The Scourge Of Pour-Over Coffee
by Chris Chafin
On a recent Sunday, the crowd at the Brooklyn Flea was dangerously under-caffeinated. Blue Bottle Coffee, the only coffee vendor at the popular flea market, had just that weekend decamped, with little fanfare, until spring. The marble counter where their coffee wares were usually arrayed sat empty. The crowd — the weekend shoppers for costume jewelry and vintage iron-on decals — became indignant when told that they would have to go across the street — to a Starbucks — to get their caffeine fix. “Are you serious?!” a woman demanded of the hapless cupcake vendor who had the misfortune to have a spot next door. “Yes, I’m serious,” he replied, affecting the blankness of an airline representative with a line of stranded holiday travelers. “You’re not the first person to ask me that today.”
What had broken Blue Bottle’s nearly yearlong run at the Brooklyn Flea? What was the root cause of this rage and frustration? The answer: pour-over coffee, a seemingly simple but incredibly time-consuming method of coffee assemblage which wreaks destruction wherever it appears, a gastronomical ascot whose chief benefit seems to be that it roughly triples the time it takes to make a cup of coffee and allows consumers to then imagine that they can taste a difference.
It was a little over a year ago that The New York Times heralded the arrival of pour-over coffee in a trend story titled “Coffee’s Slow Dance.” The writer Oliver Strand described the method by which pour-over coffee is created — water is poured from a specially made kettle into a suspended cup of coffee grounds, through which the coffee seeps to the waiting cup below (that the specialized equipment needed comes from Japan likely will not surprise you). While allowing that the process might sound “precious or tedious” to some, he enthused that the resulting coffee was, in the intricacy and delicacy of its flavor, like “picking up a drafting pen after only writing with Magic Markers.”
This sort of praise is typical of pour-over enthusiasts. Taylor Janes is a 20-something farmer’s market cheesemonger who designs brass brackets for pour-overs in his spare time. (I know him because he’s a former classmate of mine at that bastion of Manhattan liberalness, The New School. Yes, I know.) He doesn’t care that it can take roughly four to five minutes to brew a single cup. “I want it to take longer,” he told me. “From opening a bag and inhaling deeply, practicing my pour technique and watching the bloom, to the industrial handsomeness of the galvanized steel pour station, the observance of and commitment to a morning ritual results in a refined sense of personal satisfaction.”
What is it actually like to drink pour-over coffee? I can’t deny that there is something a different about it — its flavors are richer than is usual in drip coffee, hiding underneath a layer of physical heat and slowly unspooling themselves on your palette in the moments after a sip. For this piece, I sampled several pour-overs at Blue Bottle’s Williamsburg outpost, and on at least one day I was struck with an unusually intense caffeine high that left me vibrating and sweating in my desk chair, feeling like I’d been whisked through here.
The technique had its devotees, of course, long before The Times wrote about it. And in the year since the piece ran, there’s been even further advancement in the world of coffee pour overs. The Hario VDC-02W Dripper V60 Size 02 White Ceramic Funnel, an unassuming white cone that sits atop a cup of coffee and serves as a pour-over coffee filter is, at the time of this writing, the top-selling item in Amazon’s “Coffee Servers” category (other assorted pour-over tchotchkes fill up three more spots in the top ten). The Hario VKB-120HSV V60 Coffee Drip Kettle Buono, another pour-over accessory, is a sensually ribbed teapot with a long, S-curved spout protruding from its front, giving it the appearance of a cartoon baby elephant, or an incredibly rare orchid. It also sits atop its category (#1 in Kitchen & Dining > Tabletop >Serveware > Teapots & Coffee Servers > Teapots).
Blue Bottle, the only New York coffee cult name-checked in The Times piece, is expanding, too, opening two Manhattan branches in addition to it Williamsburg coffee bar/roastery/shipping facility. There are now more than a dozen other places selling pour overs in the city: Abraço in the East Village, PORTS in Chelsea and O Café in Greenwich Village. Another is Joe the Art of Coffee, whose new Upper East Side location will feature pour-overs, according to this December write-up:
“Rather than batch brewing in big urns, it’s more theater,” owner Jonathan Rubinstein said of the art of pour-over. “The way we’re building this, we’re putting in a window pane as a permanent fixture. And how we’re lighting it, we’re making it a glass stage, for lack of a better word.”
A visit to that location a couple weeks ago, however, turned up nothing more than two lonely-looking pour-over filters perched atop rather grimy glass pots. Asked about the gleaming coffee bar on a hill promised in the press, the barista on duty sheepishly said it was “under construction.”
Nevermind the mystique; the actual mechanics of pour-overs are more or less those of a broken coffee pot: hot water slowly goes through coffee grounds, making only one cup of coffee at a time. That is all it is! It’s not magic. It’s just kind of a more elaborate, maybe slightly tastier way of brewing coffee. But, you know what? It’s not really suited to pleasing a big crowd, even when it’s the kind of crowd you might think would be predisposed to waiting 20 minutes for a cup of coffee. Because, actually, I do not think that person exists. Granted, wait times for pour-overs can vary wildly — I’ve waited anywhere from two to eight minutes at Blue Bottle’s proper storefront. But when there’s a line, it can take much, much longer — which brings us back, full circle, to where we started: Blue Bottle and the Brooklyn Flea.
Blue Bottle is a fine institution and a great local place to buy coffee, but they found themselves overextended here. The pour over requires many things: time, a reliable electrical system and a patient clientele. Their potential customers, perpetually in a line a dozen or so people long throughout the holiday season at the Flea’s winter home — a stall in the lobby of One Hanson, a heartbreakingly ornate former bank and clock tower built in 1927, that served as Jason Schwartzman’s home and detective agency in the most recent season of the (criminally-cancelled) HBO comedy “Bored to Death” — did not cooperate any more than the building’s 80-plus-year-old electrical system. The official line is that the building’s wiring was the real culprit, perpetually shorting out and leaving the outpost with only lukewarm, un-pour-overable water. This left everyone involved a little grumpy, including the staff of Blue Bottle, who told me in exactly the same words, with exactly the same mixture of barely-contained rage for two consecutive weeks, “We’re just having a little… problem? right now, with our… heater. So… it will just be a few minutes.” People stole coffees obviously ordered by other people. Some people just wandered off and never returned, despite paying a bit more than you might expect for a humble weekend-morning cup of coffee. There was strife and discord.
Immediately following New Year’s, Blue Bottle announced they would not be returning to the Flea until they moved locations in the spring. They’ve since been replaced by Crop to Cup. Who serve coffee out of nice, big, coffee vats like you might find at a movie set or a PTA meeting. And you know what? It tastes great.