The so-called Third Wave coffee movement coincided with a renewed interest in manual brew methods. Chemexes, V60s, and Aeropresses came part and parcel with lighter roasts, traceability, and smaller sizes. Although very few cafes eighty-sixed autodrip all together, the clear message to consumers was: slower is better. But recently a slew of cafes have questioned the status quo. Handsome, G&B, and Heart are just some of the coffee shops that have chosen to exclusively serve automated brew methods, causing many baristas to question everything they thought they knew about specialty coffee.
Pour-overs vs Autodrip
Which is better for brewing coffee in a cafe environment: autodrip or manually brewed coffee? That’s the question we posed to a group of leading coffee professionals, including Ryan Soeder of Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, John Letoto of Blacksmith, Hugh Duffie of TAP Coffee, and Andrew Cash of Jubala Village Coffee. Here are their responses:
Hugh Duffie of TAP Coffee
I think manual brewing ties in with the whole specialty coffee scene: working with an every day product to try and make it something special that people look forward to. Knowing the amount of effort that we put into sourcing our coffees, developing our roast profiles and training our staff to do the coffee justice – it just seems mad not to manually brew it for the sake of saving a few minutes.
I think it is a fairly subjective topic and that personal preference is the real deciding factor rather than one method being definitively ‘better’, as previous threads on twitter on the subject will reveal. However, from my experiences in our café, the customers that order (single-serve V60) filter coffee with us are some of the customers that really get the most out of our brand… especially when any of us directly involved in the roasting serve them as we are (admittedly) most enthusiastic about the filters.
Ryan Soeder of Intelligentsia Coffee
I don’t think I can answer the questions in such a binary way. They both have their advantages and disadvantages and I would recommend both to people in different situations. I think you can charge more for handcrafted coffee but it objectively takes longer and you have to staff someone just to brew if you’re going to do it right. You have to work hard to make the value proposition worth it and it often comes down to advertising your brand as a whole and not a by-the-cup profit. Automated brew methods are more consistent, taste just as good when dialed in properly, and enable you to staff around it, making each cup worth more even if you’re not charging as much. However, you have to work harder in other ways to make your brand seem conscientious to people who are only looking at it for 30 seconds at a time.
At Intelligentsia, we brew coffee exclusively by hand at our busiest stores and staff someone all day to do only that. Could an automated brewer make coffee that tastes just as good and require less labor? Probably. But brewing manually is just one way among many that we show our customers that they’re getting the best cup of coffee they could pay for and it pays off in brand equity. However, if you don’t have the capital and staff to pull it off, brewing manually will result in long wait times, poorly brewed coffee, stressed, unpleasant staff and ultimately frustrated customers.
So, there’s my answer. Both, I guess.
Andrew Cash of Jubala Village Coffee
1. It depends what the goal is. Our goal is to offer quality over convenience and I believe that a manual brew method offers a better tasting cup of coffee
2. Manual brew allows the barista to not only control each cup but maybe more importantly allows the barista to engage with the customer. This is important in our market for our business because it offers the customer a different perspective. An engaged customer is necessary for future growth.
3. I don’t believe the alternative is necessarily inferior. I have had to turn down large orders because we did not have the resources necessary to meet the demand. Great coffee can still be made from autodrip machines but how does that help the profession of the barista? My goal is to build our brand around the talent of the barista. That talent involves making great coffee and giving exceptional customer experience. If I replace the barista with automatic machines I believe it waters down the profession of the barista and the interaction with the customer. That is for my brand in my market, and I certainly do not speak for everyone else, just myself and my company!
John Letoto of Blacksmith
Let’s get one thing straight from the very beginning: Both brewing types, when executed properly with quality coffee that has been prepared and stored well right up until brewing, can and should produce excellent cups. I’m not debating that, and I think it’s preposterous to do so. What is in question today is which fits better in a shop environment, and as of this writing, I see clear advantages and disadvantages for both. Sadly, however, I don’t think those pros and cons are understood very well.
With batch-brewing, particularly on a good Fetco that can be and is in fact dialed-in, the benefits are numerous, but even more so for a high-volume cafe. An automated machine will give the same brew, time and time again, with just the push of a button. When a busy cafe doesn’t need to dedicate one more baristas to manually brewing the same “coffee of the day” for hours on end, labor costs are saved and coffee quality, very likely, is far more consistent and reliable. At this point, there may be a knee-jerk reaction that says batch-brewing is cheating, and that it removes much of the craftsmanship from the brewing process. To this, I say that the coffee still must be dialed-in, and that such a task requires the same knowledge as does brewing coffee manually; it is, after all, the same craft!
Now, what are the negative aspects of investing time and money in batch-brewing coffee? For one, if your coffee service does not go through large volumes of drip coffee, batch-brewing may not provide a positive experience for your customers due to extended holding times. Coffee will change over time, even if kept hot, and that must be considered. Also, batch-brewing does not necessarily allow for a wider range of coffees being offered, as most shops employing batch-brewing will only offer one or two coffees at a time. If your customer base is looking for a wider range of offering, this may not be the best solution.
As for manually-brewed coffee, there is a distinct and decided advantage when a cafe really dedicates their time and resources to putting out a lineup of coffees brewed by hand. Yes, each cup is guaranteed to be fresh, but more than that, the staff can dial-in one particular coffee so that it is brewed and served with multiple brew and flavor profiles. This is a service advantage of manual brews I’ve maintained for some time now, yet — as far as I know — has not been utilized fully in any cafe that I know of. Personally, I would love to purchase a flight of drip coffee that has three or four separate cups, each with the same coffee from the same roast, but brewed in the same device using different profiles — with the results clearly delicious but different. Is this possible? Absolutely. Is it difficult? Very much so.
This brings us to the negative aspects of brewing coffee manually. My personal pet peeve is watching baristas use a really uneven pouring position. I won’t get into the science or pseudo-science of it all, but let’s observe that one of the main goals in brewing is to treat each particle of ground coffee as equally as possible. If that is the case, why is it that most coffee people pour from a spout height that is not parallel with the surface of the water/coffee slurry? Most often, this means that the spout is closer to the surface of the slurry on the near side, but farther away on the far side. Agitation will be uneven, won’t it? That seems silly to me, and even more silly that we charge customers for such coffee when an auto-brew will be much more even and consistent.
Concluding Thoughts from the Editor
Although pour-overs present a certain set of challenges, as our contributors all argued, manual brew methods continue to have a place in cafe environments. A skilled barista can brew coffee just as well as a machine, and the drama of brewing coffee manually creates a unique talking point for customer interaction. Nonetheless, the consistency and efficiency of a good automated brewer make it the clear choice for the overwhelming majority of coffee shops. Here at the Compass, we routinely enjoy both pour-overs and autodrip.