Brew bars are becoming an integral part of speciality coffee shops. It’s a great way to experience the variety and quality from farm to farm, roaster and brew method. I don’t think there should be a battle between espresso and filter; they can provide us with two exceptional ways of experiencing coffee. I often note how shocked customers are at the polemic between the two beverages.
This post is less about the worth of a brew bar and more about the functioning of one.
We have been working with brewed coffee at a commercial and professional level for around two years now, but mostly in the new shop (open now for 8 months) with a dedicated brew bar. Like many, I got into coffee originally through espresso and then discovered the possibilities of filters later.
We have used and explored just about every method available. Through this I have realised certain things about different brewing methods, in particular how they effect our ability to provide customers with a consistent product.
As I have mentioned before we are endeavouring to present what coffee is now capable of. A brew bar is excellent at demonstrating this. It can provide elegant, crisp clean sweet brews, ranging from fruity and floral to nutty and silky.
However, if you have a coffee board that promises this kind of tasting experience you have to deliver, otherwise it all seems like a pretentious farce and we all loose out.
I think we coffee people need to realise that a customer does not see and shouldn’t know about the idea of a barista battling with a brew method in the hope that the finished beverage will be good. They just taste the coffee! That’s all they should do.
Granted, brewing coffee is full of variables, some that we can control and others that we cant. But I often think this is used as a scapegoat, with the romanticism of a baristas craft overshadowing and hindering the quality of the coffee. Espresso is renowned for this but its seeping into brew bars where I think there is no need (I also think with our understanding and technology espresso can and should be consistently better).
I think a baristas craft is as follows - to be able to taste a coffee and understand what attributed to its flavour. Then, use knowledge and technical ability to control the variables and therefore make the most of the coffees potential flavour. The key here is to understand what you can and can’t control.
So let’s talk about pourovers!
In recent times certain people in the industry have made a concerted effort to understand how coffee brews from a scientific standpoint. These insights are allowing us to improve the way we make coffee. I can’t help but now see certain brewing methods as possibly not that good? Or, in the least, inconsistent and problematic.
I now personally doubt the commercial viability and worth of any pourover method from a Hario V60 through to a Chemex and a cloth filter. They are ultimately all brewing methods with a big margin for error. They suffer from the eternal coffee struggle of trying to get water to pass through a bed of coffee evenly and at a certain pace whilst keeping a constant brewing temperature.
There has been a lot of technique development with much longer brewing times. This is very time consuming and to me seems unnecessary as the quality of the brew is still not certain even with careful attention. Also, I just struggle to see the benefit in the cup of a V60 pourover compared to a Clever Dripper.
I concede that the benefit of the types of solids that end up in the cup from something like a cloth filter may be a benefit worth pursuing, even if the brew consistency is hard to attain. If this method is to be used, really it should be done with a warning to the customer. For instance “We offer a cloth filter that takes much longer to make, will cost more and is less stable, but may have an interesting result with a great mouth feel. Fancy a go?” Of course, we are not going to say this to each customer! It’s a ridiculous position for both parties to be in. We should offer a cup of coffee that we can guarantee will taste a certain way and be able to explain why.
There is a problem here with learning also. How can you assess your brew recipe- how the dose/grind/ brew ratio etc affect the flavour and then make changes to improve the cup if your not sure what will stay the same and what will not. Why make it even harder than it needs to be, to the point of being unattainable.
I want coffee to shine. I want people to talk about the flavours they get. I want maker and drinker to talk about the experience.
It is important to consider brew method and recipe but I don’t think the experience should be dominated by the role of the barista - their experimentation, craft etc. The baristas role is obviously a hugely important one. I am not trying to dumb it down, I am actually arguing for baristas to see their role more professionally. It should be less about them playing around with coffee and more about a responsibility to be an efficient knowledgeable coffee maker. They then can deliver the customer a wonderful coffee every time that showcases the provenance and the character of the coffee itself.
It’s interesting to consider that with all of these issues pourovers have become the first choice for anyone setting up a brew bar. My theory is that in the past when simply brewed (dunk the water on top and let it pour through) they seemed like the most convenient option. It would seem that as our understanding of brewing has developed, we have not stepped back to consider whether this brewing method still deserves a place on a quality driven brew bar? Perceived value and craft is probably the best answer. It looks fancy and quality driven.
I know a lot of home brewers who enjoy the challenge and hit and miss aspect of pourovers. These same people have however experienced a great cup and understand what they are aiming for. I guess it’s a lot like a home baker with a crappy 70’s electric oven full of hot spots and quirks trying to make a great loaf. It’s very different to trying to commercially produce and guarantee artisan bread as a professional company.
Brew bars are beginning to be recognised commercially but many business owners are looking at the labour and problems involved and seeing it as an unprofitable, logistical nightmare. It doesn’t have to be as problematic as most brew bars would have you believe.
I am extremely happy with our brew bar; I can rely on it to deliver a great coffee experience that completes on our promise. If I am going to urge you to try a black coffee without sugar or milk and let it cool down to get all the flavour, I need to know that the promised flavour will be there. We do this by using three methods - Aeropress, Syphon and Clever Dripper. All these methods utilise immersion as well as drip which makes things much more consistent whilst still offering a diverse range of results.
Long live Brew Bars!