Gear for Making Great Pour-over Coffee
After more than 30 hours of research and testing, we’ve determined that the best manual coffee setup depends on what your personal tastes and time preferences are. But that didn’t stop us from trying to find the best pour-over coffee setups for the most common kinds of users. First, I interviewed 10 coffee experts hailing from all points of the continental United States, including two national barista champions, founders of renowned coffee establishments, prominent roasters, and well-known coffee writers such as Wirecutter veteran (and current EIC of the Awl) Matt Buchanan. Using their expertise, my own knowledge and experiences as a former barista, and drawing from various respected culinary resources like Serious Eats and The New York Times, I came up with a short list of the the most highly regarded manual brewing methods. I then enlisted a blind tasting panel of people to try out the most widely recommended methods to help discern the differences between them.
The main focus of this guide is the pour-over coffee setup itself for those who appreciate the coffee from a high-end cafe but want to make it at home. But no matter which method you choose, you’re going to need a solid grinder capable of producing consistent, even-sized grinds, a gooseneck kettle for heating water and controlled pouring, and a scale. We plan to start working on full guides to these in the future, but in the meantime, based on research from the previous guide, expert interviews, and my experience as a barista, we have a number of preliminary recommendations below.
If taste is your main priority, the Kalita Wave 185-Series Glass is what you should get. The Kalita makes it easy to craft a high-quality, nuanced cup of coffee. In testing, brewers appreciated how easy it was to make an evenly-extracted cup, while tasters were impressed with how easy it was to distinguish the individual flavor notes in the finished product. The Wave’s combination of consistency and quality has made it the darling of the high-end coffee world and the weapon of choice for multiple competitive brewers, including the 2013 Brewer’s Cup world champion. The only real downside is that it uses proprietary filters (also sold here, here, and here), which can be difficult to find (outside of the internet) and cost more than those used by competing systems.
But one size does not necessarily fit all. If you prefer something that’s even easier to use, an option with cheaper filters, or a device that makes bad coffee taste better, we have picks for you too—not to mention suggestions for grinders, kettles, and more below.
If the Wave is unavailable, or if you just want something with cheaper filters, the classic Bee House or any of its variants (like Bonmac, Kalita or the cheaper plastic Melitta), are our runners-up. This design has been around for decades and has been coopted by many a boutique cafe across the country for its ease of use and consistently high-quality output. Flavors don’t quite pop the way they do with the Wave, but they’re still quite good with the Bee House brethren, and all are a lot more forgiving and approachable than the popular V60 dripper. But perhaps their best feature: the Bee House family uses standard #2 cone filters which can be found in grocery stores and corner stores just about anywhere in America.
While both the Wave and the Bee House drippers are pretty easy to use, they do still require your active attention for pretty much the full brewing process. If you’d prefer to just have good coffee without having to craft it, get a Clever Dripper. Basically, you just put in a #4 paper cone filter, add ground coffee, pour in hot water, let it sit for a couple of minutes, then decant it into a mug or serving vessel. The resulting coffee is tasty and noticeably higher quality than your average drip machine, but it lacks the clarity of other pourover methods. But what you lose in flavor, you gain in convenience.
There’s also the fan-favorite Aeropress, which can make even cheap coffee taste decent. That makes it a great pick for those who want good-tasting coffee who aren’t willing to pay extra for premium beans. According to its inventor, this device was designed to remove bitterness and acidity from coffee. As such, it does a good job masking the shortcomings of cheaper coffee, which is often too bitter and acidic. The Aeropress is also an easy to master, although it can be tricky to learn at first, as I, a new user, found during testing. And you can only make one cup at time, whereas other manual brewing methods can serve at least two (and often up to four) people simultaneously.
Table of contents
- Why should you trust me?
- Why bother with pour-over coffee?
- What about machines?
- Grinders, kettles, and scales
- How we picked
- How we tested
- The best-tasting pick
- Runner-up (with cheaper filters)
- Easiest to use
- Makes cheap coffee taste better
- The competition
- A note on materials
- Care and maintenance
- Good sources to check out
Why should you trust me?
Before I became a journalist, I worked as a professional barista for five years (trained by both Stumptown Coffee as well as a Northeast Barista Champion finalist), working in various coffee shops around the United States.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about coffee, shop experience doesn’t necessarily equal true knowledge. One of my biggest pet peeves is going to a coffeeshop that intentionally tries to seem cooler and more aloof than everyone. In reaction to this, I’ve made it my mission for the last few years to explain coffee techniques to people in ways that’s fun and interesting for all.
Why bother with pour-over coffee?
If you can appreciate a good cup of coffee that you pay $4 for at a high-end cafe, it’s worth trying it yourself at home. Making and drinking a good cup of coffee is like listening to music through a nice pair of headphones. If the Mr. Coffee or K-Cup in your company break room is the set of earbuds that came free with your smartphone, well-executed pour-over coffee is a pair of audiophile-approved headphones. Similar to how nice headphones can make music more enjoyable, a decent pour-over setup (and a bit of practice) will produce a cup that really sings as opposed to a muddy cup of joe.
Many people will rightly say that equipment comes secondary to the quality of beans when it comes to making good coffee. But even if you’re buying high-quality beans and putting them in a regular drip machine, you’re not really getting your money’s worth. A single-origin coffee from Guatemala will taste similar to any given cheap coffee if you buy it pre-ground and shove it into a Mr. Coffee. But if you grind your coffee correctly, weigh it out, and then take the extra few minutes to properly heat the water and use a pour-over dripper, you will simply get a more nuanced and interesting drink that brings out flavors (and even textures) you never knew you were missing.
To understand why pour-over makes good coffee, it helps to understand the science behind coffee brewing in general. For a cup of coffee to be ‘good,’ the brewer needs to extract about 20 percent of the bean’s soluble solids. The rate of extraction is determined by how fine the bean is ground, how hot the water is, how much water there is, how the water is distributed, and how long the water sits in the grounds.
When you use an auto-drip machine, the only variables you can control are the grind size and the ratio of water to coffee. This is problematic because most machines don’t heat water to a high enough temperature and will only spray it in one location. The result is an under-extracted cup that tastes weak. With pourover, you control the temperature, rate of flow, and where the water goes, which means you can get as much (or as little) extraction as you want. The exact variables vary slightly between different coffees, but for the most part, if you grind to about the consistency of salt, heat water to about 202˚F (basically let it boil, then cool down for a minute), and pour evenly around the dripper, you’re going to end up with a decent cup.
What about machines?
While there are some very excellent (and expensive) machines out there that are capable of making consistently good coffee (and yes, we are currently working on a guide to these), you will still get more control out of a manual setup.
With a manual setup, you can control not only the distribution of water, but the rate at which you pour and the temperature. Adding a scale can enable you to experiment with various ratios to really dial in your technique and approach for each different coffee (if you’re into that kind of thing).
Finally, there are many who will appreciate the ritualistic aspect of manual brewing that you just can’t get from throwing a K-Cup in a slot and pressing a button. Similar to how you can get a better shave from a safety razor if you put in the time, taking the time to make your own coffee by hand can be a very personally gratifying experience.
I personally value this a lot. It does add about seven minutes to my daily routine; but there’s something gratifying about the ritual of getting up, putting the water on the kettle, taking a shower, getting out and preparing my cup (yes, I do it naked), and then drinking it. And if you work in a setting that only serves mediocre coffee, bringing in your own cup of perfectly-brewed coffee in a travel mug is like having a mini-vacation in a bottle.
Grinders, kettles, and scales
If you decide that you’d be interested in trying a pour-over coffee setup, you’re going to need a few things besides the device itself: a grinder to freshly grind coffee for better flavor (we like the Baratza Encore), a kettle with a narrow spout to heat and pour the water in a controlled fashion (the Bonavita is our favorite), and preferably a scale to help with precision (this American Weigh SC-2KG pocket scale is the one we like for precision measuring in Sweethome’s kitchen scale guide).
We hope to eventually break some of these out into full, individual guides, but for now the following recommendations are based on my expertise as a former barista, expert interviews, and the research conducted by myself and Matt Buchanan before me. We lay out our reasoning in the rest of this section, but if you already have a setup or just want to get to the drippers themselves, click here to skip ahead.
If you get nothing else, it’s worth investing in a quality grinder because all methods of coffee preparation require a grind consisting mostly of uniformly-sized particles—even automatic drip machines. That means no spinning blade grinders. In fact, if you have one, you might do well to take renowned coffee roaster Nick Cho’s advice and throw it out.
Cho explains in this Serious Eats article that grinding coffee with “a blade grinder is like trading your chef’s knife for a mallet. The blade grinder relies on the little propeller-like ‘blade’ to spin, pulverizing the coffee it encounters into smaller and smaller bits.” The resulting grind will be inconsistent from batch to batch and contain lots of coffee dust (known as “fines”) which “will brew alongside the more properly-sized coffee bits… [and] over-extract, resulting in bitter, unpleasant flavors.” He goes on to explain that even the cheapest of burr grinders would be a major improvement and gives some advice on how to choose one. We hope to publish a standalone grinder guide soon, but for now, we have some preliminary recommendations based on research and our own experience.
In the previous version of this guide, we recommended the $130 Baratza Encore as a solid electric grinder for most people because of its low cost and consistent performance. It’s the low-end model from Baratza, which The NY Times describes is “a company that is to coffee grinders what Wüsthof is to kitchen knives: solid, understated, durable. (Baratza has a solid track record, and there’s a reason why its grinders are carried by many of the more conscientious independent coffee shops.)”
It uses conical burrs (a good standard to keep in mind when looking for grinders), and produces consistent coffee-ground output for the purposes of pour-over. I’ve used it as part of my pour-over routine for over a year now and have nothing but good things to say. Prima Coffee, widely respected as both a coffee brewing resource and equipment distributor, had a local award-winning barista test it head-to-head against more expensive grinders for both pour-over and espresso use. He concluded that, “The Baratza Encore is a $129 grinder that will grind fine enough for espresso and still maintain a consistent grind for a French Press.”
However, for the finer grinds you’d use for espresso and larger grinds (like what you’d use for a French press) it’s been known to be a bit finicky, which is why some more dedicated coffee fans and professionals prefer going a step up. Matt Buchanan, who wrote the last iteration of this guide, prefers the $230 Baratza Virtuoso. Of course, the extra hundred-plus dollars will give a more quality product. Matt put it perfectly: “the more serious you are about coffee—or think you will be—the more value you’ll get out of a higher-end grinder.”
But if you’re only using it for pour-over and never plan on dabbling in espresso, there’s no need to spend the extra $100, let alone hundreds more on an even nicer machine. That only gets you a device that’s better equipped for espresso.
There are other popular options, like the Rancillo Rocky and the Breville Smart Grinder (which WIRED rated highly). These are good devices too, and we hope to evaluate them in a full guide dedicated to grinders soon, but they have slightly higher price tags and don’t carry Baratza’s reputation in coffee circles. With that, Baratza is probably the most bang for your buck, as well as a general pick among experts.
But if $130 is a bit too much to spend for you, a manual hand grinder is another option. Sweethome associate editor Michael Zhao has owned and tested all the popular handheld options from leading brands like Hario, Porlex, and Kyocera. His favorite is actually the cheapest, too: the $25 Hario Coffee Mill Slim Grinder Mini. It combines the easy-loading conical hopper of the larger Hario with the spring-loaded, easy-to-use, grind-adjustment mechanism and easy-to-grip size of the Porlex models.
The Mini’s limited capacity has never been an issue since most pour-over recipes won’t exceed the device’s roughly 50-gram capacity (a single American-sized cup takes about 18-25 grams). Besides, if you’re grinding more than that on a regular basis, you should get an electric one anyway, unless you’re a masochist with plentiful time to spare in the mornings. It’s worth noting that the Mini has more plastic parts than the full-sized Hario and feels a bit off-puttingly lightweight, but the full-sized Hario lacks the spring-loaded grind adjustment mechanism, which leads to less consistent grinds because the burr can shift around a bit during the grinding process. After having owned and used it for about a year with no signs of wear, he’s confident that it should hold up over time.
Kettles are a slightly simpler device since there are two major factors to look out for: an elongated spout and temperature control. The elongated spout is a necessity for most systems because it enables you to precisely control how much water is being poured, how fast it comes out, and where the water is directed during brewing. All these factors are important for even extraction. As for temperature, a kettle that brings water to a boil works just fine, so long as you’re willing to wait a minute for the water to cool down a bit.
This $60 electric Bonavita is what I personally use and highly recommend. (Prima Coffee recommends it, too.) It heats water quickly to a boil in 4½ minutes; then it’s just a matter of waiting about a minute while it cools down to a more optimal brewing temperature. Liz Clayton, coffee expert over at Serious Eats, liked it a lot, writing: “Insulated handle? Yep. Precise spout? Yep—just a hair’s breadth narrower than the [Hario] Buono’s [ed note: another popular kettle], comfortably ergonomic, cheaper, and oh yeah, it plugs in. Auto-shutoff and a 1-liter capacity make this easier and cheaper than anything else on the market, allowing us to turn a blind eye to its slightly flimsy base construction. Boils fast, too.”
But for the more industrious coffee-folk out there (or tea-drinkers who want different temperatures for different teas), you may want to spend more for the $95 adjustable-temperature version to play around with brew temperatures. For example, if you’re making a cup of coffee from a climate like Ethiopia, which is known to make more acidic tasting coffee, you may want to use a higher temperature than the standard 202°F. But even some of the experts don’t believe the temperature to be of the utmost importance. Sam Lewontin of Manhattan’s Everyman Espresso, who won the Northeast Barista Championship in 2013, thinks it unnecessary for a burgeoning home brewer. Said Lewontin, “don’t buy temperature control unless you’re also making tea.” Beyond temperature control however, the adjustable kettle also has a convenient hold-temperature function that lets you set the kettle, then take a shower or whatever, and come back to water at exactly the temperature you need it.
However, if you want a stove-top kettle, you should pass on the Bonavita, which gets a bad rep for having a weakly welded spout that’s prone to breaking off when exposed to high heat. (This isn’t an issue with the electric versions, since there’s no direct exposure to heating coils or flames to worry about there.) Instead, opt for the Hario Buono for about $45. It’s durable and has a pretty design that people are fond of, but actually is not as precise a pourer as the cheaper Bonavita due to its wider, more-rounded opening.
As far as the competition goes, Hario has an electric version of their Buono kettle, but it’s more expensive and still doesn’t pour as well. There are also a number of models that champion baristas and high-end cafes swear by (Takahiro and Kalita are among the more prominent examples), but they will cost you a lot more money and don’t have the convenience of a built-in heat source. Similarly, you’ll be able to find a lot of no-name Japanese imports on Amazon (like this “Fino”) that are cheap but don’t have electric heating.
While some scales differ in size and powering method, as long as it isn’t too cumbersome an object and accurately measures to a tenth of a gram. In Sweethome’s recently updated kitchen scale guide, we recommend $20 American Weigh SC-2KG pocket scale for precise measurements, and I agree. It is indeed what I use; it’s cheap and does the job perfectly. It’s also quite portable, which is good if you want to bring a coffeemaker on the road, and it has a backlit screen for easy reading. You could use something like our kitchen scale pick for baking if you already have one, but that’s only accurate to the half gram, which isn’t ideal if you’re really trying to dial in your brew.
All together now
In sum, a setup with an Encore, Bonavita gooseneck kettle, and the American Weigh scale is perfectly alright. Yes, it will set you back $230 for this setup, not including whatever brewing device you choose. But the investment is well worth it; all those gadgets will last quite a while, and they have other uses beyond merely making cups of coffee (not like you needed another reason to buy these things!).
How we picked what to test for pour-over
There are endless amounts of ways to brew coffee. There are ones that are more popular among the masses, others that the pros like, some that are really expensive for no good reason, and some that look weird and probably make weird-tasting coffee. Coffee-brewers worldwide have taken it upon themselves to make new systems that they think streamline the process and make finer cups. Japan, specifically, is a region known for producing new and interesting coffee-brewing products.
It’s easy to look at these things and think, “oh, they’re all cones. Why does it matter?” But as it turns out, little differences can lead to noticeable changes in flavor in the finished product. For example, a conical shape makes for a quicker water flow, whereas a wedge-shaped filter with holes at the bottom slows the water flow down.
This means that coffee from wedge-shaped filters can sometimes be stronger and less subtle than the conical systems. Ridges, too, can aid water flow, allowing water to be dispersed more evenly and quickly. This, says Prima Coffee, encourages extraction at both the bottom of the system as well as the sides. Conversely, a smooth surface causes the filter to stick at the sides leading to a coffee grounds bottleneck at the bottom.
For some, this is ideal; The New York Times calls the simple smooth-surfaced sided Chemex a device “for purists.” Serious Eats has a good rundown that compares the various types and the aspects that make them unique if you want more specific details.
There are also differences between flat and pointed bottoms. Flat bottoms create a slower brewing process; The New York Times Style Magazine writes that this “[regulates] the rate at which the coffee passes through the filter.” Pointy bottoms pour quicker, which means the user must pay attention and be precise with how and where he or she is pouring the water. Prima explains that pointy bottoms (specifically the Chemex) highlight “the ‘higher’ and ‘brighter’ notes in coffee and yields a clean, sweet cup.”
One good way to think about it is how much control these devices require. For pointy bottoms, which lead to faster water flow, the user must ensure that water is being poured a correct rate (not too fast, not too slow) and is distributed evenly atop all the grounds. If there are ridges, which allows water to escape to the other side of the filter, water can drain even quicker. Flat bottoms and wedge shapes, however, brew slower and force the water to even out. For some methods, this ease takes away flavor nuance (although that’s not always the case).
When broaching the topic of pour-over coffee—be it chatting with an expert or perusing online guides—six devices are always mentioned.
For my research I contacted 10 experts ranging from two national barista champions (Counter Culture’s Katie Carguilo and Everyman Espresso’s Sam Lewontin) to the owner of one of the top five New York City coffeeshops (Third Rail Coffee’s Humberto Ricardo and its coffee director Carlos Morales) as well as master baristas far and wide, including folks from New York’s Joe Coffee and San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee (I sat down in person with four of them).
They all agreed that the six systems I reviewed represent the vast array of pour-over methods and relative spectrum of skill required. Some of the methods (Chemex and Beehouse) have been around for decades. Others, such as the V60 and Wave, are new entrants, yet come featured in articles in the New York Times, Gizmodo, as well as numerous coffee blogs and have been used to win competitions across the world. We also included the Aeropress and Clever Dripper in the mix. They’re not technically pour-over methods, but they are popular manual coffee making methods that each have their own dedicated following.
Well-known coffee establishments worldwide use these devices to prepare their coffee. Additionally, after working with all of these systems (along with numerous others), I’ve found these to be the best systems that put together an all-around good cup of coffee and don’t require extraneous steps as a more coffee-hand-waving gesture. Additionally, online coffee forums refer back to these methods frequently, as do nearly every professional coffee publication I’ve come across. Prima Coffee believes all these to be some of its “favorite pour-over brewing methods.” If you read no further than here and randomly choose any of these pour-over systems, you will still be making a good choice. All six are all low-cost, high-quality pour-over systems that both professionals and novices use to make coffee.
How we tested
After narrowing down the systems, I talked with experts, made and tasted cups myself, and after consulting with the Sweethome’s Christine Cyr Clisset and Lesley Stockton about best practices for holding tastings (they know a thing or two, having come from Martha Stewart’s test kitchen), held a blind tasting panel consisting of both casual coffee drinkers and coffee enthusiasts. Another barista and I made the six cups of coffee simultaneously, along with a control of a regular auto-brewed coffee.
I used Stumptown Coffee’s single origin Guatemala el Injerto. Single origin means the coffee is all from the same crop. This is different from a blend; blends are more common and consist of beans from a variety of locations. The point of a single origin—and why it’s best for tastings—is that it features individual flavor notes that are representative of the specific coffee terroir (region/climate/environment where the coffee was grown). When I say ‘notes,’ I’m talking about individual flavors that are featured in specific beans. Some beans are more fruity, others more chocolatey, others more acidic. Another factor beyond notes is the mouthfeel, or how the cup of coffee feels while drinking. Some cups are thinner; others are fuller and more velvety.
But it’s not just the beans themselves that affect these characteristics. Different brewing methods highlight various aspects of the bean, because of the reasons outlined earlier: shapes, ridges, number of holes, angle of sides, etc.
Indeed, many of our testers were genuinely surprised that we used the same coffee beans in all six cups because they tasted so different.
In this way, our coffee testing approach is similar to our headphone testing approach, where we have multiple people listen to the same music through different pairs to pick the best. When testing headphones, the panel tries to find the pair that most accurately presents a musician’s artistic intent while keeping in mind other factors like fit, portability, and so on. When tasting the same coffee brewed with different methods, the panel’s job is to determine which method highlights the best attributes of the coffee while keeping in mind ease of use, filter costs/availability, and brew times.
When each taster tried the cups, they wrote down their initial thoughts about the cup, along with answers to specific questions about the body of the drink, how much they liked it, and the specific flavors they were able to pick up.
It’s important to note that coffee-tasting is not far off from wine tasting. There are a bunch of aspects to it that people look for—namely the body of the cup, the flavors in each sip, and the mouthfeel of the liquid.
Carlos Morales, Coffee Director at Third Rail Coffee, explained that there’s a difference between drinking and tasting. People love to go to a diner, cafe, wherever and drink a cup of coffee. And with that, they are generally less critical of what’s going in their mouth. But if someone goes to a coffee cupping (which is the barista equivalent of a wine tasting), the stakes are higher.
For this guide I tried to wear both hats, knowing that most people just want a solid cup of coffee in the morning, but also maintaining an eye out for when a pour-over system produced something better than just a regular cup of joe. Additionally, I took into account the price of the system, the amount of skill needed to master it, and the maintenance needed to keep it in good condition.
The best-tasting pick
Out of all the methods we looked at, the Wave stood out as a method that both created a tasty and interesting cup of coffee and was relatively simple to use. Our entire panel enjoyed the cup from the Wave to some degree or another, using more positively descriptive words compared to the others we looked at. While it may not have been voted the “best” by all, it was the most consistently highly rated and received numerous adjectives similar to that of ‘balanced’ and ‘nuanced.’
The Wave is also on more expensive side, coming in at around $25 for the glass 185 version for serving 2-4 people (if you want to pay more for durability, it’s also available in metal for about $35 and ceramic for about the same), but nothing makes it easier to craft such a quality cup of coffee.
Prior to writing this guide, I had no experience using the Wave. Yet after just a few personal practice runs, I was able to make consistently great coffee that impressed both my own sensibilities and those of the tasters in our testing. This combination of refinement and approachability has earned it praise throughout the coffee world, including the distinction of being the method of choice of the 2013 World Brewer’s Cup champion.
Everyone who tried to use it on our panel found it easy to understand. The Wave’s flat bottom allows it to drain slower. This means that the brewer doesn’t have to spend the entire four minutes watching the system while pouring (although the brewer does have to make sure it doesn’t overflow, which happens from time to time if you’re pouring too quickly). With some pour-over systems like the V60, the coffee will brew at the rate at which you pour, with each additional dose of water going directly into the bed of beans and disturbing them. With the Wave, you’re just adding more water to the existing water. This allows users to pour the water, wait, pour some more, and then serve as opposed to having to maintain focus for a full 3-4 minutes.
Beyond being easier to use than the competition, this method actually helps make better tasting coffee than more finicky methods. Serious Eats explains in their review that “you’re allowing the dripper to control water itself by filling it to the top and creating a ‘column’ of water that then extracts down, and continuing to top it up. You’re pouring water into the water instead of disrupting the bed of coffee as it’s extracting, and your control and therefore results will be better.” 2013 World Brewer’s Cup champion Erin McCarthy explains in his winning recipe that the combination of the columnar water flow and the lack of agitation “pulls out sweetness of coffee and not the bitterness associated with over extraction.” Apparently the Brewer’s Cup judges agree.
Another unique aspect of the Wave is its wavy filters. They may look like normal Mr. Coffee, but are made of much higher-quality paper (that won’t make your coffee taste like paper) and are designed to be more rigid in order to isolate the coffee brewing process from temperature changes. Nick Cho writes on his blog, “Because of the wavy-sidewalls, there is minimum contact between the brewing space and the dripper sidewalls. The filter actually ‘floats’ in the dripper and doesn’t touch the bottom of the dripper.”
This sounds like hooey, but is not without evidence. John Letoto reviewed the Wave as part of Prima Coffee’s guest barista review series and found that after multiple trials, there was no difference in taste between the ceramic, glass, and metal versions, which theoretically should affect heat retention (Hario V60 fans tend to promote plastic over ceramic because it pulls less heat out of the brewing process). Letoto writes, “I think a part of this is due to the fact that the filters themselves move the coffee slurry away from the walls of the dripper, thus allowing air to be an insulator to keep the drippers themselves from sucking away any heat from the slurry.”
The system is small, compact, and easy to clean. It looks stylish too, with its ridges and sleek design. I recommend washing it with hot water following every use to make sure coffee oil doesn’t build up too much. If it does, there’s a biodegradable powder that can be used to easily clean the device of buildup.
Although its ease of use is what makes it great for the home user, its ability to craft a nuanced cup of coffee is what earned a place in the hearts of coffee aficionados across the industry. While Counter Culture Coffee’s Katie Carguilo, the first New York-based US barista champion and co-worker of Brewer’s Cup champion Erin McCarthy, won’t choose a definitive “best” moniker for any device (her philosophy is “use what you can get used to”), she did say that the Wave “makes coffee consistently very good.”
Third Rail Coffee’s Morales too was partial to the Wave, explaining that it’s one of the easier methods to master (doesn’t require too much time watching over it while brewing), and it has more body than Chemex, which produces a “cleaner” cup with less texture due to its thicker filters.
As mentioned earlier, our tasting panel loved the Wave. They found it produced the most illustrative ‘tasting notes.’ People described the single-origin brewed as “fruity,” “nutty,” and “vibrant.” So it should come as no surprise that some of the leading specialty coffee roasters like Intelligentsia in Chicago have made it their primary means of coffeemaking in their flagship shops.
Making a good cup requires figuring out the correct grind (which is a little finer than what you’d use for an automatic drip machine). To make a 12-ounce cup of coffee, I used about 23 grams of ground coffee and added about 380 grams of water (or about 42 g coffee and 700 g water if you’re serving multiple people). If ground correctly, it should take about four minutes to brew a solid cup (this is a good rule to follow for most of the devices). If you want to know more about technique, Nick Cho, from Wrecking Ball Coffee was one of the Wave system’s early evangelists and made a video guide on how he does it that’s worth four minutes of your time—despite his disclaimers.
In our last guide, Matt Buchanan brought up another interesting pro about the Wave; he found it “easier to use for properly brewing iced coffee than the V60, in terms of nailing the right extraction, because the flat bottom makes it easier to control the brewing process.” Both the Wave and Hario V60 (which we talk at length about below) are known for making quality cups of iced coffee.
But for mastering the technique, Matt thinks the Wave is the better of the two. Collin Moody, another one of Prima Coffee’s guest barista reviewers, echoed this sentiment: “my coffee off of the Wave consistently remained very structured and balanced as it cooled in comparison to other manual brewing methods I often use, which will often lose structure and fall apart as they cool off completely.”
The one major drawback to the Wave is the fact that it uses its wavy filters are a touch pricey (about $20 for 100 if you factor in shipping) and can be hard to come by outside of the internet, as opposed to other systems whose filters can be bought at a normal grocery store.
Unfortunately, this means that unless you live near a well-stocked pro coffee shop, you’re probably going to have order the filters online (Counter Culture, Clive Coffee, Wrecking Ball, Prima Coffee, Seatle Coffee Gear all carry and ship them, or you can get the brown version imported from Japan on Amazon for about $23 for 150, but discerning coffee aficionados claim these impart more of a papery taste). I found pouring the smaller one-cup version somewhat difficult to do without causing an overflow above the filter. This is because it drains slightly slower than others (and if you’re using a larger Wave, it shouldn’t be a problem), but it’s something to be aware of when initially learning the ropes.
Also, with the smaller version (the one I usually play around with), I found the bloom — which is the initial amount of water you add to expel the gases before pouring the rest of the water — grew quite large making it necessary to pour slowly. This simply means you need to keep an eye on it or just get the larger version for a couple bucks more.
Runner-up (with cheaper filters)
In fact, before the V60 and Wave came around, this was the gourmet coffee dripper that you’d see in all the competitions. Indeed, it was still winning Brewers’ Cups as recently as 2012. As a result of its ubiquity, numerous companies make adequate systems based on this design (Bon Mac, Melitta, and even Kalita) and many coffeeshops (Blue Bottle, for example) get them custom-made for their own drip programs.
The output is reminiscent of what one would get from an auto-drip machine, but with more nuanced flavors and a generally more defined taste. In our testing the Beehouse was consistently rated to be good but not mind-blowing. A mild, consistent cup of coffee like one would expect, with perhaps a thicker body than other competing systems. As Morales of Third Rail explained, a Bee House makes a “straightforward cup of coffee with a classic profile.”
And, I mentioned this before but I’ll mention it again, it’s the easiest to stock and maintain. I live in a big city where coffeeshops are more plentiful than healthy trees, and Amazon takes less than a day for a delivery. But for others in less accessible places, the Beehouse would probably be the best bet. The filters are sold at nearly every grocery store nationwide, and if finding good beans is an issue (and I mean beans a far step above Starbucks), a device like the Wave isn’t going to make a big difference. When you’re in the realm of coffees that range $14-24 a bag, that’s when nuanced flavor becomes an issue. If you’re just trying to make the most palatable cup of coffee with what’s available, a Beehouse is perfect.
Prima echoes my view of the Beehouse’s simplicity: “[It] produces a clean cup and accents higher notes, but the extended brew time brings out more sweet and subtle flavors.” Some even think it to be the best. Ceremony Coffee’s Andy Sprenger told Serious Eats: “I still get my most flavorful, pure and evenly extracted brews out of a Beehouse.” Many others disagree that it makes the “best” cup, but most understand it to be easy to master and consistent.
As far as which model to get out of the dozens of variations, materials matter a bit more here because unlike Wave filters, standard cone filters do not isolate the brewing process so heat conduction/insulation becomes an issue. Cho explains that, “Certain materials serve as effective insulators (such as air and plastic) that slow this temperature loss, while others can serve as ‘heatsinks,’ which by their nature will transfer heat outward (glass, ceramic, metal).”
So, if you’re buying one of these for taste reasons alone, plastic, like the black Melitta one we used in testing, is the way to go. But there’s definitely something to be said for the aesthetic of quality ceramics. Besides, if you preheat a ceramic dripper with hot water (which you should do anyway to rinse away papery-taste from the filter), this can mitigate the heat-sucking characteristics of the material.
Easiest to use
The Clever was the most middle-rated cup of them all from our panel, which I think speaks perfectly to the device. Everyone who tasted the Clever’s output found it the lightest of them all. Some liked this, others weren’t averse but found it somewhat weak. The word frequently thrown around was “mild.” Everyone tasting, however, enjoyed it. They also loved watching how simple it was to brew.
Clever is one of the cheaper and simpler types, toeing the line between immersion brewing and pour-over. As Matt put it in our last guide, the Clever is the “easiest of the bunch to nail right out the gate.” All you have to do is grind coffee, add water, wait a few minutes, then drink. With that comes a less interesting experience (also one that tastes slightly of the filter because it sat with it for an extended period). Our testing found the coffee output palatable, yet an overall simple cup. There wasn’t too much to talk about flavor-wise.
The general consensus is that the Clever is always a solid bet. The word thrown around during every interview I conducted was “consistent.” That is, the Clever won’t make the most complex cup of coffee, but it’s really hard to screw up. Serious Eats says it makes “a very well-balanced cup with beautiful body and delicate flavor.” Further—and this is the real selling point—it is “childishly fun to dispense coffee from.” The Clever is simple, easy; ta-da you have coffee. “It gives a very aromatic and “light” cup compared to the thick and rich cup you get from the press pot,” writes CoffeeKind. Mat Honan, writing for Gizmodo, sums up the Clever’s ease perfectly: “it’s dead simple to operate, even one-handed.”
Makes cheap coffee taste better
If you just want a decent cup of coffee and don’t care for tasting notes or $14+ bags of roasted beans, the Aeropress is a good choice that can make even mediocre beans taste good. For about $25, you get the Aeropress itself, a measuring spoon, stand/funnel, and a filter holder with a year’s supply of filters.
The tasters found the Aeropress to be most similar to an americano. Some liked this, others found it boring. It is true that this method does take away the bitterness of the coffee, but many found it lacked the flavor palate of many of the other methods. Then again, we were using single origin beans, not a Starbucks house blend. Had we used a lower quality coffee, the results likely would have differed.
It looks like a cross between a miniature pneumatic tube and a large syringe. While it takes many steps to make it, most deem it one of the easier methods to master. Lewontin, a proponent for the device (he serves individual cups with it at his Manhattan shop), calls it “consistent, reliable, and fast.” He adds that it doesn’t require a kettle, because no precise pour is needed (the same goes for the Clever too).
In an interview with The NY Times, the AeroPress’ inventor Alan Adler (who also invented the iconic Aerobie flying disc) explains that the point of the contraption is to produce smoother cup, not necessarily a more flavorful one. “I was aware that lower temperature reduced acidity and bitterness and made a sweeter cup,” he said. Basically, it highlights the “coffee taste” while reducing bitterness and sourness. That’s great if you’re using something like a dark roast from Starbucks that has a lot of bitterness and doesn’t have very nuanced flavors worth highlighting. But when you’re buying nicer coffee, the amount of bitterness and acidity are part of what makes it unique and if presented delicately (as is the case with pourover), they can actually add to your enjoyment of the coffee rather than detract from it. When we tested it with the our single origin Stumptown beans, “simple” and “strong” were frequent words used to describe the cup, very much like a longer Americano but with little to no acidity.
As far as drawbacks go, Carguilo called it “tricky” to learn. I have to agree. I had never used one before, and while the instructions are straightforward, there are many steps and it feels almost like assembling a piece of IKEA furniture. When pouring for most devices there’s a certain ease and finesse of heating the water, pouring, measuring, and watching. With the Aeropress, the skillset used is different.
It’s important to note two things as well: One, the Aeropress was originally invented to make home espresso. The recipes for longer cups of coffee have now emerged, but its strength is its short, strong diluted output. Two, there are numerous ways to make a cup with the Aeropress. After reading and testing a while I found the inverted method (which has people put the system upside down to begin the brewing) to be the easiest and most consistent. But I’ve found that many disagree, opting for the shorter, faster method described on the box (here’s an easy to follow video overview). There’s even a championship held every year where competitors try their own ways of making a cup of Aeropress, and it’s important to note that year after year the winning method changes. This shows that this is a new system and that the ‘correct’ way of making it is still a hotly contested issue.
Following our tests, it became clear that these are all good ways to make coffee, though some produced ever-so-slightly better outputs than the others. Carguilo is right in her reticence to dub one better than the other; “it just requires a different grind,” she kept saying to me. That being said, some methods were easier and others produced more complex cups of coffee. And it’s remarkable how so many similar systems can create such vastly different drinks even when using the same beans.
The Hario V60 is probably one of the more controversial of drippers. It uses a conical paper filter similar in shape to the Chemex and had one big hole at the bottom of the device to make for much faster extraction than that of a Bee House. It also has 12 ribs inside the device that start at the top and spiral downward, which supposedly allows for water to brew through coffee at a more controlled rate. In layman’s terms, this means that water flows more quickly through the dripper, forcing the user to keep a better eye on the making, which (supposedly) will ultimately lead to a better cup of coffee.
Whether or not this is true is hotly contested. Many supporters say it makes the best output, but at what cost? Morales agrees that the V60 can make a solid cup of coffee, but the difference in output is minuscule compared to competing systems. And most importantly: The V60 is easy to mess up. Says the barista, “it’s the least forgiving method.” He adds that for those playing around with more acidic coffees may see a more marked difference when brewing with the V60. Lewontin is less gracious, calling it “marketing bullshit.” The Northeast Barista Champion goes on, “it doesn’t improve the quality necessarily; it just changes it.”
In our blind tasting, people generally agreed that it brought out the acidity of the coffee; more than one taster used the word “tangy.” For some, this made it a more flavorful experience; others said it made a less balanced output than others. And, as someone who has played around with the system, it is easier to make a bad cup of coffee with the V60 as opposed to others. In comparing the V60 to the Wave, Lesoto writes in his Prima Coffee review that, “Practically speaking, the V60 is a much more pour-dependent brewing device, which means it is less likely to be repeatable, brew after brew.”
The Chemex is a beautiful conical glass device known far and wide for its simple brewing method and eye-catching design. It uses thick, folded-over filters, which absorb many of the solids and oils from the brew, resulting in a light, almost tea-like cup of joe many coffeehouses flock to to highlight certain beans’ flavors. But while the Chemex has been a stalwart in coffee making for years if not decades now (it’s been around since 1941 and is still manufactured in the same Western Massachusetts town) new entrants made by third-wave coffee enthusiasts trying to dethrone it, like the Kalita Wave, have since stolen much of its thunder by offering comparable flavor clarity without needing to sacrifice body thanks to their thinner filters. While some enterprising coffee inventors have come up with clever solutions to rid the Chemex of its thick filters, it’s hard to justify spending $60 extra, on top of a $55 device, to fix an issue that other methods don’t have to begin with. Overall, our tasting panel was mixed on the Chemex. The glass carafe causes the coffee to lose heat fast; Those who tasted the Chemex coffee first found it light and balanced and those who tasted it after a few minutes found it too acidic. The answers for the Chemex, in fact, were the most contested of all the devices.
There were also a number of other methods out there that we didn’t test for various reasons. The majority of these fall into the Bee House variant category. Yes, they’re made by different companies, but they use the same basic shape and filters so the finished results will be similar to what you’d get from a plain Bee House.
A note on materials
A question that arises when purchasing devices like the V60, Wave, and Beehouse, is which material it should be made out of. All three come in ceramic, plastic, and metal (with the exception of the Beehouse, which generally doesn’t offer a metal version).
I find myself leaning toward plastic and ceramic devices over metal due to heat conservation. As Matt said in our last guide: “heat loss is your enemy.” That’s one reason why the Chemex is sometimes less ideal, given its glass structure. And, weirdly enough, plastic is a better insulator than ceramic, despite the latter being more expensive.
Additionally, it’s better to choose white paper filters over the brown ones. This is because brown ones always make the coffee taste more like the paper, which is the biggest of no-nos. That being said, if you can’t tell the difference, brown filters are cheaper and more environmentally friendly because they require less processing.
Care and maintenance
The good news about pour-over systems is that they are easy to maintain. When finished, simply rinse them out with hot water. Coffee oil does build up after a while, and there are biodegradable powders you can purchase that clear out any coffee buildup. Grinders, however, require more maintenance. It’s necessary that every few months you take out the burrs and dust them off. While this can be a bit annoying, it ensures that the grind maintains accuracy, as well as cleans off any buildup that could have occurred. So long as you’re heating only hot water in your kettle, just keep it wiped down and shiny.
Good sources to check out
For all things coffee, Sprudge is a great website to check out for articles about the scene. Barista Exchange is another wonderful resource where many pros talk shop. Additionally, Nick Cho of Wrecking Ball coffee writes for various online publications, and his articles are always helpful for learning and understanding the coffee ropes.
As for brew guides, I find Stumptown Coffee’s online guides to be quite helpful when looking for initial recipes.
Additionally, for those hoping to embark on a coffee adventure, here’s a non-exhaustive list of coffee roasters we like (they ship too!):
- Anthology Coffee
- Ceremony Coffee Roasters
- Counter Culture Coffee
- George Howell
- Heart Roasters
- Madcap Coffee
- Wrecking Ball Coffee
- Blue Bottle
Special thanks to Third Rail Coffee for giving us a place to hold our tasting.
Originally published: October 31, 2014