Coffee Innovation of the Non-RTD Variety, Part 2: Pour-Over Evolves

500px-IntelligentsiaAlthough Starbucks is often credited with shifting expectations in how consumers view their daily cup of Joe — certainly in terms of price and flavor — the rise of ultra-high-end coffee shops (the ones whose customers snort and scoff at the slightest mention of Starbucks) has given way to an entirely new notion of what constitutes quality.

Over the past decade, companies like Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle and Stumptown have drawn on exotically sourced beans and sophisticated brewing techniques to set a new standard for high-quality coffee. The brands and offerings, which include cold-brew varieties, are commonly referred to as “third-wave coffee.”

In recent years, it’s the pour-over brewing method that has become the archetype in these uber-cafes. The technique, which came to the U.S. via Japan, calls for near-boiling water to be gently decanted (usually poured in a spiral) over a filter that is loaded with coffee grounds. Hovering above a cup, liquid from the fully saturated grounds passes through the filter and into the waiting vessel.

Pour-over adherents claim that the resulting coffee offers elevated notes of flavor as compared to other brewing methods, while the process itself is often lauded as exquisite and ceremonious. Nevertheless, the cost of café-bought versions can add up quickly; the drinks are made to order and a single cup can cost upwards of $4.

Stumptown-ChemexAs a result, some consumers have flocked to the Williams-Sonomas of the world in search of the preparation tools used by their favorite coffee shops. Now, long-spouted kettles, filters and glass pots fitted with a cone-shaped top are sold at a variety of on- and off-line retailers, and die-hard aficionados look to pour-over equipment  manufacturers like Chemex, Bonavita and Hario, all of which produce a variety of innovative gadgets for home-brewing.

Regardless of whether the preparation takes place at home or in a café, the manual process of pour-over coffee can be time-consuming and tedious for even most die-hard aficionados. It’s these issues that spurred the development of a handful of automatic pour-over machines. While some might accuse the devices of undercutting the artisan quality of pour-over coffee, manufacturers promote the consistency and convenience of the machines versus traditional tools.

One the one hand are Bodum’s Bistro B.Over and Ratio, both are built and molded with the flair of a contemporary artist. Then there’s KitchenAid, long a stalwart of counter-top appliances, which earlier this year introduced its Pour Over Coffee Maker. There’s a short list of entrepreneurs attempting to fund scaled manufacturing of their automatic pour-over prototypes via Kickstarter. Bruvelo, a wi-fi-connected pour-over coffee brewer is one such project.

Each machine claims to produce coffee in such a way that mimics the manual pour-over process; in a variety of forms, each device heats up water to an optimal temperature and evenly distributes the liquid over a filter of coffee grounds.

KitchenAid Pour Over Coffee MakerWhile Bodum and Ratio are clearly targeting the stylish spectrum of pour-over coffee drinkers, KitchenAid features a more mainstream look. With a design that plays between functional and familiar, the appliance is, however, not inexpensive: the unit retails for around $200.

Although the Pour Over Coffee Maker has received “Certified Home Brewer” status from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a distinction given to only a handful of other high-end coffee makers, consumer reviews for the device, as well as the Bodum, have been mixed. In most cases, consumers enjoyed the coffee that each machine brewed, but directed criticism at the construction of the units, claiming numerous malfunctions.

In the end, these manufacturing companies are attempting to solve a problem of convenience, when a more pressing issue for pour-over coffee (as well as traditionally brewed versions) is in the quality of beans and how they are ground, according to Tony Konecny, a coffee guru well-known in specialty circles. In a recent interview with Lifehacker.com, Konecny, a former veteran of Intelligentsia and the founder of Tonx, a micro-batch coffee roasting company, called the engineereing of these coffee makers as small iterations on the same old mousetrap without working enough on the cheese.

“Presumably most of these devices are more robust and support better/hotter water temps and that alone is justification for their existence and cause enough for people to upgrade,” Konecny told Lifehacker. “But what about the grinder? What about the measurement of the coffee:water ratio? Making water hot and timing a pour is the least difficult part of the coffee brewing equation. We’ve been able to accomplish most of that pretty well since the invention of fire.”

Part one of our look at non-RTD coffee innovation is here.