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Manual Brewing: On the Rise or On Its Way Out? Barista Magazine Takes a Look.

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Manual brewing equipment

In the automated age, convenience and complexity reign as kings. Simple human tasks are readily handed over to advanced machines that carry them out with eerie precision. Robots replace factory laborers, guitar strings are tuned at the press of a button, and Will Smith doesn’t even drive his own car around (or was that just in the movies?). Yet even as technology takes over, the do-it-yourself movement explodes and artisans emerge in nearly every industry. Twenty-first century baristas and homebrewers must ask, “In which of these directions is coffee headed?”

To be sure, both.

State-of-the-art coffee machines are undoubtedly on the rise, and have already taken several impressive forms. Bonavita’s SCAA-approved drip brewer consistently disperses water at 205 degrees Fahrenheit with technology that has rarely been implemented in a machine of its type. The Trifecta, from Bunn, individualizes coffees by controlling ten user-defined brewing parameters (pre-infusion, turbulence, and others). And super-automatics from brands like Astoria do it all – grinding, brewing espresso, and steaming – at impressive speeds: over 400 cups per hour! Is there room in this rat race for the merely human barista, who still likes to get his hands dirty?

Mark Pfaff and Keith Gehrke think so. In the April-May 2012 issue of Barista Magazine, these two coffee professionals share their thoughts on the future of manual brewing and its place in the cafe. Both gentlemen have a distinguished history in the field: Mark championed Victrola Coffee Roaster’s brew-by-the-cup program and Keith is well-known for his innovative filters for the Chemex and Aeropress. They insist that brewing by the cup is here to stay and that it’s a viable method for making coffee in kitchen or the cafe. Their questions and conclusions are helpful for either the at-home aficionado or pensive professional who is considering this craft.

1. Does brewing by the cup achieve your cafe’s goals? Pfaff and Gehrke suggest that reasons like “it’s cool and eye-catching,” “it’ll make us more money,” “we need more variety on our menu,” and “we want to be on the cutting edge” aren’t really sustainable. Moreover, manual brewing isn’t the only – or best – way to satisfy these desires.

2. Is your workspace – professional cafe or at-home kitchen – conducive to manual brewing? An entirely new lineup of equipment comes with brewing by the cup. Several stellar methods exist – V60, Chemex, siphon, Aeropress, and more – and each require unique accessories. Lots of clean workspace is essential to make this brewing experience practical and enjoyable.

3. Can you produce a flavorful cup of coffee? In short, whether you’re brewing for yourself or a customer, learn a trustworthy technique and dial it in.

Like every emerging trend, manual brewing will continue to be refined and revamped. Pfaff and Gehrke are certain, however, that it will endure:

“The one thing you can bet on is that coffee drinkers will continue to brew coffee in their homes with methods that are simple and give them decent consistency without a lot of hassle. Hence there will always be a place in our cafes for these techniques...”

In an industry as volatile as that of specialty coffee, it’s comforting to be assured that this treasured craft should survive even the next robotic revolution. Apparently, convenience and complexity haven’t yet displaced the simplicity of the manual brew.

Surprise of all surprises, the artisan and the automatic can co-exist.

The full article by Mark Pfaff and Keith Gehrke can be viewed online at Barista Magazine.

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"Is your workspace – professional cafe or at-home kitchen – conducive to manual brewing?" I would actually argue the opposite of this. Using a V60, Chemex, etc is actually quite simple and you only need 3 items: Kettle, Scale, Filtering system (Chemex, V60, etc). As long as you have a burner (or you can get the new Bonavita Electric Kettle) and 1 sq/ft of counterspace you can manually brew at home. There was a great breakdown between the cost of a K-cup machine vs a Clever pour-over and necessary accoutrements. In the end it came down to just about dead even in a per-cup cost.

Good thoughts, Joe. You've nailed one of my favorite parts about manual brewing: simplicity. The section you quoted was mainly addressed to shop-owners, but we extended its application to home-brewers. Here's what we're getting at:

Should a cafe decide, all of the sudden, that they want to implement manual brewing (say, for any of the reasons mentioned previously in the article), it's important to consider whether or not there is room available to do so. The one square foot it takes to brew at home just won't cut it for a busy coffee shop. A Chemex squeezed between the espresso bar and the blenders could make for a pretty lousy time, don't you think?

For home use, it's a different story. You still want enough space, but it doesn't need to be as much. Again, that's why I love brewing by hand!

By the way, I'm interested in seeing this Keurig VS. Clever breakdown. I can understand the equipment costing the same, but the coffee? K-cups / pods cost a lot per pound – even more than some of the nicest beans from the best roasters. Anyway, I'm intrigued!

I think one of the attractive features about manual brewing is the experience and personal involvement in the brewing process. A machine can't imitate the control you get when you're brewing with a Chemex for your friends. It can't imitate the range of cups you get from various manual methods such as the Aeropress and V60. I think a lot of the draw to manual brewing is the whole experience. When I went to Intelligentsia in Chicago I loved watching them get the siphon ready and personally prepare a cup of Kenya. It would be lackluster, to say the least, if they had simply poured me a cup from a Bonavita. A Bonavita might still give you a great cup, but it also provides a completely different experience.

I'm certainly not knocking the more automated methods. For a lot of shops the Bonavita is a huge step up and can drastically improve the coffee quality. Essentially I agree with Mark and Keith; there is room for both types of brewing and neither of the methods have to infringe upon the other. Manual brewing has a place in both homes and shops. I don't think it's going anywhere soon.

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