Pourover Lesson in Taoyuan

When Joan Obra at Rusty’s Hawaiian saw me try to make coffee using my Cafflano portable coffee brewing device, she knew I needed a lesson: the grind was too coarse and therefore the extraction time was too short, resulting in woefully underextracted coffee. (If only she had seen my previous attempts, in which I completely miscalculated the water to coffee ratio…)

As it happens, my first stop after Hawaii was Taipei, where Joan knows a coffee importer named Simon Hsieh who has top-notch technique. She put me in touch with Simon, who was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and show me around his climate-controlled warehouse in a super-secret location. Although I can’t disclose the location, I can say that the warehouse is near the airport, apparently because while many of Simon’s beans come in by sea, some of his best stuff is too good to risk losing to Somali pirates so it comes by plane. (Yes, really.)

Simon gave me a lesson in pourover technique, preparing the same freshly roasted Ethiopian Queen of Sheba natural-processed Ethiopian by pourover and then immersion. Because the coffee was only one day off roast, the immersion brewing really brought out the sweetness in the coffee. (If you’re in Taipei and want to try it, Simple Kaffa has the coffee on their menu, where they prepare it with a different immersion technique called the Clever.)

In case you’re wondering what I mean by pourover and immersion coffee, here’s a brief explanation. Immersion coffee works like a French press, where you steep coffee grinds in water and then filter them out. Pourover, by contrast, involves pouring water on top of coffee grinds and having the water pass through a filter. When coffee shops in the U.S. offer pourover coffee, they usually also mean to distinguish it from the “batch brew,” which is a similar method of brewing but in a bigger pot.  Like espresso, pourover is made on demand for each new order, but unlike espresso it takes more time. Whereas an espresso shot takes about 30 seconds from the time a barista pulls a switch to the time 9 bars of pressure squeeze the good stuff out of a little puck of coffee, pourover coffee takes between 2 and 4 minutes to produce a cup. For that reason and it because it’s usually using better beans, it costs more.

Now you might think, as I naively did, that there is not a lot of variety in how you pour water onto coffee in a filter, that if you’re pouring water onto coffee, the rate at which you do so or the shape of the grinds in the filter, or the pattern in which you pour, has little effect on the flavors that come out in the cup. It turns out that most people who work in coffee would think you’re wrong.

Simon has perfected a particular pourover technique that gives him a good extraction in 2 minutes. When I say “perfected,” I mean just that. He has stared at boiling water enough times that he can tell the temperature of it by the size of the bubbles. And while conventional wisdom would suggest that the grinder is the most important piece of machinery, he eschews the Porlexes sold in trendy coffee shops, which don’t have markings for the grind settings, and prefers to spend his equipment money on a kettle that gives him as much control over the stream of water as possible.

Here are the key principles I took away from my lesson:

  • The coffee should be wet first. I unfortunately didn’t write down whether Simon believes in the 20% rule (20% of the water), or the twice-the-weight rule (twice the weight of the coffee). I suspect he doesn’t think it makes a big difference.
  • The grind does not need to be as fine as most people recommend, but it should be adjusted based on the coffee and the pour so that the brewing time comes out right. (For Simon’s method, 2 minutes).
  • Lighter roasts need higher brewing temperatures.
  • The particular technique for pouring doesn’t matter too much, so long as it provides an even extraction. You can do this in concentric circles or in zig-zags, as long as you’re getting the same amount of water on each part of the coffee and controlling the agitation in the filter.
  • Depending on the shape of your filter, you should take care not to let water touch the edges of it, because it will break the crust that the coffee forms when you wet it initially.

He also gave me two pointers about tasting coffee, which I’ve been better at sticking to than I have his pouring pointers:

  • Smell the coffee around 70 degrees Celsius. When it’s too hot, you will have a hard time smelling the flavor aromas in the coffee.
  • Taste the coffee below 50 degrees Celsius. Body temperature is 37, so you still have plenty of time before the coffee gets cold.

I’ve noticed that with practice, some coffee drinkers can spot differences in coffee at higher temperatures, but I’m not there yet. I still need coffee to cool before I can taste what others taste sooner. That’s because differences are emphasized as a coffee cools. I’ve been told that defects in coffee are more apparent at colder temperatures. And, at the other end of the quality spectrum, I’ve noticed that a truly exceptional coffee can differentiate itself a lot more readily from the merely good coffees as they cool.

I had no kettle where I was staying in Taipei, but I’ve had some time in Australia and New Zealand to practice Simon’s principles with my Cafflano and also using a Kalita Wave dripper that I picked up in Japan. More ways to go, but there’s definite progress. Thanks, Simon!

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