To make a cup of coffee you really only need three things: ground coffee, water, and some sort of filter. It’s fair to say that every brewing method is capable of producing a good cup of coffee. If you were to make a cup of Blue Bottle Coffee’s Bella Donovan using each brew method, you would get a similar tasting coffee each time, but the texture and procedure would change.
There are five main variables to consider regarding texture and tactics:
- Filter material
- Grind size
- Texture of drink
- Procedure of brew method
- Experience of user
Here's how those variables play out in these five popular brewing methods.
What's the difference? The pour-over method produces coffee with a delicate texture that resides somewhere between juicy and tea-like. Its clarified mouthfeel is attributed to the dripper’s paper filter, which holds back oils and non-dissolved coffee particles from the final cup.
There are countless drippers on the market, some more popular than others, and each claiming to produce a “better coffee” than the next. But the variations between each dripper are subtle, esoteric, and often only decorative.
Most single-cup drippers will need a medium grind size (think table salt) and should finish dripping anywhere between 2–5 minutes. The biggest challenge for the pour-over method is the pour technique. Pour speed, pattern, and the number of pouring phases will all yield noticeable differences. A good rule of thumb is to keep a consistent technique for consistent results. Drippers can be considered an “entry-level” brewing device, but they require focus and care.
What's the difference? A coffee maker is a pour-over brew method that has been mechanized. Texture tends to be light due to paper filtration and the grind should be medium, like table salt. Coffee makers are “easier” because the technique variable has been eliminated (the machine does the pouring for you), but we don’t think they produce coffee that is as delicious as the manual pour-over method.
The pouring “style” of each machine varies and the temperature of the water is typically inflexible. Coffee made in a coffee maker can be delicious, or it can also be mediocre, but it will almost always be consistent and effortless.
Who's it ideal for? Coffee makers are for everyone. They are a family standard. They are for early risers. They are for anyone for whom coffee is a supplement to a productive morning, not the main event.
What's the difference? French Press is an immersion brew method, meaning coffee grounds are fully immersed in water and then strained using a metal filter. Metal filters allow oils and non-dissolved coffee particles to pass into the cup. As a result, the texture of French Press coffee is heavy, silky, and dense.
Grind size should be coarse, like very coarse black pepper, which means the brew time is often long, between 4–6 minutes.
Who's it ideal for? Technique is basic, and the only variable to consider is whether or not to stir the grounds. (We recommend that you do.) Otherwise, French Press is accessible to anyone, and is particularly excellent for people who love their coffee with breakfast, as the French Press doubles as a serving carafe and comes in a variety of sizes.
What's the difference? I love AeroPress for its versatility and creativity. It is an immersion brewing style (like French Press) and uses paper filters (like pour over), so the texture of an AeroPress is delicate and silky. The grind size tends to be finer, more powdery, approaching espresso fineness, which often means the brew time is as fast as 1 minute. AeroPress is the Swiss army knife of brew methods.
Many unusual techniques exist for brewing with AeroPress, making this method endlessly engaging.
Who's it ideal for? AeroPress is for the traveler and the broke enthusiast. It is adventurous by nature and is best suited to the intermediate user.
What's the difference? Siphon brewing is beautiful, intricate, and theatrical. It is probably the most technique-heavy brew method aside from espresso. There is immersion, there is vacuum pressure, there is fire.
Siphon coffee is filtered with flannel cloth, so the texture is silky and soft. Grind size should be medium, like table salt, but even more important than grind are other variables, like water temperature stability and agitation of the grounds.
Who's it ideal for? Siphon-making is as esoteric as they come, and probably best suited for the experienced enthusiast, the craft hobbyist, or for someone who enjoys showing off to her friends and doesn’t mind a heavy cleanup.
What's the difference? Cold brew iced coffee has become a new staple in the cafe scene. Traditional cold brew requires a 12–18 hour total extraction time, and is filtered with a large paper, fabric, or synthetic bag.
The notable difference of cold brew is its crisp, sometimes tart profile and sugary-sweet flavors. It often has a light, refreshing texture, but texture can also vary from batch to brand. Cold brew is very much in vogue and its definition seems to be constantly morphing.
Who's it ideal for? There do not seem to be established standards for grind size, brew time, or filtration method. Making it at home can be so easy, anyone can do it, but refining your technique and getting results you love can take time.