A Word on Automatic Pour Over Machines from Jackson
Monday, October 10, 2016
A good number of coffee making machines are popping up these days that call themselves “automatic pour over” machines. These machines started out as super fancy, boutique-y numbers like the Chemex Ottomatic and the Ratio Eight, costing hundreds of dollars and boasting minimalist chic for the person who needs their coffee maker to both make exceptional coffee and match their Design Within Reach coffee table. In recent months, however, a number of machines from manufacturers such as Bodum and Kitchenaid are marketing more affordable (though still pricier than your average auto dripper) machines as “automatic pour overs”. So what’s the deal? What are these machines all about? Well to figure that out we need to know a bit of history.
For the first 500 years that human beings have been drinking coffee, we just threw it in some water and hoped for the best. It took us a long time to figure out that the coffee tasted better and had a longer shelf life if the beans were fermented and dried, longer still that it tasted better when roasted, and still longer that when ground and put into hot water the resulting beverage was more potent and quicker made. It wasn’t until the 1790s when a device called a “coffee biggin” was developed that had the water pass through the coffee suspended in a gauze or muslin filter rather than having the coffee boiled with the water. And for the next almost 200 years there were two competing camps of people who preferred the less fussy, but worse tasting, “boiled” coffee (later “percolator” coffee) and those who preferred the more fussy, but better tasting, “filter” coffee (first being made in a biggin, later refined with a paper filter by Mrs. Melitta Bentz, whose name still adorns the most popular brand of paper filter today). It wasn’t until the 1970s when some Westinghouse engineers in Cleveland came up with a design for a machine that was both easy to use and resulted in a cleaner and less bitter cup than boiled/percolated coffee. The machine was named Mr. Coffee and its revolutionary auto dripper technology quickly swarmed the market until most people had a Mr. Coffee, or a machine based on it, in their kitchen.
In recent years though, coffee professionals (like myself) have discovered that Mr. Coffee and scores of its imitators do a couple of key things wrong. While the basic idea (get hot water to pass through coffee grounds suspended in a filter) is sound, Mr. Coffee doesn’t sweat the details. Most notably, in an effort to keep costs low, Mr. Coffee uses a lower-power heating element which doesn’t get the water to an optimal temperature (Peace Coffee, and the specialty coffee community in general, recommends 195° - 205° Fahrenheit. Mr Coffee can only really get the water to ~180°), and its single-spouted sprayer doesn’t evenly wet the grounds. In the spirit of both being control freaks when it comes to our coffee and also appreciating the theater of coffee brewing, we started pushing the idea of brewing with manual pour over brewers; as a human being (especially a well trained professional human being) could pay attention to these details better than Mr. Coffee could. Now, there is nothing that says that it’s physically impossible for an auto dripper to also get the water to the proper temperature and evenly spray water evenly across the grounds. Indeed that is exactly what machines like the Technivorm Moccamaster and the Bonavita 1900ts do. However, for many people there’s an understood association of words. “Drip” coffee means poorly brewed but easy to use. “Pour Over” coffee means well brewed but difficult and involved. What could sound better than an “Automatic” pour over then?
So what’s the difference between a well-engineered drip machine and an automatic pour over? To the best of my knowledge, nothing really. At the moment, anything calling itself an “automatic pour over” is going to have those details worked out to produce an exceptional cup of automated coffee at the expense of a higher price tag, but there’s nothing about the term “automatic pour over” that guarantees that will be the case for every machine made with that name into perpetuity. For the moment, it’s a handy mark of quality, but there will never be a better way to guarantee that your automated machine produces a quality cup than doing your homework.
For those curious, home machines I have personally tasted coffee out of that make excellent coffee, “drip” or “automatic pour over”, are as follows: