Manual Brewing — The Basics

by laura everage on September 16, 2012 · 1 comment


Jason Dominy of Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters (and member of the Coffee Universe Editorial Advisory Board) gives us a primer in Manual Brewing.

First off, manual brewing (or, hand brewing), refers to brewing coffee without an automatic device. Aside from the boiling of water, it’s all done by hand — manually. Manual brewing has been around for most of the time coffee has been brewed, although it certainly wasn’t as fashionable as it’s been in the past five years. I remember seeing my first Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and how it gave me goosebumps.  Well, brewing with the jebena (a container used to brew coffee) is one of the first manual brewing methods recorded, and to this day, is still practiced by Ethiopians all over the world; and in some homes, sometimes several times a day.

Today, manual brewing is performed with glass, ceramic, or even plastic devices that are made specifically for this style of brewing, and are designed to ensure they brew the best cups of coffee.

Manual brewing devices can be divided up into several categories:

These are the tools of the trade, and each one imparts a different flavored cup of coffee. Manually brewed coffee puts a spotlight on coffees, bringing out the best and the worst of coffees. And for great coffees, it really makes them pop.

Brewing by Hario V60. Andrew Lee Photography

Full immersion brewers are called this because they feature brewing with the grounds steeping in the hot water for a longer period of time. As with the French Press, the grinds are loaded into the device, hot water is added, and after a certain time (4 minutes is the standard), a plunger with a metal filter attached is pushed down, pushing the grounds to the bottom, leaving brewed coffee on the top portion. In the vacuum pot or siphon brewer, there are two glass chambers. The bottom one is filled with water, the top is for the grounds. The bottom portion is heated with either flame or halogen light, causing the water to be forced up through a tube into the second chamber where the grinds are kept. There is a small cloth filter dividing the chambers, and after an immersion time between the grounds and water (with agitation), the heat is removed from the lower portion, causing gravity to pull the brewed coffee back down into the lower portion.

 Brewing by Chemex. Andrew Lee Photography

Pourover brewers work very simply and are similar to the Mr. Coffee-type brewer most homes have. You have a conical or angled device that holds a paper or gold filter, which is where the grounds are added. Hot water is poured over the top. The water and coffee brew in the top chamber as the water works to exit out the bottom of the filter and into a cup. Gravity works its magic, pulling the water through the grounds – and voila, brewed coffee. The ceramic devices, such as the Hario V60, Beehouse, Bonmac, and Kalita, all have different elements on the inside walls,  a different number, shape and sizes of holes in the bottom, which allows for different flow, and results in slightly different flavor for each. These devices are really popular in Japan, and have become a mainstay in a lot of specialty coffee shops around the U.S. The Chemex, a beautiful glass device, sometimes with a wood neck and a leather cord, is another pourover device. It highlights a special, thicker paper filter that supposedly makes a cleaner cup. It allows for a larger amount of coffee to be brewed at each time, and is a popular device in coffee shops as well.

Brewing by Clever Dripper. Andrew Lee Photography

Then you have the hybrid devices. The Clever Dripper, my personal favorite, features a segment of full-immersion brewing, and a segment of the pourover brewing through a paper filter on the tail end of the brewing process. It has a stopper that opens up when the device is placed on top of a cup or server. This hybrid gives you the best of both worlds. I love the depth of a French Press, the nice body it gives a cup of coffee. But, I don’t like the oils, the sediment, the fine particles left behind. Similarly, sometimes I find a regular pourover coffee lacks the depth of a French Press, because the brew time is much shorter, and the water simply passes through with no real immersion time. In my opinion, the Clever solves both challenges with a cup of coffee that has the nice depth of a French Press-brewed coffee, and a clean, sweet balanced taste of a pourover. It is my choice for brewing.

Brewing by AeroPress. Andrew Lee Photography

You also have the AeroPress, a device created by the inventor of the Aerobie Flying Ring you’ve loved to play with at the beach. You know, the fluorescent pink or green ring that flies a mile down the beach. Apparently, the guy is also into coffee, because he invented a pretty good coffee-brewing device. The first time I thought about buying it, I checked it out on Amazon. The unit had over 800 reviews, and was averaging 4.5 stars. Pretty glowing, right? Then I checked it out on Coffee Geek, and the thread on AeroPress was 224 pages long, including a lot of great thoughts by the inventor himself.

The device can be used in several ways, but the way I use it is the way directed in the manual, in which the paper filter is inserted in the bottom filter holder. Grounds (from two scoops of beans) are loaded into the bottom chamber, where hot water is filled. The grounds and water are stirred with the paddle (which is included), specifically  designed not to tear the paper filter while stirring. After approximately ten seconds, the plunger is inserted, and gentle, steady pressure is applied, causing a small pocket of air that forces the water through both the grinds and paper filter. This process is very similar to the way an espresso machine works. From that, I add about 10 ounces of hot water, which gives you something closer to Americano, but the taste is delicious. It is a great device for travel, for camping, hotel rooms, and I even used it on an airplane last year.

Each device has its strengths and weaknesses, each brewing a different cup of coffee – and I don’t believe there is one best way to brew all coffees. On Friday mornings, when I’m in town, I brew coffees for customers at our retail shops, Dancing Goats Coffee Bar in Atlanta. Usually, I brew a different coffee every week, brewed in a different way. I’ve brewed there will all the devices listed, and love the fact that they are so differnt. I’ve come to my thoughts on them from brewing myself, and I think that’s a good way to figure out which is best for you. We have great tutorials on how to use the devices listed on our website.

Originally posted at Jason’s blog.


Let us know which of these devices you best enjoy brewing with — or are tempted to try.



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