One question that comes up fairly often is “What brewing method is the best?” Here's an overview of the most popular brewing methods and what makes them great (or not so great)!
One question that comes up fairly often is “What brewing method is the best?” The answer, of course, differs from person to person: While some people swear by drip coffee, others live and die by the French Press. You might also hear people talk about their love of the Chemex or Aeropress. And, of course, who can forget the absolute espresso die-hards out there?
I think the most diplomatic answer to the best brewing method question is actually the correct one. To me, the best brewing method is the brewing method that fits in your daily routine and the one you’ll actually use to make coffee. Some people look for convenience, some look for the most involved process, and some look for the quickest way to ingest caffeine. There’s a brewing method for everyone, and we’re going to discuss a few here.
For this article, I’m only going to discuss the most popular brewing methods. (Sorry to everyone who was looking forward to seeing an open discussion on why Japanese Cold Brew is great. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yes, it’s extravagant. Don’t give up hope, though. That article is coming.)
Drip coffee is likely everyone’s introduction to coffee. I remember, as a very young child, seeing my grandfather brew a pot of coffee, pour cream directly into the carafe, and walk around drinking out of the carafe instead of the mug. Rather than putting sugar in the coffee, he would dip Stella D’Oro Margherite cookies into the coffee and eat the soaked cookie. Over time, the cookie crumbs would sweeten the coffee in the carafe. I recently learned that this practice isn’t as strange as I initially thought when my partner, Rosie, mentioned that she does a similar thing—sans the Stella D’Oro cookies (RIP, Stella D’Oro)—because the insulated carafe keeps the coffee warmer, longer.
With advances in drip brew technology, machines have become incredibly convenient, allowing users to set timers so your pot of coffee is ready to go the moment you’re up. Some machines even have hoppers for beans and will grind directly into your basket with high end burr grinders built into the machine. Brewing drip coffee can be a super low-maintenance affair and the fact that you can brew multiple cups at a time makes it great for gatherings and other social affairs.
Drip coffee brewers also produce a fantastic cup of coffee. In many regards, the quality of drip coffee is why it has stood the test of time and is still the gold standard in cafes all over the world. Since water slowly passes through the ground beans, it produces a bit of oil in the brewing process; as it is subsequently filtered by a thin paper filter, a lot of those oils actually make it into the final cup. What you’re left with is a mildly bold cup of coffee with a medium body.
It’s quick, it’s easy, and it tastes great. What could be better?
Brewing a mug of our 7th Street Blend in a Chemex coffee maker.
Chemex / Pour Over:
Pardon the digression here for a moment: For the longest time, I would only shoot film cameras. (I know, someone in the specialty coffee world, with a Masters’ degree in literature, who wears thick-framed glasses, has a beard, and who would only shoot film cameras?! I don’t think I could be any more stereotypically hipster.) Yes, undeniably there’s a certain aesthetic to film photography that can’t be replicated digitally. But the reason I primarily used film was because I loved the process of shooting: setting up my shot, metering, waiting for the perfect moment, and then finally pressing the shutter release. It’s nothing like digital or iPhone photography. When shooting on film, you can’t take 200 photos, pick 5, and be happy. Shooting film slows you down and makes you appreciate the process.
Hearing my love for shooting film and the reasons behind my love for film photography, it’s probably no surprise that my personal brew method of choice is the pour over.
Actually, I don’t think there could be a better simile for brewing pour overs or using a Chemex: if a drip coffee machine is like a digital camera because of the easy automation and ability to share quickly, the Chemex or pour over is like a film camera. Yes, pour-over brewers are undeniably elegantly crafted and have a certain aesthetic to them (the Chemex is on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), but brewing this way is about the process more than anything else. You slow down, make precise measurements, and control everything from the volume of water you’re pouring to the flow rate of your pour. Similar to the ways in which manual focus and exposure controls allow the photographer to completely dictate the end result of a photo, because you’re controlling water flow, you’re fully controlling bean extraction. Small changes in any aspect of pour over brewing yield large changes in taste. It’s this versatility that draws expert brewers and specialty cafes to pour over brewing.
A freshly brewed mug of Waypoint waits to be pressed and poured into a mug at Compass Coffee's original cafe in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC.
The French Press
In a previous post, I mentioned that the French Press occupies this weird state of being simultaneously one of the most common, yet under-appreciated, brew methods out there. Though the design is simple and the brewing process is relatively uninvolved, the French Press creates magnificently bold and flavorful cups of coffee.
If the drip coffee brewer is the brewing method where most people experience coffee for the first time, the French Press is certainly the method most people encounter as they begin their foray into the specialty coffee world. While I was in grad school and before I worked at Compass, I would brew several French Presses a day as I read, studied, and wrote. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that I owe my Master’s degree to my Bodum French Press.
The French Press is an example of immersion brewing. Immersion brewing is a process wherein the extraction of coffee happens as beans are fully submerged in water. (Cold brew is another great example of immersion brewing.) It is, perhaps, the brewing method that best takes advantage of the oils produced by the breakdown of proteins during the roasting process. The presence of these oils simultaneously add intense flavor and body to the coffee and help the coffee stand up to additives like milk and sugar.
In my opinion, French Press brewing is exceptionally great in fall and winter months. Fuller-bodied coffees go a long way in keeping you warm on crisp days. From late-September to mid-November, the French Press is my brewing method of choice.
It looks like Stanford's Pine Tree was a willing and eager test subject for Alan Adler's AeroPress coffees.
What do Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Astronaut Sally Ride, actor Ted Danson, and the Aeropress have in common? They all came out of Stanford University.
In November of 2005, retired Stanford University engineering instructor, Alan Adler, debuted the Aeropress coffee maker at an industry trade show. Since then, the company has grown and the Aeropress ships to over 60 countries worldwide. There’s even a World Aeropress Championship, where seasoned baristas compete for the best recipes. In 2019, over 68,000 spectators watched over 3,000 people compete for the championship.
It’s no surprise that the Aeropress is as lauded as it is. The Aeropress is perhaps the most versatile brewing method out there. With a single piece of equipment, you can make cold brew, American-style drip coffee, and even espresso. The Aeropress combines total immersion-style brewing (similar to French Press and cold brew) with rapid filtering via pressure (similar to an espresso machine). The resulting brew is perhaps the richest, boldest, and flavorful coffee out there. Given its simple design and packability, the AeroPress is a favorite for coffee lovers on the go, whether in hotels or campsites. There's even a smaller version for this very reason: The AeroPress Go.
As with Espresso, French Presses, and most immersion-style brewing, I would personally recommend a medium-to-dark roast for this brewing method. Since the coffee sits in the brewing chamber for some time before serving, the oils on medium and dark roasts really deepen the flavor of your final brew. Similarly, if you’re using an add-on espresso attachment—like Fellow’s Prisma Aeropress Attachment—the oils in the chamber will transform into a beautiful crema atop your shot.
As you can see, every method has its own strengths and weaknesses. If you’re brewing for 10 people after a dinner party, chances are you don’t want to use an Aeropress, Chemex, or French Press. (But, I mean, more power to you if you’re bringing that level of hospitality to your guests.) And if you’re out on a hike for a few days or camping, you might not want to bring an entire Capresso Coffee Team Pro, carafes, and a generator to make your morning coffee—in this case, you might reach for your Aeropress.
As the saying goes, it’s “different strokes for different folks.” To reiterate what I said at the start of the article, the best brewing method is the one that works best for you. Is it diplomatic? Yes. I mean, after all, we are in Washington, DC.
What’s your favorite brewing method and why? Drop it below!