Food March 2014

How to Make a Simple Cup of Coffee

It's subtler business than you might think.
The Food Passionates/Corbis

Today’s coffee-shop owners don’t just place orders for beans. They backpack up the sides of volcanoes in Guatemala and Panama to find previously undiscovered farmers who will grow and process beans to their specifications. And if they’ve paid to trek to Central America, you don’t think they’ll just make you a quick cup, do you?

The current fashion is to make what should be the simplest of brewing techniques—pouring hot water over ground beans to coax out their subtle, delicate flavors—an exercise in endurance. Instead of simply opening a spigot on an urn, a barista will set a filter into a carafe and place it on an electronic scale before adding the coffee, to be sure of the exact ratio of water to grounds. Relying on a timer to ensure a prolonged pour (sometimes up to four minutes), the barista will then use a swan-neck pitcher to ever so slowly drip the right amount of temperature-controlled water into the filter, all while giving you a lecture on the new crop of Borboya Yirgacheffe. The experience seems calibrated to produce maximal annoyance.

I’ve always opted for unplugged, no-think, early-morning ways to brew. That’s why in my book The Joy of Coffee I advocate manual drip, a simple version of what today’s shops call “the pour-over”—and what I call “the agonizing pour-over.” My method involves putting grounds into a metal filter (which lets through more flavor than a paper filter), evenly pouring a small amount of hot water over the grounds to thoroughly wet them, and then letting the flavors “bloom” for 15 to 30 seconds or so before pouring the rest of the water over the wet grounds in a slow but steady stream. Simplicity itself, even if the hot-water-to-grounds ratios for different amounts of brewed coffee that I recommend in the book took weeks to work out.

Given my bent for simplicity in brewing method and equipment, I was delighted when a friend introduced me not long ago to the Sowden SoftBrew. After I first caught sight of it in his sink, he launched into a spontaneous testimonial, telling me that it had halted years of morning skirmishes with his wife about how much coffee to put in their electric brewer, when to start it, and when to turn it off. The SoftBrew looked like a tall white pitcher, and my friend lifted off its lid to show me its secret: a wide, cylindrical metal filter that extended from the top to the bottom of the pot, with laser-etched filter holes so tiny and numerous, they were nearly invisible. It was a high-tech version of the mesh filter I’ve been putting for years into my wide-mouthed teapot, which allows me to pour water over loose leaves and let them steep (the best way to make tea) and then to easily remove them all at once, at just the right time. The SoftBrew makes the same kind of two-step process possible for coffee.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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