Espresso “has the potential to deliver more of the incredible taste and aroma of roasted coffee than any other method (of brewing),” wrote Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic for U.S. Vogue magazine.
Science says the torrent of pressurized water captures more of the aromatic oils than other techniques. It’s what gives the drink its intense bitterness and that long, fragrant finish. It’s the coffee-est coffee. Case closed.
One caveat: As Steingarten said, it’s only a potential. Reaching that flavor requires skill and a staggeringly expensive machine.
I’ve been using a Contrast Aroma stove-top espresso maker. Designed by Ichiro Iwasaki for Sfera, it is a gorgeous refashioning of the original Bialetti moka pot from the 1930s. Its only shortcoming is that it can’t brew good coffee.
It lacks pressure, of course, which results in under-extraction and a feeble coffee. I could upgrade to a fancy pump-driven machine, but I’d have to choose between the devices that look great, work well and would augment my manliness (The Magnifica, Super Titanium or Platinum Vogue) and the ones I can afford (Baby Twin, Grind and Brew, Automatic Espresso Machine).
I could buy a Nespresso pod machine, and from tinkering with them in hotel rooms I know that they do the job, but I’m not ready for a lifetime commitment to Nestle and its small range of proprietary, overpriced, resolutely non-fair-trade capsules. Half the fun of brewing at home is the variation you get from the regions and roasts.
Anyway, last summer I retired the Contrast Aroma and began looking for the ultimate home-brewing device.
The options: pressure, boil, drip, steep, vacuum. Pressure wasn’t going to work. Boiling was the method espoused by the original coffee drinkers a millennium or so ago, but they also believed that mixing milk and coffee would give you leprosy, so there’s no need to listen to them. Boiling is a brutal method and loses so much of the subtlety of coffee.
The abridged options: drip, steep, vacuum.
Drip filtering also produces some shocking coffees. Gravity doesn’t always know best about brewing, and some paper filters boast of their power to absorb the coffee’s oils (for “oil,” see “flavor”). Yet my recent preoccupation with brewing technique began with a drip-filtered coffee.
At Cafe Fouquet’s in Tokyo’s Futako Tamagawa, Seiichiro Murayama uses a Japanese invention known as a “nel drip.” His method, he says, produces the coffee best suited to the Japanese palate.
The nel (from “flannel”) is a cloth cone attached to a handle, packed with coffee grounds. The brewer pours water through the grounds, holding the filter steady until the drink finishes trickling through. It looks a most burdensome way to brew, but it produces Murayama’s superb Fouquet blend — a robust cup with notes of Brazil nuts and maple — so I asked him to teach me his technique. It went like this:
Step one: get some pliers. Step two: take an elephant-trunk kettle and pinch the spout so the water will flow straight down (like a waterfall) rather than curving (like the Manneken Pis). Step three: heat the water to 90-92 degrees Celsius. Use 90 for a mild brew, says Murayama, and 92 for a bolder taste. Step four: pour just enough water to dampen the grounds, avoiding the cloth, and let it sit. Put your nostrils near the filter and notice how the grounds gradually get sweeter. When you like what you’re smelling . . . Step five: pour the 90-92-degree water through and collect the coffee below. Step six: froth the coffee to aerate it. Step seven: serve at 40 degrees Celsius.
Murayama claims that nel dripping takes 30 years to master. In Japan, everything from rolling a rice ball to flushing a loo takes 30 years to master, but I’m a fast learner. He gave me some grounds, I made a brew, it tasted great, I went out and bought a nel drip.
Then I went to Cafe Maple in Hatchobori, where Yoshinari Sekiguchi taught me to use a French press. Sekiguchi began as a paper filter man but converted to the press six years ago when he began roasting his own beans.
“A paper or nel filter can make drinkable coffee from bad beans, but a French press amplifies the coffee’s characteristics,” he says. “Use good beans and you’ll get great coffee; use bad beans and you’ll get terrible coffee.”
Ten years ago, he says, there was a surge in interest in French presses. Coffee shops bought the devices but quickly abandoned them. “It was hard to get good beans back then,” he explains.
Sekiguchi sources his coffee via a fair-trade collective led by Karuizawa’s Maruyama Coffee store. The members visit the growers in person, building the relationships that result in sales of the best beans.
To brew the beans, Sekiguchi warms the press and coffee cup with hot water, then empties both. He adds 15 grams of coffee to the press, then slowly adds 300 cc of water. Like Murayama, Sekiguchi favors water just below boiling point. Exactly three minutes later he plunges the press and pours. He told me to resist stirring, and pour immediately after pressing — in both cases to avoid over-extraction.
Siphons look like they belong in a laboratory, and that’s at least partly why people get so excited by them. A flame heats a glass bowl of water, which then bubbles up a tube, through a flannel filter, into an upper pot filled with grounds. When you remove the flame, the liquid cools and flows back down as coffee.
I called Yasutaka Iwao of Kobe’s Green’s Coffee Roasters for siphon brewing tips. Iwao was born into a siphon-brewing family and is a two-time winner of the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan’s national siphon championship. He told me that vacuum brewing produces coffee with a clean, sharp profile. “It’s like Asahi Super Dry, whereas paper filters produce a richer coffee, more like a Kirin,” he said. That didn’t sound much like a recommendation to me, but I’d spent ¥8,000 on a device and wanted to know what to do with it.
The secret, said Iwao, is in the flame. Set it poorly and you can’t produce good coffee. He told me to throw out my alcohol lamp and invest in a gas version, which would be easier to adjust. The ideal flame should come to a point just where it touches the glass. If it cups the glass, as it does in the image on the box of my Hario siphon, you’ll have too much pressure and a weak extraction.
I’m to measure 16 grams of coffee and 165-170 cc of water. Stir once when the water starts bubbling up, and again when the flame is out. Other than that, science takes care of everything.
The siphon is mesmerizing, the nel looks like the tool of a craftsman and the French press is stylish and idiot-proof, but what really matters is which can extract all the floral, fruity, toasty, herbaceous, leguminous flavors from the bean.
I collected my equipment: a siphon, a French press, a nel drip, a timer, a kettle, a pair of pliers, a pot, three cups and a digital thermometer. I ordered three batches of coffee, each one a high-roasted Guatemalan but ground to suit each contraption. The French press demands a thick grind, the flannel drip prefers a fine grind, and the siphon sits right in the middle.
If it’s hard to make a great coffee, it’s almost impossible to make three at once using different devices. The nel drip is much harder to use without a professional by your side. There are too many variables. Should I tamp the grounds more? Am I pouring evenly? Has it soaked enough? How much water should I pour? Can I put this damn thing down yet?
The French press, by contrast, is effortless. Pour. Wait. Plunge. Pour. Drink.
The siphon is fiddly but dramatic. The water idles for 5 minutes without so much as a bubble, then suddenly surges up, pauses, and gushes back brown. This will be my device whenever people are watching, no matter how the coffee tastes.
And so to the results. The nel drip drink was too mild and sweet. Maybe it really does take 30 years to master. My assistant liked the siphon coffee best, describing it as having the most character on the palate. But it’s my story and I’m picking the French press, which produced a rich, full-bodied brew and topped it with a reassuringly thick slick of oil.
Cafe Fouquet’s: Tamagawa Takashimaya S-C, 3-17-1 Tamagawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3708-5038
Cafe Maple: 2-22-8 Hatchobori, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3553-1022
Greens Coffee Roaster: 3-167 Chuo-ku, Motomachi, Koka-dori, Kobe; (078) 332-3115