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Making the switch from Keurig to pour over coffee with help from local baristas

Right after the holidays, my Keurig went on the fritz. Truth be told, I never thought it made a particularly stellar cup of coffee, and the plastic waste from all of those K-cups always gave me landfill guilt. Still, it was so easy to pop in one of those pods while I fired up my laptop and got organized for the day’s writing. None of the troubleshooting tips and tricks I gleaned from watching YouTube videos or reading message boards (which ranged from cleaning out the mechanisms using an unraveled paper clips to whacking it on the bottom) helped me fix it, nor did a call to the company’s customer service line; Keurig offered to give me a discount on a new machine, which would have worked out to be $40 more than Amazon’s going price -- no thanks.

I knew there had to be a better way.

I have tried pour over coffee at several coffee shops, and friends who are fans of the method swear by the bright, fresh, robust flavors you get from it. So, armed with some blogs, Amazon reviews, brand reps and a few local baristas, I decided to give it a try. The final verdict? While my morning coffee ritual has gotten a little bit longer, I can still manage to get a hot cup of java in under 10 minutes--and it tastes infinitely better. I’m a convert. In case you’re curious too, here’s what I’ve learned in the past few weeks about the world of pour over:

The Grinder

The whirring blades of that low-end electric grinder you picked up at Bed, Bath and Beyond or got from your wedding registry and the inconsistently ground beans it makes just won’t cut it for pour over. “The number one thing we recommend to up your coffee game is a grinder,” says Harrison Suarez, coffee roaster at Compass Coffee in D.C. “The most basic grinder is a Bodum Bistro [$23],” he says. “It’s a great grinder for beginners because it's easy-to-use and very affordable.” What you may want to use, though, is a burr grinder, which employs two revolving abrasive surfaces separated a specific distance apart (the further apart, the coarser the grind), to give you perfectly consistent grounds. Suarez recommends the Baratza Encore--which, at $130, is definitely more of a commitment. I opted for the JavaPresse, a manual burr grinder that costs $24. The fineness or coarseness of the grind is adjustable, and I have to admit that the manual cranking (which takes about a minute to grind the beans needed for a full mug of coffee) is a very Zen-inducing process. No matter what style of grinder you use, you’ll want to grind beans to the coarseness of sea salt. “If you grind your coffee too fine the water will have a hard time flowing through, and if you grind your coffee too coarse then your pour over will be too watery,” explains Dinitra “Ruthie” Thomas, store manager of Buzz Ballston.

The Pour Over System

The actual contraption you’ll need to brew a cup of pour over coffee is nothing more than a cone-shaped filter (either metal mesh or paper) set over some kind of heatproof container. Suarez is partial to the Chemex ($42-$50). “It's the true American classic: elegant enough to be in the MoMa, cool enough that James Bond used it, and still made in Chicopee, Massachusetts.” I sampled two other brands: the 400 ml-sized Coffee Gator ($26), which consists of a handled glass pitcher into which a metal filter sets, and the Osaka Gold Cone Dripper ($20), which can be set over any container, Thermos or mug. I actually prefer using a combo of the two: the Osaka filter set over the Coffee Gator glass container. The former gives nice, dark, robust coffee, while the latter is easy to pour from and has markings for one to four cups. Keep in mind that metal filters can be rinsed out and reused without the need for buying paper filters, but some java fans may like the ease of disposing of a new filter each day.

The Water

It sounds simple enough, but I have found that hot water is the most challenging part of pour over coffee. Using water that’s been microwaved in a glass measuring cup doesn’t retain its heat well and pours sloppily. A standard kettle on the stove solves the heat retention issue, yet still gives an awkward pour that doesn’t evenly soak the grinds. The solution? A gooseneck-style electric kettle, which can be kept on your countertop, quickly heats water (200 degrees is preferred) at the touch of a button (some even offer variable temperature settings) and pours slowly and evenly from a curved, thin gooseneck spout. Osaka, Willow & Everett, Bonavita and other brands offer them, starting at $35. And, it may go without saying, but Suarez says clean, filtered water will give the freshest, yet most neutral taste. “This will provide the best possible foundation for your coffee's inherent flavors to really shine.”

The Beans

You can’t get your caffeine fix without some beans. Thomas says any good beans that are properly ground can be used for pour over, but her favorites are the ones that Buzz uses for its dark roast, called Antithesis. “The beauty of doing a pour over really highlights the fresh flavor and notes that a handcrafted coffee brings you.” Compass Coffee has a variety of tins of beans priced $12.99 to $13.99; bring your tin back for a refill, and they’ll give you a $1 off. I’m still experimenting with different beans; what I’ve found so far is that the same bean brewed in a standard coffee maker, a French press and a pour over system tastes wildly different, which is eye-opening. No matter which ones you use, Suarez says the proportion of beans to water is super important. “For some reason, most people use either way too much, or way too little,” he notes. If you have a food scale, the proper ratio is one gram of coffee to 17.42 grams of water. “If you're not a coffee nerd, and you just want a great cup of coffee to start your day, start with two tablespoons of whole beans per six-ounce cup, and adjust to whatever tastes best to you,” he says. I’ve had pretty good success with four tablespoons and twelve to thirteen ounces of water, which is just enough to fill my favorite mug.

To Make a Perfect Mug of Pour Over Coffee:

  1. In a burr grinder, grind enough beans to the consistency of sea salt to make 4 tablespoons.
  2. Add the coffee grinds to the filter in your pour over system.
  3. In a kettle (preferably a gooseneck electric kettle), heat clean, filtered water to 200 degrees.
  4. Pour enough heated water to soak your coffee grounds, and wait for one minute. This is called wetting or “blooming” your coffee, which releases the carbon dioxide from your grounds so it doesn’t make your coffee bitter. (This is a very important step, so don’t skip it!)
  5. Continue to pour in water, making sure not to waterlog your grounds, waiting until most of it passes through the filter before adding more water. “A pour over should never be rushed,” says Thomas. “[It] doesn't take more than ten minutes, but should be made with love and care.”
  6. Enjoy your mug of pour over coffee black, or with the creamer and/or sweetener of your choice.

It may take some practice, but you will find it becomes more efficient and second-nature every day. The biggest mistake with pour over, Suarez says, is stressing out about it. “It's supposed to be fun: you'll drive yourself crazy if you're super uptight and worried about ‘messing it up.’” He recalls when he and fellow coffee roaster Michael Haft were just getting started and made tons of mistakes--which ended up teaching them a lot. “Those little discoveries kept us excited and hungry to learn more.”

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