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.

I bought a large version of the pot and found that I really liked its ease of use—and its looks, which call to mind the comforting sturdiness of an English teapot. That’s deliberate, I learned when I talked with George Sowden, the pot’s inventor. Sowden made his name at the avant-garde Milan-based design group Memphis, but when dreaming up the SoftBrew, he told me, he returned to the teapots of his childhood in the north of England.

As soon as I discovered the SoftBrew, I began seeing it everywhere, and by my third sighting I knew I was onto a media-certifiable trend. My coffee friends, though, were skeptical. So I arranged a tasting with the help of the Boston area’s most serious equipment seller, Jaime van Schyndel, of Barismo Coffee. We brought together six low-tech brewers for the event: the SoftBrew; a metal-and-glass French press made by Bistro; an AeroPress, which looks like a vaudeville-size syringe and produces a thick-textured espresso surrogate; the Clever Dripper, a portable filter holder with a closable bottom, which lets you pour and steep as long as you like; the Eva Solo, a Danish hourglass-shaped flagon with a V-shaped metal filter that strains out the grounds and is notable chiefly for its sexy zippered neoprene jacket; and a Hario V60 filter, to be used for the pour-over.

No one brewer emerged as the clear winner. Those with metal filters generated a better body and stronger flavor but let through notable amounts of sediment (an exchange I’ve long been willing to make), with the plain-mesh Eva Solo leaving more sediment than the laser-etched SoftBrew. The AeroPress produced by far the thickest texture, showing why it’s a coffee-insider favorite. Surprisingly, the SoftBrew did the best job of keeping the coffee warm. In the end, what mattered most, for both body and flavor, was not the choice of brewer but attention to the technique, which, just as with my trusty manual drip, required evenly wetting the grounds at the start, letting the coffee bloom before pouring in the full amount of water, and stirring mid-steep.

By the time we did our tasting, I’d already made the SoftBrew a part of my daily life, and none of our results made me want to change that. The SoftBrew held its own when it came to body and flavor, but I suspect that it appeals to many people for simpler reasons: It looks good, it’s easy to use, it’s comfortable to hold, and it keeps coffee warm. Not only that, it’s versatile—it makes the best tea I’ve ever brewed.