What Is “Manual” or “Hand” Brewing? A Primer.

It’s pretty easy to take for granted that everyone doesn’t know what you’re talking about when your audience is composed of so many people all over, from so many areas of your life. One thing I thought about lately, is how still so many people aren’t familiar with “manual brewing.” So, I thought I’d write up a post about what manual brewing is, how it’s done, and what devices are used to brew coffee this way.

(Beehouse, Hario V60, and Kalita Wave pourovers.)

First off, manual brewing or “hand brewing”, refers to brewing coffee with the lack of automatic devices. It uses hot water just off boil, then after that, no more of the process is automated. It’s all done by hand, manually. Manual brewing has been around for most of the time coffee’s been being brewed, although it certainly wasn’t as fashionable as it’s been in the past 5 years. I remember seeing my first Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and how it gave me goosebumps. Well, brewing with the jebena is some of the first manual brewing recorded, and to this day is practiced by Ethiopians all over the world, sometimes several times of the day in some homes.

Today, manual brewing is done with nice glass, ceramic, or even plastic devices, made specifically for this style of brewing, and designed and researched to brew the best cups of coffee by hand. Manual brewing devices can be divided up into several categories: Full immersion, like the French Press, the Vaccum Pot or Siphon Brewer, the Eva Solo, and the new Espro Press. Pourover, like the Chemex, the Hario V60, the Beehouse Dripper, the Bonmac Pourover, and the new Kalita Wave. And then there’s the hybrids: The Clever Dripper, and the Aeropress. These are the tools of this 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, really makes them “pop!”

(Brewing with Hario V60. Photo by Andrew Lee Photography.)

Full immersion brewers are called such 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 normal time), 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 will get 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. There is a small cloth filter dividing the chambers, and after an immersion time of 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. Photo by Andrew Lee Photography.)

Pourover brewers work very simply, and are very similar to the Mr. Coffee-type brewer most homes have. You have a conical or angled device that holds a paper or gold filter, to which grounds are added to. Hot water is added to the top, and the water and coffee brew in the top chamber as it works to exit out the bottom of the filter and device. Gravity works it’s magic, pulling the water through the grounds, and voila, brewed coffee. Your ceramic devices like the Hario V60, Beehouse, Bonmac, and Kalita, all have different elements on the inside walls, and different hole amounts, shapes, and sizes in the bottom, allowing for different flows for each one, again, adding a slightly different flavor for each one. 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 larger amount of coffee to be brewed at each time, and is a popular device in coffee shops as well.

(Brewing by Clever Dripper. Photography by 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 compliments of a stopper that opens up when the device is placed on top of a cup or server. This 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. Sometimes I find a regular pourover the lack the depth of a French Press, because the brew time is much shorter, and the water simply goes through with no real immersion time. In my humble opinion, the Clever solves both challenges with a cup of coffee that has a real nice depth, and yet has that clean, sweet, balanced taste of a pourover. It’s my choice for brewing.

(Brewing by Aeropress. Photography by Andrew Lee Photography.)

You also have the Aeropress, a device created by the inventor of the Aerobie Flying Ring you’ve loved for years at the beach. You know, the florescent pink or green rings that would fly a mile down the beach? Yeah, that thing. Apparently, the guy’s 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.com. The thing has 882 reviews right now, and is averaging 4.5 stars. Pretty glowing, right? Then, I checked it out on coffeegeek.com. The thread on the Aeropress is 224 pages long right now, and includes a lot of great thoughts by the inventor himself. The device can be used several ways, but the way I use it, is the way directed in the manual, is that a paper filter is inserted in the bottom filter holder. Grounds (from 2 scoops of beans) are loaded into the bottom chamber, where hot water up to the 2 is then filled. The grounds and water are stirred with the included paddle, which is designed so as not to tear the paper filter on the bottom, while allowing good stirring. After roughly 10 seconds, the plunger is inserted, and gentle, steady pressure is added to the plunger, causing a small pocket of air that forces the water through both the grinds and paper filter on the bottom, very similar to the way an espresso machine works. From that, I add about 10ounces of hot water, which gives you something closer to Americano, but the taste is delicious. Our Guatemala Finca El Valle tastes just like chocolate milk out of a paper carton, just like the kind you had as a kid. It’s a great device for travel, for camping, hotel rooms, and I even did it on an airplane last year! https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1672250686092&saved

Each device has it’s strengths and it’s weaknesses, each brews a different cup of coffee, and I don’t believe there’s one best way to brew all coffees. On Friday mornings (when I’m in town and can), I hand brew coffees for customers at our retail shop, Dancing Goats Coffee Bar, in Decatur. Usually, I brew a different coffee every week, brewed a different way. I’ve brewed there with all of the devices listed, and love the fact that they are so different. I’ve come to my thoughts on them from brewing myself, and I think that’s a good way to figure out which is the best for you. We have great tutorials on how to use the devices listed on our website over at http://www.batdorfcoffee.com/index.php/learn.html. I also have lots of great tutorials on my own blogsite over at http://jasondominy.tumblr.com/archive. Also, feel free to ask any questions you’d like below, I’m happy to help!

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