When I first started drinking coffee regularly in my mid-twenties while living in Seattle, I was too intimidated by all of the beakers and steaming chrome, Kirby-esque machines at my neighborhood Stumptown to ever ask what an Americano was. I thought I understood the difference between a cappuccino and a latte – in retrospect, I was actually mistaken – but the Americano eluded me. For weeks, I would perch myself within view of the La Marzocco, trying to piece together what was happening to me. Finally, it dawned on me to just Google the darn thing.
In today’s coffee-obsessed world, it’s probably not the drinks themselves that have you scratching your head, but the various methods of preparation that third-wave coffee shops have brought us. We spoke with barista Zachary Scott, serving up Stumptown at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club about the intimidating array of brewers, and what we ought to be making with them. From Chemex to Vietnamese drip, here’s what you need to know.
Praised for its eschewing of electricity – but good luck measuring, grinding and weighing your beans without at least a little bit of an electric assist – Aeropress devices essentially force hot water through finely ground coffee beans at enormous pressure that gravity alone could never achieve. While sure, you’re standard countertop coffee maker will draw the flavor of the grinds into the liquid as water drips down through it, the pressure induced by Aeropress succeeds in extracting noticeably more flavor from the grinds. Think of this device as sort of a Super Soaker of the cafe world, with heat, water and coffee grinds combining in the pressurized chamber to create something far greater than the sum of their parts. Coffees made with Aeropress tend to make distinguishing complex flavor notes far easier, whether those tastes be fruity or chocolatey.
Pro barista tip: Aeropresses draw out some of the complex flavors in the bean well enough to even let those tastes shine through in a milk drink. Iced, milk-heavy coffee drinks work really well with these.
There are no shortage of dripper subvarieties popping up across coffee shops today, but the basic ceramic dripper is perhaps the simplest to use. After placing the v-shaped ceramic vessel atop your cup, simply pour hot water over a filter filled with coffee grinds. As long as the tiny holes in the base of the ceramic brewer are properly sized, gravity and a bit of time will do the rest of the work. What you’re left with is a remarkably balanced cup of java, in which acidity and sweetness are both easily picked up.
Pro barista tip: You can buy a ceramic dripper for as little as $20, making them perfect for one-cup-a-day drinkers. The resulting cup of coffee is remarkably clean, making this a nice alternative to the sometimes gritty filter coffee machines out there.
Both the darling of modern coffee connoisseurs and the butt of the third-wave coffee joke, you’ve likely seen one of your fellow caffeine addicts enjoying the fruits of this delicious – but eye-rolling – production method. Chemex is but one of a larger subgroup of methods that rely on the familiar combination of a filter and gravity to brew a fresh cup. By pouring hot water into a specialty “bonded paper” filter fitted into an hourglass-shaped glass vessel, Chemex production actually draws out impurities and unsavory compounds like cholesterol-boosting cafestol from the coffee. Because of this, Chemex coffee is among the most beneficial you can put into your body.
Chemex brewers are displayed in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and were named one of the best designed products of modern times by the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1958.
Pro barista tip: By filling the bottom chamber of your Chemex with ice beforehand, you can make super simple, super pure iced coffee in a flash that holds its own against some of the best cold brews out there.
Perhaps the most well known brewing method on our list here, the French press is a simple enough gateway brewer into increasingly complicated third-wave production methods. Simply measure out your grinds, and fill the glass cylinder with hot water. After a few minutes of steeping, push the filter down into the base of the column, separating the exhausted grinds from the newly created hot coffee.
On a personal note, I have cracked every French press that I’ve ever dared to own. Though I should also mention that my dear friend and travel companion successfully lugged one of these through a dozen countries around the world for an entire year with her without suffering the same fate. So maybe it’s just me? Regardless, be careful with this brewer, as it is made primarily of glass.
Pro barista tip: After you’ve poured your coffee from the press into your mug and rinsed out the chamber, you can actually make a light milk foam with the same device. Just add warm milk to the press, and then work the plunger up and down for 30 seconds or so. You might not get cappuccino-quality foam, but it’s still a nice trick for those who don’t have a steamer at home.
The only brewing method on our list here that spawned an accompanying dance craze popular at weddings and retirement parties alike, the percolator is just a small stovetop coffee pot designed to trap water vapor and coffee grinds together in a pressurized chamber. Because percolators expose coffee to fairly direct heat, this production method exposes coffee to the highest temperatures on our list. As such, coffee made by percolator is often described as tasting earthy or slightly burnt, owing to the overexposure of the delicate coffee bean to such intense heat.
Pro barista tip: If burnt coffee doesn’t sound great to you, I’m right there with you. Sure, you can make a coffee with a percolator if you need to, but why would you want to?
Also known as a vac pot or siphon, the vacuum coffee brewer dates way back to 1830s Berlin. After 100 years of widespread use, the complicated gadgets fell out of favor as simpler coffee brewers hit the market. But in today’s world where complicated is equated with good (often for good reason, at that), vacuum brewers have experienced a resurgence in many third-wave cafes.
Unlike the majority of coffee brewing methods that generally draw water downward through coffee grinds, vacuum brewers turn gravity on its head, by using heat to force water vapor from a bottom vessel up into a second stacked above. Because only pure water vapor is able to climb upward via evaporation and condensation, vacuum brewers are acclaimed for their ability to brew a remarkably clear cup of joe.
Pro barista tip: Vac pots produce such a pretty, clear cup of coffee, you’d have to be crazy to add anything like milk and sugar. These expensive gadgets are for purists only.
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Try not to get tripped up on the contents of a Vietnamese coffee – which often includes sweetened condensed milk – and focus instead of the production method here. Popular though these metallic coffee cup toppers may be among the first apartment crowd, Vietnamese drip makers are actually notoriously finicky to use, and can easily result in a less than perfect cup. Be sure to meticulously measure your grinds and water, or you’ll end up chewing your coffee, as this maker skips out on the filters used by so many other methods. On the flip side, a Vietnamese drip maker can just as easily brew a cup of iced coffee as a hot one.
Pro barista tip: No surprise here, the best drink you can make with one of these is a Vietnamese coffee. Grab a little sweetened condensed milk from the grocery store next time you’re out, and give it a shot.