In the couple of decades since North America first started caring about its coffee, espresso has reigned as the king of the brews. If you wanted to make truly great home coffee, you had little choice but to spend upward of $1,000 on a brass-boilered espresso maker and specialty grinder.
But in the last 18 months or so, espresso has lost much of its lustre to cheaper, easier brewing methods that many in the coffee world say can make just as good a drink. High-end coffee shops and java geeks who once lived and died by pressure-brewed beans have rediscovered old-fashioned vacuum siphon pots, French presses, drip brewing (yes, drip!) and even a $30 specialty press-pot of sorts that was invented by the maker of the Aerobie, that Frisbee-like flying orange disc. Used properly, enthusiasts say, these brewers allow home-bound coffee hounds to do the near-impossible: to capture the complex smells and flavours of fresh-roasted coffee beans in liquid form in cup after consistently brilliant cup.
And so, for one progressively caffeine-jacked week, I holed up in my kitchen with a gram scale, a stopwatch, a thermometer, a "precision pour" water kettle, a hand-cranked ceramic burr grinder from Japan, plus five different coffee apparatuses and nearly $100 worth of freshly roasted, single-origin, micro-batch coffee beans that variously promised tastes of praline, orange, caramel, toasted nuts, tropical fruit, earth, cherry pie, citrus fruit, tarragon and crème brûlée.
I admit that I never did taste tarragon. But I did manage to make several of the best coffees of my life.
The first glass vacuum pot was patented in the late 1830s and the method hasn't changed much since. Consisting of a large, lower glass bulb that you fill with water, an upper glass bulb that fits snugly on top of it and a glass siphon that connects the two, it's an excellent party trick. As the water in the lower chamber boils, vapour pressure pushes it up the siphon into the upper compartment, where it mixes with coffee grounds. You stir, then let it steep for a minute, then remove the pot from the heat and the coffee gurgles and floods its way through a filter back into the lower bulb.
The vacuum pot I used, which is made by Bodum, was easily the most entertaining of the brewing methods I tried. Yet there are plenty of downsides: The siphon tubes, made from thin glass, are infinitely breakable, and between the careful heating, the requisite stirring and the precariousness of moving a pair of stacked glass orbs from the burner, the process is about as far as you can get from dump and brew.
After some fiddling, I managed to make a pot of crystal-clear brew that balanced nicely between earthy, caramel low tones and fruity highs. Which is to say that it was better than most of the non-espresso coffee I'd ever had. But getting there took a whole lot of bother. I moved on before too long.
The Not Bad
Since it appeared in Modernist Cuisine last year, there's been a renewed interest in the Toddy, a cold-brewing system first introduced in the 1960s. The chief benefit of the method is its lack of acidity. (Toddy coffee has 67 per cent less acid than regular drip, the company says.) It's simple, too: You dump most of a pound of ground coffee and two litres of cold water into a steeping chamber and then refrigerate it for between 12 and 18 hours. You then pull a cork from the bottom of the chamber and let it slowly filter into a jar, which you can store for two weeks. Whenever you want a cup, you mix the concentrate with boiling water, or cold water if you want to serve it iced. (You can even use cream or alcohol in place of the water, Modernist Cuisine's authors enthused.)
But the lack of acidity is also its weakness: If the goal of brewing coffee is to extract the smells and flavours and complexity of the beans, cold brewing only succeeds half-way. The stuff I made tasted like a liquid Tootsie Roll, with none of the brightness or balance that makes for something great.
Out of a sense of duty to French-press fanatics, I made French-press coffee on a new, semi-automatic Bodum French-press machine that heats the water and then mixes it in the press pot with the grounds. I don't get French-press coffee. No matter how many ways I made it, it tasted like good coffee mixed with coffee sludge.
I had little faith that anything good would come of the AeroPress, a tubular contraption invented in 2005 by the creator of the Aerobie flying ring. The press, which costs around $35 and is made from rubber and (BPA-free) plastic, works a little like an open-bottomed French press: You pour in grounds, add hot water, quickly stir and then press a plunger to push the resulting coffee through a paper or micro-perforated steel filter into a sturdy mug. The system has built a bordering-on-rabid following in the last few years; there's now an annual World AeroPress Championship and high-level coffee dorks are known to pack them when they leave home for more than a couple of hours.
My first attempts weren't particularly successful. If you follow the instructions on the AeroPress packaging, the water starts trickling through the grounds and into your cup before you even press the plunger. But that's what YouTube is for: The site is loaded with videos of AeroPress advocates making coffee. They almost universally operate them upside down, and then carefully flip them over while holding the mug underneath. It's easy to tip the whole thing over, of course (the AeroPress was clearly not designed to be used upside down) and spill half-brewed coffee everywhere. Which I did. Twice. But after a few tries, the coffee I made was fantastic: rich, delicious, notably sweet-tasting and smartly balanced. I plan to keep one, along with a little hand-cranked grinder, at my desk from now on. I may never drink stale cafeteria coffee again.
In the summer of 2010, Hario Glass Company, a Japanese consumer-products firm, introduced the V60 manual pour-over drip filter cone to North America. The product almost instantly transformed drip brewing in the minds of coffee's early-adopting elite. The V60 is not like other manual drip cones: Its ceramic surface is covered with a vortex of raised vertical ridges that allow coffee to escape out a paper filter's sides as well as its bottom. The cone's bottom has a hole as wide as a nickel where the filtered coffee can pass into a cup. Hario's paper filters culminate in a pointed cone, so the water has to pass through a thick bed of grounds before it hits the cup. But the best thing about the V60 is that it allows complete control over the brewing process, particularly when used with a stopwatch, set on a scale and slowly filled with hot water via a precision-pouring kettle.
There's no end of technique required. You need to pre-wet the filter and cone with a litre of near-boiling water to remove any paper filter taste and then measure out between 12 and 18 grams of fresh grounds for a small single cup. Your water should be just below 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and after you've set a mug and the filter cone and the pre-washed filter and the grounds on a gram scale, you need to pour in about 40 grams of 200-degree water and then leave it for 30 seconds to let the CO2 in your freshly roasted grounds bloom.
After that, you pour slowly in concentric, counterclockwise circles from the inside out, never touching the paper filter with the stream of water, and all the while watching your stopwatch as it ticks toward three or four minutes, which is the ideal brewing time. You need to watch the scale, too: It takes about 260 grams of water to make a small cup. All of this, admittedly, is one of the most precious-sounding things I've done in life so far. But, damn the coffee tastes spectacular.
Done properly, drip coffee is rich, satisfying and full of body. It tastes exactly the way great, freshly roasted, fresh-ground beans smell. Depending what beans I was using, it tasted of praline, orange, caramel, toasted nuts, tropical fruit, earth, cherry pie, red wine, citrus fruit and even chocolate-covered blueberry compote, though I didn't find that anywhere in the descriptions on the coffee bags.
Honestly, it did. I swear.