The Best Manual Coffee Brewing Method – Pour Over vs French Press vs Aeropress

Chemex BrewingManual brewing methods are the newest trend in the coffee world. All respectable coffee shops provide at least one type of manual brewing, be it French press, hand drip, or Aeropress. In some households the old reliable French pot has never been missing from the morning routine, no matter what the industry said. The trend with manual brewing in coffee shops is not simply for the show, or to attract customers. Coffee prepared this way is just better. Smells and tastes better than an automatic-drip coffee, or coffee made with a capsule based machine. Sure, you can’t beat their convenience, so for this reason Keurig will reign for many years to come in the convenient coffee niche. Even though a Keurig makes decent coffee, it just can’t compare to a hand drip prepared with freshly roasted beans, and ground on the spot. If you are a person who loves great coffee, and is not afraid to spend a few minutes more in the morning, read on. If you are a convenience above all person, and think that “Bad coffee is better than no coffee”, this article is not for you.

Automatic Drip Coffee vs Manual Brewing

This wouldn’t be a fair comparison if we didn’t mention the ever popular brewing method: the auto-drip. Sure, brewing a pot with an electric drip coffee maker is very convenient. You grind some beans, dump them in the basket, make sure there is water in the tank, and press a button. This magically makes a cup, and you can’t beat that convenience. But the convenience has a price. You are paying a dollar amount on the equipment, and for a great SCAA endorsed coffee maker that price is steep. If you want great coffee, those are the ones to go with. Then there is the flexibility aspect that is going to tax you. A manual brewer is so much more flexible than any coffee maker. Let’s take for example Behmor’s Brazen coffee maker, which is one of my favorites. You can tweak a lot of the brewing parameters, but you can’t tweak the grind size. Grind size can help you adjust coffee’s body. For me that one is essential. I love thick, muddy coffee. Disgusting, I know… Anyway, many people love a coffee with a higher TDS, and this can only be obtained with a manual brewer, because you can grind finer.

On the other hand, the flexibility of manual brewing needs a more complex setup. You need a great coffee grinder, with multiple settings for the grind size. You also need a fancy variable temperature kettle. This allows you to play with the brewing temperature and compensate with lower water temperatures for finer grinds.

French Press Coffee Brewing Method

French Press vs Pour Over
Photo by Christy via Flickr.

As we already mentioned, the good old French press is still one of the most sold coffee makers in the world. We have a tutorial on how to brew with a press pot here, if you need a refresh. Heck, read it anyway, we have many tips and tricks to improve your routine.

The profile of a French press is very close to drip coffee, but with more bite, and more intense aroma and flavor.

Here is what sets it apart from the other ones. The most important differences are:

The screen filter

Because it uses a screen filter, there is always a chance for some grounds to escape in the final cup. The screen cannot be too fine, because you need to apply pressure on it. Too fine and you won’t be able to press it down. For this reason, you need to grind coarser, so that ground coffee doesn’t pass through the filter.

The beaker

Most of the times the pot is made of glass. Because of the thin glass there is no insulation at all. This is why coffee gets cold very fast. To compensate for the lower brewing temperature, we need to increase the brewing time. This is something you can avoid with stainless steel, insulated French presses, if you like them.

Pour Over Coffee – Is It Better?

Pour Over vs French PressPour over is just another way to brew drip coffee. Water passes through the coffee grounds, dissolving soluble solids, and become our prized black beverage. The profile of pour over is similar to French press and auto-drip, but it doesn’t have the bite of French press, and it is more flavorful and tastier than regular drip. Many coffee lovers prefer pour over to both French press and auto drip.

Here are a few technical aspects of pour over, and how they translate into real world coffee making.

The Filter

The pour over method can use any type of filter, paper filters, mesh filters, golden tone screen filters. From this perspective it’s no different than auto drip. You can have a clean cup, even with a bodied coffee. When brewing with a paper filter, you can grind very fine. With very fine grinds the brewing shifts into a hybrid preparation technique, a mix of immersion and drip. Fine grinds will slow down the dripping, allowing a more thorough extraction. You will have to lower the brewing temperature in order to avoid over-extraction.

You can choose from a vast array of filters. Some will allow all the aromatic coffee oils and the fines to pass through, these are the screen filters. Some will filter out almost all the oils, and all of the fines, and give a very clean cup, these are the paper filters. Paper filters can also be selected by thickness and processing. Thicker filters will retain more oils and fines. Bleached filters will be neutral to the final coffee taste, and won’t impart any paper flavor to your cup. Unbleached filters will give a papery taste to you final cup. Stumptown roasters has a great article, where they reveal their experiment with various filters, if you want the details. I did my personal experiments with filters, and I can confirm almost 100% their results. My tests, however, was not done at the same time, and had only one subject: me.

Melitta Ceramic Pour Over Cone

Melitta are the inventor of the paper filter, and they have a great history in the drip coffee scene in general. It would not be a fair review if we didn’t mention them here. Their brewer is different from other cones in a few ways. Firstly is made from porcelain, and is a thick material. Some people complain it’s too heavy, but this helps maintain a constant temperature while pouring. If you don’t like to handle a heavy cone, buy a plastic one.

The cone is designed with a single small hole. This makes the coffee drip slower. In order to compensate for this, you can grind coarser, or lower the brewing temperature. I personally like to grind finer and brew colder. The brewer fits the Melitta paper filters #2,and is designed for a single cup. Number 2 Hario filters fit the cone as well, which makes it really interesting. Hario’s filters are great, there is no aftertaste and they let more oils to pass through.

The Process – How Is Hand Drip Different from Other Manual Brewing Methods?

The brewing process is what sets apart manual from automatic drip. In a manual brewing setup, the barista has the chance to tweak and optimize a few things. Here is how hand drip can be tweaked and how is different from other manual brewing techniques.

You can tweak the brewing temperature to suit your taste

The SCAA brewing standards call for a temperature between 195°F and 205°F for drip. You can brew at the lower temperature range and extend the brewing time. This way you avoid the extraction of the bitter compounds released at higher temperatures, and you allow a full extraction to avoid the sour taste associated with under-extracted coffee.

The grounds saturation is ensured

Using a pour over kettle, you can control your pour to evenly saturate the grounds. You can see immediately if the brewing bed is evenly saturated.

Tweak it to your liking

Some people like the immersion brewing technique, because it can increase the TDS, and give your cup more body. Other immersion brewing methods are French press, syphon, or any other method where grounds are fully immersed in water during brewing. There are brewing cones that have a stopper. You can use the stopper in order to obtain a full immersion, similar to French press, but without the grits and the silt associated. Some of these cones are Clever Dripper and Bonavita Immersion dripper.

By grinding finer, you can also obtain a short immersion, even with a regular drip cone.

The Clever Coffee Dripper – Immersion Coffee Cone

Clever dripper is one of the most sold hand drip cones. It can be used both at home, or in a busy coffee shop, provided that you are using more than one.

Clever is a BPA free, plastic cone, with a special stopper that disengages the second you place it on the cup. This makes it easy to operate it. You place the paper filter, add grounds, and pour coffee. Cover with the included lid, and leave it to steep. When ready place it on the cup, and let it filter.

There are a few cool things about the Clever Dripper, and that’s what makes it so versatile. You can hold the dripper on the mug, and it becomes a regular hand drip cone. You can completely remove the stopper, and you don’t have to worry abut the extra piece for maintenance.

If I were to find it a fault, I would say it’s made of plastic. I am not completely against plastics, especially if they food grade, but many people hate plastics in their kitchen.

Difference between Immersion Drippers and Pour Over Cones

Just to conclude the hand drip section, you will probably want to know which one to buy, the pour over, or the immersion dripper?

Immersion drippers are the best for busy people that don’t need to overcomplicate their barista routine. The technique is very forgiving, very similar to French press. The coffee is also similar to French press, but with paper filters you get a cleaner cup.

Pour over brewing requires a pour-over kettle. You need to exercise your hand at pouring water over the brewing bed. You also need to babysit it, and you can easily make a bad cup.

Tastewise, pour over is a bright cup, clean. The beans origin will shine, and will be easily identifiable. On the other hand, French press and immersion drippers are bolder, with a full body. In some cases the delicate flavors of specialty coffee will be covered by the specific boldness.

Pour Over vs French Press

Let’s sum up the differences between French press vs pour over.

  • French press is cheap, easy to use, and it makes a great bold coffee with a lot of bite. Pour over has more rounded taste, bringing out the beans‘ origin.
  • Hand drip is a clear coffee, compared to the press pot. None of the inherent suspension particles are found in the hand drip.
  • French press is an immersion brewing technique, whereas hand drip is a drip technique.
  • Pour over is more complicated, so you might need to learn the technique. With French pot coffee all is very simple.
  • Hand drip needs hotter water for brewing, play around the 200°F range. French press can be tweaked down to lower temperatures, as immersion drip cones.
  • French press needs coarser grind, since the screen filter is not the best filtration method.

Aeropress Coffee Brewing

AeroPress Brewer on a tableWe’ll include only a brief comparison of the Aeropress, since we already wrote an entire post comparing it with the French press. Many compare Aeropress coffee with espresso, because it’s a strong cup. The reality is that Aeropress is not even close to the espresso’s taste. It’s a great coffee, but it’s not espresso. What makes Aeropress special is the additional pressure compared to French press and manual drip. The extra pressure can compensate for the lower temperature that Aeropress champions recommend. This is a strong cup, a concentrated beverage, similar to espresso, as we said before. But you can brew it with the original paper filters, and you’ll get a clear cup, that resembles a lot drip coffee. You can also use a screen filter, and you’ll get a fuller body, rich taste. Aeropress is often served as an Americano, because that tones down the strength. Neat Aeropress coffee is great too. Coffee is mild, but not weak, and rounded. If brewed at a low temperature, as per the original recipe instructions, coffee is mild and sweet.

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