Laura Baginski goes to Asado Coffee Co. to learn the pour-over brewing technique.
Wed Jan 19 2011
Every morning at 6:12, my Mr. Coffee drip machine calls out to me in five blaring, plaintive beeps, waking me from a deep sleep even though the bedroom is down a 60-foot hallway from the kitchen. My Mr. Coffee doesn’t play. When the coffee is ready, he seems to say, you better wake your ass up.
I don’t mind his brusque manner: That early in the morning, I’m a squinty, fuzzy-headed mole-like creature barely able to grope a mug out of the cabinet, so I appreciate his ability to deliver caffeine without much effort on my part. And Mr. Coffee makes a pretty good, though inconsistent, cup. I feed him top-notch beans—Metropolis, Intelligentsia—but I buy them ground (a coffee snob no-no) and I don’t understand why sometimes Mr. Coffee makes great cups, and other times, they’re just okay.
I’ve heard about people who, every morning, grind beans, heat water in a kettle and slowly pour the water over the grounds, which are housed in a special dripper—a time-consuming process called pour-over, brewed one cup at a time. These people, I’ve always assumed, must be absolutely nuts. But maybe the result is a better cup? Maybe I’ve been drinking unbelievably inferior coffee for years! Mr. Coffee, I think I need to see other people.
My infidelity starts with a visit to Asado Coffee Co. (1432 W Irving Park Rd, 773-661-6530). Owner Kevin Ashtari is a pour-over master (it’s the only brewing method used in his two-year-old shop), and he’s agreed to show me the technique so I can try it at home. Pour-over “allows us to get a full-body mouth feel,” Ashtari says. “It’s really easy.” Easy? Yes. But time-consuming, and very precise, as he demonstrates in the following steps to make the perfect pour-over cup:
TOOLS NEEDED No. 4 unbleached cone paper filter (100-pack available at Trader Joe’s for $1.99); dripper (get it in plastic or ceramic versions for around $20 on amazon.com); coffee grinder (the standard Krups version is $17.99 on amazon.com); whole bean coffee; tea kettle; mug; spoon. Unending patience.
1 Dampen the unbleached paper filter with warm water (bleached paper imparts “unnatural tastes,” Ashtari says) and place inside the dripper, pressing the filter flush against the sides.
2 Grind enough beans to make four heaping tablespoons of grounds. Can you cheat and use preground coffee? No, you may not. “Once you grind [the beans], you have 30 minutes before the flavor starts to fade,” Ashtari says. Dump the grounds into the filter.
3 Place the dripper on top of a mug. Hold a spoon over the grounds in your left hand, and with your right, pour hot water (Ashtari suggests bringing water to a boil then letting it sit for 45 seconds) onto the spoon, which you move in concentric circles, letting the water drip onto the grounds. At this point, the grounds will rise like shaken-up beer—this is called the “bloom.”
4 Wait 10 seconds for the water to penetrate all of the grounds (some coffee will drip into the mug). Now, very slowly pour water directly on the grounds while stirring the grounds with your left hand, making sure you don’t pour too much and cause the mug to overflow. This should take one to two minutes.
After the demo, Ashtari offers me a taste of the results. Perhaps the droplets of simple sugar and half & half he stirs in put it over the top, but I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s one of the best cups I’ve ever had. The flavor is subtle, nuanced, yet rich—it’s not a punch-in-the-palate mouth explosion like Starbucks. My infatuation is overpowering enough to overlook my past failed dalliances with the too-fussy French press—I must have this taste every day.
My first at-home pour-over attempt takes 20 minutes, from turning on the burner to heat the tea kettle to first sip. Among the mishaps: I boil way more water than necessary (turns out the more water in the kettle, the longer it takes to boil—imagine!); I decide I’m too cool for measuring spoons and eyeball the amount of beans and spend the day jittery and tweaked; I do the pouring far from the sink, so when the mug starts overflowing (another mishap) I have to sprint across the kitchen, splattering coffee all over the floor and stove. But the coffee, while not quite hot enough, does slightly resemble the full-bodied, magical brew I tasted at Asado. Though not as delicious.
In subsequent days, I fine-tune the process—boil less water, actually measure the coffee, pour near the sink—and manage to shave off about seven minutes of prep time. But the coffee is still a touch too cold and too strong. Hoping to get closer to perfection, I call Ashtari for more pointers. To combat the temperature issue, he suggests heating up the mug with hot water while I prepare the beans. He also says I might be scorching the grounds by laying on the grinder until the beans are pulverized—just pulsate the grinder until the beans are intermediately ground, he says.
There’s a reason why Ashtari is the master: His tips work beautifully, and I manage to make a perfect cup—smooth, balanced and delicious. However, soon thereafter I put an end to my pour-over tryst. Like a high-maintenance, preening metrosexual, pour-over requires far more patience than I can muster on a daily basis—make one wrong move and pour-over goes off the rails. So now I’m back in the warm, reliable arms of Mr. Coffee. But he’s made a deal with me: If I want to mess around with pour-over every once in awhile, that’s okay. Mr. Coffee is cool like that.