roasts again to see if I enjoyed them when they were brewed to the optimum ratio.

A perfect introduction to manual brewing.

The Book
As I waited for my coffee gear to arrive I started in on Craft Coffee by Jessica Easto. This is a great book and I definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested in playing around with manual coffee brewing.

Craft Coffee is packed full of information presented in a fun, humorous style. Easto takes the reader through the basics of coffee brewing and the essential equipment for making a manual cup. Then she dives deep into coffee varietals, growing regions and flavor profiles. The end of the book is a section that explores specific recipes for brewing with 10 different devices.

One of the most useful parts of the book is a small chart near the beginning that shows the reader how many pieces of extra brewing equipment they’re likely to need depending on the manual brewing method they choose. If you start with the chart you can decide ahead of time how deep you want to dive. Some manual methods just call for a brewer and a grinder. For others you’ll need to add a scale and maybe a specialty pouring kettle.

I was hoping to avoid the kettle.

Weighing the beans.

Brewing Up
The little Hario grinder cranks through the beans like a champ. I put the kettle on, measure the beans and start grinding. By the time the water is at a boil, my grounds are ready.

The grind is adjusted with a small dial under the burr set. A spring holds the knob in place and helps give it a positive “click” as you tighten or loosen the mill. I’m currently running the Mini Slim at 12 clicks open from fully closed. This gives me a medium/fine grind.

This grind seems perfect for the V60, but it doesn’t work with the Aeropress. The grind needs to be matched to the brewer and that has to do with how long the coffee will be in contact with the brew water. With the Aeropress, the contact time is much shorter so you don’t get the right level of extraction with a coarser grind. You’ve got to click it down tighter.

With the grind set, it’s time to measure out the beans.

The grinder goes on the scale, I push the tare button and fill the hopper at the top. If I’m brewing the big titan cup I run 30 grams through the mill. That’s about the maximum the ground coffee receptacle will hold.

The adjustment knob on the Mini Slim. 12 clicks open gives me a medium/fine grind.

To brew, my cup goes on the scale. The dripper goes on the cup. A paper cone goes in the dripper. I wet the cone with hot water from the kettle to remove any papery taste. Discard the water. Dripper back on the cup. In go the grounds.

Push the tare button. Shake the dripper a bit to level the grounds and press a small indentation into the middle of the grounds with a finger.

On to the bloom.

The bloom involves wetting the grounds slightly so they can release a bit of carbon dioxide. The idea is to pour just enough water to wet the grounds without pouring through into the cup. In practice this ends up being about twice as much water as grounds by weight.

Blooming the grounds improves flavor by eliminating the bittering effect of CO2. It also helps improve extraction during the brew.

After adding water for the bloom, you wait 30-45 seconds before making your first pour.

The interwebs and Craft Coffee warned me that it was going to be tough to get a steady pour into the V60 with a conventional kettle, but being a something of a cheapskate by nature I set out to try.

Results were mixed.

The Kettle
I spent a week trying to make a delicate pour into the V60 before I broke down and ordered a kettle. I just couldn’t make it work. The water came bubbling out of the kettle in a ragged stream no matter how carefully I tried to steady my hand. The result was a churning of the coffee grounds in the dripper and an imperfect measure of water to grounds. The longer I tried to perfect my pour the more convinced I was that I should just get on with it and buy a friggin gooseneck kettle.

Back on the Prima site I selected a 1.2L Hario V60 Buono Kettle. There were several other options on the site including an inexpensive kettle from Bonavita and a nice kettle from Fellow Staag with an integrated thermometer. I went with the Hario because I liked it’s aesthetics, it was available in a larger 1.2L size and it was made in Japan, rather than China.

I think I’ve had enough from China right about now. I’m trying to cut back.

Hario V60 Buono pouring kettle. 1.2 Liters.

The Buono makes it easy to gently pour water onto the grounds without disturbing the filter bed. The small diameter gooseneck spout precisely directs water right where you want it. You can control your water ratio precisely to the gram.

Adding a gooseneck kettle was the final key to unlocking pour over coffee. I’ve got my pour down and I’m dialing in my ratios. At this point I’m brewing at a 16:1 ratio which is 30 grams of coffee to 480 grams water in the big titanium mug and 22 grams to 350 in the smaller 10 ounce Yeti Lowball that we use in the truck. This seems to hit the sweet spot for boldness and flavor with the roasts I’m currently using.

I did have to practice a bit before I hit on a pouring technique that I like. There are two ways to go. Either try to pour the water into the coffee in one, continuous stream, or use several smaller pours or steps.

So far, this step pouring method is my favorite technique for brewing with the V60. It gives me consistently good results and it’s easier than making a continuous pour.

How Much does it Cost?
All this seems like a lot of equipment for a guy to buy just to brew a cup of coffee. What’s parsimonious about that? How much does all this stuff cost?

If you shop carefully you can easily put together a serious manual brewing kit for around a hundred bucks. Less if you choose a method like the Aeropress that doesn’t require as much equipment. Maybe that’s expensive.

I guess it’s all about how you value things. All my fancy coffee gear cost less than a good pair of running shoes. And when you consider that a lot of Keurig single cup coffee machines go for close to $200 (and make terrible coffee) I would say that my investment in manual brewing equipment was pretty thrifty.

On top of this, I’m brewing the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

Chasing Perfection
A long time ago I read a quote from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard about his philosophy of design. For Chouinard, perfection doesn’t entail adding features to a garment. Perfection is achieved when you’ve taken away everything unnecessary and are left with only what you need. Nothing more.

Perfection is about simplicity.

To that, I think we can add technique.

When you remove technology and gadgetry you need to replace it with technique. This is true whether you’re talking about ultralight backpacking or manual coffee brewing. Simpler tools call for more advanced technique.

Perfection is achieved when the tools have become as simple as possible and the technique has advanced to the point of exceptional results.

There’s a good chance that perfection is unreachable. Striving for perfection is the key. The process is virtuous. There’s something immensely satisfying in cutting away superfluous tech and building personal skills until you’ve achieved a level of mastery. We can all use a few things like this in our lives, to keep us learning and growing.

If you like coffee, manual brewing is a good place to start.

Speaking of manual brewing. Here’s my favorite, inappropriate Aeropress instructional video.

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5 thoughts on “Coffee: Manual Madness

  1. Brewed Journey

    Great post. I think you are ready to home roast green coffee beans. It’s the only way to control the freshness of the beans. There is no fresh ground coffee unless the beans are fresh too. Very few commercial roasters care about “roasted on dates.” It all starts with the beans. One of the easiest ways to roast a pound per week is with a bread machine and a heat gun. Lots of YouTube videos showing how.

    Love Hario products. All about quality.

    1. Thanks! Roasting is on my radar for sure.

      My friend Larry is a big fan of home roasting. He uses a Jiffy Pop on a Coleman 2-burner stove. Gave me a tutorial a long time ago.

      Another skill to learn…

  2. Krome

    I’m just gonna get out in front behind this and let you know I had to scroll for about five minutes to get down here to make sure you remember how you thought the $.28 more for gunney sack of hazelnut 8oclock bean was highway robbery compared to the regular roast. (Floor sweepings from an actual coffee facility) you cheap bastard. Probably took 10 years of your life and 2.5 inches of hairline.
    But we all tried to warn you!

  3. Lots of good intel here, and I do not judge. I have been a coffee snob so long that I quit, came out of retirement, quit, and picked up “good” coffee again as I revisited my early days, to fuel the writing my coffee novel. One thing I learned is that, no matter what you drink and use to make it, all coffee drinks come down to preference. Carry on!

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