The many methods of brewing coffee

The York Daily Record Interview - 2001


What is all the Brewhaha?

Different methods of coffee making make different coffee.
by Melissa Tyrrell - 01/16/2001

Today's coffee pots are boiling over with funky functions to make your life easier.
There are pots that filter water.
Pots that grind your beans. Pots that will automatically brew at a programmed time. But before you buy a machine that guarantees to answer your phone and pick up your dry cleaning, make sure it passes your taste test.

With the coffee renaissance, old and new machines crowd store shelves, catering to different needs and preferences. Each has its own method of brewing coffee and with that comes a different taste. What's yours?

Electric drip: Mr. Coffee made it famous. Since the 1960s, the electric drip machine has become the most popular coffee pot in American homes and restaurants. It's fast and easy. New and improved drip machines come with timers, grinders, filters and thermal carafes. Still, the basic method is the same. The machine pumps water over a heating element, through grounds, through a filter and into a pot. The process has its upside: convenience, no residue in the coffee and medium-bodied flavor. Consumer groups say these are the best machines to buy because they require little cleaning and less preparation. Since many now feature automatic shut-off, they're safer, too.

Consumer Search, a free Internet site - - that reviews watchdogs such as Consumer Reports, lists The Braun Flavor Select as the best machine to buy.

For about $78, this coffee pot will brew coffee in the morning at a programmed time setting. It features an adjustable hot plate, a small batch setting to make less coffee and a "brew strength control" that promises to manipulate how strong the flavor will be.

But coffee gourmets say the convenience and frills such as paper filters, hot plates and tepid water dilute the taste of the brew.

"Paper filters trap all of the sediment, but all of the oil as well," says Alan Hilowitz of Starbucks Coffee. Hot plates seem like a good idea - especially when the machine's heating element fails to warm the water in the first place.

However, hot plates continue to "cook" coffee and turn it bitter faster, says Colin Newell, a network technician at the University of Victoria in Canada and the director of The Coffee Experts Web page. The Internet site at is a clearinghouse for coffee information.

Trendy overnight timers that start to brew as your alarm clock sounds in the morning also dilute flavor by leaving grounds in contact with air overnight.

Newell recommends looking for two traits in an electric drip machine. First, make sure it brews between 7 to 9 minutes - anything else will taste too bitter or too weak. "Accelerated brewing can't be done," Newell says of this new feature on many machines. "It's like trying to watch 100 hours of television in one day."

Second, look for a machine with 750 to 1,100 watts so that the temperature will reach 175F to 180F. Many only reach 160F and produce lukewarm coffee.

While Consumer Search liked fancy machines that grind beans, the guide warned that it's cheaper to buy a good burr grinder for $30 than a machine with a built-in inferior grinder for more than $100.

"Machines with more mechanics are likely to break, and there are compromises in design," Newell says. Newell's rule of thumb is that more hands-on preparation of coffee is better.

French Press - Bodum - Melior

The French press is touted as the purist brewing method. "Nothing stands between the flavor, the oils and the brewing," Hilowitz says. These glass beakers sell for as low as $4 at Giant grocery stores. They require less work than you would imagine, and produce the most flavorful coffee - albeit, strong coffee.

The process requires more work than the electric drip: Fill the bottom of the beaker with a few tablespoons of very coarsely ground coffee. Fill the beaker with water that is 10 seconds removed from a running boil. Stir slightly and let the coffee steep for four minutes.

Slowly, push the grounds down with a plunger of two finely netted screens. A thick, rich coffee soaks up all the oil of the grinds and floats to the top. When officials at the Starbucks roasting plant in York test new blends, this is the process they use. "If you are looking for a lighter brew, and you don't like sediment, this is not the way to go," Hilowitz says. "It's just such a different flavor of coffee."

Stove Top Espresso -

First, it's not really espresso.

But it is good. You probably have seen this Italian gizmo that looks like a metal hourglass.

The stove-top espresso pot is comprised of a lower chamber, a metal filter, a rubber gasket and an upper chamber. The bottom chamber is filled with water. Finely-ground coffee fills the metal filter. A rubber gasket connects the bottom to the top. The whole machine is placed on a stove burner, and the heat forces the water up through the coffee and filter into the top chamber.

When you hear a gurgling sound, you pull the machine off the burner. Voila. The result is a taste stronger than an electric drip brew, but less varied and rich than a French press brew. Newell says you can buy a good model for $30 to $40, and it should last you a lifetime. You may need to replace the rubber gasket every three years. Make sure to buy a stainless steel pot. Corrosive aluminum not only affects the taste of the coffee but can be hazardous to your health.

"It's slightly more intense than drip coffee," Newell says. "It's distinctive. . . . But it's not really espresso."

Espresso machines

Espresso is the art of extracting maximum flavor from coffee with minimum water. Making espresso requires a machine that produces hot water at very high pressures.

Don't expect to buy a satisfactory machine for under $100. And don't expect to buy a really good one for under $200. Factor ing in the cost of materials and time, it's cheaper and more fun to visit a cafe, Hilowitz and Newell say. Cold water brewer

Few people may have heard of such a thing. Cold water brewing? "I try to steer people away from this one," Newell says. It may sound fancy because it's rare, but it has a purpose. Cold water brewers reduce the amount of acid - and unfortunately, some taste - for coffee lovers with sensitive stomachs.

The process is much like the electric drip process without the electricity. A filter is placed on top of a coffee pot, and cold water is poured over the grounds. The mixture sits in the refrigerator for at least 10 hours. Once it has sat long enough, you mix the cold coffee concentrate with hot water. Lechters Housewares sells a cold water coffee maker at the Galleria Mall for $12.99.

Vacuum brewers

Here's another new one.

Starbucks markets this space-age looking contraption for $169. Similar to the stove-top espresso, the figure-8 shaped, glass pot features a nylon filter and a tube that sucks heated water up into a top chamber. Because it's glass, you can see the process - unlike with stove-top espresso machines. Also unlike the metal counterparts, the vacuum machine never reaches a boil, which can ruin the flavor of coffee.

The nylon filter lasts longer and allows oils to mix with the water. Vacuum brewed coffee also is a step lighter in flavor than a French press brew and stronger than an electric drip brew. A little bit of sediment does wash into the coffee.

"It's cool to watch," Hilowitz says.



It may not matter what flavor an electric percolator produces. For those who grew up with the 1950s appliance, the aroma a percolator emits may be reason enough to own one.

Percolators face an iffy future.

Many manufacturers have dropped the model from their product lines because better educated consumers have learned boiling coffee isn't the most flavorful means of brewing.

"Boiling coffee destroys the flavor," Newell says. Percolating produces more of a bitter brew because it keeps extracting and extracting flavor. Percolators simply heat water to high temperatures and run the water over and over the grounds. Most machines put water in contact with grounds only once.

Still, companies such as Farberware, Cuisinart and Melitta are coming up with percolators with frills of their own. They now sport small sizes, timers and cordless models for die-hard percolator fans.

"But there's a gigantic taste difference," Newell insists. "If you're capable of boiling water, a superior method is the French press."

Coffee tips

Opt for an air-tight, double-walled stainless steel travel mug. It will keep coffee warm longer and hold in taste.

Store coffee in an air-tight container in a dark place at room temperature. The oils of coffee will congeal in the refrigerator.

When making coffee, use very clean and cold water for the best taste. About 90 percent of coffee is water.

Clean whichever coffee maker you prefer well. Oils from the grounds turn rancid if left clinging to the walls too long.

Use the right stuff. Proper grinds with the proper machine make a difference. Use coarse grounds with a French press; use medium grounds with an electric drip, percolator, vacuum, stove-top espresso maker and cold water brewer; use fine grounds in an es presso machine or with a cone-shaped electric drip filter.

Transfer any coffee into an insulated pitcher or carafe to protect flavor and temperature from oxygen, light and temperature.

Grind beans yourself if you have the time and means. Coffee stores better in the bean form. Fresh grounds produce a better tasting coffee.

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