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Handcrafted Coffee with Love

My first manual brewing device was a hand-blown chemex made in the 60's. I still remember hand grinding my beans and measuring them out by the scoop. I used a pyrex measuring cup for my water, and tried to pour hot water out of a small pot to brew my coffee. At the time, it was less precise than an automatic brewer, it was much harder to set up, it was harder to brew, harder to clean and for all of the materials I used, it was more expensive than an automatic brewer. Scales weren’t really used much if at all. We were taught to watch our brew for changes, and if our dose and grind size were correct, we’d nail our contact time. It was 2001, I was 19 years old. The nearest specialty café was 65 miles from my house. I visited once a week to explore the menu, ask questions and try the newest beans from Chicago, New York, Denver and Vancouver. The idea of a local roaster was the stuff of dreams. I had to purchase all of my beans online, and would encourage my friends to buy with me so we could split the cost of shipping.

We just really loved coffee.

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For some, this sounds a little nuts given the ease of access we enjoy fresh beans, local cafes, and all sorts of subscription coffee resources. We’ve come very far from the days of “oh my town just got a Starbucks!” I guarantee that in twenty years we’ll look back at how we buy, make coffee today and wonder how on earth we got by. We won’t make it from here to there though without being pushed to try new things. My part in all this came when I stopped drinking coffee brewed in batches and started drinking coffee I brewed myself, by hand. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was pretty good.

I don’t believe coffee brewed by machines is bad. I don’t believe brewing by hand is necessarily better, but brewing by hand does establish a connection between the barista and the coffee which just doesn’t exist otherwise. Not only this, but it establishes us in those who our coffee is for as well. I do believe that connection teaches us, or at the very least affords us the opportunity to learn. Brewing by hand means taking responsibility for as many facets of the brew as possible, managing them, guiding them, seeing them through to the end, where if it all comes together, you can split a cup with a friend and share a moment.

I remember the next brewing device I had, it was a vacuum pot. It is essentially the same concept as the modern, popularized siphon. It was awesome, but scary, too much for me when I first started using it, but I learned to love it, and today I tend to miss it. Starting down the road of hand brewing opened me up to so many different types of brewers, everyone of them stretching and shaping my coffee experience, specifically for service, but even for private use, I found opportunities to share what I’d discovered the most rewarding.

 

Each new brewing device was an opportunity to discover something new about coffee too, and eventually that path leads to the producer, their communities, their countries and politics, their religion and philosophies…you can’t not become involved once you start. 

Thinking back now, I think my favorite brewer is still the Chemex. It was an “aha” moment for me. The realization that coffee could be greater than what I was used to, and that the boundaries of coffee education stretch so far as I would continue to learn how to use it. I’ve had a Chemex now for 20 years, and I still learn new things about it, and about myself.

I think the first thing I learned about when brewing by hand was my own shortcomings when it comes to brewing coffee. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the wrong steps, or improper technique, it was just that I wasn’t putting myself into the brew. One example I can give is that brewing coffee has always taught me that patience is a virtue. Everybody knows that, but I didn’t know it mattered when it came to coffee. Another example: I used to think that if I had all the right techniques, my coffee would be good, but sometimes, just like in gardening, you have to have wisdom in order to apply the proper techniques, but you won’t know how to apply that without being attentive to yourself and to the brew. Brewing by machine would never have taught me that.

I don’t know that anyone who takes on manual brewing needs to prepare themselves for the rigors of self-discovery, but it was a gift for me as far as I’m concerned, and I’m thankful. Besides being able to explore, and besides all of the learning I was able to find, my coffee came out better. I mentioned earlier that proper management of the facets of the brew helps, and it’s true. Some of the typical complaints against automatic brewers are that they don’t typically provide adequate coverage of the coffee grounds, or that they don’t heat the water, or sustain the proper temperature of the water in order to achieve an even extraction…let alone enough extraction to begin with. Brewing manually puts you in greater control of these elements. Not only that, but it potentially takes you completely out of the filtered coffee sphere and opens up for you so many other styles which aren’t available to most people these days using conventional automatic brewers. 

Full immersion brewers are making a comeback with brewers like the Aeropress and some of the re-imaginings of the French press, the clever dripper, etc., and emersion brewers work extremely well. They’re easy to use, perfect for beginners, encourage even extraction, keep your water hot, and with the addition of new filtering techniques, are coming out silt-free. 

If you’re a coffee lover, and you’ve been toying with the idea of investing in materials to begin brewing coffee at home, I suggest it. Don’t throw out your Mr. Coffee when you do though! You’ll wish you had a machine come Holidays and family gatherings when you’re trying to make 25 individual Aeropress pressed coffees. Take the time to get your hands dirty, make a few bad brews, learn how to make the good brews you’ve been making better. Take those lessons, and reapply them to your automatic brews, I guarantee you’ll learn a few tricks that makes it all worthwhile. Share your discoveries with those close to you, put some love into it and don’t stop being humble enough to keep learning. Don’t let yourself be robbed of something good and beautiful.

- Matthew Bryce

 

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