We Were Wrong to Give Up on Pour-Over Coffee
It’s the perfect meditation for our time.
I don’t pray anymore. But some mornings, I still make pour-over coffee. Those seven or eight minutes are as close to sacred meditation as it gets for me. I know that pour-over coffee seems like one of those passé affects of the last decade. Like many others, I now own a push-button coffee machine that uses pods, a more instant form of gratification.
But I limped into the last few months of 2019, unmoored, seeking some sort of practice or ritual to help make sense of what felt like a lost year, or maybe a succession of lost years. I knew things were bad when, in late autumn, I’d unironically downloaded and begun consulting an astrology app. One morning in late December, the astrology app told me: “Pay close attention to everything.” So I decided to skip the Nespresso and go back to pour-over coffee.
I always follow the same steps: I fill the gooseneck Japanese kettle with water — from the Brita and not the tap — and set it on the burner. As the water boils, I decide whether to use my single-cup ceramic Hario v60 coffee dripper, from Japan, or my full-sized Chemex, the classic midcentury glass pot, essentially a tricked-out Erlenmeyer flask that reminds me of high-school chemistry lab (its design is included in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection). Because I drink anywhere from 4 to 7 cups of coffee per day, I generally opt for the Chemex.
I pour fresh whole coffee beans into my burr grinder, the one I bought years ago because some expert said it was the best. I always grind the beans to “a coarseness resembling sea salt,” because I once read on the Blue Bottle Coffee website that this is ideal. If I’m feeling particularly ascetic and devout, I may even grind the coffee manually in my Japanese hand grinder, turning the crank clockwise more than 75 times. As the water nears a boil, I unfold a thick, square paper filter into a cone and place it into the Chemex’s funnel. I rinse a little hot water from a gooseneck kettle to dampen the filter (to “free it from any debris,” as I’ve read) and then dump the water into the sink. I fill the paper cone with the sea-salt-resembling grounds.
When it’s time to actually pour the pour-over, I douse the central core of the grounds, waiting a minute or two to allow a puffy bubble to form, as streaks of brown stain the sides of the filter. This is called the “bloom.” I then add another small amount of water into the cone and wait for the liquid to strain through. Then I add some more, then some more, listening to the coffee slowly stream into the bowl of the Chemex, filling it up to the tiny belly-button-like knob. Before I finally pour myself the finished coffee, I always rinse my mug with hot water to warm it.
Yes, in so many ways, the pour-over is a ridiculous process for making coffee. Most people I know have ditched their Harios and Chemexes for the convenience of Nespresso or Keurig machines, which take a fraction of the time. (“How to Hack a Keurig” was one of the most-read pieces on Heated last year.) Yet maybe even Nespresso and Keurig aren’t fast enough. Food & Wine recently sung the praises of a new wave of instant coffee: “We’re loving being able to enjoy a high-quality ethically sourced cup on a busy travel day, camping trip, or one of those weekday mornings when the ritual of grinding beans to filter through a Chemex is just too much to tackle.” They even did a taste test and “found nine options that are sure to challenge your pre-existing notions about instant coffee.”
Perhaps this is just how the coffee revolution — the one that freed us from Folger’s and Sanka three decades ago — was always destined to end, coming full circle back to instant.
I wonder what the legacy of the 2010s pour-over coffee fad will ultimately be. Five or six years ago, it was the hottest thing going, fundamental to coffee’s so-called Third Wave. As 2019 culminated in all of those end-of-decade reminiscences on cultural trends of the past ten years, I was surprised to find nary a mention of pour-over coffee.
But I guess I shouldn’t have been. Trendspotters have been declaring pour-over over since at least the beginning of 2018. “Can We Talk Seriously About the Obsolescence of Pourovers?” the trade site Daily Coffee News asked. More bluntly, Eater asked: “Do People Even Want Pour-Over Coffee Anymore?” The answer: “RIP pour-over coffee.” Those two pieces were in reaction to a Wall Street Journal takedown of pour-over coffee. In that article, the CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee was quoted, saying, “We realized that a lot of customers loved getting a cup brewed for them. But in today’s day and age they’re not willing to wait five to seven minutes to get it.” A coffee shop owner in Los Angeles told the WSJ that robots and machines were “better than distracted humans” at coffee making.
Only the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, James Freeman, seemed to swim against the tide, telling the WSJ he’d only switch to large-batch brewing machines “when hell freezes over and there is a skating party,” which makes sense because it was Blue Bottle that first popularized in the U.S. what until then had been a Japanese method. “They’re going for a mastery of technique,” Freeman told The New York Times Magazine in 2011, one of the first mainstream articles on pour-over coffee. “It adds up to an incredibly elusive experience. It’s hard to manufacture splendidness.”
Yet even the writer of that piece, Oliver Strand — who was the Times’ coffee columnist and the author of a book on coffee — was skeptical. “To be frank, it’s not for everybody,” Strand wrote. “Some will enjoy the ritual. But others will always consider coffee a convenience … I have no doubt that countless pouring kettles and slow drippers will be used three or four times, then boxed up and put on a high shelf, the fondue sets of our day.”
My Chemex and Hario have yet to be boxed up. I’d been an early adopter of the pour-over. In the mid-2010s, I lived almost solely on pour-over coffee while I was writing a book that took years to finish. When I was racing to beat the final deadline, I’d stay up writing into the wee hours, often sleeping in my office in Philadelphia. A few hours later, I’d wander bleary-eyed over to a place called Rival Bros. to drink pour-over coffee and edit the garbage I had written the night before.
Rival Bros. was one of the first places in my neighborhood to focus on single-origin coffees that were lightly roasted. The guys who worked there told me that the darker roasts my generation enjoyed — which they called “Charbucks” — ruined the “origin distinctiveness” of the coffee beans. It was sort of like a wine with too much oak aging, also out of fashion. A new generation of coffee cognoscenti told us that light roast, barely a shade of tan, is what best showcases the “distinct origin” of a coffee. They told us that we want bright, fruity, floral flavors from our coffee. We want lightly roasted beans from a single origin.
When I rediscovered the joys of pour-over during the holidays, I realized how long it had actually been since I’d bought a light-roast, single-origin coffee. On New Year’s Day, my astrology app told me, “Get rid of something today,” and so I ground the last of some old Peet’s Coffee. This was Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend, about as basic a coffee as you can find — there are pods of Major Dickason at the supermarket for your Keurig. Major Dickason is an unhip and decidedly old-school blend, created in 1969 by a retired army officer, a loyal customer of the original Peet’s store in Berkeley. Like Starbucks’ Pike Place, it’s one of those blends that’s been around for as long as I’ve been drinking coffee. Major Dickason is not bright and fruity and floral. It’s full-bodied, earthy, and bitter.
As I went through the pour-over ritual with Major Dickason, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic, not just for pour-over, but also for an earlier era of coffee connoisseurship: In particular, the mid- to late 1990s, the zenith of America’s first red-hot love affair with fancy coffee and its accouterments.
That time also happened to be the zenith for a certain genre of niche, connoisseur magazine. During those years, I wrote for, and later became the editor of, a magazine called Coffee Journal that covered what it termed the “Coffee & Tea Lifestyle.” The magazine dutifully tasted and compared coffee roasts, reviewed the newest espresso machines and grinders, provided biscotti recipes, and profiled cafes all over the world. Travel was a major part of this so-called “Coffee & Tea Lifestyle,” and I wrote stories about visiting coffee farms in Nicaragua and Haiti, as well as an article titled “The Best Coffeehouses Coast to Coast.” By the time I took the reins, the magazine’s demise was imminent. America’s first love affair with gourmet coffee — much like its recent fascination with pour-over — had cooled considerably.
Following an argument with the publisher over whether our next issue’s cover would be a photo of a coffee mug with doughnuts, or simply a photo of a solitary coffee mug, I decided to assign myself a travel story on the coffeehouse culture of Helsinki. The clever Coffee Journal angle, I am embarrassed to admit, went as follows: Nine cups of coffee was what the average Finn drank each day, the highest per capita consumption in the world. With that statistic as my cue, I planned to sit in Helsinki’s finest cafes and drink nine cups of coffee each day, just like the Finns, and write about it. It was the type of story one writes for a connoisseur magazine that has long ago exhausted its niche. I made my reservations, and two days later, Coffee Journal ceased publication. I was now unemployed and not being reimbursed for this plane ticket, but I decided to fly to Helsinki anyway.
When my Chemex full of Major Dickason was finally finished, and I’d rinsed my mug with hot water, then poured the first cup, I remembered that I still had copies Coffee Journal from the late 1990s boxed away somewhere. With my pour-over coffee in tow, I rummaged around in a storage closet and found them in a dusty corner.
Paging through those old print issues made me think of my late 20s, of the ends of decades, of the vicious cycle of trends, of how worried I was that I had made bad decisions, of loneliness and of melancholy, of the precariousness of work and love and life. All the things I’d been feeling at the end of 2019. Looking at my old articles about coffee on New Year’s Day, I feared that I’ve not evolved very much in two decades.
Maybe this sort of reflection and checking in with myself is the blessing and the curse of taking the time to make pour-over coffee. If I’d just popped a pod into the Nespresso and pressed a button, I’d have quickly moved on with the rest of my day without much thought. Making pour-over coffee is a daily reminder that everything is always a work in progress.