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Coffee brewing 101
Local establishments show some diversity in their preferred method for making that perfect cup of java.

Photography and text by Adam Bird

There are many ways of brewing coffee and
many philosophies for preparing that perfect cup
or pot. While far removed from the hills and farms
that grow coffee berry bushes, Grand Rapids has
a vibrant and varied coffee culture in both its
restaurants and coffee shops. Here’s a look
at four methods at four local establishments.

Drip: Drip coffee sometimes gets a bad rap: Aficionados often look down their upraised espresso cups at those big American mugs filled with java. But most Americans make drip coffee at home, setting timers before bedtime so they can gratefully sip that first cup of coffee in the morning.

And there are people who do drip coffee well, like the staff at Sundance Grill downtown. All of the coffee beans are roasted by Magnum Coffee of Nunica a day before the fresh, custom blend is delivered. Every batch of coffee — brewed a gallon and a half at a time — has fresh grounds. Sundance uses Bunn coffeemakers made of stainless steel. Coffee grounds are put in a large filter and hot water drips through into a pot before being transferred to vacuum carafes for serving.

Letting gravity pull water through grounds is one of the most common and most effective methods of making coffee. There are arguments over how much coffee can be made well at one time, but if done well, a flavorful high-quality brew can be made easily every time. Drip coffee can be drunk black, but also takes well to sugar and milk.

Properly made, drip coffee is deep and rich, with only slight notes of bitterness — a good balance against the acidity of coffee. Too much bitterness turns the coffee into the thick brew commonly associated with all-night gas stations.

Pour-over: On the other end of gravity-powered coffee is the pour-over method. Coffee shops such as MadCap Coffee and others are taking advantage of this high-science, low-tech method. The process does not lend itself to making gallons at a time and requires careful attention.

 

At MadCap, 98 Monroe Center NW, Stacey Wieck agitates grounds while water flows through them. The secret is in the balance between water temperature, freshness and quality of the grounds, a paper filter and a little gravity to pull the water through.

A paper filter is placed inside a ceramic cone over a small glass coffee pot. Grounds are place in the filter and a very small amount of hot water is poured over them to create a bloom of oils as the coffee reacts.

The trick is to agitate the coffee vigorously yet delicately using a small bamboo utensil that resembles a stick. As the coffee flows through the filter, it spirals in grooves down the inside of the ceramic cone. Moving the grounds ensures that all are saturated as evenly as possible. As the grounds are mashed and stirred, a cascade of aroma is released. MadCap encourages customers to watch and smell as each cup of coffee is prepared so they can engage with the process and ask questions.

This method makes a very delicate cup of robust, almost berry-like coffee with sweet notes — without requiring the addition of sugar. Unlike other types of coffee preparation, pour-over tends not to grow bitter as it cools, maintaining the flavor and aroma of the beans.

Pour-over makes a complex drink that tastes as bright and cheerful to the palate as it is dark and rich to the eye.

MadCap uses a Vv60 Hario cone with a large opening at the bottom that allows for finer grinds than cones that have a V-shape or flat bottom.

In many ways, this is coffee as art. As with anything done well, the quality of the coffee is in direct relation to how much care and attention go into brewing it. The barista has control over the speed of the pour, over what part of the grounds and how much the grounds are agitated by the bamboo paddle. All elements play a role in making a perfectly balanced cup of coffee.

Turkish: Coffee bushes originated in the Ethiopian region of Kaffa in northeast Africa. Mediterranean cultures have been drinking it socially and as medicine for at least a thousand years.


At Marie Carib’s, the process of making Turkish coffee starts by adding spices and coffee and boiling them together three times using a special pot that narrows near the top. Cardamom and sugar accent the rich froth at the top.

The method of making Turkish coffee works so well, it has withstood the rise and fall of civilizations, time and distance. It involves the simplest of technologies: a pot, a grinder and a heat source. Brewing requires an open flame, so it most typically happens on a kitchen range rather than on a bar, table or countertop.

At Marie Catrib’s, the very hot Turkish coffee is brewed by the chefs on a gas range. The coffee beans are roasted within a day or two of brewing. The beans are ground nearly to powder before joining sugar and cardamom at the bottom of a small, specially shaped pot with a gentle taper near the top. This narrowing of the pot is key.

Water is added to just below the lip of the pot, heated to a boil, then removed from heat to simmer down three times. The taper of the pot causes the grounds to move through the water, carried by the energy of the boil. Much like pour-over, Turkish coffee requires attention and action in the brewing process. Since it is made over an open flame, without careful attention, it can easily boil over or burn — which makes for really bad coffee.

The pot is served alongside a very small cup. This is strong, brazen coffee with incredible amounts of caffeine. In spite of its strength, however, the sugar and cardamom make this a robust, sweet coffee with a pleasant aroma. Never drink it down to the bottom of the cup or pot. Since the grounds are put in the water with no filtration process, drinking the last drops of coffee makes for an unpleasant experience.

Espresso: The unique sounds and smells coming from an espresso machine bring a smile to the face of anybody looking for that mainline dose of coffee.

 

Amanda Ebenhoeh of The Sparrows coffeeshop, 1035 Wealthy St. SE, prepares a cup of espresso, filling the shop with hisses from the massive espresso machine. Espresso (Italian for fast) is a mechanical process, the industrial age’s answer to strong coffee made quickly. Water is pushed through grounds at high pressure and precise temperatures.

Espresso is perhaps the least accessible method of brewing, requiring a machine that pushes water through tamped, finely ground coffee at 8.8 atmospheres of pressure, or 130 pounds per square inch.

The brew is quite different from other types of coffee. While coffee is essentially a solution, espresso is also a suspension of solids and an emulsion. Science and espresso go hand in hand. A proper espresso is capped with golden-brown crema that resembles foam — the reward for being able to master the machine.

Brew too long or too cool, and the coffee becomes bitter. Brew just right, and this small dose of coffee served in a demitasse is rich in complexity, sweet in tone and high (per volume) in caffeine. Espresso is a favorite of anyone looking for a rich coffee experience. GR

Adam Bird is a photographer and writer who doesn’t mind the cold in Grand Rapids.

   
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