In 1972 a new machine changed the coffee-drinking world.
Using a simple heat exchanger, Mr. Coffee brought the magic of automatic coffee brewing to the masses. Fast forward to today, and for millions of coffee drinkers autodrip is synonymous with the word “coffee.”
Although there’s no denying the convenience of pushing a button, the problems with entry level autodrip machines are manifold. Most brands don’t heat the water to a proper brewing temperature. The water distribution is poor, leaving deep channels and much of the coffee bed under extracted. Many also make the further mistake of heating the coffee with a hot plate, which increases bitterness.
But a new generation of high-end auto drip machines promise pour-over level control, which raises the question. Do we even need pour-overs?
[Spoiler alert: the guy who invented a pour-over dripper says we do.]
But before we can talk about what differentiates a pour-over from autodrip, we need to discuss what they have in common.
A good cup of autodrip and a good pour-over are both dependent on following the right recipe. This includes using a high quality coffee, a suitable grind size, the correct coffee-to-water ratio, and brewing with water that is to SCA specifications. From a taste perspective, your brew method is secondary to these fundamentals.
But once you nail your recipe, there’s several reasons I still believe a pour-over gives you the highest possible ceiling for quality. These reasons are control, response, and experience.
The most impressive automated coffee brewer I’ve used is the Poursteady. The machine gives the barista complete control over every variable, down to the second and milliliter. But it also costs thousands of dollars. I believe the machine will be best utilized by baristas who have already mastered the fundamentals of manually brewing.
Whether it’s watchmaking, surgery, or tattooing, human beings are capable of developing skills with incredible accuracy and precision. Thankfully brewing a pour-over is much simpler than brain surgery.
To master pour-over brewing, you need to learn to control your flow rate. In my opinion, early stages of the brew might call for a faster gush of water to apply maximum turbulence. Later in the brew I pour more delicately, in an effort to avoid over-extracting the coffee grounds.
Currently, I’m not aware of a consumer coffee brewer that offers this level of control. Most simply heat the water as fast as the heat exchanger allows. Although some machines have better water distribution than others, the user has almost no control over water delivery.
At the end of the day, a machine can only do what it’s been programmed to do. Once you hit the start button you’re locked in.
When I brew a pour-over, for a variety of reasons, I might need to adjust my brew plan in real time when I see how a coffee is responding. That can be as simple as pouring faster or slower, or as drastic as changing my ratio.
This is most likely to happen when I’m brewing a new coffee and I haven’t dialed in the grind size yet, but any seasoned barista will tell you that a coffee might behave differently based on humidity, atmospheric pressure, or a variety of other factors. Manual brewing enables you to respond to whatever Mother Nature throws your way.
Whether it’s is a tea ceremony or wine tasting protocol, scientific studies have shown that rituals aid in our sensory appreciation.
Perhaps this is the culinary version of the “Ikea Effect.” We tend to value things we make for ourselves more than things that are ready-made.
From the first whiff of the bloom that comes wafting through my olfactories, every stage of the brew serves to heighten my anticipation.
In the case of manually brewing a larger batch, I think this experience doesn’t just affect the person brewing. I find when hosting, making a big batch of pour-over to share is a completely different experience than simply putting on a pot of coffee.
Quality or Quantity?
Before we made the Etkin 8-cup Dripper, pour-over vs. auto drip for me was primarily a question of brew volume. But I was often left brewing multiple cups because I wanted multiple servings of coffee without sacrificing control or experience.
There will always be a time and place for the convenience and expediency of autodrip, but, given the choice, I’ll go with a pour-over.