good intentions

in defense of pour-overs

justin lee
Nov 26, 2019 · 7 min read

now playing –
Maru, costa rica las cajas natural
kalita wave (1:16 ratio)
notes: guava juice, tropical fruit, green tea

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“I think that so many things that we do in restaurants can be replicated by any other restaurant, right? The thing that can separate a restaurant experience is literally how much someone cares about making that food.

It has less to do with perfection than, i think, with intent. The intent is more perfect.”

The running joke with my coworker is that whenever we try to make a cup of pour-over coffee for ourselves, the rush comes. If we start making one, it is almost guaranteed that we won’t finish it. Or the water gets too cold.

Even if we say the word “pour-over” out loud, it triggers a wave of customers to come rushing through our doors. We have to whisper.

We figured that saying the world “pour-over” is good for business.
Just not making it.

For those unaware, pour-over (or hand-drip, by-the-cup coffee) has acquired a distaste among many in the specialty coffee industry.

Many companies, especially successful, reputable coffee businesses, have taken it off their menus, or have never introduced them to begin with. World Barista Champions don’t believe they have a place in the cafe, James Hoffman being one of them.

YouTube Reviewer and tutorial maker, Sprometheus, ranked pour-overs at a tragic E-tier. Drip coffee, on the other hand, was ranked A-tier.

At first, I refused to accept it. Being a proud owner of a recently-purchased Fellow Kettle and a handful of pour-over devices, I didn’t want to agree.

I didn’t want to agree that a machine could make a cup of coffee better than I could with a pour-over.

But after working some 8 tiresome months in a busy cafe setting, after some 10 months of trying to finish a damn pour-over while taking orders mid-rush, I started to understand.

And it wasn’t just working on bar that made me reconsider. In my time, I’ve peeked glimpses at the business side of coffee and I realized that pour-overs don’t make much financial sense.

Even if you are able to juggle six 50-gram pours every 30 seconds, while taking orders, grabbing pastries, pulling shots, and maintaining consistent bar flow, it’s hardly worth the extra effort, time, and clean up just to make one cup of supposedly-better coffee, especially when the consumer probably can’t discern the jump in quality. Besides, I don’t think any one of us can pull that off anyways, at least without messing up the pour-over.

Sometimes, I walk into a cafe with a designated pour-over barista but that guy ends up being stuck there and does little to nothing else, because pour-overs are, by nature, a high-maintenance and manual process.

Unless you’re Blue Bottle or you’re charging $10/cup (or you run a cafe outside of the US), you can’t afford to pay someone to just stand around and pour water slowly.

Pour-overs require extra effort and labor that the cup can’t even pay for.

For a while, I thought my pour-overs tasted better than my workplace’s batch brew. That was my last defense. But I realized it wasn’t that I was better at making coffee. The batch brew just wasn’t dialed in.

One day, I decided to dial in the batch brew.
It tasted just as good, if not better, than my pour-over.

I sighed.

You win.

Pour-overs have no place in the cafe.

Nowadays, I would almost never introduce a pour-over bar into a cafe of my own.

But there is still a tinge of sadness and resentment that lingers, like those words still sting or something. I feel like a sore loser, and James Hoffman hurt my feelings when he said pour-overs don’t belong in cafes. I don’t know.

Pour-overs are different. They just feel so… personal.

I carry a strange attachment to it, more than espresso, more than any other coffee brewing method. And admitting defeat made me painfully aware of that, more than ever.

I once had a conversation with a friend about pour-overs, and about selling pour-over gear to customers.

“You’re not just selling them a piece of equipment. You’re selling them a ritual.

You’re convincing them to wake up 20 minutes earlier — or maybe to skip breakfast, or whatever — because you’re introducing a new rhythm into their morning routine.

In essence, you’re changing their life.”

Chris Baca once said that it’s not so much the caffeine that wakes you up in the morning. It’s the feeling — holding a warm, ceramic mug full of freshly-brewed coffee on a cold winter day — that wakes you up in the morning.

It’s not so much about the coffee, at least as much as we think it is.

I was a home barista long before I was a cafe barista, and I suspect that is why I have such a fond attachment to pour-overs, and things of the nature.

It’s not the coffee, it’s the craft and process of making coffee. It is the ritual. And the ritual provides us with an experience.

The experience is the thing we long for, the high that we are always chasing, not the caffeine. Experiences are loaded with meaning and emotions. They make us feel things, more than coffee can.

Cooking meth, not ingesting it, made Walter White feel powerful.
It made him feel worthy.

Pour-over makes me feel… comfort. Awe, for the smallest of details.
The sights and sounds of it all, weighing the whole bean on a scale, opening a brand new bag, everything. And god, the smell.

The slowness. I used to hand-grind my coffee every morning. I would start heating the water on the stove and time it so that when it was boiling, I would be done grinding. The whole process took 20 minutes. This, in my mind, was the perfect morning.

When I sipped on that coffee, I could taste the care. The intent.
The analogue-ness of it all.

I could taste the sore arms.

In that time, I would have almost preferred drinking a bad coffee that I made, than one that someone else made. (Almost). At least I made it.

According to my friend, my life was changed.
I bought a couple pieces of simple equipment, I lost 20–30 minutes of sleep every night, I skipped many breakfasts, but I gained an experience.

And that experience is everything.

I’ve been getting heavily into David Chang lately. The Momofuku one.
He is, in my mind, an “intangible cultural treasure” of our generation of food, even if he refuses to acknowledge it.

On Episode 3 of his Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, he says —
“The thing that can separate a restaurant experience is literally how much someone cares about making that food. It has less to do with perfection than, i think, with intent. The intent is more perfect.”

Coffee, much like food, is just as much about the experience surrounding it,
as it is about how it tastes.

When the PuqPress was released, I could almost feel the baristas cringe and clasp onto their tampers, posting “Don’t take this from me!!” in retaliation. Even when the KB90 was announced, a similar vein of angry comments made sentiments clear.

But when you’re serving over 200 tickets a day, tamping that many times by hand can be inconsistent, time-consuming, and terribly unhealthy. You really don’t want to twist your wrist every time you lock in a portafilter. When you work on bar in a high-volume cafe, seconds matter and ergonomics matter.

There was a small part of me that didn’t want to let go either. And I understood why. The people who were resisting these improvements in barista equipment were not cafe baristas, but home baristas.

Yes, there were some cafe baristas who wondered if robots were taking over their job (they’re not), but the protests were largely coming from home kitchens.

Don’t take the experience away from me.

Don’t take that awkward twisty-wrist motion away from me. Don’t take my perfectly consistent tamping technique away from me. Don’t take my damn Stockfleth’s Move away from me.

I have a feeling that this is similar situation to my personal pour-over angst.

Somehow, we’ve formed an attachment to bad ergonomics and anti-barflow movements. We’ve grown fond of time-inefficient, unnecessary brew methods. Like there’s some sentimentality to the slow, manual, non-automatic things.

Like there’s some humanness to them.

David Chang loves home cooking above any other cooking, but even David Chang thinks that home cooking should stay where they belong. At home.

He so aptly names home cooking ugly delicious” but he admits that he could not serve it in his own restaurant. Conversely, he would seldom make a restaurant dish in his own home.

Ritual is a special thing.

Pour-over bars may never be a financially-viable option for small coffee businesses in the US, but the crux of the issue runs deeper than cashflow and ergonomics.

The crux of the issue is experience, and our fear of losing it.

There is a longing in me to make every shot perfect, every pour-over tasty, every cup surprising, every rosetta beautiful. Every experience meaningful.

But when I signed up for the coffee career, my role was shifted.
I became a host, and I made a commitment to give up my ritual, to give up my experience to someone else. No more hand grinders.

The lesson for me to learn is that I am not truly losing the experience, but taking on a different one. A new one.

I am a barista now, and I have the privilege of creating experiences for others. Experiences that can be, for lack of better terms, life-changing.

And that, alone, is worth giving up my pour-over bar dreams.

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equal parts, flavor & memory

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